Travel Warnings: How to Filter the Paranoia
All Mexicans are rapists.
Now that I have your attention... all Salvadorians are killers. Peruvians are kidnappers, Ugandans are homophobes, and Filipinos... don't get me started on those savages.
These are just some of the general and utterly ridiculous misconceptions that are spread around the world by government operated travel advisory websites on a daily basis. Donald Trump and his hateful band of heavily retarded sheep may believe these generalisations to be true, but hey, they're fucking idiots.
Travel advisory websites can often be confusing to the point of bamboozlement, and read through the rhetoric for long enough, you'll end up dedicating the rest of your life to the comfort and security of your newly installed panic room. Even now, as I write this, going viral is the revelation that the land of the paranoid, the United States, has placed an official travel warning on every single country in the world other than their very own. Internet hoax or not, the scary thing is that the notion is so damn believable.
Don't go anywhere, stay here at home, where you'll be safe and free. For your loyalty, we'll give you a free carton of Oxycontin and a bullet enema up your ass. It is the land of the free, after all.
The official United States Bureau of Consular Affairs web page dedicated to "smart" travelling states this about Mexico:
"U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, such as homicide, kidnappings, carjackings and robbery by organised criminal groups in Mexican states."
Well that's it then. Even though I live in Mexico and have never seen or heard any account of the sort, I'm packing up my house right now and crossing the border into El Paso where I'm sure it's safe even though I got held up there once. Geez!
Truth be told, I used to religiously check travel warning pages for each country I was visiting, each city, town, village and jungle. But that just made me paranoid. I'd forever be on edge arriving to a new place, only to realise that generally, it's just like everywhere else, nothing bad really happens. That's if you're careful; there's a fine line between paranoia and vigilance. And this is it...
My darling wife, Demelza, and I, spent the best part of two years backpacking through South, Central, and North America, making our way from Ushuaia, Argentina all the way up to Banff, Canada, mostly using only the most basic land and water transportation we could find. We travelled through supposed no go regions of many countries that are stereotypically perceived as dangerous.
Prior to departure, nestled within the culturally racist and often deluded bosom of our home country, Australia, we were continually warned by friends and family alike, that countries the ilk of Colombia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, were most definitely no go zones for westerners like us. People we know, people we love, had the gall to come straight out with it; you'll be killed, you'll be raped, you'll be kidnapped, robbed, drugged and tortured. What the fuck is this, Guantanamo Bay?!
Of course, in our time in the wonderful region of Latin America, other than the occasional case of self-poisoning and me dying at the sight of our bill from the Hard Rock Cafe (an American company, mind you) in Cartagena, Colombia, not one of these melodramatic, over the top extremities even came close to molesting us. This includes time spent in tourist meccas, isolated towns, jungles, mountains and beaches well off the tourist trail, day and night, with my wife spending a decent portion of that time doing her own thing. A woman on her own in the badlands of Latin America?! The horror! If you're sensible, nothing happens!
But common sense can only get you so far, right? In the land of the free, home of the brave, after having just walked over the border from Juarez, Mexico, (that's right, nothing happened to us in the supposed most dangerous city on Earth either), we were absconded by four crackheads who seemed to think that we were going to simply hand over our gear quietly and with the minimum of fuss. I got news for you Americanos; Australians don't tolerate bullshit, even if we are outnumbered. We kind of yelled at them with disdain and were ready to start throwing down with these lunatics, when a taxi from out of nowhere turned up and all but swept us to safety. El Paso, Texas. Last I checked, that was in America. We'd been out of the safety of Latin America for no more than ten minutes.
Point being, shit can go down anywhere. I do find it ironic though, that the most paranoid of all countries, hence the government with the most paranoid outlook on the rest of the world, America, is actually also one of the most dangerous places on Earth. Now, before you Yanks get all huffy and start telling me that if I don't like it, to go home, I say this; fuck you. I like America. It's a beautiful nation. Not a fan of the people so much, but hey, I'm a writer; I hate people in general. Just stop being so damn paranoid, yeah?
A combination of my own personal experiences and extended research has taught me this; American travel advisory sites are to be completely ignored. Forget about them. They're self-serving and completely ignorant at best. If I were to be perfectly truthful, I'd say that United Kingdom's and Australia's official travel advisory pages aren't much better. But those nations just love sucking up to the U.S. so what did you expect? Canada's is close to level-headed and is a decent service to utilise, but the champion of all champions has to be New Zealand's advisory page; no exaggerated notions, no melodramatics, no paranoia; just good, old fashioned, God's honest truth. The Kiwis win hands down, and are my go to page should I ever decide to regard my safety seriously again.
But what about the unofficial travel advisory sites? The sites that aren't officially represented by governments, that may have agenda-driven biases of their own. How are we supposed to sift through the reactionary claptrap of Joe Public? Remember, that anyone can submit a review or advice on these sites, and that approximately 85% of submissions are in fact, negative.
The big one, and the one to focus on here, is Trip Advisor, a massive site dedicated to assisting the prospective traveller in the gathering of whatever information might be required. It's the most popular go to travel advisory site on the planet, and this is for good reason; it's the best. But how can we distinguish the angrily biased or dishonest reviews based on a random person's individual experience, from something that is the truth? On the flip-side, how are we to tell the authenticity of a positive review from a review simply submitted by someone with a conflict of interest? It's not easy; try for long enough and it can be a complete headfuck.
I've found that there really is only one way to get the best out of Trip Advisor for our own individual needs, but that method isn't foolproof either. At least though, the odds can be balanced in our favour. Here's how:
- Regarding visiting countries close to the southern and eastern proximities of the United States (i.e. Latin America and the Caribbean), do not take as gospel the negative advice submitted by American citizens. This may seem harsh, stereotypical and even a tad racist, but seriously, I have been screwed over in the past from biased or media-washed advice from a U.S. national. Many of them do tend to be quite ignorant when it comes to matters outside their own country. The sad thing is, that some negative reviews will actually be genuine, but it's in your best interest to lump them all into one category and discard them. Positive reviews from our American friends will be just that; positive.
- The same rule applies when visiting many other countries around the world; e.g. negative reviews from the Japanese towards the Chinese, Bolivians towards Chileans, Pakistanis towards Indians etc. will more often than not be biased and again, a tad racist. Do your research into who hates who. I'm not joking.
- Restaurant, cafe and bar reviews can be even trickier to decipher. How do you know if a negative review is solely based around the customer's steak coming out medium when it was supposed to be cooked medium rare? How do you know that a glowing review isn't coming straight from the establishment owner's keyboard? In this regard, I live by one hard and fast rule: If it sounds too good to be true, then it is, and if it sounds horribly far-fetched, then it will be. Glowing reviews praising staff at a restaurant for providing everything except sexual favours are usually just management propaganda. Negative reviews, especially the more fickle ones, are most likely just from a pissed-off customer who ran out of toilet paper after eating a delicious meal and happily chatting with the friendly staff. In either case, a good idea is to check varying threads, online newspaper reviews and the restaurant, cafe, or bar's own websites for broader knowledge.
- I have found that public transport reviews are generally pretty accurate, but reviews of differing transport terminals can differ wildly depending on how well-travelled a person is, or how a particular person might handle certain pressure situations. An example of this is a review that I read on Trip Advisor, about a bus ticket purchasing experience at Buenos Aires' Retiro Bus Terminal. The reviewer expressed her extreme displeasure at the "crowded nature of the terminal", "the pick-pockets", "the horrible food", "the uncomfortable seating", and the utter confusion as to where to buy a ticket to a specific destination and which platform the bus was to leave from. The reviewer noted that neither she, nor her husband, spoke any Spanish, and neither had ever been to Argentina before. So when I went to buy a ticket to Santiago, Chile, from that very terminal, I was prepared for utter insanity. I did find the scene to be slightly chaotic, I suppose, but one must expect at least a small amount of craziness in a Latin American bus terminal, wouldn't one? It really wasn't that bad though. Everything went quite smoothly and it was very easy to remain calm during the entire process. The lessons here: Learn at the very least, the fundamentals of the native language, stay calm (you're not going to die), and embrace the culture of where you're visiting, warts and all. If everything was like home, then why would we bother leaving in the first place.
Filtering out the anger and paranoia from the plethora of travel advisory websites that are available to us, is a difficult skill to master that can only be crafted with experience. There is no guarantee that any method is foolproof; it only takes one person, no matter where you are in the world, to ruin your day. However, the odds are swung firmly in your favour if you just apply some common sense, rationale, and a wary but adventurous spirit. Don't be paranoid, you'll have a miserable life, but don't be fearless either. A small amount of fear or trepidation is paramount to us keeping our wits, and experiencing some truly moving, adrenalin pumping situations. Above all else, do your research.
You're not going to die; probably.
*If you enjoy the writing of Benjamin Munday, why not subscribe to The Low Road for a free download of his award winning short story, 'The Ashtray'.