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Pre-Travel Freakouts: Seventeen Days in China Edition!

Before travel, one's head can feel like this.

Before travel, one can feel like this piece of public art!

Tears poured down my cheeks and into my gourmet hot dog as I sat across from my friend Meg, less than a week before my flight to Beijing and the subsequent 50-something hours of trains and buses I will take through Chongqing, Yunyang, and Shanghai.

“I’m sorry,” I choked out, “but I’m always a complete mess before international travel. Every little thing makes me freak out: an offhand remark from a friend… a sad article… realizing I need to buy floss… Everything!”

Meg looked surprised. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “I had no idea! You seem like this totally together travel expert. If you really feel like this before every trip, why don’t you ever write about it on your website?”

And so now I am.

Travel is a privilege and a miracle… and it can also be really scary, no matter how many times you’ve done it! See that lead photo of the upside-down person sculpture? Meg and I passed that piece of public art on a late night walk back from Kendall Square in Boston, and I instantly saw myself in it. That sculpture is how the days before intense travel feel: You’re flipped upside-down, and your head is deep inside a (figurative) bag of tennis balls!

Upside down person public art statue

This may be my favorite piece of public art ever.


In the weeks before I left Boston in 2009 to travel around the world for nine months, every tiny thing would send me into a flood of tears. Some folks would be confused, responding with: “You’re about to do something amazing! Why are you crying?”

Others would really get it, and would wrap me in a bear hug and whisper, “I know… it’s a really crazy thing to travel that far and for that long. It will be all right!”

Now, planning and packing for nine months around the world was one challenge, but this seventeen-day voyage through China is proving to be a challenge of a different kind. As you may or may not know, China has extremely strict regulations, each of which costs substantial money, time, and organization to hurdle.

For example, to enter China, you must apply for a tourist visa: a process which involves a several-page-long application form, a photo of you, a courier service or trip to the nearest embassy (there is none in Boston), many days, and a total expense of at least $200.

A view of the whole art display in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA.

A view of the whole art display in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA.

Then there is pre-planning in-country transportation. When I was traveling alone and for months on end, I could do transport as I went, on a whim. Now, however, there IS a time constraint, there are two other great people in our travel pack to coordinate with, and… transport in China is, to say the least, foreign.

Thankfully, we have our friend Gareth who has been teaching in China for a year to help guide us. Stressfully, however, her internet connection is flickering in and out, and I am sitting here in Boston trying to coordinate our trains and planes while technical difficulties gallop across our connection.

Right now, both of us are having problems pre-buying transport online, because of the incompatibility of American and Chinese systems, and my online payment for an in-country flight just got denied. Oy!

Packing nervousness is also zinging through my veins. Given that I’ve written about fifty articles on packing tips, you’d think this wouldn’t be a source of stress. And yet– oh, that sinking feeling when you get on the plane and you realize you forgot to pack the one thing that you need and cannot buy in your destination country! Argh! Fear of that moment is making my Google Document packing list longer and longer and my heart beat at a constant anxious thump.

Oh beautiful Boston night, guide this traveler through China!

Oh beautiful Boston night, guide this traveler through China!

And then, deepest of all, there are emotions. Once you’re on the road, everything is FINE, but it’s the days before a trip, when your life gets sharply in focus and your regular routine gets sizzled. Everything you had been doing for work or socially, and everything you had been taking for granted at home is about to be put on hold, and you’re walking into a space that feels like a dark, cave-like blind spot.

No matter how psyched you are about a trip, the quantity of unknowns on the horizon make you dizzy. My sunny Boston apartment today feels so soft and safe right now, but soon it’s time to walk away from it and onto that plane!

So there you have it: This weekend I am leaving for China for most of August, and I am so excited and wouldn’t have it any other way… but I am also FREAKING OUT! Readers, chime in: what’s YOUR experience of the days before you travel?

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