Dangerous Travel

Baltra Galapagos

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.

Greek Soldier

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.

How have you traveled out of your comfort zone?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

23 thoughts on “Dangerous Travel”

  1. It all depends on the experience you want. I don’t think I’ve ever travelled to get a stamp in my passport as this would be so meaningless. If that was the case, I think we all probably would have been to more countries.
    When the War in Iraq started my husband and I went to Gallipoli, Turkey to experience ANZAC Day- a very important Australian cultural holiday. Without going into detail about what it means, around 20,000 Aussies and Kiwis go there every year for this event. The year that we went numbers were way down to around 10,000. We had all our family and friends warning us not to go because of the dangers with Turkey being next door to Iraq. Advisories were out by our governments. But we still went. Not to brag but because it was something we had been planning to do for years, and we were in the right place, right time for it to happen that year. I think you have to look at what experiences you want, what are the real dangers as opposed to media ramping the fear levels up , and then decide what reward you will get from the risk and judge if its worth it.
    We are so glad we went,as its one of my most memorable travel experiences and we felt very safe and protected.

  2. Oh I agree completely. I used the term stamp collection simply as a way to show that traveling to a destination is sometimes the bulk of the experience in itself. I in no way meant to imply that country collecting is a good thing.

  3. Sorry Matt, I should have referenced my stamp collecting comment to what Spud said in his article!! i agree with you totally. you can’t have the experience without first collecting the stamp.
    I hope you have a great time in Israel. I look forward to reading more about it. I haven’t been brave enough to go there yet, but its a place I’ve always wanted to. I had a friend that lived there for a couple of years during the recent really bad period and he loved it.

  4. Globetrooper Lauren

    Hi Matt,

    Most places deemed ‘dangerous’ are avoided by the average traveller. But as you said, it depends on what experience you’re wanting to get out of it. The media most definitely hypes up speculation on how dangerous a country actually is. So I think those who decide to travel to these areas are not always wanting to get a passport stamp to brag, but to experience a truly original and local adventure without the stereotypes of flocking tourists.

  5. Interesting thoughts and questions. The thing about this is that each person considers different places dangerous. I know when we went to Colombia, we had friends and family worried sick, which turned out to be absolutely ludicrous. The media has blown the danger out of proportion as it’s perfectly safe to travel to most places in Colombia. It actually became our favorite country that we’ve ever been to–perfectly safe with the warmest and kindest people we’ve come across.

    But traveling to war torn places like Afghanistan and Pakistan is just stupid, imo. At least at the present time. There is simply no need to put yourself in real danger. Many people may think places are dangerous, but most of the time those people have never been to the place in question. I prefer to talk to people who have actually traveled in certain places before making my decision of whether or not it’s too dangerous to travel there.

    The Middle East is next on our list of regions we want to go to, and it will most likely be the center of our next big trip. You can be sure we will be doing tons of research to find out what’s safe and what’s not. And we want to go there to see what’s there and to experience the beauty we’ve heard and read about, not to collect “heady” passport stamps. Although I have no doubt many travelers do this. They’re the same ones who won’t shut up about having been to “x” number of countries while only spending $10 a day. They’re really cool, too cool for me, so I just try not to talk to those types. ;)

    Good post, it’s an interesting thing to think about.

  6. While some countries do have an indiscriminate level of danger largely due to warfare or disreputable governments, most of the danger in travel is due to an individual’s intentions and actions rather than simply geographical location.

    I have this argument with my wife from time to time. Some people just can’t understand why you would ever choose to travel to a place that is considered dangerous by the media. My response to the media is a cynical analysis of ulterior motives.

  7. Is it smart to travel to dangerous places? It’s a terrific question – what defines dangerous? Or better still, who defines danger?

    Having ignored 3 do not travel warnings and I think high warnings for another 10 countries in the past 4.5 months we’ve seen highs and lows of the dangers of travel like no other through Africa.

    We’ve been bailed up by border guards and out ran immigrations officials in the tale above in Nigeria, beaten bribes and been arrested in Cameroon, been confronted with arms by drunken officers in Mozambique, ventured out into the areas of the Sahara laced with landmines and tip toed on the edges of areas allegedly home to Al-Qaeda hideouts amongst a myriad of other stories.

    The question we pose is what makes a place dangerous? Is it what you see on TV or read in a newspaper or is it from speaking with locals and backpackers who have been?

    We’ve had interviews with various outlets and the first Question they always ask is ‘what troubles have you had’. One interview didn’t even ask for a highlight, rather choosing to follow up one negative incident on one day as opposed to countless highlights on the other 110 days.

    Negative news sells we guess and the way we see things from the ground here in Africa, it’s the media who defines danger.

    We travelled to these places to break down barriers and misconceptions, in particular about travel in West Africa. Although we’d heard horrific things, on the whole we felt safer on the streets of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina and Ghana than we would in LA, Sydney, Amsterdam or London. I’ve never been robbed in any of the African nations we’ve been two as I type from number 20, Kenya, but I’ve been taken for all I had in Berlin, Australia, Amsterdam, Thailand and Mexico.

    70% of people we told us we wouldn’t make it back the other 30% we spoke to before departure said we’d have the time of our lives. The 30% were right.

    For us, if we didn’t travel to these ‘dangerous places’ we’d have always been left wondering. As it stands, we’d do it all again and we hope from reading our first hand experiences, others will as well.

    Did we do it for the stamps? Maybe we did. Did we do it for the experience? Without doubt – Africa is more amazing than you could ever imagine and you won’t just get a stamp, you’ll get the full page Visa.

  8. I applaud your adventurous spirit and willingness to stretch the boundaries. You are correct – we should travel with safety as a main goal. In the end, you have to go with your gut. I think we need to see it as feeding your soul, not stamping your passport. Where are you drawn? If it’s Iraq, fine. If it’s the Caribbean, fine. Feed your travel soul and be smart about it along the way.

  9. I did slightly push my own comfort level by travelling to the troubled, but beautiful, island of Mindanao in the Philippines last February, at a time when tensions were heightened because of the November 2009 massacre of 57 people (on the same island) and with elections looming in May 2010. In addition my base was to be Pagadian City, where Fr. Sinnott was kidnapped just two months earlier. I also knew my journey would involve bus journeys in areas where the New People’s Army and Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are active. As it happened the only scare I has was when a bus I was on was stopped by armed men in camouflage and mirrored shades and all males ordered off the bus. Fortunately it was a regular army checkpoint. Otherwise the Philippino people are very friendly, hospitable and welcoming. It was a great experience I would have no trouble repeating.

  10. If you don’t get out of your comfort zone, what’s the point of travel? If you stay in your comfort zone, you never learn anything… But I agree with others that traveling is truly dangerous places like war zones is irresponsible – others end up risking their lives to save you. And doing something like an Everest climb just to say you’ve been there – even if you’re not truly prepared – can have tragic consequences. Get out of your comfort zone, but don’t put others in danger…

  11. I’m planning on Greece this fall. And while certainly not dangerous in the standard sense, I do get a bit worried about the weekly riots and airplane closures. Kind of looking forward to it anyway.

  12. It’s an interesting debate. One with no right or wrong answer. We recently toured through the Middle East, albeit Egypt, Turkey, Dubai and Jordan, and had a fantastic experience. The ironic thing about visiting foreign lands is that they no longer feel foreign after you’ve visited them (so the question is then shifted towards one’s comfort level/perception of the country/region).
    I remember feeling very nervous about Jordan, thinking that it is too close to all the bombings that appear on the daily news. Similar feelings towards traveling the Sinai Penninsula with mulitple attacks in recent years. Now, having toured the area, I don’t carry the same fears, it’s not this big, scary place anymore. In fact, I felt safer in many parts of the Mid East than I do in many big North American cities!

  13. I think it depends on what is happening in the country. I do not go by the governments recommendations as they tend to be overly cautious. I wouldnt go to an Arab nation who is hostile to Americans and risk getting beheaded.
    But other places like Indonesia and Uganda I do. US says warning to Americans often but usually it is an American hotel that gets bombed or something not taking them hostage etc. So I really try to get lots of info and not just go by State Depts warnings. I contact my friends in those countries and ask THEM what it’s like and lean towards what they say over anything else
    As someone else said the media also hypes up things. I’m so tired of hearing people Ohh I wouldnt go there on TV they said it’s dangerous. I think those of us who travel a lot aren’t swayed by all the fear.

  14. Also we constanly hear on the news especially how people in other countries hate Americans. Even in Indonesia that is mostly Muslim and people wear t-shirts praising Osama bin Laden they say oh you’re American with a big smile and want you to come to dinner and meet family etc.
    I was in Uganda when Nairobi and tanzania were bombed and threats of it in Uganda as well. Explosions on local buses. I was in Venezuela when they had total unrest in the country and were shooting people in the streests once we landed it was the last plane allowed to come in.
    I went to Kenya while we were fighting in somalia. There are always 1 or 2 who comment on your being American in a negative way but over-all people like us.
    I agree that when you travel the place no longer seems ‘foreign’ and scary
    THink how USA sounds to others>?? Daily we hear of kids going missing and women raped and dead and missing, drive-by shootings, 911 bombing and OK City, etc etc. We are used to it

  15. I was in Kenya during the elections in 1992 and hardly any foreigners were there because of civil unrest. People were scared to come. We stayed at a 5 star hotel which included meals right on the beach in Mombassa for $25 a night! We were 5 out of about 100 people staying there. The unrest wasnt directed at outsiders. Yes, you might get caught in the cross-fire but can happen in gang drive by’s here in USA too.
    It would take a LOT for us not to go somewhere.

  16. My husband and I have gone through this discussion endless times on our journey. Many people think we do go to “dangerous” places (like Central Asia), but we’re really quite careful. When we were in Tajikistan, we were so close to Afghanistan and it was so tempting to get a visa in Khorog and go across the border. But, after talking with acquaintances who had worked in Afghanistan, everyone seemed to say “another time is better.” Same goes for our desire to go to Pakistan just after that. If you consciously decide to travel in high risk countries, it’s not just the pain you might cause yourself, but also the pain to your family. And, precious resources are diverted to get you out of the situation if it’s possible.

  17. I travelled to Israel last October, and I cannot say that I felt in any kind of danger at any moment. If there ever was a country where security is so tight that you feel like your every move is monitored, it’s Israel – or rather, the parts controlled by Israel. Granted, I was part of a group and it was a pilgrimage, which meant additional safety in numbers, but my partner and I went off by ourselves to explore Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Tiberias, and did not feel in any way threatened either on Israeli or on Palestinian territories. The same holds true for Turkey and Jordan. If you can behave respectfully and normally in any culture, you will not get into trouble. Quite the contrary, you will be shown hospitality and genuine kindness to a degree that can never be matched in the West.
    So yes, Western government propaganda is to be taken with a pinch of salt.
    Of course, Gaza, or Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Iraq, is a different story. Here we’re talking of actual war zones and actual security issues. But I don’t see why any traveller who is fully aware of the danger and willing to risk it should be deterred from going to any of those places. Hey, if you can accept it, I say go for it.
    For me, part of the allure of travel is the element of the unknown, the unexpected, the impossibility of making predictions or counting on something as sure to happen/be. Travel is not for control freaks, or for people who expect to meet trouble round every corner.

  18. I think deeming a place “dangerous” depends upon the person. For example, I told my Dad I was going to Spain for a week in August and his response, “Is that safe?”. Here I spend most of my time in Italy and apparently Spain is sketchy. I agree with Keith’s comment. It is usually the individual causing trouble by going into Iran just for the sake of saying it, not the other way around. Looking forward to hearing about your time in Israel.

  19. Thank you everyone for these great comments. I agree with the majority opinion – that it really is a matter of perspective and personal comfort. I have no problem at all with people who may feel trepidation at traveling to certain places and I would never want to ‘push’ someone to go where they won’t be comfortable. I think over time, our travel boundaries are knocked down one by one. It’s all a part of the process.

  20. I went to Thailand during all the protests, despite the US State Department travel warnings and had no trouble. I was in Chiang Mai, rather than the more tense Bangkok, but I honestly was never once worried. It’s probably quite different than the Middle East, though, so I would listen to the more traveled commenters here.

  21. I’ve definitely traveled outside my comfort zone, but I’m always up for the challenge. I thrive on it. When I was in Colombia, the people always joked with me about how “dangerous” Colombia was and how the people wanted to “kidnap” me all the time. With every Colombian I met who knew I was an American brought up how badly Colombia looks in the media and how far it is from the truth.

    As long as your street smart and savvy, dangerous countries aren’t all that bad. However, I knew several travelers who weren’t that street smart and constantly got ripped off and robbed in developing countries.

  22. It is indeed an interesting discussion which seems to be a pattern among couples as well. I too had the same discussion with my partner because I’m the one always doing the “adrenaline” stuff. I go rafting, sky diving, well, things like that. The funny part is that his passion is the mountain and he climbs a lot (which involves some degree of risks as well) but he is not tempted by scuba diving because he doesn’t feel confortable about risks that he might not control. On the mountain he feels in control and he’s always very careful with his equipment. On the other side, I feel very comfortable with extreme sports, water or animals so for me these are not really risks. Warnings about a certain degree of risk about a certain country would not really stop me if I really wanted to travel there. I was not stopped to go to Mexico even when I was warned that some of the areas were not entirely safe. And, actually we were quite safe. But a state of war or would definitely stop me. Going to a possible war zone is reckless in my opinion and pointless because not only to place yourself in danger but you might not fulfil the purpose of your travel.

  23. Today, all places in our crazy world are more or less dangerous. Even rich and successful countries can not boast of perfect safety (look at Norway in summer 2011). The main thing for traveler safety is good preparation for travel. For that traveler shoud learn travel places dangers before travel and create list of possible dangers that may affect him (her) during travel. Thereafter traveler can prepare for travel on the base of above mentioned dangers list (to equip relevant clothes, first aid kit, individual protection means etc). Be prepared and enjoy your travel!

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