This is about fear and awareness and how recognizing a distinction between the two can improve your travels…and your life.
At the extremes, we have two choices in life: a) sit back and be afraid of absolutely everything and never leave the couch, or b) proceed recklessly and lean blindly into situations that will likely harm us.
Or, there’s a third way. In this way we can inform fear, build courage, find awareness and open ourselves to notable experiences.
But first, a little about that awful map that’s been circulating recently.
Update, November 2015: Although this article was written before the State Department Worldwide Travel Alert issued on November, 23 2015, the framework below of looking at fear vs. awareness and how to make informed decisions during uncertain times still is ever relevant.
The Danger Map of the World: Really?
If we didn’t know better, we might take a look at this map and decide to never leave the house. Or at least, never to venture outside of Europe, Australia, Botswana, the United States and New Zealand. Fine destinations indeed, but what a globe of missed travel opportunities. You mean to tell us that we should have never visited Bolivia, Iran, or Myanmar?
We've traveled to plenty of places under the cloud of travel warnings (published by various institutions, so we’re not singling out any one governmental agency or international body) and found an on-the-ground reality that ranges from nuanced at best to a complete refutation of the principle of those color-coded travel warnings at worst.
The problem with these sorts of maps is that they are perfect media for our times: they are infographic, they are reductive and they can be slapped with a little bit of link- and title-bait to draw a nice argument. But informative? Hardly. Real information does not come in the form of color codes, and rarely can it be comprehended in the blink of an eye.
Poking around this latest map, we noticed the vast majority of countries we’ve visited the last six years are troubling shades of yellow, orange, blue and even red. Have we really been living and traveling on danger’s edge all these years? We wish we could say yes so we could write a book about how courageous we are and how we dodged bullets and kidnappers all along the way. Challenges, for sure. But alas.
Instead, we meet people, we face the ogre of hospitality and invitations into people’s homes for tea and food. Even in places with a bright red, “Avoid all travel” label like Iran. We didn’t venture into these countries blindly. We made informed decisions based on multiple sources, then mustered a little bit of courage to go and find out for ourselves.
The upshot? Consider stepping back from the government travel warnings, take them with a pinch of salt, then do a little bit of research that puts you in touch directly with someone who can provide firsthand time-relevant impressions – all with the goal of reducing your degrees of separation from the on-the-ground reality.
But before we dole out tips on how to easily do that, a break to chat about psychology.
Fear vs. Awareness
First a working definition of fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.
Are we humans naturally primed for fear? Our human macro-history roughly tells a story of continued attempted survival and struggle – avoiding dangerous animals, warring groups, physical harm. All joking aside, cultural evolution has essentially brought us to a place where we’re no longer regularly stalked by wild animals; where although sadly many on the planet are malnourished, the pervasive fear of going hungry does not plague each and every one of us; and where the near-constant threats of illness and physical harm are no longer the norm they once were.
So our visceral fear, it’s a vestige. But now we have to do something with it. In the absence of daily threats, we manufacture things to fear. Fear like water, it will find a way. Fear is so natural, it’s comfortable. Think about it. Fear requires little of us. Nowadays, we can sit back, consume someone else’s story or impression, be frightened and simply project our second-hand anxiety.
And when we do this — when we fear — we place limits and constraints on ourselves.
A show of hands please for the joy of limiting and constraining oneself.
OK, OK. Dan and Audrey, enough of the cheerleading. Sometimes our fears are substantiated.
Agreed. Let’s go there.
How is awareness different from fear?
Now a working definition of awareness: having knowledge; cognizant; informed of current developments.
In contrast to fear, awareness requires something more of us. Awareness requires effort – to step through the data barrage from multiple sources, turn it into information, synthesize it so that we begin to understand after consuming it all with a critical eye. And in doing so, perhaps we can seek out our own experiences in order to develop our own impressions.
And when we're all done, maybe the fear remains, maybe it doesn’t. At the very least, it’s now better informed – and from there, we can make a deliberate decision instead of accepting someone else’s information as proxy.
Trust us, we’re definitely not immune from fear. Before we began this journey, Audrey worked in a news agency covering Central Asia. All the news from the region painted a grim picture of corruption, political strife, and human rights violations. In fact, Audrey was hesitant to travel to some destinations (e.g., Turkmenistan) fearing that we’d be harassed and clawing our way out of a prison by the end.
Colleagues from the region (and living locally) assured us that the situation on the ground was different. Travelers on bulletin boards and forums reinforced this. We trusted our research and decided to go and see for ourselves. To this day, our travels in Central Asia remain some of our most resonant memories.
Look, we’re not advocating taking a trip to Syria at the moment. Outside the absolutely war-ravaged and pirate infested, there’s truly a great deal of engaging open space to investigate in this world.
Informed Travel Decisions 101
OK, Dan and Audrey, I get that those maps don’t tell the whole story. I buy, perhaps reluctantly that fear and awareness are different. How do I proceed? How do I, the average ordinary traveler, go deep in my research and make local contacts without devoting a lifetime?
1. Look around you and ask.
Especially if you live in a diverse city (more and more places qualify by the day), there is likely someone in your personal or work circle who knows someone from the country you are considering visiting or someone who has been there recently. You could always pose the question first on your Facebook page and go from there. You might be surprised by who comes out of the woodwork if you just ask. And don’t give up after the first inquiry yields silence. This happens sometimes.
2. Contact a blogger.
Do a search and find a blog post or two about the country/region in question and send the blogger a quick email with your concerns or questions. Even better, find a local or expat blogger with lots of recent experience there. We get loads of emails on all sorts of topics and we are always happy to respond to people who have safety or travel concerns. We know how reassuring it is to talk with someone who has been there and how that perspective goes a long way to assuaging fears and informing decisions.
3. Find locals or expats on Twitter.
Go to Twitter and do a search for a specific city or location under the people search. You’ll likely get a long list of people living there. See who perhaps has a blog or who is actively tweeting about that place and send them a quick note publicly via Twitter (you’ll have to set up an account if you don’t already have one) asking about safety or other issues. Avoid travel or tour companies at first, as they clearly have an economic incentive in your visit. Here’s the bonus when you go personal: you’ll likely get good local insider information for when you do go, and you might even gain a new friend.
4. Ask in forums.
Post a question to an online forum asking for advice on whether a destination is safe or if there are certain areas to avoid as a visitor. In addition to travel forums (e.g., Lonely Planet Thorntree, BootsnAll), many cities have expat forums where English and other foreign languages are understood.
5. Check other government travel warnings.
We know we've been bashing government travel warnings, but sometimes it's reassuring to get a second (or third) opinion. If you're from the United States, consider checking out the UK or Australian government travel warnings. Be sure to check the date when the last warning was posted to be certain that it's still current.
6. Ask about areas to avoid.
While the majority of a country might be safe for travelers, there may still be certain areas that are best avoided because of environmental disasters or violence. This does not mean, however, that the entire country should be avoided. Mexico is a perfect example of how a few areas addled with drugs and violence manage to tarnish the reputation of the whole country in the eyes of many. Our long walks across the town of Oaxaca well after midnight serve as proof that the entire country of Mexico is not under siege.
We Can Do Better: Travel
As we travel, people ask what we’ve learned. Everything above is part of it, but beyond that, we’ve learned that we can simply do better. Fear, color codes, news reports. A shift in any can move travel plans of masses in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes, these bits are spot on. Unfortunately, they can also be misinformed, lazy, and incomplete. These ultimately rob us of perspective, opportunity and experience. Everyone loses, travelers and host country nationals included.
We Can Do Better: Life
Whenever there's a lesson in travel, there's a lesson in life.
Let’s face it — fear sucks. It has a place, however limited, to prevent us from running off the cliff like lemmings. But it’s not a place from which good things like joy or confidence flow freely.
How to beat it? Aim to be informed and understand that the process of doing so requires a little effort. (After all, what in life that’s worth it doesn’t require some work?)
You’ll be surprised by the overwhelmingly positive unintended consequences of your effort. The conversations and connections alone will shift your thinking. And when you decide to act, you’ll find that informed experiential travel is one of the best ways to combat fear. But that means you have to get in it, amongst it, and occasionally press the edges of your apprehension first.
Don’t allow others to simply tell you about the way the world is when they haven't been there. Demand better information. Go and find out for yourself. And when you do, come back and tell us all about what you've experienced. Keep the cycle going, keep the pump primed.
You will find all that was once unknown silently undergoing a transformation from ‘other’ and frightening to ‘us’ and simply human.
And over time, you’ll be amazed by the results. We guarantee it.