I have never thought much about safety while traveling.
This may seem odd, but let me explain. Most of my travel early on was to Europe, which generally doesn’t raise many eyebrows – or travel warnings. I traveled with groups not because I feared for my safety, but because I was nervous about figuring out logistics and I wanted to meet new people. My first non-European country (aside from Australia) was Egypt in 2007. Again, I traveled with a group, but also spent a few days on my own. My worries revolved around the language and not being able to communicate, not so much whether Egypt might be a dangerous place to visit. But times change, and today Egypt would give me more pause.
More than anything, safety was not a major concern during my 13-month career break through the former Soviet Union. Sure, some of the countries I visited had internal conflicts in recent years (i.e., Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), but nothing was ongoing and none were known to have particularly high rates of crimes. So I didn’t worry. I took ordinary precautions throughout my trip that I would take in Chicago – not walking on dark streets late at night, keeping an eye on my belongings and putting my guard up ever so slightly when talking with strangers. These are things I do as a matter of routine at home, so I don’t think about them while on the road.
And in the past, I never reconsidered travel plans due to safety concerns.
In the last year, however, I have changed my tentative travel plans on a couple occasions because I didn’t feel safe. The first was a proposed trip to Yemen last Christmas and New Year’s. Two other bloggers had recently been and were leading a tour back to visit Socotra Island. I was incredibly intrigued and their posts convinced me it would be ok. But then the United States stepped up drone attacks on Al Qaeda targets in Yemen and I quickly changed my mind. I realized I very likely would be a target traveling in Yemen and despite how amazingly cool the trip might be, it wasn’t worth the risk for me.
Last winter, I started making plans to return to Russia this fall. I reached out to tour companies about trips around the Kamchatka Peninsula and I tentatively thought I would spend a few days in Moscow as well. Then Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and my mindset changed. Was Russia suddenly more dangerous for travelers in general? Absolutely not. Indeed, despite the politics, I think it is an incredible country and I would still encourage people to go. But now is not the time for me to go back. I have spoken out on this site about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and have done so even more on social media, including getting into a heated argument with my former homestay host in Moscow on Twitter. While it would be presumptuous of me to think that the Russian government would care enough about a minor blogger like me to detain me, I don’t really want to take the chance. I probably overreacted in cancelling my plans, but that’s ok. I did what felt right to me.
Most recently, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been all over the news. Even though I have plans to visit Mali and Burkina Faso in late November, I didn’t really think too much of Ebola being a risk until a man died last week after flying from Liberia to Nigeria via Ghana and Togo. Then two American aid workers in Liberia caught the virus. Suddenly, headlines were screaming about how bad the outbreak was and how there were no signs of it slowing. Airports started upping their screening efforts and countries in West Africa doubled down on their efforts to stop the spread of Ebola. Warnings were issued against traveled to the affected countries, but not to any neighboring countries. My mind started racing and I had awful visions of being stuck on a flight with some guy who unknowingly has Ebola suddenly gets sick and pukes all over me. While I was previously mildly concerned about the security situation in Mali (travel to the northern part of the country is still not advised and I have no plans to go there), I am now questioning whether it still makes sense to go at all.
I haven’t yet booked my flights to Mali, so I could easily call it off. Actually, the flights had been booked and then Turkish Airlines cancelled one leg, which led to me getting a full refund. A few people have told me I should take this as a sign that I shouldn’t go after all.
But I am not deciding anything yet – I don’t need to book my flights, get vaccinations and apply for visas until mid-September. The question then will be, what do I need to feel comfortable going? I’ve been in touch with Phil Paoletta, another blogger based in the region, and he told me this:
“It’s also important to consider that the majority of sick are : people who ate this bat soup that originally started the outbreak, those who came in contact with the sick – family etc, health workers and people preparing bodies for burial. It’s unlikely that you will come in contact with someone’s bodily fluids while they are having symptoms unless you are in one of those former categories. It’s all very terrible, though, and it’s a shame, because it really should not have gotten to where it is now.”
I have also reached out to my contact at buildOn (with whom Passports with Purpose partnered to build schools in southern Mali – my whole reason for going in the first place) to see how they are addressing the situation. If they were stopping their staff from travel in either country, I would probably cancel the trip, but if they are comfortable going there, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be.
In the end, everyone’s risk threshold is different. What one person is comfortable with, another may not be. The best you can do is do your research, review the travel warnings out there and try to talk to people on the ground – and then make the decision that is best for you. That’s exactly what I’ll be doing come September when I decide whether or not my trip to Mali and Burkina Faso is still a go or not. Stay tuned…
What do you think about when deciding whether or not it is safe to travel somewhere?