Lately, when choosing travel destinations, my husband and I are rarely looking for places of comfort and security. For better or worse, the places we aim for are known to most of our friends and family, a little exotic, and most of all to us, exciting.
It's not that we actively go looking for places that are dangerous. But it just so happens that the most exciting places are maybe the places that are the least visited by most of the people we know.
There's something absolutely thrilling about being in a place that you're a little unsure of. Culture shock, while intense and uncomfortable, is also enchanting and exhilarating. And it becomes a bit of an addiction. When visiting a culture completely different from your own, you experience an adrenaline rush of insecurity in an instinctual way. And you begin to crave that sense of wonder and a little danger. Because once it passes, you feel a sense of peace and calm, a little more knowledgeable and familiar about the world than you were yesterday.
So the first thing my husband and I ask ourselves before picking a place is, "will this excite us?" (after, of course, "can we afford this?")
So how do we travel to these exciting and stimulating places and still feel calm about it? How does one travel to places and avoid the tourist traps while still having a good time? After all, there's a bold line between thrilling and threatening.
Here are our responses to the most common questions, comments, and (ahem) unsolicited opinions we've received about safety in our travel.
Aren't You Afraid to Go There? Haven't You Seen the News?
A majority of our F&F's safety concerns occur before we've even made our trip. We enjoy travel (...as you can tell) and as a result, we enjoy telling people about our trips as we're planning them. And while most people don't intentionally rain on our parade, small comments like the one above usually find its way into our conversation. The best intentions still reveal a mindset that the world is a big and dangerous place, and it's best to avoid such places.
The downfall in accepting this mindset is the bounty of places in the world that one may never experience due to fear, especially when that fear is unfounded. While there ARE dangerous places in the world, and one should never, ever travel recklessly, the reality is that there are many fascinating, and relatively safe, places in the world.
The problem with the constant stream of media news about other countries is that you only hear about the bad stuff. This rings true with our recent trip to Turkey. Featured in the news this summer for a terrorist attack AND a military coup, most people would assume Turkey is a dangerous, terrifying, and militaristic state. What a shame for those people who will never experience the other side of this riveting and gorgeous slice of paradise between the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
The best way to fight this ignorance is to do your research into nations other than from your local 6:00 news outlet. When you only hear about the tragedies, it's no wonder you think there's only terror in the world. Read an unbiased book (or a blog!) about your destination. Talk to someone who has been there. But most importantly, ask yourself if your fears are founded in reality, or in a passing impression you have of that country. Are there travel warnings issued from the U.S. Department of State, or are you pretty sure you read something about that country in a book in 6th grade, a 1970’s movie, or heard a joke about that on an episode of Family Guy?
It's hard to let go of that fear because it can be comforting to us. We know our place in the world and anything outside that bubble challenges what we know. But the reward for bursting that comfort bubble is tenfold.
Once you're equipped with a true picture of a nation's safety, you're ready to make a decision about whether that country is a good pick for you. Keep yourself up to date of all travel advice and warnings from a reputable source. Here's where you can follow the U.S. Department of State's travel alerts:
I Would Never Go to [That Country], I'm Afraid I'd Be Robbed
The sad truth about muggings is that they can happen absolutely anywhere. It important to accept that yes, even in Big City, USA, theft is happening all the time.
Now I know there is no mistaking that in some countries, theft is a career. Any city that depends on tourism as a source of income also creates an environment ripe for theft. But most thieves are looking for easy targets, and with a few simple tips, you can avoid being a victim ANYWHERE.
My favorite response to comments about theft abroad is that I feel more at risk in my home city of Miami. If even being in Miami or New York City scares you, then you can still travel, but your best option is to avoid big cities as much as possible.
The simple fact is that no matter what country, whenever you are in an urban area, take precautions to secure your belongings. A fear of muggings is NOT a reason NOT to travel. Don't avoid Costa Rica, Brazil, Turkey, or Morocco, all places we've been, just because you have a fear of being robbed. Ask yourself if you would feel comfortable in New York City. If so, then know you are already equipped with the knowledge to protect yourself in these countries.
The best way to avoid muggings is to always be aware of where your important objects are placed. Utilize zippers and complicated straps as much as possible on your purses and pockets to make it a little more difficult to steal. Cross body bags are a great resource and I always wear one around my body with the zipper turned inside. It becomes impossible to open without my knowledge.
Always be aware of your surroundings, especially when you're distracted and looking down at your phone. One of the biggest reasons people are victims of phone theft is because they are wielding their phone around and not paying attention to who is behind them. It's easy to grab and run. When looking at maps and navigating, look around to make sure no one is behind you. When not in use, keep your phone in a secure location, not sticking out of your pocket.
Lastly, understand that even if something happens while traveling, it could've happened anywhere. Bad things happen to good people. And theft is everywhere. Prepare as much as possible, but if it does happen to you abroad, know that as much as possible, you'll replace what was stolen. Don’t try to be a hero, let it go. Cameras, phones, jewelry is all replaceable. Keep copies of important documents and only take some of your cash with you when you go out; leave the rest locked up.
I Heard They Don’t Like Americans There!
Thinking that many countries don’t like Americans, or even believing that you’re more at risk abroad because you’re American, simply isn’t true. While some people in foreign countries do take note when they find out you’re American, it has more to do with excitement about accepting your American money more than kidnapping you and holding you for a hefty ransom. In most places we’ve travelled, the reactions we received were very positive once people heard we were American. In fact, I’d go as far to say that many places are actually more inviting once they find out you’re American.
Not everyone, of course. Because, believe it or not, just like the US is full of bigots, you’d better believe the rest of the world is too (imagine that--it’s like we’re ALL people...).
Well, you can’t win them all. If you’d like to avoid those few and far between who ARE bigoted towards Americans, you can do so by following a few tips like speaking softly when in public or at restaurants, attempting to learn a little of the language (“How much does that cost?” is a starter, to make sure you’re getting the right price. Ask for the price in LOCAL currency, NOT dollars, for a correct conversion rate), dressing like the locals as much as possible, and wearing clothing or jewelry that isn’t flashy or doesn’t call attention to you. Once you’ve been out and about in a city for a day or two, you get a feel for the culture, and can adapt a little more easily. The main idea is to remain under the radar and avoid calling unnecessary attention to yourself.
There may be places where no matter how hard you try, you won’t fit in, especially with an ethnicity different than that of your destination country. No matter how hard you try, you will stand out, and they will know you are a tourist.
Look, it’s ok to be cautious that someone would take advantage of you, but being cautious doesn’t mean being afraid. It means using common sense to avoid putting yourself in a situation you wouldn’t put yourself in even at home in the US. Just because you’re in another country, doesn’t mean that you are helpless. It’s the same decision-making skill-set you have at home, just some different scenery.
What if Something Happens While You’re So Far From Home?
Yes, the world is big. But it’s also round. Which means when you go to one side, you’ll end up on the other.
What I mean by this is that just because the US is geographically isolated from everyone else, doesn’t give us the right to ignore the rest of the world because it’s far away. New Zealanders are technically the most geographically remote, and yet we’ve met so many N.Z.’ers on our travels. Everything is just a plane ride away. Help is just a phone call away. Information is just a click or the mouse or touch of a screen away. We live in a globalized world, and while local travel can be important, so is global travel.
Bursting our comfort bubble and experiencing foreign cultures for ourselves is one of the most important journeys a human can make. Don’t avoid places on a map just because they are far. Many places, while plane tickets may be expensive because of sheer mileage, end up being cheap vacations once you’re there (such as Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, our next trip destination!)
The world, at first, seems like a big, scary place. But the more you travel, the more you experience, and lo and behold, the world shrinks, and traveling gets easier each and every time. Start small, going to places you know don't speak English, but may be out of your comfort zone, and build up your experience. That's what we did.
Traveling makes you a well-rounded person and gives you valuable insight. And traveling has never been easier, with online plane tickets, maps, hotel reviews, travel advice, etc., all at your disposal.
Overtime, travel anxiety will slowly fade into anticipation. You may be nervous, you may be apprehensive, but hold onto that trepidation. Don’t ignore it; embrace it. But, in the end, TRAVEL ANYWAY.