The Perils of Travel: Weighing in the Balance

Pitfalls abound in the world of travel: Illness, injury, political instability, robbery, perilous roads and unfit vehicles. Yet I’m not really a fearful traveler. So far nothing serious has happened to me (knock on wood!) but I’ve had some close calls:

  • The worst is probably the time the young child tried to pilfer my $20 Casio watch at the Lima, Peru central station immediately after I drowsily stepped off an all-night bus.
  • Or the time I was involved in a slow-motion, multi-car accident on a switchback mountain road in the Venezuelan Andes.
  • Or the time I miraculously piloted a scooter many kilometers on the wrong side of a winding road in Bermuda — at night.
  • Or the time our octogenarian taxi driver in Morocco fell asleep while careening down the highway from the Atlas Mountains.
  • Or the time we were sideswiped on a motorcycle by a licenceless, prepubescent driver, mere miles from where Che Guevara met his fate in Bolivia.

I’ve survived so far despite civil unrest in Argentina. Scams in the Maghreb. Trading with the enemy in Havana. Attempted muggings in Madrid and Lisbon. Economic collapse in Ireland. A volcanic eruption in Nicaragua. A ferry accident off Cape Cod. Favelas in Brazil. An earthquake in Colombia. A springtime heatwave in Oslo.

Did I survive because I was invincibly young? Tenacious? Was it simply fate? If anything I was probably just plain lucky. While many things are out of our control, I believe the world is intrinsically safe. Strangers will help. Our bodies are designed to be resilient. It’s why we live so long, on average, despite all the risks and uncertainties that are thrown our way in life.

I lot of it is attitude — people choose to feel threatened. Fear swarms the news and our social media, and it taints our perception of “others”: people from other countries, with different skin colors, religions, languages, attire, foods. Many are angry, afraid, cynical — a negative spiral with heavy gravitational force.

I choose to believe that people are far more alike than we are different. Despite our wide external differences, we all crave the same things in life: safety, nourishment, health, economic opportunity and joy. And our innate impulse is to help — not hurt — each other.

Active compassion, curiosity and openness brings good things to us, especially on the roads of travel: serendipitous encounters, sharing and exchange, and surprisingly simple joys. It is far easier to elicit a smile and a wave from a stranger than a frown or scorn. I believe this — firmly — based on my experiences. The inherent goodness of humanity is abundant and within reach — only if you are open to it.

Yet risks are real. Travelers die every year from accidents, disease, assault. Tapeworms particularly frighten me. So does imprisonment — especially in a developing country. Fortunately, most risks can be mitigated or avoided through careful planning and awareness.

In an absorbing podcast about a scientific expedition to the depths of Krúbera Voronya, the second-deepest cave on Earth, the entire team of speleologists nearly drowned in flash floods due to torrential rains. Yet all the scientists interviewed afterwards spoke only of the fascinating geology and ecosystem, and the supreme skill and steely nerves of the entire team in facing such adversity. Their preparedness — and a dose of luck — tipped the balance between life and death.

Curious about this cave, I looked up the country where it’s located: the Republic of Abkhazia, a “partially recognized” state that broke away from Georgia in the early 1990’s after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. While it sounds generally safe to travel, there are some considerable drawbacks: limited border crossings, conflict in the eastern region, no consular representation (in case of lost/stolen passport), non-existent travel insurance. And crime: I read at least a couple of accounts where backpackers were aggressively robbed in the southern region.

My travel adventures over the years certainly came with known risks. The night bus ride in northern Brazil from Belém to São Luis, known for its midnight banditry. I weighed the options, did my research (which suggested these were past incidents and unlikely at that time), asked some locals who mostly shrugged off the threat. And of course the trip was uneventful and led me to the marvelous Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, a hands-down highlight of Brazil.

In 1999, Erik and I survived an all-night bus from Lima to Arequipa in Peru, winding precariously and perilously along a ragged mountainous coast road with rugged switchbacks. Local workers would build fires at dangerous curves to alert drivers, and Erik fretted the whole way, wondering if one worker didn’t show up that night, sending our bus careening 1,000 from the cliffs to the crashing sea below.

The next day, while enjoying the eternal springtime air and fine views of the Andes from our hostel roof deck, a nerve-racked Erik recounted the harrowing journey. He understands why some people “find Jesus” for protection during times of trouble. I, on the other hand, faced the menaces by downing a couple shots of alcohol, popping on my eye mask and promptly falling asleep for most of the ride. Having been through a good number of South American bus journeys by that time, I had calculated that when it’s “my time” best that I go unknowingly and swiftly.

I’ve been thinking about travel risks more as I sit homebound during the pandemic. There’s perhaps more concern since I’m out of practice. It’s been well over a year since I’ve used my passport, and even packing for Palm Springs was a challenge. I know once I get my first trip underway it will all click into place and my worries will dissipate.

A major travel ambition of mine is to travel the “Cape to Cairo” route that traverses the length of west Africa. It’ll be one the first long adventures I’ll prioritize in retirement. But I also hesitate — the crime and poverty, the political instability, the logistical hurdles. I think: what are the chances I’ll get robbed or assaulted? Seriously injured or sick? Or die? In adulthood I’ve built up a healthy nest egg and enjoy many comforts as I head towards my golden years. So a voice within me asks: Why risk all that?

Because with risks come reward. The road less travelled often bears the most fruit: the richest experiences, the greatest surprises, and the most learning. Yes, I have fears of travel and always will — but over the years and with experience they have diminished. I’ll always be uneasy about certain things, but life is all about calculated risks.

I’m 51.3 years old now. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 77.8 years (down one full year from 78.8 — thank you COVID!). I’m satisfied with my accomplishments and am content with the life I’ve lived thus far. So if I were to die today, while tragic, I’d have no regrets.

So I’ll make the best of my remaining years and get back out into the world to seek happiness and adventure. Yet as I throw fate to the wind, I’ll always be careful about being carefree.

How complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is. — Kurt Vonnegut

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