I was in a tunnel 15 feet under the ground, only just big enough to crouch and crawl through. The lights had blown a few moments earlier, just in time to see a bat skim the crown of my head. I peered through the darkness, uneasiness setting in as the earthen walls crumbled beneath my fingers.
“Keep going” whispered my friend Dan from behind, but I was frozen. No mention had been made of turnings, yet there was one just to our right. Should we take it, or go straight on? Our guide had disappeared ahead, blackness surrounded us, and air was sparse. I struggled to breathe, panic building as my mind went wild at the fear of being stuck. Dan saw my struggle and encouraged me to take deep breaths and move steadily forward. I had no choice but to listen, and continued on until the joyous moment when sunlight appeared through the exit.
That was about nine years ago in Vietnam’s Cu-Chi tunnels and was my first experience of claustrophobia. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life and I’ve had bouts of the same feeling since. Not to the extent that I can’t be anywhere enclosed, but I hate tiny spaces and struggle to breathe in them. It sends me into a panic and I go out of my way to avoid similar situations.
However, when in Capilla del Monte, I found myself in such a predicament. People had told us about a place called the Paso del Indio, hidden in the mountains. It’s a narrow gap between the rocks, which indigenous people escaped through when being pursued by the Spanish back in the 1870s. The Spanish couldn’t follow as their armour made them too large to fit. You can get there by horseback and it’s surrounded by beautiful scenery, so one day we decided to take a look.
Our guide Sergio was a brilliant man, who regaled us with tales of his travels around the world and his love for Capilla del Monte. He was deeply proud of the town’s ability to live outside of consumer culture, and free of what he saw as the trappings of modern life.
Time to face my fear
When we arrived at the Paso del Indio, it suddenly dawned on me that I was going to be expected to pass through the gap. Panic bells started to ring. It was a tight space and required some nifty climbing, but you could always see the sky so I reasoned I’d be okay.
That was until I got half way through and couldn’t find my next foothold. I was frozen, just like in the Cu-Chi tunnels. That feeling of being trapped engulfed me and I began to struggle to breathe. Sergio noticed immediately, held onto my hand, and instructed me to breathe and look up at the sky. I centred myself and relaxed. There was the sky, the fresh air in my lungs; I was not trapped, I merely needed to find my next step – to keep moving.
I did it and emerged out the other side, triumphant but slightly shaken. Sergio held onto my hands and congratulated me on facing a fear.
He gave me a feather to commemorate the moment, and gave a small speech on how there is nothing to be afraid of in life as we are at the mercy of destiny.
Sergio’s view was that there is no point having fear when we are destined to die. I agreed with him in some ways – fear can be irrational, pointless and needlessly limiting – but disagreed on others (he believed wearing a seat belt was pointless because if your destiny is to die that day, then you will anyway).
When we returned through the gap to get back to the horses, I slipped through with ease. I was no longer afraid and it felt wonderful. This was by no means the Cu-Chi tunnels, with their crumbling walls and deep darkness, but it was a step. With fears like these, it’s easy for them to grow and extend to things far outside what triggered them. I don’t want that to happen, and facing the Paso del Indio was a step in the right direction.
The next step will be trying to scuba dive – combining both my claustrophobia and an old fear of fish (yes, really!).
What scares you? I’d love to hear your stories.
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