Travelling is an opportune possibility to get behind all those gloomy news reports of wars, terror and catastrophes. For that to happen it is necessary not to judge a country or the safety of travelling there on the news.
10.03.2016 - 26.04.2016 23 °C
The itch for exploration is not the only thing that draws me to weird destinations, political instability, armed conflicts or outright war have always interested me in a professional way and much of my studies have evolved around these topics. Travelling gives me a chance to see and experience what I read about. Afghanistan and Iraq have been the most prominent examples, but places like Iran, Sudan, Palestine, and some parts of Guatemala have also landed me some raised eyebrows and harsh comments from friends and family. So will places like Mali, Burkina Faso or maybe just the entire region West Africa.
With all the stories on the news featuring these areas, it is hardly surprising. Who in their right mind would go to Iran, a rogue state persuading nuclear weapons, or Sudan, a country most famous for genocide and civil war? Let alone quagmires such as Afghanistan or Iraq. However, I try not to pay too much attention to ‘the News’ – their innate nature is to be sensational, to blow the slightest incidents out of proportion and to fixate out minds with circles of vicious news that can both horrify us and keep us glued to the screen.
At least, the terrible events regularly featured on the news would not put me off from contemplating a visit to a particular country. Instead travelling these places gives me the opportunity to see beyond the news reports. I mean, imagine what we would think about Americans if we only took our impressions from the news. Gun-loving, religious fanatics, who want Donald Trump to rule the world. Luckily, most of us have fortunately met Americans in person, who have counter-acted that stereotype by been friendly, bright, sophisticated and just kind people. This helps us to get the better picture of the country’s population. How many have ever met someone from Iran or Sudan?
Someone clever once said that the news is full of death and destruction exactly because that is news. That is, for most people, most of their lives are quite, relatively peaceful and mostly concerned with making ends meet. This is probably true for both the London lawyer and the Malian camel herder. Going to West Africa will be an insight into a continent that only features in the News for two reasons. 1) War, hunger and general human misery and (2) those almost racists National Geographic documentaries depicting Africans as backwards tribes living without modern utilities in small huts.
All this does not mean that I wander headless into harms way. Travellers, including myself, spend a lot of time worrying about our safety before and when we head into places like Mali and Afghanistan – why would we not be the ones most worried about our safety in these locations?
I usually spend a lot of time, reading up on local news, other travellers’ reports, requiring information about the particular situation on the ground, ask into unsafe areas at embassies and try to outline what the risks would be and where they are actually a concern. I pay less attention to the governmental travel advice, which is always very, very conservative and designed not so much to keep you out of harms way, but rather to limit the government’s hassle of getting one of their citizens out of trouble. That might sound like a conspiracy theory (and I will be happy to fold myself a tin-hat if you can prove me wrong). But Western Governments newer warn about terror risks in other Western countries – and let's face it, there is a danger of getting blown up if you run a marathon in the States, take the subway in Brussels or attend a concert in Paris. But no travel warnings are given. Instead, plenty of warnings are given about countries like Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The former have had zero terror attacks within the last fifteen years; the latter has had one.
Interestingly enough, the biggest risk I am running in West Africa is kidnappings. More than 90 Westerners have been kidnapped in the Sahel region since 2003. Granted there has actually only been 28 kidnappings, but a few of them have included large groups of westerners, either tourists or professionals working abroad. How exactly I plan not to be one of those people will be part of the fourth and last ‘Stupid, but Lucky’ blog entry. However, most locals rather want to help you than hurt you – and travelling you rely ultimately on the hospitality and friendliness of the local population. That is why I only bring one weapon with me on my travels – my smile.