I WAS TALKING LAST WEEK with a friend about Paris, and about how much fun I’d had when I went there a year ago. “Of course,” she said, “It’s a shame you can’t go there now.”
“Sorry?” I asked, “Why can’t we go?”
“Well, it’s just too dangerous now, after the attack.”
There were a lot of things I could have said. That the city was still, in spite of the attack, a very safe city to visit, that choosing to not go to the city was actually an act of acquiescing to what the terrorists wanted, or that other major cities were just as big of targets for terrorists as Paris, but what really stuck out in my mind was, “What’s wrong with visiting dangerous places?”
We shouldn’t just see the “safe” parts of our world.
It may seem counterintuitive — I’ve reached a point where, when I’m leaving for a trip, more people say goodbye with “Have a safe flight!” than with “Have a good trip!” — but safety should not be what we look for in travel. This isn’t to say we should haphazardly charge out into the world mindless of risk: if the State Department is issuing travel advisories for the countries we’re visiting, we should at least take them into consideration and educate ourselves about the dangers of the countries we’re visiting, and it’s always worthwhile to be alert while in a strange place regardless of its reputation for danger.
But easily the most meaningful experiences I’ve had while traveling were in places that conventional wisdom has deemed as “unsafe.” And that’s because conventional wisdom is not particularly wise.
What we think of as “unsafe” is often wrong.
Last week, a rather disturbing poll revealed that a disturbingly large number of Americans think we should bomb Agrabah. The problem with that (aside from the fact that a large number of Americans want to bomb anywhere) is that Agrabah is not a real place. Agrabah is the name of the city in Disney’s Aladdin. Sure, it’s a place where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face, and that puts it a little ideologically closer to ISIS than it’s carpet-flying, menagerie-owning monarchy may care to admit, but it’s still disturbing that so many Americans are willing to jump at the opportunity to bomb someplace vaguely Arabic-sounding.
Simply put, we’re terrible at determining what’s dangerous and what’s not. Take one measure of what “unsafe” is: the homicide rate of a country. Here’s a breakdown of global homicide rates:
You’ll notice some unsurprising things (like the violence in much of Central and South America) along with some much more surprising things: the murder rate in many Middle Eastern and Northern African countries is equal to or lower than the murder rate in the United States. Ditto India, Indonesia, and China. My friend would, by this measure, be safer going to Algeria or Saudi Arabia than they would going to France.
Likewise, all of the people who warned me about safety in India (3.5 murders per 100,000) easily could have said, “Oh, you’ll love India! It’s safer than the United States (3.8 murders per 100,000)!”
There’s more to safety than homicide rates, of course, but how we divide the world into “safe” and “unsafe” is often very flawed.
The “unsafe” places are the most important to learn about.
We no longer live in a world where the problems of one society don’t affect the problems of the others. Climate change crosses borders, as do the byproducts of pollution and nuclear accidents. All manner of people cross borders — refugees, trafficked men, women, and children, terrorists, immigrants, tourists, smugglers, heads of states — for any number of reasons. Like it or not, we live in a globalized world.
Traveling to “unsafe” places does a few things for us: first, it humanizes the people that live there. If you’ve been to Syria, if you’ve tried its food and enjoyed its culture and talked to its people, you’re much more likely to want to help when things go wrong. You then can also serve as an ambassador to the others around you. When a friend says, “I’m worried all of the Syrian refugees are terrorists,” you can tell them the story of the friendly old man in Damascus who served you kebabs, and how more of the Syrians you ran into were like the old man than like the rabid, gun-toting lunatics of ISIS that we see every day on TV.
The other big thing that traveling to an unsafe place will do for you is this: it will humanize you. When you go to a place that scares you slightly, when you engage with the people and culture, and when you actually enjoy yourself, you come out of the experience a kinder, gentler human being, and one less prone to snap judgments.
So do yourself and the world a favor: go see the unsafe places.