But Fear Itself

International Travel: Quit Panicking

Our newest Wanderlust contributor tells you why fears of Ebola and ISIS are overblown when it comes to international travel.

By Bill Wiatrak October 30, 2014

IMAGE: John Spink/Associated Press

I travel to a different country almost every month. But the places I choose are not usually on any of my friends’ top ten lists because they don’t really know anyone else who has been there or sometimes whether it’s even a real place.

I might as well tell them that I’m going to Atlantis or Camelot, or Asgard.

The hard truth is most Americans don’t know geography. Most of us had one semester of coloring maps in 6th grade and learned that Brazil produces jute. I still don’t really know what jute is, but I’m pretty sure Brazil gets colored green.

So, when I’m asked about my next adventure, one of two things usually happen: The person I’m speaking with will stare into space blankly trying to access a map in their mind or ask me the same question I’ve heard hundreds of times… “Are you sure it’s safe to go there”?

If you ask most people in the U.S. to tell you about their bucket list, you’ll find that travel is at the top of most of these lists. Everyone loves the thought of going to Europe or Australia, but the truth of the matter is most people I meet haven’t been a whole lot of places. Many of my friends have never left the United States. Why is that?

America has one of the best economies in the world. A U.S. passport holder can visit 174 countries without having to apply for a visa. So, we have money. Check. We have a pretty decent passport. Check. We might even know a little about jute production in Brazil. Check. It usually boils down to this: Americans are afraid.

IMAGE: Wikipedia — Jute production in Brazil is the extent of some Americans' knowledge of the vast nation.

I have been traveling around the world for over 35 years. Once, I even added up the months I’ve spent hitchhiking through Australia, backpacking through Africa, sleeping on trains in Europe and figured out I’ve actually been outside the country for years.

In that time there’s been bombings, cartel beheadings, shark attacks, wars, earthquakes, revolutions and SARS. I was in the Ukraine last year around this time as things were starting to heat up in Crimea and had a wonderful time.

A few years ago, I found myself in Greece during the economic crisis when no one else would go because they thought they would be killed in a political demonstration. I never saw anything in Athens like what I had seen on TV. I had the place practically to myself and couldn’t understand how the media could be so misleading to prospective travelers and keep them from visiting such a wonderful country. This year the big scares are Ebola and ISIS. I say it’s just new names for the same stuff… packaged fear.

Statistically, your chances of getting Ebola are insanely low. You’re more likely to be mauled by a polar bear in Manitoba than get Ebola virus while traveling. The countries that have the epidemics are some of the most unlikely places that you would ever visit.

A quick internet search reveals a completely different picture of risks and how the virus is contracted than the media will let on. Panic sells. Rumors go viral. Ebola has been popping up since the 1970s and once people calm down, get bored, and quit talking about it, time will pass, and it will come back for an encore fear performance.

The same is true with the ISIS scare. Since September 11, Americans have been paranoid about getting bombed or beheaded by Muslim extremists. Recently, a friend of mine booked a trip to Turkey. Shortly afterwards, she saw a news story about reporter who had been executed by the radical group. She was ready to cancel her trip, but I explained to her that there are millions of people in Turkey who go about their daily lives and never meet anyone from ISIS. The group is mostly targeting Syrians, Iraqis and a few Western news reporters that they hope will create great propaganda.

The idea that ISIS is going to stop your tourist bus makes very little sense. First, ISIS isn’t really on the tourist circuit and secondly, they have nothing to gain by killing you. The ISIS scare is heightened by the mistaken belief that many Americans have: Most Arabic people want you dead. Having traveled through much of the Middle East and Arab North Africa, I never found one person who wanted me dead. I rarely met anyone who wasn’t hospitable and didn’t go out of their way to make me feel welcome.

Image: Bill Wiatrak

I’ve never seen an American flag burned. I’ve never seen anyone holding machine guns over their head or throwing smoking canisters. I’ve been treated much better as a visitor in some of these countries than I have by hotel staff in Orlando. As far as dangerous cities go, I’d rather take my chances walking around Jerusalem at night than I would wandering around some areas of Houston.

My advice will almost always be the same, especially in light of these overblown travel scares: Just go! Make a list of the places in the world that you want to see. Pick one off your list and book it.

I promise that once you get to your destination, you’ll wonder why you were afraid in the first place. Once you see that the world is a giant buffet with thousands of tastes and textures, you’ll want to come back for seconds, without much fear for your health.

Bill Wiatrak is an avid international traveler and renowned local entertainer. To see more of his worldly adventures, tune into Wanderlust for his weekly contributions or check out his personal blog, www.thetravelingwizard.com

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