Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Benefits of Dangerous Travel

How do you know when you're in danger?  Sometimes it seems perfectly clear:  a truck barreling down on you as you cross a street;  hiking on a narrow ledge with a 500-foot fall;  a nervous mugger pointing a gun at you; an angry mob around you chanting anti-American slogans when you are in a foreign country.  In these examples the imminence of harm and the source of the threat are certain and unambiguous.

But many times assessing danger requires making an inference, an attribution, or an interpretation that isn't so clear.  As we begin to cross a street, we make inferences regarding the local norms involving drivers versus pedestrians and the likelihood a car or truck will yield to us.  When we encounter a high ledge while hiking we look at its riskiness based our assessment of our physical abilities and experience in comparable situations.  In planning a trip abroad we judge the likelihood of being the target of resentment or anger in a foreign country based on current news reports and personal accounts of other travelers.  We usually feel confident that we have correctly determined the threat or danger -- that we know whether we are in danger -- but in truth we have only really guessed.

I wrote last February that my wife and I were considering going ahead with our plans to visit the Middle East, despite the turmoil there (see my blog of February 15th) .  We did indeed make the trip, and recently returned from a month in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.  We were there from April 12 to May 12, during the regional upheaval journalists and politicians have now dubbed the "Arab Spring"  or "Arab Awakening" (I suppose these are appropriate labels, but in this case Springtime and Awakening are associated with bullets, tanks, and firebombs).  We certainly hadn't planned to be involved in these momentous events, and new developments along the way forced us to assess danger far more than normal in our travels:  protests in Syria intensified and so did the brutal government crackdown on them;  just as we were about to enter Syria, the Jordan/Syria land border was closed, though it was still possible to fly between countries, which we did;  shortly after entering Syria the U.S. State Department issued a warning advising U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately (we didn't);   in Libya the UN stepped up its military action against the government; about halfway into our trip Osama Bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces; while we were in Egypt there were violent clashes between Christian and Muslim groups.

Were we in danger?  You might infer from the list of events above that we were standing in the middle of the street with a truck barreling down on us -- the clearly harrowing situation I suggested at the beginning.  And to be honest, if all these things happened right before we left home we might have cancelled.  But we're now convinced that would have been a mistake, that we were in fact not in significant danger, and that whatever level of risk present was far outweighed by the positive benefits of the trip.

We weighed the information we received from news sources and from the State Department along with our own direct observations, which contrasted sharply. Everywhere we went people of all walks of life, ages, and social position were genuinely welcoming and friendly -- particularly when they found out we were Americans.  Although we stood out like sore thumbs (it is not possible to blend in there, especially when you're two of only a handful of tourists), we never felt like targets of resentment or anger.  Naturally our inferences might have been wrong, but the probability of our misjudgment has to be considered in the context of 40 years of mostly independent travel that has exposed us to a variety of social situations and interactions requiring us to assess the sincerity and honesty of people's motives.  Based on that experience, we have to regard this as one of the safest trips we have ever taken and probably one of the most enjoyable.

Some of you reading this may wonder why we would travel to a place where there is even a chance of danger -- what's the great attraction that makes the inconvenience and potential hassles worthwhile?  This is tough to answer. In response to a good friend who challenged our motivation for this trip, I said that our rewards for travel here were the same as they always have been for us:  acquiring a deeper understanding of different cultures, including those under the thumb of notorious, disgusting regimes; seeing first-hand the layers of history embodied in the art and architecture of past civilizations and current societies;  appreciating the ecology and geology of other parts of the world.

Paul Theroux put it a bit more eloquently in a recent NYT article on traveling during turbulent times, and I'll close with his words:
"In the bungling and bellicosity that constitute the back and forth of history, worsened by natural disasters and unprovoked cruelty,  humble citizens pay the highest price. To be a traveler in such circumstances can be inconvenient at best, fatal at worst. But if the traveler manages to breeze past such unpleasantness on tiny feet, he or she is able to return home to report: 'I was there. I saw it all.' The traveler’s boast, sometimes couched as a complaint, is that of having been an eyewitness, and invariably this experience — shocking though it may seem at the time — is an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the life-altering trophies of the road. 'Don’t go there,' the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. In my experience these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling."

2 comments: said...

Dear D&K- Funny thing. Linda and I, on reading your blogs changed our minds about visiting that part of the world. So travel opens your mind and may have opened ours also. Good blog.

BUT- we were concerned about you running around a quasi war zone with a GPS. I had visions of you being interrogated by the local powers about why you would need such an instrument that can pinpoint military targget coordinates and relay them to the CIA. I see you as a hi-tech Indiana Jones. Very suspicious to me if I were a Sirian!.

Dick said...

Actually, the gps wasn't too obvious, since I just looked like I was checking my email on a cell phone, like everybody else. However, poking around in bushes and behind walls might have looked suspicious so we always looked around for guys in leather bomber jackets first!