Be Afraid. Please.

As "average" Americans travel farther afield, a veteran traveler starts to feel, well, average

Dec 13, 2006
Outside Magazine
Don’t Go There

U.K. "Do not make flippant remarks about bombs or terrorism,especially when passing through U.S. airports." CHINA "The uncheckedspread of guns has caused incessant murders." GERMANY "It shoulddefinitely be noted that nude swimming and even changing clothes on the beachare viewed as causing a public disturbance." CANADA "The healthand security situation in most of New Orleans remains difficult." FRANCE"The majority of homicides take place in public and are notably tied to drug trafficking."

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ON THE LIST OF TERMS used to describe American travelers abroad, savvy and daring have generally ranked right below thin and quiet. For most Yanks, riding the Paris Metro without deodorant used to be about as adventurous as it got. And that's just how I liked it. As one of the few thrill-hungry Americans with a tattered passport and a healthy disregard for State Department warnings, I've actually been able to make a living writing about travel. In fact, that's been my whole identity. I'm the guy at the party with the story about being confronted by a Bolivian gunman on a bridge. (I usually skip the part about how he only wanted me to buy $5 in raffle tickets for a school fundraiser.) Then I ease into a casual bit about surfing with an expat named "Pirate" off Muslim islands in the Philippines. I pause for effect, then drop the clincher—the tale about dodging Maoists in a remote sector of Nepal. I say it just like that, too: "a remote sector of Nepal." Oh, how the ladies swoon.

Or used to swoon, because something has changed. Suddenly I'm coming across my fellow countrymen in bars and buses from Caracas to Cairo. And now I have to agree with the graffiti: YANKEE, GO HOME. If you keep popping up in the "exotic" settings of my stories and discovering for yourselves how easy it is to come home unscathed, I'm going to have to find real work. When I pull out my gunman story at a cocktail party these days, I'm likely to be one-upped by some guy in khakis showing off snapshots of his fiancée posing with Thai soldiers on their way to seizing Bangkok. "You know, the September coup," he'll say. A coup! How do I top that?

Actually, I probably never will. The surprising truth is that Americans haven't just recovered from the post-9/11 jitters that scared them away from airports altogether; they're traveling more adventurously than ever before, disregarding political instability, monsoon seasons, and malaria. After a coup in Fiji in 2000, Susan Tanzman, owner of Los Angeles–based Martin's Travel and Tours, saw 75 percent of her Fiji-bound clients immediately cancel their trips, like good, predictable 'fraidy cats. Fast-forward to Thailand last September: There's Major General Thawip Netniyom—our friendly putschman, fresh from overthrowing the government—telling the cameras, "When you talk about a ‘coup,' it's not really as bad as you think." And there were the Americans—believing him. A few businessmen canceled their meetings, but the tourists didn't blink. In fact, they pounced. A friend of mine decided it would be a great time to hunt for bargains to Bangkok. She found a steal. "Five years ago they wouldn't have stayed," Tanzman says. "No way." Now, a government falls in Southeast Asia and people are on Expedia looking for hotel discounts. Isn't Switzerland due for a coup?

I'm not being paranoid here, either. Indications from all over the globe show that Americans are sacking up like never before. Remember that jelly-bomb fright at Heathrow last August? Air traffic from the U.S. to Europe actually increased over the following month, with North American carriers reporting the most crowded flights. And those once exotic places that people like you knew only from the stories that people like me wrote? Guided tours! Next year, Mountain Travel Sobek, one of the largest and oldest adventure travel outfitters, plans to offer packages to Egypt, even though bombs have killed more than 100 people in the Sinai since 2004. The company is also offering new trips to formerly spooky spots like Mauritania and the Republic of Georgia. For $4,195, Wilderness Travel will take you camping in Libya. Libya!

Maybe I did my job too well. (Modesty is for hacks.) Maybe I should have written less about fine white sand and more about black-market moneychangers or the time my brother got pooped on in Peru. Or maybe it's simply that, as home felt less secure, the rest of the world gradually appeared less scary by comparison. But there's no doubt that Americans have either gotten over their fear or learned to live with it. "After you've been traumatized, you become anxious and hypervigilant," says Robin Dea, a chief psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente who deals with victims of violence. "But that anxiety goes extinct pretty quickly if nothing happens to you again."

Of course, caution will always have its place. There are truly reckless decisions a traveler can make, and sometimes even the most adventurous of us just wants pretty sunsets and shopping malls free of soldiers. But when it comes to going off the beaten path, all it takes is a little bit of extra time to assess things for yourself. That's how you find the best trips, the ones that are both exciting and safe, even with tanks. But with Americans taking a month longer to plan overseas vacations than they did several years ago, I guess everyone's figured that out, which sucks.

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