About a year or so ago a friend of mine who teaches in the Bronx wanted to organize a school trip to Europe. Her idea was vague, but she imagined something like ten days in London, Paris, and Rome. Her principal was a little nervous but agreed that it would be a good experience for the often- sheltered Bronx students, some of whom have never even ventured into Manhattan. She e-mailed the superintendent and received a very perfunctory response: “Do you think that’s a good idea with everything that is going on over there?” She was referring, to some recent terrorist violence across Europe, but the answer was clear, no one was going anywhere.
The irony of the situation, though, couldn’t have been stronger. During that same school year a boy in a Bronx school stabbed a classmate to death. Towards the end of that same school year another Bronx boy was killed by a gang in a case of mistaken identity. And of course, Florida experienced the deadliest school shooting in America when a gunman killed seventeen people in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. To say, then, that American students are safer in their schools than they would be at, say, the Louvre, is far from the truth.
But that is exactly the issue when it comes to Americans and travel. Many of us Americans think of our country as being extremely safe, while every other country as being a warzone, all while ignoring the hard fact that America is also a dangerous place to live. America, after all, experiences far more gun deaths than any country in Europe. In order to be more open minded about travelling to other countries, then, we need to reflect on our own. Some may find it shocking, for instance, that four American cities — Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, and St. Louis — routinely make it on USA Today’s list of “The Most Dangerous Cities in the World,” making them all more dangerous that Cucuta, Colombia. But when I suggest Colombia as a destination for some people, they avidly say no fearing violence and death.
This is what I try to point out to my friends and family when they express concern over my next travel destination. When I told my coworkers that I was travelling to Nepal one year, I soon found a photocopied article about political unrest in Nepal in my mailbox. Another year I travelled to Malawi and Zambia. It was the same summer that Ebola was spreading through parts of West Africa and everyone warned me against going for fear of contracting the disease. As I now point out, however, the distance from Guinea, where Ebola was believed to have begun spreading, to Malawi is about 5,500 kilometers. By comparison, the distance from New York to Recife, Brazil, where Zika is believed to have originated, is only about 4,100 kilometers. For the same trip, people also warned me about violence in countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was quick to inform them that Africa is, in fact, not a country, but a continent made up of fifty-four countries, each with its own laws, policies, and order. One country can be safe, while another can be dangerous, despite the fact that they’re all in Africa.
I’ve been in a few countries that were experiencing major violence while I was there, and while the threat of danger was real, it was clear that it seemed a lot worse from a distance, from home in the US than it really was. The day I left for Sri Lanka in 2006 was also the day that tensions re-arose there for the first time in a quarter century. While I was there a suicide bomber killed Maj. Gen. Parami Kulatunga. Having read the news at home, my family called in a panic to make sure I was okay. I was fine, I never felt unsafe, and I never saw any violence. But as that was all they had heard about Sri Lanka on the news, it seemed like the entire country had picked up arms and was fighting.
These misunderstandings, due to ignorance of the foreign country and of distances that separate them, don’t all go one way. In 2003, when a fire killed 100 people in a music venue in Warwick, Rhode Island, my friend’s family called from Greece to make sure that he was okay. They called because they knew he liked to go to concerts. Sweet though the sentiment was, it seemed funny to us since we lived in New York City, about a three-hour drive from Warwick. But from across the Atlantic, things seemed a lot worse.
Of course, some dangers are real, not every country is so tourist friendly, and unfortunate incidents do happen, occasionally to tourists. While I was on my honeymoon in Thailand ten tourists were injured from eleven bombings. By the same token, we know that there were tourists visiting the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001 and Las Vegas when a gunman killed 58 people and injured over 400.
Among the most specious—and dare I say, humorous– warnings I get is that I should be careful when I travel because, as an American, my “ransom value” is higher than most other nationalities and people in other countries may want to kidnap me; as if Americans were the sable pelts of the tourist world. While it is true that some American businessmen and women have been kidnapped in some volatile parts of the world, it is unlikely that I, in my flip flops and tank top, scream “million-dollar ransom.” If anything, it is my phone or camera that people may want, not me. No matter where you live or travel, it is best to exercise some common-sense in life: if you are going to be wandering unfamiliar streets, whether that be in New York City or in Lima, Peru, perhaps it is best to leave the fine jewelry at home.
The superintendent that stopped any hopes of a trans-Atlantic field trip was only doing her best to protect her students, and of course that is to be commended. But while many Americans shy away from “everything that’s going on” abroad, perhaps we should stop and think of everything that’s going on here. The risk in travelling abroad to most tourist destinations is about comparable to the risk of staying home, while the reward is far greater.