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 ominous 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 far from what some misguided travel warnings convey. In fact, I recall early in our cruise on the west coast of Baja, when SAGA was approached by fisherman in a fast panga. We remembered warnings we had received before leaving California–to be wary of fast approaching fishermen, as they might want to steal from us. On the contrary, these unfortunate “banditos” had their cooler break down on the boat. Instead of boarding us, they started throwing live lobster into our cockpit! Until I said, “Bastante!” (Our fridge was on the fritz too!).
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 together with a little bit of link-and title-bait to draw a nice argument. (If you click on the map and go to the original, it’s interactive. You can click on a country for the danger details).
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.
Instead, when we’re on the ground, 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. After all, the Danger Map was produced by the Government of Canada, where there seems to be no danger what-so-ever! But we know better, right?
For cruisers or those traveling by other unconventional means (such as by bicycle, like my friend Bob), we have to do our best to get all the info, from those whose wake we follow or from recent blogs. We can’t always rely on governments to tell us where we can go safely, yet we have to be concerned about pirates in certain parts of the world. Fortunately there are some good sources of safety information available online for cruisers, such as Noonsite.com, SSCA.org and the CruisingWiki.org.
Going abroad? Here’s some good tips from the folks at Uncornered Market:
Informed Travel Decisions 101
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 entirecountry 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.