Article: There be dragons…Paul Theroux on travel in an unsafe world

The earth is often perceived as a foolproof Google map — not very large, easily accessible and knowable by any finger-drumming geek with a computer. In some respects this is true. Distance is no longer a problem. 

The reality is that much of the world is not as safe as we might like and news reports seem currently to add countries to the list of ‘unsafe places’ with alarming regularity.  

In a 2011 New York Times essay, Why We Travel, (published again by the NY Times after the Paris attacks of last November), Paul Theroux reflects on his own travels to places that he was warned off or that might seem unusual choices in light of political or civil unrest. 

The truth, Theroux muses, is that the world is not a static menu of places to visit.  Places have always suffered reversals in their fortunes that may affect whether they are safe to visit.  Some reversals may last longer than others but wars, dictatorships, hurricanes, floods, civil unrest, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes and terrorism have always put some places out of most travellers’ comfort zones.

But, if the world’s travel map is constantly being redrawn in “tragic and unsettling ways”, that doesn’t mean that these places should necessarily be ignored by travellers.  

In Abroad, Paul Fussell reminds us that, etymologically, “travel is work” and “a traveler is one who suffers travail, a word deriving in its turn from Latin trillium, a torture instrument consisting of three stakes designed to rack the body.”   A few years later, in the forward to his 1985 Taste for Travel collection, John Julius Norwich lamented that the “the easier it becomes to travel, the harder it is to be a traveller.” 

So, in the same spirit, Theroux explains that travel to unsettled places may not always be be fun but can lead to genuinely rewarding experiences.  After all, travellers have always been “forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty: the wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: “There Be Dragons.””


Theroux describes how experiencing daily life in troubled places can be revelatory and highlights that, while an unattractive political situation in a place might make visiting as a tourist a matter of conscience, it doesn’t necessary mean that travelling there would be unsafe.

So what advice to the traveller who is having second thoughts about visiting a destination? The New York Times has just published two further pieces that offer assistance.  

The first, In Cairo, Alone Time With the Pharaohs, by Patrick Scott suggests ‘Go!’.  Describing a visit to Egypt where tourism collapsed in the wake of the 2011 uprising, Scott advises that the result is that it is now possible to “enjoy the privilege of solitude at some of the world’s greatest historic sites.”   To be a tourist in a place where there are no (or at least, few) other tourists is attraction enough for some people, before the added bonus of world class sites.

Despite the seemingly relentless stream of articles about Egypt, Scott finds that, while from afar visitors “perceive the news media coverage of Egypt as overly alarming”, once on the ground in the country they feel different and “without exception…say they feel safe”.   And, as if to prove Theroux’s point about places being in constant flux, Scott quotes a stoical tour operator:

As soon as we are not in the news, people will start coming. We are in their brains, we are in their hearts, we are on their bucket list.   

The second article, An Informed Traveler Is a Safer Traveler, by Seth Kugel (NYT’s Frugal Traveler) offers level-headed, practical advice.  Focussing on recent media coverage of the Zika virus, Kugel suggests that while there might be a great deal of media noise about some places and events, that isn’t necessarily a good indicator of risk.  While we might worry about terrorism abroad, we would do as well to check road safety statistics at home.   With a hefty dose of common sense Kugel advises that, rather than foregoing a journey, the cautious traveller should do some of their own research to see if the media are overstating the risk.  Kugel concludes, quoting Arthur Former, that the decision whether to not go is ultimately one of weighing risk and reward:  

Travel to me is too vital, too important a part of civilized life that I feel we would give up too much by not traveling for fear of terrorism to France, Belgium and other destinations. 

There are limits to all this of course.  Even a redoubtable traveller such as Theroux admits it is sometimes better to heed advice and his article should not be treated as encouragement to would be adventurers to head for the nearest newsworthy trouble spot.  For that, there is ‘Dark Tourism’ (see these articles in The Guardian and The Atlantic).



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