June 6th, 2006 by Potato

As Cancun nears I find I’m increasingly terrified of the prospect of heading down there. Everything is just such a fuck-up with this conference that I have to wonder if the organizers were getting serious kick-backs from the demolished hotels there to try to con some scientists into filling space when all the half-way sensible tourists were staying the hell away. It’s the middle of June, so Ontario is already getting plenty hot (though it’s looking like it’s going to be very pleasantly mild while I’m gone), so it makes no sense to hit the tropics now. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. It makes me feel like Casandra again — not because of the emasculating feeling of getting pulled along against my will out of the country, but because all of the problems we’re having now we foresaw back in January when the conference details were announed: the hotel had been all but destroyed in the fall, and in January were predicting a reopening date just a month before the conference was scheduled, and hardly anything is that on time. In early March — still plenty of time to reorganize — the hotel announced that renovations were late and pushed the reopening date to just two weeks before the conference. Still, the organizers insisted it would be fine… ugh. Even with all this craziness, the conference rate we got wasn’t much better than the one we got in Ireland. So it’s not even going to be cheap…

Sure, work will pay for most of my way, so people ask me why I’m so dead-set against a “free vacation”. Unfortunately, a conference is neither: while my room and flight will be paid for, there are numerous other expenses that make the week there significantly more expensive than just staying home… and it’s certainly no vacation. We’ll be crammed into our rooms to save on space (it looks like at least one person from each room will be on the floor), and we’ll be going to boring lectures all day long for 5 straight days, with “social” events all night long where we continue to talk shop: it’s more intensive than a normal week at the lab, and that’s not including having to sit on a plane and deal with the airport at each end. I’ll have one and a half days at the end to try to unwind, but those will be on my own coin (damn you, Joce!) and with my luck someone from the conference will be staying late and shadowing me to pick my brain the whole time.

I’m visibly grumpy (or worse) about the whole affair, and people try to cheer me up in bizzare ways: “It’ll be great, you can sit on the beach and drink Coronas…” Hello, pale enough that I still burn even with SPF45 on (though at least then it takes more than an hour), and I think beer is vile. “I’ll be so exciting, getting to see new places…” That’s encouragement I just don’t understand. What’s so exciting about new places? I think people like this are deeply disturbed: they take a terrifying experience and it morphs over into something exciting. It’s like people who just don’t feel thrilled unless they place their lives in mortal danger. It’s something others have commented on a lot: are “extreme” forms of entertainment a sign of the impending doom of civilization? Has modern living made people so numb and jaded that they can’t be reached in any vaguely normal way? Are our lives so worthless that we’re ready to risk them for a cheap thrill?

I don’t understand the trend for travel for its own sake. It increasingly seems like people go on trips just to say they went there, even if the place they went didn’t really have any redeeming characteristics of its own. Everyone seems to want to visit Europe at least once (and only once :) but very few seem to know why other than the fact that it’s there, and because their kid brother did it last year.

Case in point: a friend of mine, let’s call her “Dimple” went to Peru recently. Why Peru? I’m not even sure she knew. Perhaps a game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiago brought back some fond memories, who knows. Anyhow, while there she had just a horrible, rotten time, and had to come back early. She bruised some ligaments falling down the stairs at her hotel (depending on who you ask, she was either so drunk that she fell down them in a stupor, or the hotel was such a dive that there weren’t any lights in the stairwell). Her travelling companion caught one of those diseases that used to kill my settlers in Oregon Trail, like dysentary or cholera or something like that. I’m not actually sure if she survived or not, since I haven’t seen her since (and there hasn’t been a glorious “Peru slideshow” emailed around, not even one of the inside of the bathroom, or of the yellow-green drinking water).

Yet, the surviving member of that expedition is all keen to hop back on a plane next vacation and go somewhere else. Do people never learn? Maybe it’s my advanced degree talking here (Master of Science for those who haven’t been keeping up with the posts :) but I’m more than ready to not only learn from experience, but to learn from their experience so I don’t have to go through that: I’m not going to Peru. And if I do, I’ll be going somewhere with clean water and lights in the stairwells, which would probably make the trip too expensive to be feasible, so the same net effect results (“Dimple” makes a metric shit tonne of money at her job, so if that was all the vacation she could afford, then what chances do I have?). Humanity is unique in our capacity to learn from the mistakes of others, and our incredible disinclination to actually do so.

I also don’t understand the high cost of going away on vacation. I’ve gone on a number of vacations on my own dime, and they were fairly expensive to me, blowing about a month’s salary for a week away. But some people just go crazy with it, blowing away several months’ worth of earnings for a few days away somewhere; some people even take out sizable bank loans to go globetrotting. Man, I had trouble going into debt for my education; Wayfare took time off before her master’s to work and build up some savings. To rack up debt just to go somewhere else and snap a few photos seems deeply irresponsible to me.

Moreover, I don’t get the appeal of big cities. Sure, most of us live in cities: they’re where the jobs, houses, and grocery stores are. When the mood strikes, they also have stadiums, museums, and lasertag/opera (actually, that would make an awesome mashup). But once you live in a city, there’s really very little point in seeing another one: it will simply be jam packed full of buildings, people, and very subtly different museums, galleries, and stadiums. Their streets might be laid out a little differently, some of the buildings might be a little more decrepit, and the river they’re built on might be a bit different. But really, big cities are very similar to one another, and make for very expensive vacations that are not very restful. I really don’t see the appeal, particularly for New York. I single it out because recently Wayfare had wanted to go until I pointed out why it was an incredibly bad idea, and for the first time ever she actually listened to me instead of singing baby elephant walk in her head, and changed her mind. It’s pretty bad off in terms of crime and dreary buildings, and doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of interesting history. Sure, it has lots of professional sports… but that includes the Yankees. But most of all, it’s featured on TV all the bloody time. Half the shows on TV take place in New York (it won’t be long until even Lost has a scene set there), so you get to see a lot of it right from your own living room. What isn’t there is available on your friends’ photoreels and their own horror stories of going there (I’m not sure whether the scariest one was about the creepy guy trying to lure young girls into back alleys, or the one about the smelly homeless guy who tried to come into the conference hotel, and harrassed the scientists because they were the only ones who could stop the government from screwing with his memory… and his bladder control. I think my conferences draw a “certain element” — another reason to dread Cancun). Plus, it was recently the scene of a major terrorist attack. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Who needs that shit on their vacation?

Above all, I find it odd how people just don’t get where I’m coming from with all this. “What do you mean you don’t like to travel?” “Are you afraid of airplanes?”

No, I’m agoraphobic.

“But think of all the new people and exciting places and different foods…”

Seriously, not helping.

“So, you’re like afraid of open spaces?”

We had an interesting conversation about agoraphobia at work as we were discussing this nightmare of a conference. No, agoraphobia is not a fear of open spaces. It is instead a fear of uncontrollable situations, and in particular of crowds. Agoraphobics simply tend to be more vigilant people who are more conscious of the terrors and perils of daily life. They’re also people who require less stimulation to get the adrenaline flowing.

It can be somewhat crippling at times, particularly when other stresses or depressive episodes are already screwing with your brain chemistry. At those times, many thanks are given for the internet. But it can be managed; by preparing for the stresses and anticipating problems, one can make the fear managable (this of course is what leads to over-packing). Of course, for a big trip like this, I’m going to spend the next week sleepless as I go through nearly every eventuality and try to prepare for it. There are limits though: there is no way in hell I’m going to Japan next year, the quadruple whammy of a giant flight over the ocean, a completely different culture (with different ways of greeting each other, dressing, laying out rooms, committing ritualistic honour killings/duels, and even weird toilets!), a completely different menu (featuring smelly, smelly fish everywhere) and a very severe language barrier (at least Spanish uses a few of the same words and letters) is just simply too much.

As was earlier intimated, I had a lot of trouble with my agoraphobia while I was writing my thesis. The added stress and late nights and general depression made leaving my place rather difficult for a while. Thankfully, the internet was there. And World of Warcraft (but, and this one is going to kill you, but I never explored the new Silithus, because it was too alien and scary). Right now, I’ve got a battle ahead of me to get through the next few weeks with this stupid trip looming. I spent almost three hours yesterday compulsively going over my insurance and plane tickets. The important parts are highlighted and circled, so the whole affair is starting to look like a biologist’s undergrad text book…

I’ve heard of people accidentally getting on the no-fly list (or simply having a name similar to someone on it) and being delayed and/or grounded completely for that… I wonder if I should look into getting on it. Accidentally, of course (if I ever do need to go to the states, I’d have to be able to get my name off of it)…

“So,” the conversation continued, “why don’t you like travelling then?”

The hairs standing up on the back of my neck, the sleeplessness, the worry, the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, the dry sweats, leaving my place, leaving my kitty all alone, spending a week away from my friends (really, really away)… in short: everything.

“That’s so weird.”

On a related note, here’s an article from the Onion not too long ago that I liked.

5 Responses to “Agoraphobia”

  1. Ben Says:

    I’ve been on a couple trips since I’ve been working and I’ve drawn a few conclusions based on my experience. One is that I don’t give a crap about “immersing myself in another culture”, nor do I really give a rats ass about museums and galleries and all that stuff.

    The second is that when I travel, what I want is scenery! Because like you said, cities are cities. Living in Rotterdam for 2 weeks was no different than anywhere else except the only people who spoke English were the loony homeless ones begging tourists for change. I want to see mountains and jungles and tropical beaches and ancient ruins (and in the case of Japan, the greatest annual bonsai show in the world “Kokufu-ten”).

    And yes, Corona is vile!

  2. stranger Says:

    If you are happy living in your hole in London doesnt mean everyone would be happy doing that. The point of traveling is to see the world outside of your appartment. If you are satisified siting beside your computer staring at your computer, writing your thesis, and playing video games all day – its fine. Just please dont preach about what a waste of money seeing the world is.

  3. Baum Says:

    think about the SCUBA diving you could do!

  4. Potato Says:

    Ah, but the point of the article is that lots of other people like to preach about how great travel is, and call me the crazy one for wanting to stay home (they even came up with a name for it!).

    PS: Welcome to the site, always kinda nice (and, at the same time, kinda weird) to find more people wandering in and commenting!

  5. Netbug Says:

    I want worldwide broadband access and cybornetic implants so I can be online and playing video games and getting information and staying in touch while sitting in lake Wanaka staring at the Remarkables mountain range.

    Is that too much to ask?