May 06

Travel Trepidation: Fear and Loathing of New Places

by in Ramblings

The US State Department reports that less than 10 percent of Americans travel abroad each year.  Of that small percentage, most visit Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean.  Generally speaking, Americans just don’t travel internationally.  Let us examine the root of this phenomenon: Fear.

Fear of Headlines

We are told the world is a dangerous place.  Turn on CNN, and you are bombarded with terrifying headlines.  Juárez is a war zone!  You’ll be kidnapped, robbed, or worse.”, they tell us.  “They may force you to watch Mexican soap operas!” The media is so negative, it’s no wonder Wisconsin Dells is packed.

Granted, there are some nasty places in the world, and you shouldn’t dismiss the risks.  I am in no way advocating you hop the next flight to Baghdad.

However, I am advocating you take the “gloom and doom” with a grain of salt.  The world is not as scary as Wolf Blitzer’s furry face would lead you to believe.   In fact, you are probably already taking greater risks in your everyday life.  Consider these violent crime rates ¹:

  • United States:  80.1 per 1,000 people
  • Thailand:  8.8 per 1,000 people
  • Colombia:  4.9 per 1,000 people
  • India:  1.6 per 1,000 people
  • Yemen:  1.2 per 1,000 people

According to the data, you are 50 times more likely to be mugged in Chicago than Yemen.  Yet, I don’t think twice about riding the Green Line or strolling down Michigan Avenue at two o’clock in the morning.  You have to discount these statistics, I admit, as the data are probably skewed from unreported crimes, differing crime-counting methodology, and spotty record keeping.  Even still, you’ll find the vast majority of people make it back relatively unscathed.  With the exception of pick pocketing, most travelers avoid major crimes (Again, such as forced exposure to Maria la del Barrio).

Understand that the headlines are sensationalized, and you cannot let them put you off.  Limit your exposure to high-risk situations and make sensible choices.

Fear of the Unfamiliar

Many hesitate to travel because they are afraid of missing their friends, family, and routine.  We cling to familiarity and resist change at every turn.  Most people solve their fears by frequenting the same destinations year after year– Las Vegas every January or Orlando each summer.  There is comfort in the familiar, and routine can be a good thing.  But what’s the fun in that?  Traveling is about discovery and new experiences.  Nervousness should be a prerequisite– expected and embraced.

Nervousness is what makes travel so rewarding.  It gives you that pre-trip high.  Once you get to your destination, your fears melt away.  You left the jitters on the airplane along with your headphones.  You embrace the familiarity of the unfamiliar and stop worrying about your destination.  You are experiencing the destination first hand, and you see your fears of the unfamiliar were unwarranted.

Of course, then there’s the food thing.  Fried cockroaches?  Toasted arachnids?  The mind runs wild with stomach wrenching combinations.  There is no doubt some dishes will be absolutely terrible and will have you running for the bathroom.  However, others will be wonderful, and you’ll crave them the rest of your life.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve salivated at the thought of those lime-drenched, al pastor tacos on that dimly lit street in Mexico City.  ¡Muy delicioso!

Independent travel forces you fend to for yourself, which can be intimidating.  There is no tour guide or concierge to help you along.  But it’s not just you and your tattered Lonely Planet versus the world either— the invisible network of Couchsurfers and hostel-dwellers will help you along the way.

Your trip is a personal thing, and you can shape it to be whatever you want. 

Fear of Perceptions

I don’t know about you, but I don’t get 300 days of vacation at my job.  Most people have to quit or negotiate a leave of absence for a trip like ours.  This is a very scary thing.

Don’t be afraid to get off the career merry-go-round.  You can get right back on when you return.  Admittedly, Kim and I are your typical yuppies, and we aren’t leaving our careers behind to sell hemp necklaces and focus our inner Chi.

Well, at least not indefinitely.

Don’t be afraid of being viewed as irresponsible or uncommitted.  If you do it right, your employer may actually support your decision and welcome you back when you return.  How can anyone fault you for pursuing your dream?  Sometimes we are so worried about how we are perceived that we don’t go to cooking school or join the Peace Corp or take that year off to travel the world.

In summary, don’t let “the fears” paralyze you.  You only live once.  There are thousands of people that travel for months (even years) without being kidnapped by terrorists, subjected to poached monkey brain, or being forever branded as an unhirable hippy.  Just check out our Blogroll.  I think you’ll find a consistent message:

Once you set aside your fears and take that big trip, you’ll never regret it.

So, what are you waiting for?

1. Source:  Seventh United Nations Survey of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems, covering the period 1998 – 2000 (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Centre for International Crime Prevention)
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4 Responses to “Travel Trepidation: Fear and Loathing of New Places”

  1. From fernpod:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed the first two offerings in your three-part series of Pre-trip Ramblings now underway. Your background in the newspaper business serves you well. I eagerly await the next installment.

    Posted on May 6, 2010 at 1:15 pm #
  2. From Joe Schwartz:

    The Muslim countries such as Yemen are indeed safe (as long as you respect the laws 😮 ). I had a hard time believing that the other countries you list (Thailand, Columbia) are safer. The disconnect seems to be in the statement of the violent crime rate in the US is 80 per 1000. That is total crime, not violent crime. If you look at just murders for example, Thailand has 2X the murder rate of the US. Columbia has 15X the US murder rate. This is according to http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_mur_percap-crime-murders-per-capita .

    Posted on May 8, 2010 at 8:30 am #
  3. From Kim:

    I agree that our statistics probably aren’t totally legitimate. But, if you look at the world with fear, you’ll never experience anything. I think that one has to have the idea that most people are good and not out to get you. As long as you are alert and pay attention to your surroundings and don’t go anywhere or do anything stupid, I think this type of travel can be pretty safe! I used to work at the Old Navy on State Street right down the street from me in the heart of Chicago. There was a murder/suicide there last week. I’ve had my iPod stolen right out of my hands on the train and I’ve known people who’ve been mugged and assaulted on an EL platform. We’re just saying that people fear the unknown just because it is unknown, not necessarily because it is legitimately more scary. I certainly hope that in our travels we can help show that this kind of travel shouldn’t be discounted because of the “fear factor.”

    Posted on May 9, 2010 at 9:27 am #
  4. From Joe Schwartz:

    I absolutely agree that fear should not overcome us, and that you or anyone should go for it if you can and while you can! Every time I’ve travelled (though I’ve never done an adventure like yours!), I’m so appreciative of the experience of learning other cultures. They all offer something to learn. In many cases, I have to admit though, one of the greatest moments of gratitude comes when I arrive home.

    Posted on June 1, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

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