I was recently talking about travel with a friend, and the concept of difficult travel arose. His position was that he would travel to any locale, regardless of the potential danger. I argued that it was inherently irresponsible to knowingly put yourself in a dangerous position; that being safe on the road is any traveler’s paramount responsibility. I then promptly planned a trip to the Middle East.
Granted, I am not touring the historic sites of Iraq or Iran, rather I will be in Israel. However this will be my first time traveling in an area known for a certain level of instability and violence. (unless you count Baltimore) I also intend on journeying into the West Bank, not because of the caché of the concept, but because there are some sights I would really like to see. But is this responsible travel?
Ultimately, I believe it ties into a concept the San Francisco Chronicle columnist Spud Hilton recently discussed in his article about passport stamp collectors. In his column, Spud discussed the inherent competitive nature of most travelers in their never ending quest to get more passport stamps; to be able to regale kith and kin with stories of the exotic countries to which their journeys have taken them. Spud makes the point that traveling for the sake of it is pointless, rather one should travel to accumulate experiences, not stamps.
I wholeheartedly agree with Spud, experiential travel is at the core of my travel philosophy. But there is necessarily a point where experience collection and stamp collection coincide, almost as if charted on some sort of mathematical graph. Sometimes, it is the experience of traveling to difficult places which is the real story. This is best seen in a story two bloggers wrote for my site, Never Again in Nigeria. Did they venture into Nigeria to see a world famous sight or to take a tour of legendary ruins? No, they ventured into Nigeria to collect that stamp, for the sheer experience of it. For them, adding that country to their list became a remarkable tale, opening a window into a very closed part of the African continent.
This brings me back to my original question, is it responsible to travel to dangerous places?. While ultimately a matter of preference, I do not think there is a clear cut answer. For example, I think that the three backpackers captured in Iran last year were needlessly reckless. I think they knew exactly what they were doing and wanted to brag to friends that they had been to Iran. Ultimately, this was not a smart decision. I also do not believe it responsible to travel to countries or regions where there is active warfare: Afghanistan and Pakistan rate high on this list. But there is a tertiary level of supposed dangerous places which I think offer the traveler a unique experience for the sheer ability to visit there.
My trip to Israel and the West Bank is frankly not that risky. I won’t be donning a flak jacket à la Anderson Cooper and dodging bullets. What I will be doing is going beyond my comfort zone, pushing my personal travel envelope. While not for everyone, this experience of traveling beyond our own personal boundaries is what helps us grow the most. I fully expect some unique experiences in Israel which will change my perception of the world and help me grow as a person. Collecting the stamp of boundary pushing is what I want and ultimately is why I travel.
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