As a travel writer for over 30 years I've had to push myself to do some out-there things: racing in a formula one car at 150 mph, taking to the air in everything from balloons to gliders to blimps. Trekking through jungles, walking through tough neighborhoods, I've usually sucked it up.
Fear can be a long, drawn-out ache, such as waiting for medical test results. And sometimes it is unexpected -- a sharp rush of adrenaline on an otherwise uneventful day. Maybe the fear lasts a few seconds, but it calls upon our mind and body to flee or fight.
I've endured the ache of slow fear. But it is sudden, unexpected fear that sears itself into memory. And one time in particular, on the road in an unfamiliar environment, I remember when I had to react in a split second.
I'm on a riverboat on the Danube, cruising from Germany to Bulgaria, on assignment to write about the trip, and I bring along my female friend, Merle. Our boat stops at a small Romanian harbor town on a cloudy spring day, and we decide to stroll into the historic center.
On this Sunday late afternoon, few people are out, and we wander toward a row of leafing trees with fragrant blossoms, passing an old church. We stop for awhile to watch a wedding ceremony. Roma beggars pester us but we wear no valuables or purses, and are dressed in jeans and tees. We look the beggars in the eye and they must figure we are not worth the trouble to pickpocket.
We walk on, peering behind us to make sure the kids are not following, and after a few minutes fields appear, and we realize that we are no longer in the town. Nobody is around. The air is still, as if waiting for something to happen.
And something does.
Suddenly we hear sharp barking, and in a few seconds see a pack of dogs in the distant fields, running toward us. Maybe a dozen of them, maybe a mile away.
There is no tree nearby to climb, no building to run into. I remember advice I may have heard about dealing with bears. The correct thing may be to stand still, but the instinct is to flee.
Merle and I decide to head back into town at a quick walker's pace as the barking gets closer behind us. There are no buildings ahead as we retrace our steps, the noise at our backs getting louder.
Suddenly a beat-up car stops, and a young man in a grimy shirt leans out, gestures, and asks in Romanian if we want to get in. Merle wants to do this, to get away from the dogs.
I don't. I'm fearful of getting bitten, but even more of getting into a vehicle with a suspicious-looking man. I imagine a headline: "Clueless Americans Running from Rabid Canines Raped and Butchered in Romania by Crazed Transylvanian."
Moment of truth. Which is worse, the pack of wild dogs heading our way, or getting into a car with a dirty, unknown man in the middle of a town I can't spell, in the middle of Romania?
As the barking gets louder, I have an idea. I gesture to the man that I'm about to jump on the hood of his vehicle, and I immediately do, and Merle follows. The man looks perplexed at two strange women sprawled on his hood, but thankfully does not move the van. The pack of emaciated dogs passes right by, perhaps with some other prey in mind, like a rabbit or a bird, or another hapless tourist. Perhaps we have over-imagined things, as privileged American women are prone to. But I don't think so.
We scramble off the hood of the van and now walk toward town quickly to find a building to hide in, the dogs well past us. The man looks annoyed, lingers behind, then catches up and drives slowly next to us as we walk with eyes averted. A new problem?
After a few minutes he finally shakes his head and speeds ahead, leaving us alone in the dust, safe for the moment.
We run back to town, and as we hurry back to the safety of our riverboat I realize I am shaking. And I still remember those fearful few minutes whenever I hear an unseen dog bark. And the way I jumped out of harm.