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Traveling Safe Means No Fear Mongering

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CDC and US Department of State Websites Poison for Travelers

I was recently interviewed by Extended World Travel about the “what ifs . . .” and the “buts . . .” that keep people from traveling — the excuses that people create to keep themselves from traveling.

“I would like to travel but . . .”

“What if . . .  happens when I am traveling?”

I wrote:

If someone really wanted to travel, I would hope that the desire would be stronger than any doubt — if it is not, then I must question the strength of the desire. When a child wants a puppy, there are no “but’s” because they know that they really want a dog. No matter how much warning you give them — “puppies are messy, they are a lot of work” — none of it will register, because they really want a puppy, there is no question about it. This is the same with the desire to travel: if you really want to do something, no matter what it is, there are no but’s. If you really want to travel, it is my impression that you will automatically create the pro-active logical mechanisms necessary to erase all doubts, like a child who wants a puppy.Read full interview with Wade

But if someone is really looking for reasons to justify not traveling – justification for their fears, perhaps — I wholly recommend the CDC and US Department of State websites. They are packed full of travel information to scare the wits out of you and keep you feeling safe inside your comfy home and secure cubicle. The moment you feel the Wanderlust rear its ugly head just take a look at one of these websites and an entire onslaught of reasons why you should not travel will fall right into your lap.

http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/

http://travel.state.gov/

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Wade from www.VagabondJourney.com
Western New York, January 13, 2009
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I do not get scared when I read that a traveler was kidnapped or killed somewhere. I have been surveying travelers for the past decade about where the bad things that have happened to them occurred. Three quarters of the time a traveler has something bad happen to them at the wanton hands of another person it has happened in relation to being in a bar, drinking alcohol, looking for sex, or being out late at night in a poorly chosen location.

Most often it is an all of the above scenario.

Traffic is biggest danger to travelers

Traffic is biggest danger to travelers

The phrases “I should not have been there . . .” or “I was stupid” usual succeed traveler tales of woe. The traveler usually feels as if it was their own fault for being robbed or otherwise assaulted: it was not the place or country, it was the circumstance. I have said the same things about my own travel mistakes — of which there have been many.

The “accidents” of traveling can happen to anyone at any time in just about any circumstance – the accidents of life can happen at anytime, anywhere, as well – but I believe that a traveler has a 90% chance of keeping themselves safe anywhere. Most bad incidents of that I have heard of or experienced myself have come after making a string of poor decisions. If I keep my head up I know that the odds of travel will always be in my favor – anywhere in the world.

The US Department of State travel advisories do not scare me.

I know that if I stay away from bars and late night activities I will be 90% safe anywhere I go in the world. A warning that a traveler was kidnapped somewhere means nothing to me unless I hear the circumstance. Most often it had something to do with a bar or living outside the pale of ordinary existence in the country – such as driving a rental car, having a translator, or getting transported in UN or military vehicles.

If I live like a common, responsible adult in a country it is my impression that I will be safer in a war zone than bar hopping in Costa Rica. If I follow the patterns of the common people — if I take ordinary public transport, go to bed at night, wake up early, don’t hit on some dude’s girl, seldom give expression to the last glimmers of my youthful extravagance, keep my head up, and never cower, I will be as safe in a “dangerous” country as I am in a “safe” one.

Drinking in bars is fun. I sometimes find myself drinking until the brink of dawn and walking home through lurking nighttime streets. But I know that I take a risk. Often risks are worth taking — traveling is full of fun risks. To travel in a turtle shell is to travel the world as a curmudgeon.

When it comes to estimating the safety factor of a country, I know that the risks I will face are far more dependent upon my own actions and the situations that I put myself in rather than the place in and of itself.

Safety is an illusion —

“A man sits as many risks as he runs, for as long as a man is alive there is a chance that he may die.”

Thoreau said that, and it should be a maxim for world travel. This is a true statement. You are never safe, you are never out of harm’s way, you will croak someday – whether you are sitting inside your home or tramping through some jungle. I repeat: you will croak. I have a difficult time putting much pertinence upon the “whens” of this inevitability.

“Your only safety is in danger”

I watched a friend spray paint this on a brick wall around a decade ago. I did not know what it meant until recently. Perhaps the word safety only means the absence of fear. If I am not scared, I have the feeling that I am safe. But I also know that there is little fear in danger.

The times where I have been in real danger: being robbed at knife point, getting abducted off the street by the police in a foreign land, being beaten by cops, finding myself hamstrung in the back room of an obscure Syrian land border (an unprintable story), fear was not what I felt. I felt attention – a rush of concentration like I have never felt in any other circumstance.

I have talked to other travelers about this feeling, and they have concurred: there is no fear in danger. Only a sense of alertness raised to the 100th power: a degree of focus, stamina, and wit that does not come under any other circumstance.

Fear is designed to keep me out of these situations.

The human animal responds well to warnings. Perhaps too well. We cache warnings away like a squirrel does nuts and remember them vividly. It is said that a squirrel can remember where its catches are for years. I, too, remember the words of warning that I’ve received a decade ago when I first began traveling. I would like to proclaim that humans can remember warnings better than anything else.

I can vividly remember each time I was warned before going somewhere. When I went there I realized that the warnings were often detrimental to my safety. They made me scared, and a scared person does is not safe. I felt far more in danger because I had the knowledge that I was in danger. Every where I looked I saw something dangerous.

It is one tactic to be aware — a traveler should always be aware and on guard everywhere — it is another thing to be squeamish. It is my impression that a traveler should know the signs of danger, and be able to avoid them. Avoiding entire countries, continents, everywhere in the world besides North America, Western Europe, and Australia will not keep you safe, but avoiding the signs of danger within ALL countries will.

There is nothing more dangerous than feeling 100% safe or 100% scared. These are two extremes; the trick comes in figuring out how to navigate between them: to be able to avoid the signs of danger without feeling the crowbar of fear.

Amadiya Iraq

Amadiya Iraq

I try to use the same standard operating procedure in all countries. I look at who is standing on the street corners or following behind me in my home country of the USA as much as I do in Iraq or Latin America or SE Asia. I follow a rule of generalizations and stereotypes which guide my steps, I learn from my experiences and have confidence in my knowledge. I look for signs to avoid, and I avoid them – regardless of country.

It is not the country that is dangerous, it is people, areas, and situations within ALL countries that show signs of danger that are dangerous. To avoid a country because the news says that it is dangerous is as laughable as not traveling in the USA because of Detroit — or more precisely, because of some areas of Detroit or the circumstances that sometimes occur there.

Kurdish man in Iraq with a Buffalo Bills hat on

Kurdish man in Iraq wearing a Buffalo Bills hat

The main use of fear is that it can be use to repel itself. Fear is designed to keep fear away — it is designed to keep you out of areas which show signs of danger. If you avoid entire parts of the globe  because of the fear created from hearsay then you are not using the response properly. If you blanket an entire country in a shroud of fear than you will not be safe there, don’t go. Fear is used properly when applied to observable situations, not places in general. There is no such thing as a dangerous country, no such thing as a safe one. If you know how to navigate the seas of fear — and not dilute the response through overuse- –  you will travel 90% safe.

I suppose I know that I must have a collection of signs and signals that could indicate signs of danger that I know from my own experience. I know that to travel safe I need to see places for myself with my own eyes – I must make my own evaluations. I believe that there is no such thing as a dangerous country or a dangerous place, only potentially dangerous circumstances, situations, and social landscapes that I should avoid. If you know the signs of what to look for you can travel 90% safe ANYWHERE in the world.

The warning signs of travel are often the same as the street senses that your parents taught you growing up in your home country.

“Don’t get into the car of the man who offers you a lollipop . . .Don’t believe someone just because they say that they are a police officer . . . Don’t go home with a stranger because he says that he is your friend . . .  Don’t listen to people when they call to you in the street . . . Don’t flash your money . . . Don’t stay out all night long . . . Run away if someone tries to get you . . . Keep your head up and always look to see who is standing in the street in front of you . . . Be aware of who is following you . . . Stick up for yourself . . . Yell ‘Help me!’ when you are in trouble.”

Simple advice. If you follow it you will be 90% safe anywhere in the world, if you follow the advice of your parents you will not need the CDC and US Department of State Websites.

The CDC and US Department of State websites are good if used properly, absolutely perilous if not. To read all the warnings about a country and use them as a loose indication of potential is one thing, to allow them to instill fear is another. To avoid entire countries because there are warnings against them is ridiculous in a world where Costa Rica is considered safe, in a world where people feel OK gallivanting in the cities of the USA, in a world where the expat bars of  appear to be good places to hang out.

It is good to know what you are getting into, but it is better to realize the circumstances. If you travel thinking that you are safe, you will get a gun to your head in the most secure countries on earth. If you travel scared, you will be a target in the least secure countries.

It is difficult to say, “I am scared; I am a coward; I am a wimp.” It is good to know these things, then you can come up with mechanisms to move passed them. This is tough.

It is much easier to say, “It is dangerous there; there are many diseases; there are terrorists; what if?; I want to travel but . . .”

Nowhere in the world is safe. All too often the sense of safety puts you in the most danger. Hanging out with a bunch of foreigners in an expat bar in India may seem safe – there are a lot of people who look like you, safety in numbers – but this is the worst place to be; it may seem like a safe option to hunker down in a fancy foreign hotel, but this is the first place that will be targeted; it may seem like a good idea to take a rental car through rough territory, but bandits tend to go for the mother load.

To travel safe means walking your own path of comfort, knowing and following your own senses of danger, not abiding by what you read, chucking what you hear; it means talking to the local people on the ground, scouting out the road ahead for yourself, following your own instinct rather than a group initiative.

Not reading the CDC and Department of State Websites is a good place to start.

Fear mongering is the first sign of ignorance.

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About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap