You can never cross the ocean until you have the courage to lose sight of the shore. —Christopher Columbus
When I tell people about my travels to every country in the world, the response I often get is, “But that’s very dangerous! Did you really go to Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Central African Republic, and similar countries?” The answer, inevitably, is yes. I have been to them all. Actually, those that elicit fear were some of my most memorable journeys — so much so that they ended up in several chapters in my book. Still, the concern is a valid one. So, how do you deal with the risks of travel?
For me, travel and adventure are almost synonymous. Travel is stepping into the unknown, into a new country or place you haven’t been to before, and meeting people you don’t know. It is about taking a chance and stepping out of your comfort zone. It is almost guaranteed that this will bring you new adventures. This is what makes travel such an enriching experience.
By definition, every adventure has a certain amount of risk. I believe, with rare exceptions, risk-less travel simply doesn’t exist, no matter where you go. The only thing you can (and should) try to do, is to reduce those risks as much as possible.
When I travel, I want to enjoy new experiences, I want to learn about the world, and I want to understand people who live in completely different situations than my own. This extends to places that are considered unsafe, but after all, people live there, too. The most important thing to note is that the situation on the ground is often (very) different from what you might expect based on the reputation a place has, or media reports. Instead of bullets, more often than not I have been greeted by smiles and open arms in countries that were at conflict or where I was not supposed to go at all.
For starters, it is crucial to get reliable information before you leave. Nowadays, there are many different ways to get up-to-date information about virtually anywhere on the planet. There are travel communities whose members are so active that there’s almost always someone who has been to any given country in recent days. On the internet, you can find generic travel information. Keep in mind that travel advisories are always very cautious, and understandably so. You might want to check your travel insurance to see if you are still covered in case something happens in a country that your government advises not to go to. If needed and wanted, you can find specialized travel insurance companies that include those “red zone” places.
It is vital to time your travel properly, to always stay alert once you arrive, and to act when necessary. Have the flexibility to change your plans in case the situation changes. Connect with people, connect with authorities that you deem are reliable, and you will find that, by far, most of them will do what they can for you to be safe. On top of that, listen to your intuition without being paranoid and without looking for confirmation of your stereotypes. Your intuition often tells you whether to trust a person or situation. Common sense is another great guide.
I will give you an example to make my point. While traveling by train in Europe in my early twenties, I overheard a few young Americans. They were all excited, as it was their first visit to the Old Continent. They were discussing the places to see in Europe: Italy, Spain, and Greece were high on their list. Then, they talked about the places to avoid, and to my surprise, they agreed that Amsterdam was the most dangerous place in Europe, based on stories they heard. Back then, I was living in Amsterdam, and while it had its share of petty crime, I simply could not believe my ears. It made me realize that whatever others tell you, whatever reputation a place has, does not necessarily correspond with reality on the ground.
Another important thing to note here is to arrive with a humble attitude. Never forget you are the guest anywhere you travel. You should observe local traditions and respect dos and don’ts, even if you don’t approve of them. I can’t emphasize enough: Leave your stereotypes at home, and have an open mind when you set out to explore. Be surprised. Be ready to listen and to learn. Be open. Be friendly. Be sympathetic toward the people in the country you’re visiting. Before you know it, you will be making friends and sharing thoughts with people who likely will be very different from what you had expected, and who will want to make sure you are safe.
The last thing to do is to share your experiences with your friends and family after you come home. Slowly but surely, this will eventually help to adjust the reputation of the place you have just visited, and in time, make the fear factor for future travelers just a little lower.
Whatever you end up doing, I believe it is important to accept fate. The same, in fact, applies to life itself. You will undoubtedly encounter unexpected situations which are out of your control. This is exactly where travel becomes interesting and where it offers all kinds of things you never imagined before leaving home. These will probably be the stories you will tell your friends when you return, and that might stay with you for the rest of your life. They surely did with me.
Written by: By Boris Kester
Boris Kester is an author, fearless adventurer, senior purser, polyglot, avid sportsman, programmer, and political scientist. He is one of about 250 people worldwide to have travelled to every country in the world. According to the authoritative travel site nomadmania.com, Boris ranks among the best traveled people on the planet. He is the author of The Long Road to Cullaville: Stories from my travels to every country in the World. He shares his travel photos and stories on traveladventures.org. Learn more at boriskester.com.