Monday, April 1, 2013

The Fearful Traveler

I read Pico Iyer's insightful essay on why we travel (you can find it here) and was determined to write a happy article about why I travel, why my friends travel, why you should travel. One quote that struck me from the article was this:

"This is what Camus meant when he said that “what gives value to travel is fear”—disruption, in other words, (or emancipation) from circumstance, and all the habits behind which we hide."

I readily agreed. Everything I'm proud of having done abroad, everything I've learned from and a lot of what I have enjoyed deeply were things that were scary at first, things that were disruptive to my idea of what was normal, or challenged what I thought I was capable of. Teaching 20 adults basic English, using my broken Spanish or Georgian to strike up a conversation, dancing at a village feast in front of a crowd, or bussing across borders alone.  Before you delve into the rest of this blog entry, think about that quote, which stands alone so well. 

I was thinking about that type of fear, of disruption, of nerves conquered. But then I stumbled upon this article, about a female tourist who was brutally raped in Brazil. She was traveling with her boyfriend, who was badly beaten and handcuffed, and afterwards they were robbed.

I was stopped in my tracks. I different type of fear entered my mind. I recently spent a few months traveling, sometimes solo, more often with my then-boyfriend, other times with a girl friend. And I suddenly had a horrible image of me and my then-boyfriend, traveling on one of the innumerable little buses we took, him beaten, me...

It was very unlikely to happen where we traveled, as the numbers for violent crime against foreigners were quite low. Thankfully, we were never even pick-pocketed.  But it could have happened. The statistics for violent attacks against women are 1 in 3 worldwide (I write more about that here). So sorry for the personal and somewhat graphic imagery, but it could have happened. To me. To you. To your friends.

And then I read about the foreign tourist raped, also with a traveling companion, in India. (Warning: all of these articles are upsetting.) And of course, we've all heard about the student in Delhi, and then this women, who her fellow travelers didn't help as she was under siege in her room.  Visits to India are down after these news stories, especially among females.

So, why do we still travel?

I hate to, if ever so vaguely, link Iyer's wonderful essay with my thoughts on danger traveling. For the record, it is only happenstance that I read these news stories after the essay. I agree with all that Iyer says, and I'm sure he is very aware of the problems and dangers in traveling - that they weren't included in his essay was only because the scope and focus of his essay was different. Still, if I can't put my happenstance frightened little thoughts out here, where can I?

The world is a dangerous place. I was in a lot more danger when I lived in downtown DC than when I lived in rural Eastern Europe. It is statistically speaking more dangerous for me to drive a car through my home city of Atlanta than to fly to Istanbul. When travelers crossed the oceans on wooden boats, and faced sicknesses with no cure and hostile natives with spears travel was much more dangerous. And women are, unfortunately, raped everywhere, and more often than not by someone they know, someone in their own neighborhood (check out RAINN for the stats).

I think these stories frighten me so much because this is violence specifically against women, and anyone who is unfortunate enough to be traveling with them. I think it frightens me not just because rape is frightening, but because in these stories it occurs in the unknown, off in the wilds of a new country, which only compounds the fear. We don't, we cannot, walk around every day imagining that some man in our office, in our coffee shop, in the library is going to rape us. We can't live our lives that way, even though that is more likely than a stranger in an ally way raping us. But it is easy for us, for me, to imagine this horror in an "exotic" location where "anything" can happen.

Why do we still travel? Apparently, a lot of us don't, or at least, not to the same places.

There is some fear that needs to be overcome when traveling, fear that is a healthy part of the experience of the unknown. But there is also terrible, sickening, nightmarish fear. This fear is real. I live in the Dominican Republic, and while I do not fear rape here (I have friends and neighbors in my small town looking out for me!) the stares and cat-calls do make me very uncomfortable and sometimes, a little nervous.

It makes me very angry that women need to be afraid anywhere. It makes me personally angry, as a female that aspires to travel to every corner of the globe, that women travelers, and often their male companions, must travel in fear. I should not have to take precautions, I should not have to think about what I wear. But I do, and I will.

I will also continue to travel, because I love it. Because it transforms me. Because a life without travel, to me, is no life at all. But I will travel with more baggage than a backpack - I'll travel with some real fear, some deep anger, and a heart breaking for the women who have found that travel changed their lives in the most brutal and violent way possible.

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