Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In Defense of Travel

The recent and tragic death of the bicycling couple Peter Root and Mary Thompson in Thailand earlier this week resonates with many travelers and their families both at home and abroad. For those of us who are lucky enough to consider ourselves part of the long-term travel and round-the-world travel communities this is the kind of story most of us wonder if we will end up in, it part of the price of this life.

International travel, especially to so called “third world” countries bears inherent risks. There is health, infectious diseases, sub-topics aliments, food poisoning, various exciting forms of diarrhea not to mention usually sub-par medical infrastructure or in some cases complete lack of medical availability. Then there is the issue of security, the world is not such a safe place, there are roadside bombs, targets against foreigners( especially white elite foreigners), muggings, robberies. These are the things that get the most attention in the news.

The real risk in travel is often from everyday things, traffic accidents being one of the most prominent. During our time in Southeast Asia we saw (between us) three accidents. Only one lead to a hospitalization and none involved travelers but the risk is still there, especially if you are part of that traffic.

Road accidents cause more deaths to travelers than any other travel related risk. Busses fall off unpaved roads in the mountains, taxi drivers careen into other vehicles, scooters flip, rickshaws flip, bikes flip. Driving, whether a motorized vehicle or a people powered one, in a new country regardless of if it is Cambodia or England has inherent risks. New traffic patterns, new rules, maybe even a new orientation (left to right or the other way around). All these things increase your chances of befalling some tragedy. Travelers abroad can die on the road.

But people can die on the road at home too. In fact, it’s more likely.

When we hear of tragedies befalling travelers one of the first relations many have is “travel is dangerous”. For all the above mentioned reasons this is true, yes travel is dangerous. But so is being home. Anywhere where you live (and don’t think your bucolic country town excludes you) you can die. Life is dangerous; road accidents befall people all the time, with shocking regularity, but never make the news.

What makes the news is when two beautiful young people on an adventure die unexpectedly. Then you hear the statistics, the numbers and the horror stories.

Want to hear a horror story? Once I lived in a building that was so unsafe during a three month period a man was beat so badly with metal baseball bat that he needed reconstruction surgery, and another guy was stabbed. Rape was prevalent in this community, the local residents tried to combat it with awareness drawing white chalk outlines of victims on the pavement to make the numbers more visible.  My car was broken into. This was my campus, in Massachusetts. Nowhere is ‘safe’.

Do we incur more risk by traveling to places in the world different from our own? Yes, certainly. Do millions of people live in those places safely? Yes. Do hundreds of thousands travel there annually without an incident more serious than some traveler’s diarrhea and paying too much for a sarong? Yes.

This couple knew the risks and they took them anyway. Not because they were foolish and young but because they had good reason to believe that they would come back in one piece( according to Travel Med the chances of dying in traffic accident in South East Asia are 1.6x higher than at home). They had a dream and weren’t afraid to follow it, for that we honor and remember them.

 Whenever we travel, to Nepal or the grocery store, we take risks. In the end, something will get us all and though I read headlines like this with a whispered “there but for the grace of God go I,” I can’t help but believe that there are worse ways to go. This couple died together doing what they love, I pray that their families can find some solace in that.

Keep traveling, keep safe.

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