If you tell people you are going on a Caribbean cruise or renting a cottage in Quebec or spending two weeks in Provence, they don’t get too freaked out. Sure they’re jealous as hell but they don’t fear for your safety. Tell people you are heading to India/Vietnam/Macedonia or that you plan to trek/raft/bike and be prepared for a lot of incredulity, ignorance and fear mongering.
The incredulity is usually because the listener feels that they themselves don’t have the ability to pull this off. “That’s amazing. Good for you. I could never do that. I’m not a good planner. I would have to go with a tour.” That kind of thing.
Or else the person is incredulous because why would you leave a cozy first world existence to be uncomfortable and miserable elsewhere? Why would you trade luxury for the exact opposite of luxury?
I accept that many people have no desire to travel. I also accept that for many people, the desire to travel is entwined with the concept of taking a break from a hard daily life to surround oneself in decadence and pampering.
For those who do aspire to some form of adventurous independent travel but feel it is out of their league, I would say, “You almost certainly have it in you and you will surprise yourself with how quickly you get the hang of things.” It is often fear that stops you. You fear that you will find the whole thing horrible and then be stuck until the return flight finally comes up. You fear you will spend a whack of money and regret it. And you really fear that you will put yourself in danger because you are inexperienced. A successful independent traveller does do research and picks a journey based partly on risk tolerance. But the safety threat imagined by the newby traveller is generally blown out of proportion.
With respect to comfort, IMHO, North Americans have a false perception of comfort. I believe this because of the countless normal, decadent, luxury-loving, high-income people I have met over the years who have found themselves, for whatever reason, living very simply for a period of time and find it to be a positive, life altering experience. Think of the whole movement to simplify life. I like comfort as much as the next guy but the North American consumer cycle that is required to feed that comfort comes at a cost. People with hectic lives and busy jobs soothe their souls with high end treats and jaunts to New York.
It is hard to step back and see that the high end treats become addictive. Lives get busier and busier to feed a habit that one now can’t imagine giving up. People are convinced they would be miserable giving up $300 haircuts (with foil highlights!), magazine subscriptions (a simple pleasure after all), and their kids’ exorbitant hockey leagues (can’t make the kids suffer for the parents’ desire to scale back). Change is scary – it’s as simple as that. Someone on the outside can objectively say that the positive will so outweigh the negative but for the person actually facing the change, the experience is pretty terrifying. I may not be the best advocate for simple living since my target audience probably already considers me a wing-nut but hey, I’m doing my best here.
On to ignorance. When people ask me crazy questions because they are clueless, I am happy to answer whatever they want to know and to give them geography, history, language, cooking, health, homeschooling information. They are genuinely curious and ignorant. That’s me with Facebook, cell phones, chess, Canadian football, politics and a whole bunch of other stuff. We can’t be experts or even conversant in everything! Part of being a homeschooler is being a life-long learner and teacher. There are no dumb questions.
Nobody wants a lecture so I just keep quiet until someone asks me something. That’s the theory anyways. I am a safety-minded person with a young family and I believe it is feasible, enjoyable and safe to travel off the beaten path. People tend to focus on the poverty and misery that we must have encountered on our trip. Sadly, they don’t realize that North Americans are so isolated and disconnected that many people from other places actually feel sorry for us. Travelling to other cultures, you see how much people are rooted in their families, friends and neighbourhoods. Poverty does not equal misery and wealth does not equal happiness. In my experience, wealth and education equate more with opportunity than with happiness.
That just leaves fear mongering. Some fear mongering is unintentional. It comes from people you respect when they shyly ask, “What about the unrest in Thailand? Are you nervous about that?” The worst is when a friend asks you about something you haven’t heard about. Yikes! What else don’t you know? Maybe you are putting your whole family in danger? This is actually not fear mongering but genuine concern from loved ones. I try to use this as a sounding board to decide which risks I am willing to take.
It reminds me of the time when Paris was nine and didn’t know how to spell her last name because we had never covered that in “school”. Holy Toledo!! SWMBO had a heart attack that she was jeopardizing the education of five human beings without even knowing it!
Unfortunately, there is a percentage of the population that will purposely try to sabotage your plans with honest to goodness fear mongering. When we moved to Montenegro (former Yugoslavia), my mother-in-law’s neighbour went on and on about unexploded land mines (we were going with four young children) until I was beside myself with angst. And by the way, there are no land mines in Montenegro. I am convinced that these people hate their lives and rather than fix their problems, they prefer to make everyone else feel as miserable and trapped as they do.
I try to pick my destinations and activities so that they are interesting and adventurous and yet safe, whatever safe means. For the most part, I avoid big tourist attractions because I don’t like crowds or expensive sights, and I think they are obvious targets for terrorism. I am very cautious with the activities we undertake when travelling and the whole family is aware that safety standards in other parts of the world are often not up to my expectations, in particular with regards to fire hazards.
I have always tried to explain to people that I do not believe that the type of travelling we do is any more dangerous than just staying home in our safe, little city. Sadly, that was proven true on Wednesday when a deranged man walked up to a sentry at the War Memorial in Ottawa and shot him dead at close range. The gunman then walked into Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament Buildings and fired multiple shots before being killed. The downtown core was in lockdown for most of the day and Ottawans were all in shock that this would happen here.
Certain regions in the world are more volatile than others. That is a fact. But the idea that some places are safe and others aren’t is a myth that people perpetuate to make themselves feel better. The events of the past years have shown that terrorism can and will happen anywhere. After the Boston bombings, my yoga teacher said that the definition of terrorist is “one who terrorizes or frightens others.” Terrorists have come to the realization that an effective way of frightening people is through completely random violent attacks in completely random places all around the world.
The older you get, the more freak natural disasters you are witness to. Again, some places are more volatile than others but there are no “safe” places in this regard. Most confounding of all to me are civil wars or neighbours turning on neighbours. I have tried to visit with and learn from people around the world who have experienced this and my conclusion is that there are again, no “safe” places. It takes dedication, effort and tolerance to ensure that this doesn’t happen but if those around you are intolerant and bent on inciting hate, then people get heated and swept away and lots and lots of people are caught and suffer. It can happen anywhere.
Is independent adventure travel safe? It is as safe as I can make it. One thing is for sure though: travel independently with an open heart and mind and you will be blown away by the kindness of strangers. Guaranteed. It will confuse the hell out of you when you try to reconcile your experience with the horrific stories of evil you see on the news. But in the end, you will hold onto these random acts of kindness like a life raft to buoy you in uncertain times.