Going Where the Wild Things Are
I travel to a lot of places that many people think are dangerous. When I told some coworkers that I was going to Egypt and Jordan, and probably Lebanon this past Spring, they asked me if I had read the travel warnings.
“It’s not safe,” they said, “Are you sure you want to go there?”
I was sure. I am sure. For me, often, travel seems necessary, essential even. I do read the warnings on the U.S. Department of State’s website. It’s just that they don’t usually scare me.
Instead, I wonder; are they valid? Should I pay attention to them? Should I alter my travel plans because of them?
I’m not an expert in travel warnings or political unrest in other countries, but I am a traveler. I’m also not an adventure junkie, but I do seem to go places that other people tend to think are dangerous. Does this make me foolish? Some would say so.
This past June, I traveled to Pakistan (one of those countries many governments advise against visiting) where I cycled the Karakoram Highway from Gilgit to the Chinese Border. Most of the people I shared this with before and after the trip weren’t shy about telling me they thought I was crazy. They were fearful and uncomfortable, unable to make sense of why I would go to such a place.
I have my reasons, though none of them seemed sufficient enough to justify my decision to anyone else. It got me thinking a lot about fear and how it relates to travel or, more loosely, movement, and whether it is not just a vacation or a trip, but a human need. Perhaps, for some of us, travel and exploration are indeed, essential.
With this in mind, I started talking to some of the varied and amazing people I’ve met during my travels, many of them much more intrepid than I, about travel and danger and fear and discovery and how all of those things work together.
I met Pete in Indonesia, where we did the Cross Borneo trek together. He and his girlfriend, both British citizens, travel extensively and often work in foreign countries.
Pete, being 6’2” and relatively self-aware, has been blessed with a fairly trouble-free existence when it comes to traveling. His girlfriend, Sarah, who has traveled through Burma and lived in Vietnam without him, wouldn’t call her experiences the same.
“We both minimize danger as much as possible through research and careful planning. We make sure we ain’t walking into live landmine fields, but also, we don’t let scare stories, or biased reviews put us off,” Pete told me.
I asked Pete about places that people had warned him against going that he went to anyway. Were they as scary as people purported them to be?
He laughed and said that as a privileged white guy, there really weren’t all that many places people told him not to go.
“Obviously,” he said, “I’m not going to stroll through Aleppo, or knock back a few beers with the boys in Mogadishu, but save for active war zones or places where whitey is just asking for a kicking or worse, I get the standard safety briefing and sent on my way.”
The one place people told him over and over not to go out of concern for his wellbeing was Detroit. He and Sarah did a road trip around Lake Michigan a few years ago and every town or city they stopped in, people gave them the same warning: Don’t go to Detroit, it’s a violent dystopian nightmare.
They went anyway. I asked Pete if he thought the trip was essential, something he had to do, a place he had to visit.
Pete smiled and did this thing he does where he closes his eyes, throws his head back, and moves his hands to a rhythm only he can hear.
“Motown studios,” he said, “Music that comes from Detroit has an uncanny ability to shape the world, whether it be the classic soul joints or the modern techno movement.”
He opened his eyes then and leaned forward in his chair.
“I’ve always been a very grounded person - no religion, no superstitions, no time for the supernatural. But I had as close as I can describe to a spiritual experience at those studios. Definitely, essential,” he said.
Many Americans don’t realize that other countries issue travel advisories and warnings to their citizens, advising them to not travel to (among other places) the U.S. In October 2017, Canada issued a travel advisory, warning of the prevalence of gun violence in America. Other countries that have raised the alert include Ireland, New Zealand, Germany, and the UAE.
Elen Turner, a writer and editor currently based in Nepal who has lived in many places including the U.S., New Zealand, and Japan, talked to me about government-issued travel warnings and advisories.
Often, there might be something bad happening in one part of a country (like Turkey, or India, or Pakistan) and a government will issue a warning for the whole country. Consequently, people are then afraid to travel there.
But, she says, “I think they're mostly politically motivated.” One example she gives is the US embargo on Cuba. “I don't give any weight whatsoever to government travel alerts when planning my travels, and I don't think anyone else should either.”
What about if the warning comes from a living breathing individual, rather than a website? Both Elen and I agree, that we first consider whether we trust that person’s judgment and consider if they share our own philosophies and ideals.
“If a well-traveled person tells me that X is a bit unsafe,” said Elen, “then I'd probably be more likely to respect that than if someone's retired parents went on a cruise that stopped via X and felt unsafe.”
I spend a lot of time riding my bicycle in other countries. This past year, I met another solo female cyclist named Ruth. Ruth has traveled much of the world via bicycle, and a good part of that has been on her own. I asked her what was the most “dangerous" place she’d been to, according to others, and what was the most friendly?
“Some of the most interesting and friendly places I have visited are places a lot of people would view as dangerous,” said Ruth. “The most friendly place I have ever cycled is Iran. The people are wonderful, welcoming, open and interested.”
Ruth also cycled the length of Oman in 2015 and found a similar situation. In both of our experiences, the Muslim culture is often far more welcoming to visitors than Western cultures. “The biggest thing I've learned,” Ruth told me, “Is that people are the same everywhere. They are fundamentally friendly, helpful and interested.”
In my travels, I’ve found that to be true as well. The government is comprised of people, but people are not their governments. In Iran, people told Ruth over and over again to send the message that the people there were friendly and open and wanted to interact globally.
I asked Ruth what her thoughts were on traveling solo as a woman.
“I don't think it's more dangerous. In fact, it can be safer!” she said, “I find people mostly want to protect and help you as a woman and especially as a solo woman.”
As a fellow solo female traveler, I agree with Ruth on this as well. I once accepted a ride from Tirana, Albania to the Macedonian border (about a 2-3 hour drive) from a taxi driver. I paid him 50 Euros. Before we left Tirana though, we stopped and had a new tire put on the cab and picked up his 20-something-year-old son to go with us.
Whenever I tell this story, people automatically assume that something bad is going to happen because I’m a woman in a cab in a “questionable” foreign country with two men. But my instincts are pretty good, and nothing horrible happened.
The men bought me lunch along the way and showed me a part of Albania I would never have seen on my own. When we arrived at the border, they negotiated a taxi ride for me to Ohrid, Macedonia, telling the driver to make sure I arrived in Ohrid safely.
Ben is my nomadic hero as he has been pretty much everywhere on the planet while not keeping a travel blog. He always tells me that he takes all travel warnings and the like with a pinch of salt.
“Fear and security are so relative,” he told me in a recent conversation, “I mean, statistically certain places are safer than others but then if our rationale for the things we do was based solely on statistics we would never get in a car again.”
By relative, he meant, for instance, that you could walk the same street each day and feel completely safe until someone tells you that a murder took place on your route the day before. And boom, the place takes on a completely different tonality.
“I do try to find out what people on the ground actually say about safety and build a picture from as many sources as possible,” Ben said.
That’s the crux of the thing, after all. Advice and warnings should be listened to, but they shouldn’t necessarily scare you off from going to a place, especially if they are coming from just one source. At the same time, you shouldn’t go recklessly into a culture that you know nothing about and risk completely disregarding social customs and norms.
Dr. Michael Brein, a well-known travel psychologist and frequent traveler himself, has interviewed thousands of travelers, and one of the subjects that interests him is how traveling is different for women than men.
“In America and the Western world,” he says, “The concept of womanhood is perceived very differently than in the non-Western world. Many Western women are aware of this; many are not. Those who are not may get themselves in serious trouble.”
The primary theme that arose in most of my conversations with fellow travelers was the importance of being aware of your surroundings and exercising caution while, at the same time, being open to new experiences and people.
As travelers and humans, we all need to decide what amount of risk we’re comfortable with. There are always going to be people who tell you not to go certain places, but even going to the corner store for a carton of milk comes with a set of risks, whether you’re far out in the countryside or a city-dweller.
Interestingly, the places people seem the most afraid of are the ones that tend to top the lists of favorite destinations of frequent travelers. Among the people I spoke to Pakistan and Iran were mentioned a lot. As were Egypt and Jordan. I was in Egypt this past summer as well and can attest to the absolute incredulity as I stood at the bottom of a pyramid by myself because there are so few tourists there right now.
Jordan is a calm, peaceful country surrounded by chaos. It is bordered by Syria, Israel, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Anas Sheshani, my cycling guide, told me that Jordanians pride themselves on being a sea of calm in the midst of numerous raging hells.
Many people consider the entire Middle East to be unsafe but my experience in Jordan was that it was one of the safest places I’ve been. I spent a few days in Aqaba and the one thing I noticed right away was that no one stared at me when I walked the streets on my own even though I was obviously a westerner. In contrast, one of the places I’ve spent time where it was virtually impossible to walk down the street alone without being stared at, heckled, or asked for money was Morocco, a country that is seen as very safe and welcoming. (I’m not saying it isn’t, only that it is impossible to fly under the radar.)
People often seem more inclined to tell you horror stories about a place to justify their own fear about going there. Listen to it all but make your own decisions. If you have a desire to go somewhere, do your research, book your flight, dust off your passport and go before everyone else figures out how amazing these places are.
I was on a Metro-North train heading back to the New York City from Peekskill when a grown white man I was conversing with looked at me with fear and surprise when I said I’d been to Pakistan.
He told me a story about an acquaintance of a friend of a friend who was told by another friend that he can’t ride bikes in the country of Colombia. They’ll tackle you in the street and steal your bike, he is said to have said. You can’t cycle there.
I’ve not been to Colombia but I have to wonder how much truth is in that statement. It’s similar to a story I’ve heard about cycling on New York City’s Upper West Side Bike Path, up past 125th Street and near the GW Bridge. Supposedly, ne’er-do-wells have been known to stretch cable across the path, snaring bike riders, knocking them to the ground, stealing their cell phones and their expensive bikes. What makes these two stories so different? Geography, just geography.
Did You Know?
“The United States remains a likely target for terrorist activity by domestic-based extremists and internationally-trained individuals and groups.” -New Zealand Safe Travel site (source)
“The possession of firearms and the frequency of violent crime are generally more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada.” Canadian Government, october 2017. (source)
“The post-storm environment in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands remains particularly fragile, with continuing power outages and unstable buildings.” - U.K. Government (source)
“There is an increased threat of terrorism and extremist violence worldwide and this should be borne in mind by Irish citizens living and working in the USA.” - Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade travel advice page (source)
“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” -Samuel Johnson, ‘Letter to Hester Thrale’ (1773) (source)
Wanna Dig Deeper?
Lonely Planet: Women Travellers in Jordan
Book: The Experience of Place by Tony Hiss
Book: In Motion by Tony Hiss
Background, Context & Reference
Notable People Discussed
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