On facing fears

Last updated on March 18, 2022

Facing fears: facing claustrophobia

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.

Facing fears

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.

Sergio, horseriding guide from El Arbol, in Capilla del Monte

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.

Paseo del Indio, Capilla del Monte

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.

Facing fears in Capilla del Monte

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.

Calming down afterI faced my fear

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.

Victoria and her magic feather

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.

Prayer to Pachamama

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).

Victoria horseriding in Capilla del Monte

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.

Victoria and Steve horseriding at Capilla del Monte

The next step will be trying to scuba dive – combining both my claustrophobia and an old fear of fish (yes, really!).

Steve and Victoria on the way to Paseo del Indio

What scares you? I’d love to hear your stories.

20 thoughts on “On facing fears”

  1. I never realized I had claustrophobic tendencies until recently. Small caves totally freak me out. Fear of getting stuck, trapped, even just hitting my head really hard. I think it’s so awesome you made it through ok and you’re ready to tackle another fear!

    • Thank you Ali! It’s a horrid feeling isn’t it? It’s the lack of air, or at least my imagined idea of a lack of air, that really gets me. I was so pleased to do it though. Thanks for your encouragement.

  2. good luck with the scuba diving! I have never suffered from claustrophobia before apart from the one time I tried it- scariest moment of my life! But I didnt have adequate training- would love to go back and train properly and conquer my own fear! good on you!

    • Thanks Keara. I’m definitely going to need the luck to get through scuba diving. I won’t be up in the Caribbean for a few months yet so have got some time to psyche myself up! I’ll definitely be sure to get the proper training. Your experience sounds terrifying!

  3. ^ the thing with scuba is you are already in one of the most relaxing and most beautiful environments on the planet, If you can get past the breathing through a tube bit!

    being trapped between two huge rocks would ruin me !

    well done guys!

    • Will, so nice to hear from you. We miss you guys! Yep, being trapped nearly ruined me too! Scuba does sound incredible. I really, really want to do it, but it will certainly be a struggle. I’ve got a few months until that happens. In fact, I think there was talk of you guys meeting us somewhere in Central America. You’ll get to witness the terror!

  4. GREAT post Victoria! I love that Sergio held your hand after and gave you the feather; something that will no doubt stay with you for a long time! I know I would REALLY struggle to go pot-holing and squeezing through cracks etc so well done!
    I wasn’t scared about learning to scuba diving until I was in the classroom listening to all the ways you could dive haha. But believe me, getting over the fear is so worth it. Diving was the first time I had ever felt whole; so much so that I cried underwater!
    Keep it up 🙂

    • Thanks Toni. It really was a special moment with Sergio. He had such a calm presence that I guess it inspired me to try and be the same. Scuba diving will be a whole other kettle of fish (no pun intended!), but I’m determined to try. Your experience sounds amazing.

  5. I remember taking that same tunnel and being insanely scared. I left out of the first ladder that went up. I couldn’t stand it. I had a similar experience going through caves in Thailand. I was calm but I felt so uncomfortable and nervous.

    Great job on facing your fears! I might need some more practice and dedication to facing mine in tight places like that.

    • Great to hear from you Michael. I remember that first ladder and afterwards being so mad that I didn’t go up it! Although I managed to calm myself in Capilla, that was only a small step. There are many more to go. The idea of going through caves terrifies me! So, yes, I think I need some more practice and dedication too 🙂

  6. I don’t like small dark spaces either, or being out at sea where I could potentially drown! But like you, I also want to try scuba diving. First I need to learn to get my breathing under control!

    • Yep, that’s something I will definitely need to do too! I’m determined to try. At least, you get to practice in a pool first.

  7. Great post! I would definitely freak out in a small space like that but I had my own fear-facing moment in Panama when we went whitewater rafting – I’m not a big fan of water and the thought of drowning absolutely terrified me but once I actually did it, I was so proud and had a blast!

    • Hi Sky, I know what you mean about white-water rafting. I did that in New Zealand and it totally freaked me out beforehand. But, like you, I had an amazing time once I actually did it. That was actually a mad two weeks for me – I bungee jumped twice, went hang-gliding and did a skydive too. Rafting was the one I was most afraid of – water is so powerful!

  8. Wow! I thought I was the only person scared of fish! I went to Discovery Cove in Orlando and was totally freaked out by swimming in a pool with fish and rays. I am also claustrophobic and there is no way I would even attempt the Chu Chi Tunnels. I am so happy for you to have conquered your fear though. That guide sounds amazing too.

    • Hi Rachel, thanks for commenting. It’s good to know I’m not the only person in the world afraid of fish! I am getting much better at that now. Hopefully once we get to Central America, I’ll feel ready to conquer scuba diving. I must say though, the other day we had the opportunity to climb through caves, and I just couldn’t do it. I still have a way to go with conquering claustrophobia but at least the experience in Capilla was a step in the right direction.

  9. Victoria, I suffer from claustrophobia so I can totally relate to this but (this is weird) I’m also terrified of fish. It goes back to a childhood memory when all the fish in my tank died overnight and I woke up to 35 floating fish next to my bed.

    Anyway, my boyfriend’s greatest passion in life is scuba diving and after years of making excuses of why I couldn’t join him I finally gave it a go and I love it.

    The fish aren’t a problem when you’re underwater because they won’t come near you and everything is so tranquil underwater. I do suffer from claustrophobia though and find I have to go slowly and breathe deeply! You should definitely give it a go!

    • Oooh that sounds horrible Monica. I had a similar experience where one of my pet fish caught a disease and all its scales fell off so he was transparent. My aunt also once killed one of my fish by accidentally pouring water that was a bit too hot when cleaning them out!

      I definitely want to try scuba diving. My fear of fish has certainly abated these days. It’s the claustrophobia that worries me more. It’s geat to hear you managed it and now love it. Very encouraging! I’ll let you know how it goes.

  10. I discovered I had claustrophobia at the far end of my attic after crawling in a 3 foot high space for the 40 foot length of the house. The only way out was to back up — on a narrow board between the rafters. Terrifying!

    But I think travel is all about coming to grips with your fears, especially if you leave home permanently to go traveling full-time… we’ve had many scary moments in our travels over the past 6 years. Perhaps the most frightening for me was our multi-day crossing of Mexico’s Gulf of Tehuantepec in our sailboat…


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