Since 9/11, many Americans have been timidly trapped inside their country. Already the nation with the smallest percentage of passport holders (about 15% of the population) of any First World country, Americans are more isolated than ever from understanding the world.
They're are afraid of taking risks - when the real risk they face is missing experiences like the one above, where we are celebrating the joys of travel in the midst of the magnificent scenery of Torres del Paine, Chile! (We don't look very safe on that rock, but some risk-taking is necessary!)
CHICKEN & DAREDEVIL
Joan is a big chicken about taking risks and Lou seldom thinks there are any. Traveling together is a continual balancing act between her fears and his enthusiasm. While the two of us may seem to be acting like carefree twenty-year-olds as we travel around the world, we’re experienced enough to be relatively cautious. (Well, at least ONE of us is cautious!)
In general, Joan tolerates a bit more anxiety in order to keep up with Lou, while he sacrifices some riskier travel opportunities to be with her. Occasionally, he takes off on his own. For example, we’d planned to go from Cambodia to Laos, but Joan was uneasy about the fact that a bomb had just been found in Vientiane's airport and the U.S. State Department had recently warned of new terrorist activity in Southern Laos. Other than that, why not go?" asked Lou. "You go, I'll stay here!" replied Joan. So, after 18 months of non-stop togetherness, the Rambling Roses rambled in different directions. Lou flew to Laos for nine days, while Joan remained in Siem Reap to teach English in a Buddhist temple school. Lou had a great time in Laos - which turned out to be safer than Cambodia.
He enjoyed inner-tubing for three hours down the Song River near Vang Vieng. "But the poisonous water snakes!" wailed Joan when she heard about it. "I saw them swimming past, but they didn't come very close to me," replied intrepid Lou. And he went caving into deep recesses of the earth to where termite-eaten Buddhas lie buried. "Didn't you get lost?" worried Joan. "Only once," replied Lou. "If another traveler hadn't waited for me at a tunnel intersection, I never would have found my way out." "Drat," said Joan. (Well, no she didn't.)
Meanwhile, Joan was having her own adventures back in Cambodia, where tanks were rolling through Siem Reap not far from her hotel. "Rolling" may be too strong a term - one tank was so decrepit it was being towed. An attempted coup in the capital city of Phnom Penh led to four deaths and 38 arrests. Joan was in more danger than Lou. (Although that makes a good story, the truth is that the tanks in Siem Reap were a mile away from Joan’s hotel, and were sent through the town merely as a show of the government's strength. The only violence was 200 miles away in Phnom Penh. Joan was not in imminent danger nor was she afraid. Well, maybe a little.)
TERRORISM & TURMOIL
Ever since the 2001 attacks on America, terrorism and political turmoil have been the biggest concerns of many travelers. While the troublemakers don’t normally target tourists, they can make travel unpredictable at best and cross-fire-dangerous at worst. So how do we decide where and when to go?
If a country we want to visit is experiencing political violence, we can often find some regions within it to which we can travel safely. For example, when we were planning our 2000 Asian itinerary, we wondered if we should go to Indonesia where there were rebellions and riots. We looked at the 3000-mile archipelago on a map and found these political hot spots were scattered in Jakarta, Aceh, Lombok, and the Moluccas. Java and Bali were well outside these areas. To avoid Java and Bali because of riots in Jakarta made as much sense as avoiding Vermont because of riots in Los Angeles. We went - and felt perfectly safe. (These placid rice paddies in Bali certainly weren't dangerous!)
The timing of trips to potentially volatile areas is crucial. Joan waited many years to see the temples of Angkor, but political turmoil in Cambodia stood in the way until 1998, when the murderous Khmer Rouge was contained in the northwestern corner of the country. By 2000 the time was right and we went. We also visited the Khyber Pass that year - during a period when the continual tribal fighting on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was in a momentary lull. Even so, we had to go with two guards toting Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Today, we’d think twice about going into that area.
On September 11, 2001 we were in Crete with plans to proceed to Egypt and Israel. Not going was a no-brainer. The pyramids could wait. We cancelled our plans and spent the next six weeks traveling safely in Greece before returning to the U.S.
We agree with travel writer Paul Theroux, who describes his fears during a trip to Latin America: "I was...worried about losing my passport, my ticket home, or being robbed of all my money; of catching hepatitis and spending two months in a hospital in a desperate place...These were informed fears. 'We risk our lives every day, just crossing the street,' friendly people say, to reassure us. But there are greater risks in the Andes and in primitive countries, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool." (The Old Patagonian Express)
HOW MUCH RISK?
We aren’t foolish enough to believe we’re totally safe - either when traveling in developing countries or at home - but we also know that living a full life means exposing ourselves to some hazards along the way. We’ve learned to travel the way we choose investments - by asking ourselves: What is a "reasonable" amount of risk for us? How much anxiety can we tolerate? If a trip promises to be particularly rewarding, we’re willing to tolerate a somewhat higher anxiety level.
In developing countries, crime resulting from poverty is more often a problem than politically-motivated violence. While traveling on a bus along Route 13 from Vientiane, Laos towards Vang Vieng, Lou read aloud to his fellow passengers from Moon's Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook: "There is sporadic banditry along Route 13….(villagers) with small-caliber weapons sometimes shoot up whole truckloads of passengers for their valuables. On average, a dozen people a year die this way." The book continues with the cheery thought, "…the road is safer during the rice-harvesting season, as potential gunners are then too busy with their crops." On hearing this, all the passengers laughed nervously, then comforted themselves by looking out the bus windows and noting that, yes, the fields were indeed full of sickle-wielding farmers. Their composure evaporated, however, when the bus abruptly stopped. Leaning forward to the very edges of their seats, they peered anxiously down the road. Route 13 was definitely blocked - not by highway robbers, but a half-dozen stray bulls. The bus fairly rocked with relieved laughter.
Jesting aside, extra caution is sometimes necessary. We spent a night in Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea) on our way to next-door Irian Jaya (Indonesia.) Raskals (armed bandits) were roaming the city, so Lou resisted his strong urge to go shopping for masks. We stayed in a hotel adjacent to the airport, behind a barbed, guarded fence. Sometimes risk reduction simply calls for being chicken!
After traveling to nearly 60 countries over a 40-year period, we've never been robbed or successfully pick-pocketed although there have been a few attempts. (Knock on wood.) Our main approach to travel is to apply the same caution that we use in the U.S. We avoid the riskiest areas of big cities, take taxis rather than walk at night and stay aware of the people around us. Common sense and safety are closely related.
Being street-smart protected us last year in Quito, Ecuador. Joan alertly sensed that two large men were following us – men who looked exactly like the knife-wielding, daytime robbers described in a police report we’d just read. We ducked into an Internet café and they came in, too. We left and they immediately followed. We picked up the pace – FAST – and ditched them.
We’ve learned from mistakes. For example, on returning to our La Paz (Bolivia) hotel one afternoon, Lou noticed that his lightweight nylon daypack had been slashed. He hadn’t even noticed when it was happening. It only held a bottle of water and a guidebook, nothing was missing, and he got it sewn back together for only 80 cents. The lesson: never carry a daypack on your back in a crowd, but wear it on your chest.
Rule #1 for avoiding crime while traveling is to avoid flaunting your wealth. Even if you consider yourself middle class, you’ve probably spent more money on your luggage, clothing, camera and watch than most people in developing countries will earn in a year – or five years. Leave good jewelry and watches at home. Disguise your expensive new camera by putting it in a well-worn case - perhaps patched with duct tape for good measure. When you go out, lock everything of value in your luggage to avoid tempting the (often) underpaid hotel staff. Carry with you only the cash needed that day. Never flash a wad of money. If you must get into your hidden money belt for an ATM or credit card, do it inconspicuously.
Below: One money belt goes around the waist, the other around a leg - under our clothing. Joan's pants belt has a hidden zippered compartment for storing currency. The black pouch has two zippers that can be locked together. We use it to put credit cards, airline tickets, passports, etc. in a hotel safe. All are available through www.rei.com Travel clothing with hidden, zippered pockets available through www.exofficio.com
While we share Theroux’s concern about health hazards, as they are much more likely to affect travelers than terrorism or crime, it's possible to radically reduce health risks. Before leaving on a trip to a remote area, we visit a physician trained in travel medicine and get the appropriate immunizations and prescriptions. Depending on the area, the shots may be for tetanus, rabies, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, polio, etc. The prescriptions may include anti-malarial medications, antibiotics, analgesics for pain, etc. To counter malaria, we soak our clothing and mosquito netting with permethrin before we leave on a trip. In malarial areas we wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, slather on DEET mosquito repellant, sleep under netting and take anti-malarials.
To defend our stomachs against “travelers’ tummy”, we don’t use ice, or drink or brush our teeth in tap water in developing countries. For a short trip (under a month), we buy bottled water. For long trips we carry a water filter to avoid leaving a pile of un-recycled plastic behind us. We add a viral solution for particularly suspect water.
Street vendors’ food is a no-no (it often sits all day without refrigeration), and ice cream, too (it may have melted and been re-frozen.) In the early weeks of travel, we avoid fresh salads unless we know the restaurant washes the veggies in treated water. Until our stomachs have adjusted to new bacteria, we eat only well-cooked food and fruit we can peel. Slowly, we add interesting local dishes, eating in busy restaurants where the food hasn’t been sitting around for long periods.
We take a medical kit full of pills, bandages, syringes, etc. but have hardly used the stuff because we’ve remained healthy - with only occasional traveler’s tummy and altitude sickness. Lou cracked a rib in Turkey and developed Achilles tendonitis in Bolivia. Joan got an ear infection in Irian Jaya and tuberculosis from who-knows-where, but antibiotics (six months of them in the case of the TB) healed her completely of both.
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES
Some travelers are more afraid of flying than of bacteria, even though it’s safer to fly than go overland. U.S. airline fatalities per mile in the 1990s were typically five times less than those on the road. Given the resources now devoted to airport security, flying is probably safer than ever. In developing countries, we don’t know how much more risky flying is, but we do know that road fatalities per mile are ten times worse than in the U.S. So we probably reduce risk by flying – sometimes a bit anxiously. We were a nervous about ricocheting luggage on a turbulent Uzbekistan Airways flight out of Tashkent on an ancient Russian plane. We were also a bit edgy on a small plane out of Jomsom, Nepal, as it bumped down a wind-swept runway high in the Himalayas. The white-knuckled young trekker across the aisle expressed our feelings when she called out to her fellow passengers: "Just remember - I love you all!"
We’re more concerned about surviving ground transportation than airplanes. Our travel style relies almost exclusively on buses, pickups, minivans, taxis and tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) with an occasional motorbike or rental car. In many developing countries, driving seems to be a fatalistic act of faith and traffic rules are either non-existent or totally ignored. As pedestrians, we are extremely wary of everything on wheels. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, we literally clung to building walls to avoid hyperactive motorbike drivers – surely the wildest in the world.
One way to reduce travel risks is to buy insurance before you go, although homeowner and renter insurance policies often automatically cover the loss of luggage and its contents. Medicare isn’t in effect in foreign countries, but our regular medical insurance is. We’ve never bought medical evacuation insurance or travel insurance (for trip cancellation or interruption) but probably should have before our more adventurous trips.
Another way to reduce risks of all kinds in remote or dangerous areas is to sign up for a guided tour, either before you leave home or (more cheaply) after you arrive at your destination. We were fortunate to be with an experienced guide when we went into the jungles of Irian Jaya, where there are still lawless tribes, as well as guerrilla activity against Indonesian control. Our guide diverted us from visiting an originally scheduled village after reports indicated it might be unsafe. He provided bottled drinking water and an Irianese cook skilled in safe food preparation. Once, when we traveled for hours in longboats along an uninhabited coastline, the guide diverted our course to prevent the boats from swamping in heavy swells. As independent travelers, we could have been in real trouble. Lowering the risk in dangerous areas is one of the strongest arguments for package tours.
Theroux’s point is a valid one: travel - especially in developing countries - carries some risk. But we aren’t willing to let fear rule our lives. The rewards of travel are far too great to stay stuck on U.S. soil, and it’s possible to reduce its dangers - often to levels only moderately above those back home. Besides, we can’t forget the regretful comment of an old lady: "If I had my life to live over, I'd take more risks!"
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
WHERE TO GO For those who’d like to travel off-the-beaten-path but with a relatively low level of risk, we suggest the following areas are good choices (as this was written): Hungary, Czech Republic, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, New Zealand, Australia, Galapagos Islands, Argentina, Chile, Antarctica.
U.S. State Department travel advisories, passport and visa information: www.travel.state.gov/
Thorn Tree Forum (travelers’ bulletin board): Read up-to-the-minute information posted by fellow travelers who are in foreign countries now or who have been recently. Post your questions with free Thorn Tree registration: www.lonelyplanet.com/
HEALTH INFORMATION: See TRAVEL HEALTH
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com