Browsing Posts tagged travel dangers

Sometimes I like to take a break from blabbing on and acting like a travel know-it-all, so here are some news stories and blog posts that have caught my eye recently. Random notes from cheap destinations and a few travel tips, preserved for longer than a fleeting tweet or status update.

China's phallus buildingFirst, no link necessary for this one. The Week magazine’s editor started an editorial with the question “How much terrorism can we tolerate?” He then noted that roughly 30,000 Americans a year die in car crashes and another 30,000 die in gun violence. That’s “the equivalent of twenty 9/11s every year.” But we seem to live with that—we assume we can’t get to zero no matter what. So why is getting to our plane so much harder than buying a handgun?

Have you ever had a nightmare about your plane landing in the wrong destination? A couple flying on Turkish Airlines from Los Angeles to Dakar, Senegal, instead ended up in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Here’s the killer quote: “When the flight attendant said we were heading to Dhaka, we believed that this was how you pronounced ‘Dakar’ with a Turkish accent.”

Last month a columnist for the Daily Telegraph noted that the third-largest political party in Hungary hates gypsies and Jews and isn’t afraid to say so. Pretty depressing if you’re one or the other. (You know a newspaper column has struck a chord when even the sane comments that weren’t deleted are at 299.)

Apparently the Sherpas who serve as guides on Mount Everest, Nepal have had enough. At the peak of the climbing season in May, some 100 of them attacked three climbers who had ignored requests to let the Sherpas finish laying their ropes. The exact exchange preceding the 50-minute battle is disputed, but the general interpretation is that the Sherpas are tired of being treated like servants by rich doctors, CEOs, and lawyers who have money but no sense and the guides finally snapped.

This video recently caused quite an uproar in Thailand: Buddhist monks in a private jet with fancy electronics.

For those of us who travel like real monks—in uncomfortable economy—a bit of consumer justice was recently served. Delta got fined for not properly compensating passengers who had been bumped off their flight.

In case you got to the end of this wondering what that naughty image is all about, it’s the new headquarters of China’s People’s Daily newspaper. Apparently comments about it have been blocked on social media after the Chinese went crazy talking about “the organ of the state” while exchanging photos.


The tram to Taksim Square – on a normal day.

As we’ve seen in Turkey this week, a place that’s relatively calm, peaceful, and stable one week can see all hell break loose the next.

So how do you decide if you should change your travel plans or just adjust them to avoid the trouble spots? How do you answer the question, Should I stay or should I go now? The key is to figure out how localized the problem is and how easily it can be avoided.

Is this for real?

Usually you have to ask yourself two questions: “How bad is it really?” and “How widespread is the problem?”

I shouldn’t have to tell you that American TV news is downright horrible. You’ve got four 24-hour news networks (and a few others from abroad) all trying to beat each other out in the ratings by being louder, more sensationalist, and more “of the moment” than the rest. It’s a clown in a business suit: entertainment packaged as news.

By it’s very nature, 24-hour TV news is focused on the story of the day, the more outrageous and powerful the better. What’s going to make you tune in and keep watching? Usually disasters, tragedies, and violence. So if there are protests in the street somewhere, that’s going to be at the top of the hour. If a pretty young woman gets raped in some scary foreign country like India, that’s next. (If she gets raped in the USA, of course, that’s not news unless it’s part of a long-term abduction or something really horrific happens.)

Istanbul travel danger

Taksim Square in Istanbul lately. (Flickr photo by Will Cowan)

Anger in the Streets

We’ve seen a lot of riots in the streets every year I can remember, going back to when I was a little kid and my parents had the one hour of news on. They’ll still be happening long after I’m dead. Things reach a boiling point, angry people organize, and there are clashes between protesters and police. Sometimes it’s a revolution and the government goes down. Other times there’s either a nasty crackdown or some kind of negotiated settlement. Or it just plays itself out and fizzles.

For travelers, if it’s localized in one place, as it mostly was in Bangkok a few years ago and in Egypt after that, then you don’t have much to worry about. Away from the epicenter, life goes on as usual.

Other times the upheaval is part of a nationwide explosion of anger or desire for change, the kinds of protests that bring down the iron curtain or turn a country we formerly got along with into one that paints giant Death to America murals everywhere. That’s if they succeed. If they don’t you get a violent tit-for-tat or just violent oppression. The first gives us Syria, the second may be what we get in Turkey if things continue on the present course. Neither is a good outcome if you’re there.

Current news verdict: Yellow alert. If I were in Turkey now, as I was just a month ago, as a backpacker I’d either get out or head somewhere mellow, far away from the big cities. It could get worse before it gets better. The power-grabbing prime minister is not known for compromise and is saying plans to pave paradise and put up a shopping mall will move forward. That was the spark (well, and strict new alcohol rules) that started the whole powder keg…

A High-profile Crime Against a Tourist

The news media loves nothing better than a pretty young woman who has been a crime victim in a scary foreign land. It makes for good films, good books, and yes, good cable news stories. That narrative taps into so many emotional triggers the producers probably get downright giddy when this comes down the newswires.

Recently a woman was raped by three Indian men in a popular area for backpackers between Vashist and Manali while hitchhiking. Alone. In the wee hours after midnight. That’s not a bright thing to do many places on this planet, but India’s not getting any slack since this is on top of a string of other similar high-profile incidents. Still, if this happened in the USA though, where there are some 200,000 reported incidents a year, nobody would have heard about it. Especially if she were not traveling.

Tourism was reportedly already down by 1/3 among women before this happened, so it’s going to add insult to injury. Any woman who’s been groped for weeks on end in India will probably say, “Good, they deserve it.”

I’d say it’s part of a much larger issue of religious sexual oppression that exists across huge swaths of the world. Are there any quick fixes for that? I doubt it. But they can try.

Current news verdict: It’s your call. India has always been a tough place for any woman to travel. I stayed in a hostel with a woman that had been raped two days before when I was first there, and this was 18 years ago. Things haven’t gotten much better. The risk is real, but millions of women have traveled India alone without more than annoyance and frustration. As a BBC story on this case says (italics mine), “Reported cases of sexual assault are on the rise in India, although foreign tourists are rarely targeted.”

travel plans spoiled

Budapest this week. (Flickr photo by Jonk)

Natural Disasters

Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York City, tornadoes in the midwest USA, and now serious floods in Central Europe. One act of God can ruin your whole trip—especially if the fine print on your travel insurance says they don’t cover “acts of God” (true verbage sometimes) or “natural disasters.”

The floods hitting Europe right now are serious business and they are having an impact on the following popular tourist destinations: Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. Plus a bunch of cities in Germany along the Rhine. River cruise boats are docked, with all those passengers up the high creek.

Sometimes the news is overblown: a tornado often only hits a small specific area. It sucks if you’re there, but fine a mile away. Floodwaters are relatively easy to track on a map. Hurricanes are a different story, as are earthquakes and tsunamis nobody saw coming.

Travel verdict: Take your financial lumps and get out. Unless you want to stick around and help. Nobody has time to take care of the tourists, so you’ll need to become a volunteer.

Crime Waves (and War Zones)

There’s seldom any such thing as a crime wave. It’s usually been rising for years, but suddenly people wake up when it makes the news.

Then those viewers have veerrrrryy long memories. It was two decades ago when Mexico City taxicab abductions last happened regularly. More than a decade since Medellin wasn’t safe to walk around at night. Croatia hasn’t been at war since 1995.

In some places though, the violence is a very real threat. The key is knowing where that threat comes from. Guatemala City and Caracas are not places you want to go partying at night if you have a choice. Same for the two main cities in Honduras. Or the border towns/cities in Mexico. But does this mean you shouldn’t go to see the ruins of Tikal, Uxmal, or Copan? Of course not—one has little to do with the other, just as Santa Fe’s homicide rate has nothing to do with the one in New Orleans.

Travel verdict: get the real story. Most crime stories are overblown, but some are not. You only know by doing some real research. You won’t find me spending the night in Tegucigalpa, Ciudad Juarez, or northern Nigeria anytime soon. Go an hour or two away, however, and it’s a different story. Crime is local—where you live and where you’re going.

There’s a lot of trouble in the world. But an expert on handling danger says almost every region is getting tamer for travelers.

Ummm, you probably don’t need to pack that.


If you watch Fox News every day, you’re liable to think the world out there is a super-scary place. Better buy that newly built home in a gated community and shut the garage tight.

Reality is much different. The current issue of Outside magazine has a great interview with Robert Young Pelton, who besides being a respected war zone consultant and author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, apparently has a perforated metal business card that converts to a shiv. (Scarier part of that revelation: it’s never been noticed or confiscated by airport security. Anywhere.)

The whole interview is great, so go check it out, but here’s the killer exchange for would-be world travelers looking to reassure mom:

“People don’t believe me, but there aren’t wars anymore. When I first wrote the book, you had real wars, with tanks shooting at each other. Now there’s more democracy, less dictatorship. The first edition had 26 countries, and now I’m going to have a hard time covering 12 in the next edition.

A lot of these countries that used to be holy-shit, ass-puckering places are now sort of like, ‘Don’t go there,’ ‘Watch out,’ ‘Don’t go out at night.’

So yes, you should probably avoid Afghanistan and Somalia, present Syria and parts of Sudan. Walking into a drug gang inner city area is always a bad idea, but especially bad in Ciudad Juarez, Tegucigalpa, or Guatemala City. Walking down the street holding a cartoon of a key religious figure is probably not going to end well in countries where you can only see the eyes of the local women.

Time to Stop Acting Like Cowards

Otherwise, let’s finally bury the stupid idea that Canadians are safer than Americans so they have to wear a maple leaf on their backpack like it provides some kind of force field. Let’s stop publishing or reading articles about what women need to do to be able to travel alone without getting raped or killed. Let’s stop avoiding perfectly beautiful places filled with wonderful cities because 10 years ago there was something really bad on the 24-hour news channels. And let’s all make a pact to stop listening to advice from people whose don’t travel. Or those who think a Caribbean cruise balcony berth gives them the right to give you advice about State Department warnings.

I don’t think of myself as all that old, but I’m seeing Ankor Wat for the first time this summer because all three times I was in the neighborhood before there was a coup, a war, or a real threat of getting maimed by a land mine. Nobody in their right mind was going to Peru when I first started backpacking. Colombia, Guatemala, Eastern Turkey, Sri Lanka, and a few Stans were all on the “no-go” list for any sane traveler. There was a war in Croatia for Christ’s sake. Yes, that place where all the billionaires’ yachts are now docked. Bombs were going off regularly in Northern Ireland. Half of Africa seemed to be fighting at any given time.

Do your homework, yes, but if only 9 countries out of nearly 200 require some real paranoia these days, I think you’re going to be okay.

Watch for the 6th edition of Pelton’s book and don’t buy the old one to save a buck: it came out in 2003—when the world was scarier.


See the null page on (Here’s a fun exercise: put “travel dangers” in Google and see what comes up ahead of this. It’s usually something from Fox News.)

See Robert Young Pelton’s Come Back Alive site.

Coming to Barcelona? Bring a good money belt.

  • More people died in the U.S. last year from “accidental discharge of a firearm” than died in the whole world from airplane crashes.
  • Guatemala’s crime rate is higher than Mexico’s by a wide margin.
  • Eight of the top-10 worst cities for pickpockets are in Europe. (And all of the top 5.)
  • The top-selling beer in the world is not Budweiser—it’s Snow Beer.
  • “Budget” airlines Southwest and JetBlue have more legroom (average seat pitch) than British Airways, United, or Delta.
  • Turkey gets more international visitors each year than Canada, Mexico, Holland, Greece, or Egypt. Malaysia gets more visitors than Thailand, Indonesia/Bali, or Japan.
  • The U.S. stock market has historically dropped 6.5% in the year after a Republican wins the presidency, but climbed 9.1% when a Democrat wins reelection.

Surprised by any of those?

Our assumptions are shaped by many things: the people around us, where we get our news, the anecdotes we’ve heard, forwarded e-mails, what our parents taught us. Some people cling to these assumptions like a badge of honor, brandishing them in arguments like it would be blasphemy to expose them to factual scrutiny. There are whole TV networks and political campaigns that rely on this impermeable wall of assumption. Tell the right story and you know it will be believed by the base, real facts be damned.

Now here’s the really thorny issue to consider as you travel around the world. What would you believe about God or religion if you had grown up in a remote jungle in Peru? With the nomads of Algeria? In a devout Hindu home in a rural village in southern India? In a family that sent all the boys for a stint in the next-door Buddhist monastery in Thailand?

We are all shaped by the forces around us. The key to being a free thinker is to question why you believe what you believe—and determine if it’s real or something pushed into your brain by someone with an agenda.

 [Flickr photo by ponglest]

travel security

You don’t want to be around when this poster comes down…

Ask anyone who travels to foreign countries regularly and they’ve likely heard this question more times than they can count. Sometimes it’s asked by a close relative or friend, just as often by complete strangers. Other times it’s not stated, just implied with raised eyebrows.

The less the person asking has traveled (or in my experience, the more their travel has been comprised of cruise trips), the more likely they are to ask it. When your range of travel experience is limited to controlled situations like theme parks, you tend to see what you don’t know as automatically suspect. If you watch a lot 0f 24-hour TV news, especially Fox, you tend to see the whole world as downright scary.

In nearly two decades of solid travel, I’ve almost never faced real danger abroad. That includes travel in the Middle East, trips to Guatemala and Honduras, living for a year less than 25 miles from the North Korean border, and a year of living in Mexico. My closest calls with death have mostly come on the home turf—which is statistically typical for most people. My greatest fear is being hit by some soccer mom in a big SUV who is jabbering on her phone or texting instead of looking where her giant hunk of metal is heading on the road. (Odds of dying in a car crash: 88 to 1.)

In the end, what will probably get me is heart disease (6 to 1 odds) or cancer (7 to 1): these are the odds-on favorites. Terrorist attacks and plane crashes are about as likely as being struck by lightning. Sure, it happens, but not very often. If we had as many people dying in plane crashes as from car crashes or from domestic gun violence (odds of 306 to 1), there would be a jet going down in flames every single day. Or to put it another way, we’d have to have a 9/11-level terrorist attack every month.

Texas strip mall

Knowledge is Power

The best way to counter any fears, however, is to be informed. I’ve met clueless backpackers in a country that didn’t even know there was a volatile election coming up, or that 100,000 people were protesting in the streets one town over. Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t protect you from bullets or tear gas. (A trip to Syria anyone?)

Here is a load of resources to consult if you’ve got questions about the situation in your destination. Always consider the source though. The govenment-issued reports—especially the U.S. ones—tend to err on the side of caution. They have diplomat families to protect and would much rather be safe than sorry. I would trust them much more if they compared the risk of violence abroad to the risk in say, Washington D.C. But they’ll never go there. Also take the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree posts with a bit of skepticism in the other direction. Grizzled long-term backpackers who have seen it all are much braver and carefree than your typical first-time traveler. And they’re more savvy about staying out of trouble.

Official Government Sites

U.S. State Department Travel Advisories
Overseas Security Advisory Council
Australian Government Travel Advisories
Canadian Government Travel Advisories
UK Travel Advisory Site

Scary Places Reports

Polo’s Bastards
Come Back Alive Danger Finder

Message Boards

Lonely Planet Thorn Tree

I’ve consistently found the BBC to be the best source of real international news you can get quickly for free. The Economist provides more depth if you’re willing to subscribe and The Week gives you a good feel for what’s happening around the world each week.

Most cities have an English-language newspaper you can find online. That will give you a real sense of things that don’t make the international news but may be very important locally—like a big transit strike. Usually just putting “English newspaper [city]” will do it. Or try

For current health dangers where you’re going, check in with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, Intl. Society of Travel Medicine, and

Remember though, there are always plenty of perfectly good reasons to not go where you’re thinking of going. The easy action is to just open a bag of Doritos and grab the remote instead. Sooner or later you need to accomplish more than just eat-sleep-work-death. You have to get up and go.

P.S. – A bonus if you got this far: the odds of dying from a shark attack in Florida are 1 in 17,241,109. Makes the lottery look like a sure thing in comparison.

P.P.S – You can use a gun owner’s ID to vote in Texas, but not a university student I.D. And you’re scared of going to where?

[Photos from Flickr Creative Commons. Click on picture for photographer credits.]