Airlines have always been the safest way to travel, and I don’t think the fact that those four planes went down really changes that. There’s also been an evolution in security. When you get on an airplane these days, some pilots will tell you to look at the person next to you and ask him where he’s going and what he’s doing. Because that’s how you’re going to know if someone is going to hijack a plane–ff they’re nervous about something. Flying shouldn’t be a big factor in making travel decisions anyway. I mean, if you’re going to Pakistan and planning to paddle down a Class V river, your flight is the last thing you should be worried about. You have to put these things in perspective.
Which countries should travelers steer clear of to avoid terrorism?
Most obviously, Third World Islamic countries with poor security–parts of the Middle East, Central Asian states, including Pakistan, and areas of Indonesia and the Philippines. But extremist groups aren’t isolated to these places. They find it pretty easy to move around in parts of East Africa, for instance. Europe will remain relatively safe, because they have lots of experience combating terrorism. Latin America, the South Pacific, and some of Southeast Asia are probably all right, too, because they’re so far out of the news. And any country with a totalitarian-style government–North Korea, Syria, China–is likely to be OK, because they know how to keep the lid on.
How can Americans minimize their risk?
I always hook up with a local. If you want to know what’s really going on, you need to talk to someone who’s been in the village for 20 years. I’ve found it easy to make these relationships: I just approach people–housewives, old men–and start asking questions. Sooner or later, someone will mention they have a son who speaks English and knows the area where I’m going–and I’ve found my “guide.” The local professional guides you meet in these countries can’t always be trusted for travel advice–their livelihood depends on making people feel it’s safe. Plus, your concept of what’s dangerous may be very different from theirs.
What about going with a larger international outfitter?
If you look at the major attacks on tourists in recent years–in Egypt, Uganda, Yemen–the victims weren’t backpackers but large groups of foreigners with tour organizers. The guy with the backpack has comparatively little risk, because he’s asking all the time, and he’s moving in abstract patterns. The groups have big buses with signs on the side, and they always go to the same parks and hotels. The people who deal in this kind of terror don’t just wake up one morning and decide to blow up a bunch of tourists. They need a plan, and to hatch and implement a plan, you need to have an ongoing target.
But the good thing is that some of the better-known companies won’t take you to dangerous countries in the first place. They have reputations to protect; they know that if one of their customers dies, there goes their entire business. So they’re going to err on the side of caution and cancel trips, hand you your money back. That said, you shouldn’t automatically trust anyone. Do your own research. And play the game: Call and say, “Hi, I want to go to Yemen near the border with Saudi Arabia.” Some outfitters will set you up. The trustworthy ones will tell you you’re nuts.
So it sounds like being Informed is critical.
There’s no sign that says, “You are now entering a war zone.” The bottom line: Safety for adventure travelers depends on getting your head out of the tourism industry and into the real world. You need to read news instead of brochures, and you need to get out of your bubble and tune into the local vibes. Start talking to locals. Ask questions: What’s going on? Who are the bad guys? Where do they hang out? How do they kidnap? You’d be surprised how much people know. Another key is to hook up with the embassy in the country where you’re traveling. If you’re on their list, they can contact you if they’re going to empty out the area. And when planning your trip, you should look at the State Department’s travel warnings and try to get ahold of the local papers for where you’re going. There’s usually one in English, and you can also go to Internet news aggregators like Yahoo!, which will send you updates from a number of sources.
Have you had any close calls because you didn’t pay attention to the news?
It’s funny–I’ve been to all these war zones, and the only times I’ve really gotten into trouble were when I let my guard down in places that seemed safe. When I was in Kampala, Uganda, in 1998, I was part of a terrorist attack by an Islamic group. I was tired, and I just sat down to have a beer on the patio of a tourist hotel. Some kid came up, asked for a glass of water, then left his bag on the ground. Luckily, I’d just gone upstairs when the bomb went off. Four people ended up dead, and at least a dozen–some of them foreigners–were injured. It was related to a visit by Bill Clinton, who was making speeches about fighting terrorism. Had I read the paper, I would have known there had been a series of bombings against American installations, and I might have thought better of sitting out in a sidewalk cafe But I was in that bubble, you know. I wasn’t in a war zone mode.
How can we get out of that bubble?
It’s hard for 25- or 35-year-old Americans to suddenly learn how to put on their game face and think like they’re in a war zone. But there are some things you can do to be safer. Steer clear of big tourist hotels. Wear dull colors–khaki or black. I always black out the logos on my clothes. I put my backpack in a UN flour bag. I wear a cheap watch. And if I carry a camera, I try to tuck it under my arm out of view. I always tell people the wrong thing if they ask me what I’m doing tomorrow or where I’m going next week. Sometimes I’ll even confuse my guide by telling him one thing and then, the next day, changing plans. It may piss him off, but if he decides to sell me out and help a terrorist group kidnap me, I’ve foiled his plan. I never really lie to people to invent an identity, though. Don’t tell your new friends that you’re Irish or Canadian, because they’re going to figure it out.
So does all this mark the dawn of a more Pelton-like breed of adventure travel?
Well, yeah. A lot of what people call adventure travel is bull. It’s become cool to go someplace that has the cachet of danger, but nobody is prepared to handle real danger. You know, it smells bad, it hurts. And so the tourism industry often tries to isolate people from cultural realities, even going so far as to re-create these realities inside hotels. Travelers enter a foreign country, have a little native show to start off with, then basically ignore the people in that country. But now the situation has changed, and they can’t do that anymore. People are going to have to get out of the tourism rut and look at the reality in front of them if they want to be safe.