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Feature Photo: Robert Thompson Photo: prakhar

When does traveling “off the beaten track” become an arrogant and dangerous venture, and who should pay when it does?

We’d taken refuge from the soggy Bogota afternoon in the hostel’s dank kitchen, where we sat drinking coffee and swapping tales. As this was only my third trip out of the country, I sat quietly, listening to the boys one-up each other. No one could beat the Swede in zip-off pants.

He sat smugly, like a guru, doling out morsels of his tales in titillating tidbits. He’d dyed his hair brown, donned dark contacts, and backpacked through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. He’d ridden buses rarely, walked mostly, and had almost been killed (purportedly) by an anti-American lynch mob. Sparks of awe and admiration flew from the enthralled eyes of other travelers.

One of the boys in his rapt audience turned to me, suddenly aware of my presence. He quizzed me on my basics: where was I from, how long was I traveling, did I speak Spanish. “What’s your itinerary?” was his final question. I bit my lip as he looked me over, sizing me up for what I was: an early-twenties American girl, not terribly well-traveled, with a mediocre accent and a minimal vocabulary. I recited my basic plan: Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Typical.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the blond god before him.

Fast forward several years and a couple thousand miles to a recent afternoon rattling down the uneven pavement of Interstate 880, blasting NPR. I’d just caught the beginning of a story on France’s proposal to charge tourists for rescues from risky spots while abroad. The hotly debated bill came about several months ago, prompted by a much-publicized rescue of French citizens who were captured by Somali pirates while pleasure-yachting around the Indian Ocean.

Reportedly, public outrage at the travelers’ perceived irresponsibility was intense enough to inspire a bill that would require tourists rescued from dangerous situations abroad to repay rescue costs (aid workers and journalists excluded). A coordinating author from Lonely Planet was on hand to discuss the proposal and its implications, a discussion that centered around issues of travel safety, and real versus perceived dangers abroad.

Here’s something most independent travelers, including myself, rarely check before going abroad: the Department of State’s current travel warnings. When you grow up amid a culture of fear-mongering, it’s easy to get desensitized.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think, the world’s sooo dangerous and I’ll get kidnapped and killed the moment I leave the US. Nomadic Matt has cited fear as a principal factor preventing Americans from traveling abroad, and Brave New Traveler takes a good look at both sides of the fear argument to analyze why so few Americans go overseas.

Photo: royandsusan

Yet once certain travelers step outside the country and see the rest of the world isn’t the depraved war zone it’s often portrayed to be, they get cocky. And brazen. And sometimes stupid.

Take that to the extreme: extreme tourism. I haven’t heard this term in awhile, but it was tossed around the hostel table in Bogota that afternoon. It refers to a type of off-the-beaten-path thrill-seeking travel that prides itself on brushes with danger. Real danger. As in, I’m-gonna-walk-through-Baghdad-just-to-prove-I-can danger. Implicit in this type of travel, I would argue, are entitlement and bragging rights.

Which begs the question: should risk-taking travelers enjoy the luxury of being rescued, at the expense of their countrymen? The French don’t seem to think so. Nor do the Germans. The United States—well, we don’t really need to worry about it, since so few of us travel to begin with. Reportedly vague and insufficient, the French bill also opens the door to a lot of loaded issues—namely, who decides what countries and regions are dangerous, and whether travelers are behaving recklessly?

I’ve been to three gasp-evoking places often deemed too dangerous for travelers (let alone a solo white girl): Caracas, Mexico City, the entire country of Colombia. I didn’t go to any of these places because they were considered dangerous, but despite them being considered dangerous.

Photo: author

One I ended up in circumstantially, but the other two I sought out—I’d heard too many good things from other travelers. I did my research. Street sense and good luck got me through unscathed. But there’s certainly people who would have regarded my traveling in these places as reckless, stupid and asking for trouble.

I remember thinking Colombia was a lot like Oakland. Which isn’t true: armed military don’t roll through city streets, and you can’t smoke cigarettes inside shopping malls (not even Eastmont). But both places have a sort of infamy to them, a danger that either lures or deters.

As in Oakland, many parts of Colombia feel totally safe; as in Oakland, other parts of Colombia continue to feed the unsafe reputation. To stay safe in Colombia, I did everything I already do in Oakland: don’t go out at night alone, stick to main streets in safe neighborhoods, don’t ride buses at night, check my back like a motherfuck.

The Swedish guy in the Colombian hostel reminded of suburban kids that move into Oakland warehouses. They proudly tell you they live in the Lower Bottoms, Murder Dubs, Dirty 30s, Ghost Town.

“The thugs aren’t that bad, really,” they tell you. Then, knowingly, as though they’re imparting some great gem of karmic street ethics upon you—”If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.”

Then they mugged/assaulted/held at gunpoint, and they leave, go back to their suburbs bruised and bitter and hating the town they so recklessly glamorized.

There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real. It’s the wild-eyed rapture of Futurists (which for all of their sexism, fascism and idiocy still created some good art). It’s as easy to write off as the uninformed fear that keeps some folks away from Oakland, away from traveling, cocooned in familiarity.

But neither side is right, neither view complete. They’re just two sides of the same coin—exoticizing someone else’s world, treating it as the Other, instead of attempting (however falteringly) to meet it, understand it and experience it as it is. Can I claim to have traveled so honorably? Not really. But I can claim to have tried.

Which could all be an elaborate rationalization for why the rules don’t apply to me—why I haven’t gotten into any real trouble while traveling, and why I would surely be rescued in the event of any dire incidents. And not expected to pay for it. (Because, after all, I’m not French.) But I suspect the truth lays somewhere muddled between all this, between embassies and travelers, the frightened and the intrepid, the streets of East Oakland, the seas of Somalia and hostel kitchen tables around the world.



About The Author

Lauren Quinn

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler. She maintains the blog, where she writes about her explorations of untold stories, underground music, abandoned buildings, street art, tattoos, 12-step recovery and of course, travel. She is currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, researching and writing narratives of trauma. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.

  • Sarah Menkedick

    I love the description of the Swedish guy going off about his adventures. I have met similar types in all sorts of places. I find very little value in travel to dangerous places for the sheer thrill of it – in fact, in some cases, I think it’s callous and just plain offensive. After all, if you’re traveling through war-torn Baghdad because it’s interesting or you can brag about it, you’re missing a pretty important point: the area is dangerous because people are suffering and enduring wars, poverty, and conflicts. So if you’re traveling there simply to brag about not getting lynched or shot, to me, that’s demonstrating an incredible ignorance not only about danger but about the realities many people live in.

    Simone wrote a great article dealing with the concept of danger being a luxury for travelers:

    Great piece!

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  • Hal Amen

    Psyched to see this post here, Lauren.

  • Somchai

    Ultimately it’s the tourist themselves who must pay for underestimating the risks of going somewhere. By pay I mean a currency more dear than money.

    In some situations there is no opportunity for frenzied calls abroad for money, no cavalry riding to the rescue. In 1994 while in Cambodia I heard of 3 backpackers grabbed of the train that used to run to Snookyville. The country was already open for tourism and there wasn’t really a hot war, just a general insecurity. I think they ended up with bashed in heads, nothing anyone could do. They were all pretty young, in their twenties. Too young to lose it all on an extended vacation.

    I didn’t like the atmosphere and left. Who can enjoy a place where you have to figure out which parts are safe and which aren’t. There was no safe land route to Siem Reap. So many nice safe countries, why bother?

    The US State Department also has a service where you sign up on email and enter your dates of travel, and they send you email updates regarding very current events in your intended destination while you are there. Our embassies are one part of our government that work well.

  • Nancy Harder

    Stoked to see your post here Lauren. Your writing has a cool musical rhythm to it. It actually spawned a long healthy debate between my husband and me.

  • Richard

    Nice piece, I hear your tale about the guy in Bogota (where I live) only too clearly. I can actually picture him smugly holding court. The whole thing is pretty annoying, for, someone like him the only attraction is the bragging right. I read too many blogs of people saying they got stopped by the paramilitaries or guerrillas and nothing happened and these militarised checkpoints were staffed by friendly guys etc etc…it is all untrue, these travellers never get far off the beaten track either, and the checkpoints are for the most part formal government ones in any case. There was the guy who claimed that Colombia was under martial law and the whole country was about to kick off after the pyramid troubles, he claimed to be too afraid to leave his hotel and only ordered take out pizza.

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  • Jessie

    Good reminder of how subjective travel can be, Lauren. I also never realized France had that debate about who should pay to be rescued in the first place — and actually something I was wondering about recently with the release of one of the three captured hikers in Iran. I suppose placing the blame to figure out who should foot the bill is super subjective as well.

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