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How to Defy the Definition of Dangerous

by Natalie Grant Feb 9, 2010
Is it possible to re-imagine our understanding of dangerous destinations? Natalie Grant explores how to make the shift, though our understanding of risk and reward.

Preparing for my trip to South Africa was a blur of warnings, an avalanche of don’ts and watch-outs.

Once there, however, my dear friend Jess (born and raised in South Africa) explained the real meaning of the oft used phrase “This is Africa” (TIA) over two cool glasses of Savannah Dry. Essentially, that things here rarely work out like you expect them.

As we rambled about the differences in legality in our respective continents, she shook her head with regret and added: “The world’s gone soft.”

As many of us are undoubtedly aware, savvy traveling is a fickle see-saw; on one side, confidence can become arrogance, and on the other, caution can become paranoia. The former will get you into trouble, and the latter will deny you the best experiences.

The trick is to decide for ourselves how adventurous we’re willing to be, and, consequently, how much of the world we’re willing to experience.

Yet the mishmash of advice and horror stories with which the media inundates us makes it almost impossible to decide objectively. These occasionally useful hand-me-down prejudices are why people so confidently, and so foolishly, insist on branding country X as ‘safe’ and country Y as ‘unsafe.’

Definition Of Dangerous

The area where Jess grew up is filled with more tragedy in one week than could fit in my local paper back home. It makes me ask: what defines a dangerous country? And how can we avoid letting fear paralyze us?

Worried parents say, “Go with a buddy.” Doctors say, “Get vaccinated.” But your backpack says, “What are we waiting for?”

I can’t help but wonder if I myself have grown soft along with the world, and if it’s possible to de-soften – to scrub away the sterilization

This is why someone who has camped out in Burma might still fear walking alone at night in Brooklyn, or why someone can improvise à la 007 when his car breaks down in Egypt but can’t change a tire in Montana. This is why so many of us crave those hard-knock travel lessons like junkies: because that kind of traveling very easily shreds the definition of ‘dangerous’ into tiny pieces of arbitrary, amusing confetti.

As I silently observe the strength of people here in Africa, something irrationally pops in my head – a law midterm I wrote in college about the elderly woman who sued McDonald’s because she was burned by their coffee. Jess is right. The world – part of it anyway – has grown much, much too soft.

I see the electric fences around everyone’s farms, the orphaned Zulu children looking for work, the wrecks on the highways… but I also see how vibrant and breathtaking the country is, and how everything – the volume, the emotion – is seemingly turned up.

I can’t help but wonder if I myself have grown soft along with the world, and if it’s possible to de-soften – to scrub away the sterilization until the resolve, the spirit, and the dirt under my fingernails to reflect those of the people who embody the hardness I so admire.

The World In Common

Sometimes there does seem to be an overabundance of crime and suffering in the world. The fact is, people act desperately when faced with desperate situations. And it’s difficult to comprehend the mentality of extremism without seeing extreme conditions with our own eyes.

Perhaps this is why we tend to label countries ‘unsafe’ – out of misunderstanding.

A developed-world upbringing can obscure one’s perception of suffering. For example, war that is so horrific and arbitrary from the front lines can seem, from our safe classrooms, simply necessary in the course of history – both as a mother of invention and as a primal standard for survival.

And yet the same human problems – like hunger or heartbreak – exist regardless of what side of the picket fence you call home. The difference is that we can usually find a way to distract ourselves from those problems, while the overwhelming majority of people in the world have their eyes peeled back Clockwork-Orange style.

Whether it’s poverty or consumerism that we battle, whether it’s governmental corruption or political apathy that undermines us… when the shiitake hits the fanfaronade, the world does have more in common than one might think.

Getting Ready To Live

A country is only ‘dangerous’ if you choose to define it as such. Without labels, all places on this earth have their upsides and downsides, have certain elements of risk that can be foreseen and unforeseen.

This is not to say one should charge merrily into Somalia and start teaching soldiers to line dance. Savvy traveling is all about the tentative and skilled balance between confidence and caution.

If we travelers can embrace our adventurous attitudes boldly and responsibly, we can help to alleviate those media-charged fears just by understanding them. This is not mere danger tourism, but a realization that life is continually chaotic.

There’s an old Chinese proverb: People in the West are always getting ready to live.

How many of us would, if we could, trade our Purell and SPF 70 for some wicked scars and stories? Think of your best travel stories; I bet they involve a mishap, a scare, or some averted danger that is your new party trick.

Every one of those surreal travel moments is another millimeter your comfort zone gets stretched. And though some of our loved ones will still worry when we travel to a ‘dangerous’ destination, we travelers know that the only real danger is pretending we are ever in control.

Perhaps this mentality could be captured in a new phrase: T.I.L. – This Is Life.

What do you think about the definition of dangerous travel? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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