CHICAGO — “We travel, then, in part just to shake up our complacencies by seeing all the moral and political urgencies, the life-and-death dilemmas, that we seldom have to face at home.”
So wrote travel writer Pico Iyer in his legendary essay, “Why We Travel.” And though Iyer appears to be referring mostly to the life-and-death dilemmas of others — that is, the people we meet who face far graver realities — I’d argue that travel makes these dilemmas a bit more real in our own lives too.
Consider: When I spent several months in South America during the 1990s, the thing I feared most were the taxis. Yes, taxis.
Don’t flag taxis in the street, I was told repeatedly, because climbing into an unfamiliar car with a stranger was a sure route to being kidnapped. What could never happen in Chicago or New York or Philadelphia — where taxis are safe and regulated — could be a very real threat in Rio or Asuncion, people said.
Was it true? Who knows? But, to the best of my recollection, I heeded the advice enough that I stuck to buses, taxis affiliated with hotels and my feet. There appeared to be a risk while traveling, but I did my best to step around it.
With travel, that tension between risk and reward is not uncommon. This neighborhood you’ve never been to is safe, but not that one. This person you’ve never met seems safe to chat, drink or travel with, but not that one. This taxi is legitimate and safe, but not that one. We are forever making these judgments while we travel. The truth is that the world is a scary place, and the easiest thing to do is stay home — locked behind our doors, tucked beneath our blankets and fixed in our routines where we always know what comes next.
But, of course, most of us don’t live like that. We don’t want to live like that. The human experience is fleeting, and for many of us, it is best used with some degree of searching out what’s new and what’s challenging. We learn, we grow and we become smarter than we were yesterday. We don’t achieve this by standing still. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the cliche says. And so we travel.
But we block out the life-and-death dilemmas of which Iyer wrote as much as we can. Because how else would we ever get off the couch?
I was reminded of this again recently with the March 24 crash of a Germanwings plane into the French Alps that killed 149 people. The story only became more horrific as details unfolded: a mentally ill co-pilot (apparently) deliberately crashes a plane while his pilot, locked out of the cockpit, bangs on the door and screams, “Open the damn door!” We obviously don’t think of the inherent risks in travel as including a pilot’s mass murder; we think of (at minimum) getting lost in a place where we don’t speak the language and (at worst) getting into the wrong taxi.
I initially was relieved that the Germanwings crash wasn’t religion-based terrorism — but only for a moment. Once the motive emerged, it underscored how random calamity can be. A depressed pilot hellbent on suicide and mass murder evades detection, researches his unfathomable plan on the Internet and then executes it flawlessly — it’s terrifying if you think about it.
So we don’t think about it. We can’t. Because what is the alternative? Never flying again because we haven’t personally inspected the pilots’ metal health evaluations? Staying home?
We travel with a little bit of faith because we must. We hope that the systems, protocols and regulations in place will protect us, and that we are able to make sensible and informed decisions that will keep us, and the people we love, safe.
The joy of travel, and what makes it challenging and enlightening, is that we expose ourselves to experience and to the risk and reward of what it means to be alive. We put ourselves “out there,” literally and figuratively.
I wrote a few months ago about the notion of sensible risk while traveling in the era of religious terrorism. For example, while traveling in northern Algeria last fall to hike the Tell Atlas mountains, Frenchman Herve Gourdel was kidnapped and beheaded. Was visiting northern Algeria a sensible risk? Arguably not — the U.S. State Department, among other agencies, had issued travel warnings for the region. The risk wasn’t exactly an unknown.
But many of the risks we do face are quite unknown. Hundreds — and some years, thousands — of people die annually in plane crashes. Or some people do go down the wrong street in the unfamiliar city, or perhaps they do get in the wrong taxi.
But for many of us, there is no other way to live the short lives we have other than to educate ourselves, take sensible precautions — and then see what’s out there waiting for us.
As Iyer wrote: “There are, of course, great dangers to (travel), as to every kind of freedom, but the great promise of it is that, traveling, we are born again, and able to return at moments to a younger and a more open kind of self.”
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