The Battle Within

My first memory of flying overseas was when I was five years old. My parents took my sister, Erin, and me to Hawaii for three weeks. My mom, a subscriber to the belief bad things can and do happen...especially in a flying metal tube...was appropriately nervous about our flight. She paced the house, wringing her hands, and triple checking that every light switch, every stove burner, every faucet was turned off.

Family vacation in Hawaii

Family vacation in Hawaii

I followed her dutifully from room to room, watching as she touched each switch and whispered, "Off, off. Off, off. Off, off." Her mantra left a strong impression on me: Leaving home for the unknown is a risk.

We got on the plane and she checked our seat belts. My father, a believer in the 'more dangerous, the more fun' philosophy, chattered excitedly about our plans to hike the Kalalau Trail, one of the world's scariest, and promptly fell asleep. I sat there, ignoring the movie on the giant projector, and ruminated on the simultaneous life lessons being taught: Leaving home is both exciting and terrifying.

Today, I'm enroute to my 20th country: Malta, a little island country south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

I'm thrilled. I'm also what I like to describe as apathetically nervous. Before I left the house this morning, I dutifully double checked that the light switches and stove top were "Off, off. Off, off" as my dog, Santiago Domingo, followed me from room to room. I wondered if the pup could speak whether he'd say: "Thanks for remembering I don't have opposable thumbs (or a dog door) and double checking that the house is safe before you lock me inside." Or, if he would latch onto my latent nerves and say, "Oh my God, she's pacing. She's nervous! She's leaving! No, no, no!"

My beautiful mother

My beautiful mother

As a byproduct of my upbringing, my personality is one that's sharply divided. I am terrified of nearly everything: that rocks will dislodge on a fourteener and bury me alive; that my plane will crash land in the Atlantic and I'll have to survive Tom Hanks-style in 30-foot waves; or that I'll leave the stove on and my house will explode with poor, thumbless Santos asleep inside.

The other half of me is a rebel, a thrill seeker, a rejection of all those worries. It's a trait that leads me to do things like: swim through an underwater tunnel in a Samoan cave without knowing its length or depth; taking the lead, with a blasé indifference, in an abandoned, pitch black, and crumbling WWII bunker in Papua New Guinea; and running out into an empty field in Kenya's Masai Mara range, arms thrown up in wonder, to gaze at the night sky despite the rustling of a nearby hyena.

The combination ensures that, when traveling, I'm always the first in my group to read the hotel's safety procedures and plan an exit strategy in the event of, say, a tsunami. Or, when hiking in the jungle, I can identify almost an equal number of poisonous spiders, snakes, and plants as my guide. But I'm also the first to blissfully explore a skeleton-filled cave in Belize or swim with Caribbean Reef sharks in The Bahamas.

Momma Marsha approved? No.

Would Poppa Erb say it was worth it? Yes.

And they're both right. Assessing and accepting the risk makes the reward all the more worth it.

(Just don't tell my future children I said that.)

Umbrella Required in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea

Photo: Christina Erb 

Photo: Christina Erb 

Ash is as common as rain in Rabaul, a lava-encrusted, seaside town on Papua New Guinea's second-largest island. In 1994, Mt. Tavurvur, an ancient, active volcano to the southeast, erupted and blanketed much of the picturesque town and harbor in ash. Today, the some 20,000 people who call the Rabaul region home carry umbrellas to fend off the spitting, grumbling volcano. 

In September 2013, Rabaul's tiny airport opened its tarmac—with little to no fanfare—to direct flights from Cairns, Australia. Now, for the first time ever, adventure travelers can bypass the world's third worst city, Port Moresby, and head straight to Rabaul's black sand beaches and eerily barren streets.

It's a flight that's poised to change the way adventure travelers look at visiting PNG. The lush island country—home to some 700 Papuan and Melanesian tribes, each with their own indigenous language and customs—has long turned away pantophobic travelers who want to avoid spending a night in its notoriously gritty, raskol-ruled capital, Port Moresby. 

Go now. Rabaul is one of the world's last authentic escapes from modernity: Admiral Yamamoto's map-lined Japanese bunker is guarded by tow-headed local boys, an excavated bomber plane sits on a family's long-held land, and hikers can summit Mt. Tavurvur  and peer into its smoking crater.

 

Bullfight of the Ribbon in Casabindo, Argentina

Casabindo, Argentina

Casabindo, Argentina

Casabindo sits at 12,000 feet in the highlands of Argentina's Jujuy region. Once a year, La Catedral de la Puna, the village's immense, centuries-old church, plays host to bloodless bullfighters.  

On Aug. 15, Argentineans wake before dawn and travel hundreds of miles in rickety old school buses to descend on the remote mountain town and celebrate the Patron Saint's Day of Our Lady of the Ascension with the town's 150 llama and sheep-herding residents.

Religious pilgrims come to dance, to celebrate, to sell their goods at the fair and to watch Nike-clad tweens try to snatch silver-coined ribbons from the horns of angry bulls. These boys, toreros, pretend to be matadors. They improvise outlandish jumps and rolls yet they aren't trained in the art of the matador's dance so they walk away gored in their arms and legs. They are bloodied; their clothes ripped into shreds. Those who succeed, at the end of the day, they offer the ribbon to the Virgin in a traditional ceremony.