MY FIRST CHICKEN BUS broke me. Careening around the edge of a high-altitude Laotian highway back in 2007 made the possibility of death-by-terrific-fall real for the first time. In the front seat, an AK-47-clutching guard younger than I was made the likelihood of death by bandit attack only slightly less of a preoccupation for the day spent in that rampaging vehicle.
Some years, and many more chicken buses later, I’ve probably been to scarier places, but also learned along the way that much of ‘dangerous’ travel feels more like unplanned, uncalculated travel. The more I actually look into the specifics of a journey, the more I realise how much more is safely possible than my anecdotal first impressions ever suggested.
Like those guys who jump off mountains in squirrel suits.
It’s a point that photojournalist and Matador contributor Jonathan Kalan makes well in discussing the perceptions that folk back in the US typically have about traveling to unknown places:
…somewhere along the way, America lost its way. We have become a culture obsessed with and driven by fear. We now fear a single hair in our blueberry pancakes, we fear our water, vaccines, dirt, ADHD children, bee stings, air, germs and public toilet seats. It’s as if a bunch of hypochondriacs have taken hold of our politics, media, and marketing, creating a hyper-inflated culture of fear that is neurotic at best, downright wrong at worst. We fear people, strangers, when they are the ones we should have the most faith in.
He is arguing, in effect, for a distinction between danger based in calculations you have made yourself, and danger based in the calculations of others. Relying too much on the latter, means not getting on that chicken bus. Not traveling outside of places that have their own Facebook pages. And fussing over the fine details of how your dinner was cooked.
And that is because perceptions of danger based on popular culture are overstated. Tinged with the drama that the journalist adds to make a story, or the traveller adds at the bar to make the eyes of listeners grow bigger. Nobody wants to hear how you packed a first aid kit, planned your route beforehand, kept in contact with home, or otherwise thought your risks through carefully.
Nobody cares. The bar wants guns, chicken buses, and altitude.
But when you decide to travel, be willing to disregard the horrible stories you’ve been fed as the truth of a place. Sit down, do the calculations for yourself, and you will find that a great deal more becomes possible. Sometimes, you might just discover that it’s possible to drink water without boiling it.