Aren’t you afraid?
In a word: No.
It’s a question people ask us in lots of quiet ways.
Aren’t you afraid of the political climates in less than first world places?
No, but we’re aware of them. Of course they colour our travels. We make choices to go some places, and not others, based on political climates, but that doesn’t mean we’re afraid of them. We’ve been in Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia and Australia during various elections. It’s an educational time to be in a place, there are discussions taking place that don’t otherwise. We’ve stayed with members of politically subversive groups, we’ve attended political rallies in some countries to learn, we’ve intentionally spent time in dictatorships, and in Muslim countries, and in communist countries, as well as monarchies and countries in various stages of development specifically so that our kids will have a bit of perspective on the concept of democracy, but we are not afraid.
Aren’t you afraid of terrorists in “Muslim” places?
We are not. I’ve met thousands of Muslims, become friends with a very few, and lived in some of the most volatile Muslim regions of the world. We’ve been discriminated against, our website has been hacked and plastered with pictures of dead Palestinian children, our kid was once slapped hard for no reason that we could see. We’ve been watched by the secret police and our activity logged because of our nationality. It gives a person a bit of perspective on the American treatment of Muslims within the USA. It’s good for us, and for our kids, to get a grip on the beauty of Muslim culture, the open-handed generosity of the vast majority of the people who call themselves Muslim, and even the hard experiences have been good for us. There are folks who behave badly and occasionally blow stuff up within the Muslim world, but then, there are dudes who roll up into schools in Connecticut and military installments in DC and blow stuff up too. I’m not afraid to enter a school, or visit DC as a result; likewise, we are not afraid of Muslim terrorists.
Aren’t you afraid of the drug war “raging” around us in Central America?
The drug war of the American making, you mean? No. Families are not the targets of those behaving badly. Reasonable precautions are, well, reasonable. Take a quick look at the statistics, and you’ll quickly see that even with the “drug war” Mexico is a safer place than the USA. We’re not glibly blowing off the “danger;” we’ve had guys on a raid with locked and loaded AK-47‘s between us and our kids in northern Mexico. That’s a moment that gives a traveling parent pause, and makes a person happy to have reasonable Spanish in her aresenal. Honduras has it’s moments; we had one of our scariest travel moments there, but in the end, it was fine. Our community in Guatemala had a group of local men who took it upon themselves to patrol the road in and out of the valley after dark to keep a lid on the nefarious business. In every single case, even the scary ones, the reaction to our presence has been one of protection and care for our persons. We are not afraid. In fact, we are so “not afraid” that we let our daughter take off on her own with her friends when she was 14, and we are drawn back to that corner of the world as one of our homes.
Aren’t you afraid of not knowing where you’re going or where you’ll sleep tonight?
Nope. We’re just not. One thing you learn after traveling a while is that things just work out. We’ve never had to sleep under a bridge. We’ve never been so lost that we were unable to find “home” by nightfall. These things just work out. Keeping a sense of humor is the tricky part!
Aren’t you afraid of being taken advantage of?
No, we aren’t, because we fully expect to be. Next issue.
Aren’t you afraid of having stuff stolen?
No, we aren’t because we know stuff will be stolen, at home or abroad, makes no difference. We had both mirrors very carefully stolen off of the van in New Orleans over Mardi Gras a few years ago. We had ipods lifted in Vietnam. It happens.
Aren’t you afraid of getting sick in some godforsaken place?
We have been, and we will be again. It’s not something we’re afraid of, it’s something we prepare for to the fullest extent possible. Including insurance, immunizations, a hefty first aid kit, and a habit of taking note of where the nearest hospitals are.
Aren’t you afraid of getting lost?
Nope. We made friends with the concept.
Aren’t you afraid of strangers?
Statistically, we should be afraid of the people we know. They’re the ones most likely to kidnap us or harm us in some way. Strangers have no reason to wish us harm, and consequentially are a safe and delightful bunch. “Stranger Danger” is a pernicious idea. I can’t imagine a worse thing to teach a kid than that the world is out to get him, when the exact opposite is the reality. Discretion is worth developing, the ability to “read” people is important to study and discuss with emerging adults, but to seed fear and distrust? How awful. Are we afraid of strangers? No, certainly not.
Aren’t you afraid of picking up hitchhikers?
We pick up loads of hitchhikers, the legit looking ones. I’ve never been afraid to pull over and pick up a traveling brother or sister, even when I’m alone. You can argue the hypothetical dangers until you are blue in the face and I will ask you one question: What is your PERSONAL experience? If you’ve never hitchhiked, or never picked up a hitchhiker, then frankly, I don’t think you get to weigh in. Statistically, there is less danger to picking up hitchers than there is driving your car to Walmart. Here are the facts from our personal experience: We’ve met dozens and dozens of fantastic people. We’ve made life long friends of a few. We had dinner with a real live knight because we picked up a hitchhiker. And here’s the icing on the cake: Are you ready?
This very day we are surfing east around Melbourne, Australia, on our way to spend a few days with dear family friends. How did we meet them? They picked up my mom and dad when they were hitching their way across North Africa forty years ago.
Now tell me again, how dangerous it is… and not in hypotheticals; back it up with personal experience or real data, then we’ll talk.
Aren’t you afraid of taking rides from strangers?
Nope. Not ever. We’re also not stupid about it, but we’ve never had a bad experience, nor do we know anyone who has (and we know hundreds and hundreds of pretty hard core travelers.)
Aren’t you afraid of running out of money and being stranded somewhere?
Ha! Always, and never. Money is a constant worry for everyone, isn’t it? This is one of those “7 P’s” moments, as my Uncle Dick would say: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance. We’ve run out of money (the 2008 market crash found us in Italy and swept away our entire trip savings) We had back up plans. We applied strategy to the situation. We’ve gotten stranded, but not for long. You figure it out, you know? Just like at home. I’m very glad not to find myself out of money and stranded somewhere in suburbia which is the antithesis of living my dreams. So yes, we’re afraid of running out of money and being stranded, just like you are, but we work through that, just like you do.
Here’s the thing about fear: You’re either paralyzed by it, or you’re actively overcoming it.
There are things to legitimately fear and there are precautions every traveler should be taking to minimize the risks. However, most of the fears that keep people from taking their dream trip are minor things, or things that can be planned for and risks reduced if not eliminated.
Read the full article, including why I’m not afraid of traveling with my children
About a week and a half ago my train pulled up to the platform in Tundla, India where a sea of Indian military men were waiting for it. There was a rush of commotion as we all pushed towards the doors- a commotion which only grew when we discovered all the doors were locked. The train sat there with its locked doors for 5 minutes while the military men grew angrier and angrier, beginning to bang on the doors with their fists, sticks, muskets, anything. I kept thinking that surely someone would open the door. We’d paid for tickets after all. We’d reserved cots for the overnight train.
Then, the train started to pull away without us. Hardly thinking, we rushed through the crowds to the one door that someone had managed to open a few yards away and with our heavy bags in hand, we jumped onto the moving train. The rush of frantic soldiers crowding behind us carried us like the current of the river onto the train.
I laid in my cot and felt what would have been homesickness if I had a home.
So my question is this: what do you do when this whole “travel thing” scares you, exhausts you, bewilders you in a way that leaves you in need of something secure? What gives a nomad security?
In attempt to wrestle with this question, I’ve come up with a list of 5 things that help me cope with the moments that scare me.
Writing is not only a great way to process your thoughts, it’s also a way to record the feelings that may likely evolve over time. At one point in time I did this by keeping a travel journal, but my laptop has since replaced it. I have documents upon documents that I may never read again, but the act of formulating my thoughts was all I needed at the time. Not to mention, it helps me to see the experience as the story it will be tomorrow, when I’ll feel it less dramatically and see it more logically.
2.) These are the times I’ll make sure I can find a more secluded hotel with an environment I can really find relaxing.
Getting a hotel right in the center of activity can be wonderful when you’ve got the energy for it. But the exhausting moments leave me wanting space and quiet. As much of a clean slate as I can get. This has been especially true in a place like India. For this reason it’s a great idea to have some kind of rainy-day fund of either money or hotel points.
3.) Something from home, even if it’s McDonalds or Pizza Hut!
Never again will I judge a traveler for eating at McDonalds. (Is it sad that the McChicken is my home away from home sometimes?)
4.) Good Internet.
These days internet is the most basic necessity for contacting loved ones back home. The days of calling cards and pay phones are on the way out. This involves point number 2- finding a hotel you can relax in means, in my case, finding a hotel with good internet. Preferably this is in-room internet I can use while curled up in bed in my own space.
5.) A few days of nothing.
Sometimes the main attraction in any given destination is just not worth pushing your nerves past what they can handle. In our case, we found a quiet place in Katra where there happened to be a popular mountain temple. It was a very popular spot for Indian tourism… but we let it go. And I don’t regret that. I needed some time to clean the slate and regroup.
These are some things that helped me get back on my feet and face the vibrant and intense world that is India again, despite the fear I felt at the thought of all the things that could have gone wrong in our impromptu train-hopping experience.
But I’m curious, what are the things that help you feel secure?
Nomads and vagabonds, and all long-term travelers are in a unique position of transient-ness with an almost ephemeral concept of home rather than a permanent one. This is at least the case for myself as well as a few other travelers I know. So we’re faced with an interesting challenge when we need the kind of comfort a different person may find in their stationary routines and their permanent homes. So I’d like to learn from the creative ways other travelers have found comfort in moments of fear.
This week a friend of mine had her iPhone stolen in Antigua. It’s ignited another round of discussions in our traveling circles about theft on the road, how to avoid it and the various gear and gadgets marketed to minimize the likelihood of being burgled on the road.
I would like to say two things about this:
When we were kids we spent a couple of winters rolling around Central America. My Dad’s philosophy included a commitment to blending in and keeping a low profile as much as a family of gringos could.
“If you look like you’ve got less than the locals, then no one has a reason to take your stuff,” was his conclusion.
It’s one I’ve come to share over the years.
Traveling with fancy “traveling” clothes, an obvious “gadget bag” and a shiny new backpack is the surest way to paint a target on your back before you even leave the airport. There are lots of reasons that an iPhone might be a great piece of gear to take along on an extended journey, especially if you’re working as you go, but if you don’t need it… don’t take it. Buy the $10 cell phone when you hit the ground and swap out the SIM card in each country. Take clothes that are clean and respectable looking, but not new with the tags from REI still dangling off the back. The fancy gear yells MONEY loud and clear, to locals and opportunistic other travelers alike. A brand new backpack screams, “It’s my first rodeo!!” like little else, marking you as someone who is neither hip to the road groove, or experienced enough to smell a con.
Most everyone you’ll meet on the road is a good person, a friend in the making. But the very few and far between who are out to prey on travelers have a keen eye and know exactly who they’re looking for. The surest way to “not be that guy” is to follow my Dad’s advice, travel with a low profile.
And, if you absolutely MUST buy a new bag, drag that thing behind your bike for half of a mile before you pack it.
Have you had anything stolen on the road? What steps do you take to prevent it?
“I saw a cyclist riding through my town last week, so I invited him over to my house for the night. I took care of him, but they won’t.”
“I stopped and gave some cyclists Gatorade on a hot day, but they wouldn’t even consider doing something like that.”
I hear stuff like this all the time – isn’t it dangerous to bike around the world with all those bad people out there? All those people who would never help a cyclist or go out of their way to avoid hitting them – they’re everywhere.
What I want to know is this: who are they? Who are those people? They certainly aren’t the people we’ve met.
In our 45 months of full-time bicycle touring as a family, we never encountered them. Instead, we met countless people who invited us to their homes, shared a meal with us, filled our panniers with oranges, and hauled stuff halfway around the world for us. The people we met were of the kind, generous variety of human rather than the ones we see on the nightly news.
Traveling on bicycle made us vulnerable – to both the good and the bad. People could have taken advantage of our vulnerability to rob us or run us off the road – there wasn’t a gosh darn thing we could do if someone wanted to do that. But our experience showed that our vulnerability on the bikes made people want to help us, to take care of us, to reach out and make our journey just a little bit better.
The people we encountered stopped on the side of the road to hand over Coke and chocolate in the middle of a long stretch of nothing. They pulled out a bag of fresh pineapple after we had gone too many days without fresh fruit. They leaned out their car window and shouted, “Would you like to spend the night in my house tonight?”
People handed us the keys to their houses, spent hours helping us solve one problem or another, and sent us emails to cheer us up when we were down. They sent packages of goodies through the mail and brought other packages to us when they went on vacation. They hid Gatorade alongside the road, and rescued us from pouring rain.
In short, the people we met were just ordinary people who were willing to lend a helping hand when they saw the need. The people we met were just like you and me. And still – after 45 months and 27,000 miles – we haven’t met them.
Why are we all so afraid of them anyway?
Nancy Sathre-Vogel is a long-time schoolteacher and world wandering mother of twins. She and her husband taught in international schools in various countries for 12 years, and then – together with their sons – they spent four years traveling on bicycles, including a 17,000-mile jaunt from Alaska to Argentina. She blogs at familyonbikes.org
Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.
Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.
The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.
Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!
To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.
Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.
As independent travelers we discuss the best light weight gear or how to save pennies. But what about something that weights nothing and can’t be bought: common sense.
Like, pavement is more slippery when wet.
Rolling down the highway earlier today, I recalled a lesson my Grandfather taught my mother. “Drive five miles slower when it’s raining.” The charcoal sky began to pour and within moments even my windshield wipers–on high–did no good. Vehicles on all sides dropped from 70 to 40mph, and I decided to pull over and wait it out at a gas station. I got a cup of coffee and read another chapter of my book. Down pour turned to hail, then back to rain, and eventually subsided. A ways down the highway a wreaker truck was busy pulling several crumpled cars from a muddy meridian. I was thankful not to be one of them.
Yes, accidents do happen that aren’t always avoidable. But following your GPS when it tells you to drive into the Pacific Ocean is avoidable. Three tourists in Australia actually did that back in March. It was no accident. I’d say more like lack of common sense.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to driving and isn’t a new concept. Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet about it in the 1770’s. But it still seems people have a hard time using, “the basic level of practical knowledge and judgment that we all need to help us live in a reasonable and safe way”, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary.
Vagabonding almost requires common sense. The more you apply, the richer the experience can be.
There was an interesting discussion on a cycling forum I visit from time to time. A man responded to a blog post I had written about cycling to the ends of the world with my children. “I just don’t see how subjecting kids to this odyssey of self-discovery or whatever it was could possibly benefit them in the long run,” he wrote. “That’s just irresponsible.”
He went on to say, “I always viewed [your journey] as risking almost certain disaster every day, for a prolonged period of time. A really unacceptable level of risk.”
It’s funny – I never considered that we were facing “almost certain disaster.” Certainly not every day and certainly not for prolonged periods of time. I felt our journey was entirely an acceptable level of risk.
Not only did I feel our journey from Alaska to Argentina was not particularly dangerous or risky, I felt it was an awesome way for my children to live their childhood years. I felt the benefits they would gain from a cycling/traveling lifestyle outweighed whatever negatives they would lose.
For every choice we make in life, we opt out of something else. Sometimes those decisions are easy; sometimes they are hard. There are advantages and disadvantages to each of those choices. In the end, we have to make a decision. We have to choose for one and against another. That’s just the way it is.
We could have chosen to stay in Idaho and the boys would have played on soccer teams and swam on swim teams. They would have eaten lunch in the school cafeteria and ridden the bus to school and raced outside to play tether ball at recess. They would have had sleepovers and played video games with friends. They would have been part of chess club and boy scouts.
Those things aren’t bad. (more…)
When we’re away from home, it’s tempting to cut loose and forget our inhibitions. A recent piece in The Guardian UK points out the dangers in partying: Vang Vieng, Laos: the world’s most unlikely party town.
The article explores how the small Lao town has blown up into a hotspot on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail. While revenues and amenities have increased, safety measures have not. The reporter warns of injuries sustained by backpackers who failed to take the proper care.
“Tubing” is a popular pastime in Vang Vieng. This involves riding down the river in an inflatable tube. Along the river are a strip of bars and pubs to cater to thirsty travelers. A quote from the piece is sobering:
Frequent tragedies occur as a result of mixing alcohol with tubing, and other river stunts. Vang Vieng’s tiny hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011 due to drowning or diving head first into rocks, including that of a 23-year-old Dorset man, Benjamin Light. A senior doctor at the hospital, Dr Chit, says the overall figure is higher because “many fatalities are taken straight to Vientiane”.
The Lao government seems hesitant to confront the issue. The writer mentions that many of the bars are owned by powerful interests who have a strong stake in keeping the tourist dollars flowing. Any bad press could put a damper on that. At the same time, backpackers seem unaware of the potential risks in drinking and tubing.
How do you stay safe while partying abroad? Please share your tips and stories in the comments.
Just three weeks before I’d planned to leave for Guatemala, the first country on my itinerary for my first long-term trip, a friend forwarded an email from her Guatemalan friend regarding my upcoming travels:
“My advice is that if she has her heart set on going to Guate, do the volunteering thing and keep travel limited to Lake Atitlan and Antigua … If her heart can be persuaded to go to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I would highly recommend that … Guatemala is in a sort of state of war where human life is very poorly regarded and that is why if you get mugged it is VERY dangerous …”
She also referenced a recent New York Times story explaining that the Peace Corps recently decided not to send new volunteers to Guatemala as it is assessing safety.
Ok, I knew Guatemala was a developing country and that there would be dangers, and I’d been armed and ready to explain to my family and friends that I’d be ok. I’d read tons of forums about safety in Guatemala. I’d read numerous blogs about female solo travel. I knew all the places to avoid, all the things to do and things not to do.
But the Peace Corps backing away and a Guatemalan resident recommending against coming? This was enough to give me major pause.
I spent the entire weekend researching other options. I narrowed it down based on volunteer opportunities I’d found in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. I was all set to completely change my flight and my entire plan.
And then I talked to more people: A 23-year-old woman who recently arrived at the volunteer organization in Xela, Guatemala, where I’d be going, said she had the same concerns as me – especially after hearing the news about the Peace Corps – but once she got there, she felt safe overall. I heard from another female volunteer coordinator who confirmed that Xela has a large foreign community and that the majority of volunteers are single female travelers. She said, “You should definitely take precautions and use common sense at all times, however there is no need to be afraid or alarmed all the time.”
I also talked to my friend who lived in Guatemala for a year, who could connect me with many contacts if needed. And I talked to my uncle, who has done missionary work there for many years, who said as long as I’m with others, I will be ok.
It’s tough to know who to listen to, but I decided to stick with my original plan.
Dealing with the safety concerns brought up by others has been one of the most unexpected aspects of my trip planning so far, and has certainly spun me in circles several times. But what it comes down to is that there’s no guarantee of safety anywhere, and as long as I take all the precautions and remain aware of my surroundings, I’ll be doing the best I can to avoid problems.
Here are some of the things I try to remind myself as well as others when they question my safety:
Here are some articles I found helpful in my research about Guatemala safety and female solo travel safety:
As someone living a mere ferry ride from the coast of Japan, I’ve been hearing a lot of debate among ESL teachers as to whether they should leave the area or not. Italy has offered a free flight home to their citizens living in the area, and other countries have issued warnings to leave at one’s own discretion.
It takes a certain amount of planning and effort to find and secure a job overseas, move your things there, and get settled. Some people would think it mad to leave when there is no direct threat looming. However those closer to the disaster may think differently. Ultimately, however, whatever you decide is the best choice for you.
Are you an English teacher living in Japan and thinking of leaving? Or have you left your job in a different foreign country due to a local disaster or crisis? Tell us your story.