Posts Tagged 'Safety'

Surviving Sunset, And My First Motorbike Accident

So, so much for that New Year’s Resolution.

To be fair, I was on my friend’s motorbike, so I was still acting in accordance with the half-assed guidelines I’d set for myself. But that’s not really the point, now is it? The point of not riding a motorbike was to avoid accidents, to avoid getting injured and thus avoid medical treatment and having to deal with open wounds in a swampy climate in which I am unaccustomed to dealing with open wounds.

As far as accidents go, it was pretty uneventful. We were on a dusty highway outside of town—though “highway” isn’t quite the right word. It’s a big road with a gravel-and-dirt shoulder, filled with wheezing trucks and swerving motorbikes and minivans full of black-eyed workers heading home, the unlucky of whom were relegated to sitting on the roof. It’s one of the big roads outside of town, lined with garment factories and gas stations and bakeries and endless rows of roadside markets selling t-shirts and produce and weird smoldering meats, from beneath endless rows of beach umbrellas displaying names of cell phone companies.

It’s one of those roads that make you realize how big this city actually is, how little of it you actually know, living in the expat bubble of the inner-city. Which is why we’d headed out there—my friend’s company put him up in a housing division out there and he’d kept telling me I had to see it: “It’s totally different out there. Makes the riverside look fancy.”

That and we were chasing the dusk—wanted photos of smoldering sunsets, red as a wound behind a horizon of dust and exhaust, this particular breed of humanity all cast in silhouette. Everything’s more beautiful as a silhouette; anything can be beautiful as a silhouette.

So we were weaving and rolling through the bottlenecks and break-necks, me on the back snapping photos and trying not to slide in too close to the driver, but knowing that each time we narrowly missed another bike, I’d reflexively squeeze my legs. You’re never sure if that’s the kind of message you want to send, or if you want to send a message at all. Sometime you do.

So I was only half paying attention when an old man wobbled slowly on a motorbike in front of us. He moved out from the shoulder suddenly, and we couldn’t slow down in time. We probably wouldn’t have fallen over if it hadn’t been for all the dust—the same dust that was making the sunset so damn pretty.

We fell, I skidded and it was over before I realized it happened. It didn’t hurt, because most things don’t hurt till later, unless they’re really bad. We stood up, shook off the dust and I laughed as the blood blossomed from my knee.

People from the storefronts and markets came out, stood along the dirt that passed as a sidewalk, and stared. “White girl bleeding on the side of the highway,” I thought and laughed. I waved.

They smiled and waved back.

Blurry, but still...

We cruised back towards my friend’s apartment, stopped at a pharmacy that was really just a medicine cabinet in the front of a family’s living room. The woman tsked at me in a motherly way, stroked my shoulder and disappeared; a smiley guy I took to be her husband tenderly cleaned me up.

The wound foamed under the hydrogen peroxide, and the Betadine was drippy and the color of old blood, rusty blood, and it stung but in a clean way. The smiley guy cut up gauze and taped my wound shut as my friend looked sheepishly on and apologized.

“Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault,” I said. Then, with a smile, “But if I’d been driving, I’d probably be apologizing too.”

Smiley charged us $2 and my friend insisted on paying, which I didn’t argue about. Then we headed back into the city center, everything blacker than night behind my sunglasses, which I still wore to keep the dirt out of my contacts. But he was right—the city center seemed fancy after that, developed and paved and rich.

So now I’ve got this knee to attend to. Three days and thrice-daily cleanings, and it’s still raw in spots. I’m waiting for the scab to form, cringing each time I look at it, wincing each time I rinse it in disinfectants. I always hate tending to wounds. It’s the same with getting tattooed—it’s not the thing itself that bothers me, it’s the healing, the dealing with it. Which is a metaphor, of course.

But before I’d gotten back on the bike—while I stood on that dusty roadside dripping fresh blood down my leg and feeling the stares on my body like sticky insects—I’d looked out and noticed the sunset.

It was goddamn beautiful.

So I hobbled over and snapped a photo.

Because everything is beautiful at sunset.

April 25: Sobreity and Getting Stolen From

Didn't take many picture in Vientiane. So here's one of people on the exercise equipment along the riverside.

Vientiane, April 25th: it was one of those perfect days. Until I found the money missing.

April 25th is my sobriety birthday, the day I get to think to myself—“This is the number of years my life has been getting better.” This year was eleven. Eleven years of slowly, sometimes painfully, learning to live in the world and in my own body without killing myself. It’s a pretty good thing to celebrate, not in a balloons-and-cake kind of way, but in a way that’s stiller, sweeter.

The theme of the day, I’d decided, was self-cafe. Which didn’t seem like it would be hard to achieve in Vientiane. We’d arrived the previous morning, slept off our 24-hour-bus-ride aches and spent the afternoon strolling around the town, eating at the local night market, reveling in all the differences from Cambodia (“Sidewalks!”).

The air was lighter, softer in Vientiane. We were farther north, and it was cooler, an oppressive edge eased. The streets were free of rubbish, and the traffic was mellow, orderly even—girls in sarongs riding side-saddle, holding frilly sun umbrellas. With its shady streets and fountain square, its cafes and riverside promenade, the city felt—I hate to say it—European.

Everyone had talked about how insanely mellow Laos is, how when you cross the border you exhale this breath you hadn’t know you’d been holding. And it was like that for me. So I decided to mellow out with it. April 25, there’d be no hard-core traveler shit, just doing things that felt good for me.

So I spent a couple hours writing in the morning, then went for fruit shakes and Western salads. We took a tuk-tuk out to a fitness center recommended by the guidebook; I ran sprints on the treadmill, swam in the pool, read in the sun, drank fancy coffee, got an hour-long massage. We went back into town and my friends treated me to Indian food. Cool air blew off the river, and I felt healthy, serene, filled with a simple kind of gratitude you don’t need words for.

“This has been a fucking great day,” I told my friends as we walked back to the guesthouse. “Really, guys—thanks for sharing it with me.”

I needed to stop off at our room to grab some more cash. I’d changed a bunch of US dollars the day before, and I never like to walk around with too much money on me—a lesson learned, I suppose, growing up in Oakland. I know you’re not supposed to leave anything of value in hotel rooms, but it always seemed a toss up to me. And in six years of traveling, I’d never had a problem.

Housekeeping had come, we noticed: fresh towels and soap packets. I reached into my bag, a pocket that I’d left, admittedly, half-zipped. I pulled out the book I’d tucked my cash into—as it happened, my favorite recovery daily reader (yeah, that’s right). I flipped to the page I’d stuck my money in—as it happened, that day, April 25.

And it wasn’t there.

“God. Damn. It.” I closed my eyes, dropped my arms to my side. “My money is gone.”

I commenced what I knew was a fruitless effort, digging through all my shit. Alicia and Suki joined in. “Did you put it here maybe?” opening another pocket, lifting up another pile of dirty laundry.

It was gone. $150, about 5 days worth of travel. And I knew there was nothing I could do. Every hotel room I’d ever stayed in, this one included, has had signs telling you they weren’t responsible for missing property. I had travel insurance, but how do you prove you had cash stolen?

And it was partially my fault. I hadn’t been careless, per se, but I hadn’t been as vigilant as I should have. I’d broken one of the cardinal rules of traveling, right along with leaving your bags unattended or keeping money in your back pocket.

I went down to reception, even though I knew, just like searching through the room, that talking to the manager would be fruitless.

I told him about the missing money. “I know there’s nothing you can do, but I just thought you should know.” He went through the motions of calling staff (“They said no one cleaned your room today.”), searching through the video recorder of the hallway (“I didn’t see anyone enter the room.”).

He told me they’d never had a problem before; a couple minutes later, he suggested I’d lost the money. “Maybe because you are three,” he offered. “Once we had three people staying, and they also lost something. They called the police; it was a big problem for us.”

I sighed a long, pained sigh. “I thought you said you’d never had a problem before.”

He shook his head, dismissing my observation. “I trust my staff.”

“Well, that’s good. But someone stole money from me, so I don’t.”

I sat down in the gaudily carved bench in the foyer, defeated. My brain ran through a list of should-have’s, why-didn’t-I’s. I pictured all the end-of-trip indulgences I wouldn’t be able to allow myself. I felt nauseous. I got, I’ll admit it, teary.

I went back upstairs, flopped down on the crisply folded sheets. I smirked at the irony of getting money stolen from a recovery text, on my sobriety birthday, a day that had been so healthful and serene.

What do you have control of in this situation? I asked myself. I couldn’t get the money back, couldn’t file a claim with my travel insurance, couldn’t prove that it was stolen in the first place. All I could come up with was my attitude.

I sighed again. Not a pained sigh, but a long exhale, the kind they say you do in Laos. So someone took my money. Was I going to let them take my serenity too?

It’s been a few days. And while I still feel the sting, while I have to be extra careful about what I spend money on, the main thing I remember from April 25, 2011 isn’t getting ripped off. It’s of taking care of myself, giving myself what I needed—a day of fitness and relaxing and good food—and sharing it with friends.

[For what it’s worth, the hotel I stayed at was the Riverside Hotel. And they’re breakfast was pretty awful to boot.]

Two Cambodias

“The Cambodian people are just so lovely.”

You’re apt to hear this from other Westerners as you travel throughout Southeast Asia; you arrive in Phnom Penh and you’re apt to agree. A friendly, welcoming, almost shy demeanor, so vastly different from the brashness of their Vietnamese neighbors—it’s entracing, in a way, and a part of you falls in love with it, with the endlessly smiling faces, the hands pressed together and the small bow, say, when you pay your tab at a restaurant.

“How could they have possibly killed each other?” you hear people ask. “It’s amazing to think the Khmer Rouge could have occurred in a place like this, where the people are just so nice.” And as you graze the surface—stroll along the riverside, say, or stop for a coffee at a shady little street stall—it’s easy to wonder the same thing.

But you stay here a little while and you begin to see things—shadows that move like stray dogs, so that you think they’re stray dogs, until you look closer and realize: no, no, that’s something else. And it’s like there’s two Cambodias—the one you see on the surface, during daylight hours, and the other, some strange Other, of darkness and violence and short skirts sitting outside neon nightclubs, and weird, weird shit you couldn’t possibly ever understand.

“It’s out there,” Rachel said, nodding. “And all you need to do is scratch the surface—” she flicked her finger in the air “—and you see it.”

Flipping through the two English-language newspapers, you catch glimpses, between the black newsprint that smudges onto your fingertips in the heat. Western pedafiles, human traffikers, drug busts. You read a story about a local military captain being punished for using his gun “anarchically”, shooting it recklessly into a crowd of people. Because no one died, he doesn’t face any criminal charges. Instead, his head is shaved and he’s forced to go a military detention center, what sounds like a work camp, where he scrubs toilets and collects rubbish. He’ll be forced to work until “his attitude changes, then he’ll be set free.”

You read another article, about the murder/rape of a 25-year-old girl in a village in the Cham province. She’d been scratched, maimed, her vagina set ablaze. And yet it’s what the article mentions in passing, without further explaination, as though it were a given, that you find most disturbing. “Even in a time when every week brings fresh news of a horrific assault on a woman or child, the brutality of Lim Kim’s death stands out.” It’s determined that the attacker must be married, because otherwise he would have just married the victim after raping her and wouldn’t have had to kill her. “Something made him unable to be responsible for his actions,” the local police had determined. The reporter had gone on to interview villagers; they reported being “scared of the ghost of the body, but most of all the attacker”—as though it were perfectly normal to be scared of the murderer girl’s ghost, but not of an attacker.

Tim’s telling you the lead-in to some story, some hapless night. It took place at the first Western nightclub in Phnom Penh, where prostitution isn’t the worst of the city’s nightclubs, but certainly still present. “It’s called Heart of Darkness—”

“Wait,” you stop him. “Are you fucking serious? The first Western nightclub in the city is called ‘Heart of Darkness’?”

He nods and you laugh, because what is there else to do in the face of such a blatant metaphor—if you wrote in a book, you say, it’d be over-the-top symbolism. But here it is, in real life, staring you in the face, and there’s nothing to do but shake your head and laugh.

“You should always take a taxi at night,” Patricia tells you at the club, giving you the number of a taxi service. “The police clock off at 9. So sometimes, the moto or tuk-tuk driver will call a friend, and there’ll be someone waiting at your apartment with a gun to rob you. The taxi costs more, but it’s better.”

You program the taxi number into your phone.

You’re having dinner with Susan and she mentions in passing that the number of mob killings are down. “Mob killings?” you ask. “Oh, yes,” and she tells you about the phenomenon of mobs of people spontaneously beating and stoning accused theives to death. “It was really bad seven or so years ago, several a month. They came under pressure from the UN to get a handle on it. It’s pretty rare in Phnom Penh now, but it still happens in the provinces.”

“A girl was double raped earlier this week,” Tom tells you, “and her attackers only had to pay a $125 restitution. The case didn’t even go to court.”

“We’ve secured scholarships for several kids to go back to school,” Romi tells you when you visit Tiny Toones.

“Are the school fees very high?” you ask.

“No,” she sighs, “it’s the bribes that really add up.”

“Bribes?”

“Yes, the teacher bribes. They don’t always call it that, but it’s like this: the teacher photocopies a lesson. They say, ‘I paid for this photocopy, so you must pay me.’ If you don’t, you don’t get the lesson, you can’t take the test, you can’t pass the class. So it’s like this. But,” she shurgs and looks out at the shaded lot of squealing children, “this is Cambodia, and this is how it is.”

You nod. You’ve given up trying to wrap your head around it, trying to fit it into some compartment of Western understanding.

But it doesn’t feel bipolar; it doesn’t feel like a contradiction, or like it’s at odds with itself. You feel, on an intuitive, unnameable level, that it’s two sides of the same coin—that it’s born from the same place, the beauty and grace and warmth, and the violence and corruption and darkness—born from the same mystery down there at the center, and not so far from the surface.

You think of Elliott Smith. Which is embarrassing and ridiculous, but you think of him anyway—of the beautiful ballads, the immense tenderness, the way you cried across the Atlantic when his song came on your iPod and the news of the death was fresh, an another lifetime that’s not so long ago sometimes, not as far as you’d like to think. And you think of people asking, “Man, how could he write such beautiful songs and fucking stab himself in the chest?”

And you’d always thought, “That’s how.” And you think of it now, though you’re not sure why, though it’s not at all the same thing—though you laugh at your silly, silly gut for telling you it is.

Learning to Ride On a Motorbike in Hanoi

Hanoi is a bipolar child with a strict bedtime.

Clinging hands behind me to the metal rack, I try to suppress the involuntary flinching—a circumstantial case of Tourette’s. It’s Saturday morning, and my first ride aback a motorbike through the frenetic traffic of Hanoi.

If you want to see the word “clusterfuck” defined, acted out in an exquisite charade, snap on a spare helmet, straddle the seat of your friend’s motorbike and take a ride through the streets of Hanoi. Feel the blanket of exhaust haze whip up around you; feel your legs naked to the risk of a thousand near collisions; feel the breeze of your own mortality and the queasy cocktail of sweetened coffee, cigarettes and exhaust churn in your stomach.

See towers of Tet trees and blossom branches balanced aback bikes; see jugs of water and housewares, bundles of mysterious somethings tied on in impossible precariousness. See families of four smooshed onto a single bike; see the eyes of children placidly blinking in the madness. See drivers texting, pulling out without looking, barely slowly, pedestrians stepping out into the chaos of it all—women walking with baskets balanced on a piece of wood across their shoulders, liked Lady Justice, except it’s their mouths that are masked; their eyes remain wide open.

Hear the horns beep and squawk like a million hungry birds—seven million, to be exact, and every damn one of em has a motorbike and is riding their motorbike, lanes just vague suggestions, right-of-way a nonexistent notion.

See this all this because you’re in this, suddenly a part of this: a passenger in the strange dance that feels more like a riot or a mosh pit—but no, no, must be a dance because you keep skirting disaster, skirting death, and you keep wanting to clamp your eyes shut but can’t, can’t.

Riding aback a motorbike through Hanoi isn’t exactly a near-death experience. It feels more like being on an airplane with really bad turbulence: you trust the pilot but not the skies. You know you’re not actually going to die, but you really can’t wait for the whole damn thing to be over. You get off feeling like you’ve just stepped off a rickety old rollercoaster that’s safety permits are supremely suspect.

“The sidewalks in Hanoi aren’t really for walking,” Jacob throws over his shoulder. “They’re more for commerce. If you want to walk, you’ve pretty much gotta do it in the street.”

It’s not a walking town, he says, and it’s true—at times I don’t see a single pedestrian, just a weaving, wheezing sea of traffic. How do you get to know a place without walking it? How do you get a feel for feel for a place without your feet on its streets?

It gets easier. I tell myself to trust, to put faith in the fact no one seems to be crashing. It begins to feel like we’re moving along this barely perceptible tightrope that weaves in and out of other people’s tightropes, maybe like telephone wires—like our own personal orbit, the miracle of chance that we don’t collide, such a miracle that it can’t be chance at all, but driven by some other force I can only suspect, can feel at times in the smoggy breeze, but can’t come close to naming.

Nighttime is different. It’s as though someone flips a giant switch. By 11, the streets have cleared, suddenly swept of everything but a faint whisper, the asthmatic glow of the headlight. The streets seem smaller in the dark, emptied of their madness—they don’t seem like the same streets at all, but an entirely different place, a different city. An incredible stillness settles over the buildings, the pavement, the wires stretching and branches drooping and the shapes of shadows in the dim drizzle—as if none of it were real, all the daylight mania just a waking dream, a reverse nightmare.

By Sunday I’m able to hang on with only one hand and snap photos with the other. I’m comfortable enough to carry on a conversation as we drive. Jacob points out landmarks and tell little stories; I tell him how my parents were revolutionaries when they were young, how the met in a Communist meeting. He quizzes me Vietnamese numbers, phrases; we laugh about the universal asshole-ness of SUV drivers. We weave through the manic chaos of daytime, and I tell him Hanoi feels like a bipolar city.

Rain comes that night, along with a cold wind; we move more slowly through the vacant streets. I blink against the lashings of wet and my hands turn frigid. Slowly, I loosen my grip on the metal grating, and place both my hands in my pockets.

I’ve learned how to trust the gods of traffic and chaos. I’ve learned how to ride a motorbike in Hanoi.

Ass Whoopin on the AC Transit: Epic Beard Man, and Why I Don’t Ride the Bus Anymore

Celebrity sighting on the 53

The voice was barely discernible, muffled by whizzing traffic and excitement. “I just rode the bus with Epic Beard Man! He was giving out candy bars and autographs, and I got a photo with him!”

My friend’s Friday evening commute home had been spiced up by a sighting of Oakland’s latest internet phenomenon. As the number 53 heaved down Fruitvale Avenue, passengers posed for pictures and chanted “Epic Beard Man,” as the grizzlied old dude distributed candy from his backpack and basked in the adoration of the bus riders.

Regardless of your take on Oakland’s latest internet sensation—racist, vigilante or mentally ill bad-ass—one thing is for sure: Epic Beard Man has reached celebrity status. And while a heated, racialized debate rages in chat rooms and on blogs, the actual riders of AC Transit appear to have risen Epic Beard Man to the revered status of folk hero.

Quick low-down, in case you’re out of the loop: earlier this week, a YouTube video of an AC Transit (Alameda County Transit) altercation between a middle-aged black man and an elderly white man (now dubbed Epic Beard Man) made quite a stir—over a million page views in its first day, and countless comments and ensuing discussions over issues of race and safety in Oakland. The story was picked up by local blogs, news outlets, even the Huffington PostKnow Your Meme offers the most complete run-down of the controversy, featuring video responses that capture some telling Oakland sentiments.

You can go to YouTube and dig through all the remixes, follow-ups and tributes, but here’s the original video. Yes, it’s graphic:

It’s no surprise that the video is so popular. It’s another opportunity for people to glimpse into the dysfunctional “urban” reality of Oakland, and people outside of Oakland never seem to tire of that. Several years ago, the city’s other big internet phenomenon fascinated outsiders with its oh-so Oakland cultural collisions and colorful characters (I was living in East Oakland at the time, and the screeching sound of whistle tips really did echo through the streets at all hours).

While responses to the latest video vary, they largely fall into two camps: Epic Beard Man is a racist, or a hero. He’s either an old redneck who asks a black man to shine his shoes, then beats him, or he’s a tough dude who stands up to a punk-ass thug who’s instigating and harassing him. In general, the first camp seems to be populated by guilty white people and advocates of all things ghetto, while the second camp is composed of kids, bus riders and enthusiasts of drama and smack-downs.

My own response lies somewhere between the two. Both men are unstable, not the kind of people you want to sit next to and exactly the kind of people you meet on East Bay buses. Epic Beard Man is obviously not well, further evidenced by follow-up interviews; turns out he was also the star of another YouTube phenomenon, a video where he gets tased at an A’s game for unruly behavior. He’s a deranged old Vet with a tenuous grasp on reality, prone to violent outbursts. Not someone who should be milling around the streets, trying to take care of themselves, but hey, that’s America (thank you, Ronald Reagan). The other dude should have left it alone, realized Epic Beard Man was not all there and not worth the trouble—but in his bravado, he got pumped full of ego and shit-talking and, well, he got served.

What’s most interesting to me is how the people most closely related to the issues raised in the video reacted—that is, AC Transit riders and people with exhaustive experience dealing with both the tiringly whacked-out and tediously ghetto. Most of the folks I’ve talked to feel that while, yeah, Epic Beard Man is totally deranged, dude got what he deserved.

It reminds me of an issue several years ago when an Oakland resident was both vilified and exalted for standing up to the thug kids that plagued his block, in what became a violent incident. While both parties in this instance were African-American, so the race issue wasn’t raised, responses were similar: he was either a vigilante hero, or a villainous attacker of innocent youth. Throughout the controversy, the man insisted that all he wanted was a safe neighborhood in which to raise his kids—what I’d argue the majority of people in Oakland are looking for. In the end, he did what most of the families I grew up with did—unable to afford a nicer neighborhood in Oakland, he moved to one of the outlying working-class suburbs.

Responses to that issue, as well as this one, tap into some very central Oakland issues. While the man from a few years back was a much more sympathetic (and sane) character, and didn’t want to be a hero, many people regarded him as such. I think it speaks to the extent to which people are sick of all the bullshit. People are tired of dealing with puffed up a-holes who think they can say/do whatever to whoever and get away with it, tired of shit-talkers, instigators and intimidators. So much so that they’re willing to revere violent behavior.

The riders on the 53 last night, majority non-white, were literally cheering for Epic Beard Man. Yes, some of it was surely star-struckedness and a glorification of school-yard theatrics, but I think there was something deeper going on there, something almost beyond race. Most of the video responses I’ve encountered are, in fact, from people of color. Epic Beard Man may be nuts, but the other guy was an ass. There’s no video glorifying him—and I don’t think it’s just cause he was the loser in the altercation. It’s a strange thing: an incident so racialized, that at its core, to the people who deal with this stuff day in and day out, has more to do with harassment and basic respect than race.

That the incident took place on a bus is no coincidence. A San Francisco Chronicle blogger (and fellow gym goer) centered his coverage of the issue on the ridiculousness of AC Transit—for him, it was all evidence for why he doesn’t ride the buses in Oakland.

Word. I grew up riding AC Transit, and it served as a serious education in the world. The first post on this blog was a reflection of how riding the East Bay buses prepared me for world travel, while the very first piece I published, as a teenager in The East Bay Express, was a narrative about my fucked-up experiences on AC Transit (I used a line from the piece as the title for this post). While shit like this doesn’t go down on the vast majority of bus rides, it’s not some sort of exceptional incident—it just happened to be captured on tape. I’m grateful for the schooling AC Transit administered; as a result of vital life skills learned on those blue plastic seats, people generally don’t fuck with me. But I’m even more grateful to have a car now.

The Epic Beard Man hype will surely die down—like everything these days, it’ll be discussed and linked to and tweeted wildly, then fade into the buzzing gray, the next craze taking its place (in the digital age, it seems everyone’s 15 minutes of fame are whittled down to 15 seconds). But for the rest of us, the issues the video captures will continue on: race, safety, the crazies that fill AC Transit. They’ll continue to roam around, screaming and bleeding all over our commutes, and I will carry on with my self-centered, polluting aversion to East Bay mass transit.

But I will say—being on that 53 with my friend last night would have been an experience. If for nothing else than the photo ops.

The French Won’t Save You: Recklessness, Fear and Safety Abroad

Military chillin in central Bogota

Military, chillin in central Bogota

We’d taken refuge from the soggy Bogota afternoon in the hostel’s dank kitchen, sat drinking coffee and swapping tales. Only my third trip out of the country, I sat quietly, listening to the boys one-up each other. No one could beat the Swede in zip-off pants.

He sat smugly, like a guru, doling out morsels of his tales in titillating tidbits. He’d dyed his hair brown, donned dark contacts, and backpacked through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. He’d ridden buses rarely, walked mostly, and had almost been killed (purportedly) by an anti-American lynch mob. Sparks of awe and admiration flew from the enthralled eyes of other travelers.

One of the boys in his rapt audience turned to me, suddenly aware of my presence. He quizzed me on my basics: where was I from, how long was I traveling, did I speak Spanish. “What’s your itinerary?” was his final question. I bit my lip as he looked me over, sizing me up for what I was: an early-twenties American girl, not terribly well-traveled, with a mediocre accent and a minimal vocabulary. I recited my basic plan: Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Typical.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the blond god before him.

Fast forward several years and a couple thousand miles to this afternoon, as I rattled down the uneven pavement of Interstate 880, windows down and blasting NPR (yo, turn it up so it bumps). I’d just caught the beginning of a story on France’s proposal to charge tourists for rescues from risky spots while abroad. The hotly debated bill came about several months ago, prompted by a much-publicized rescue of French citizens who were captured by Somali pirates while pleasure-yachting around the Indian Ocean. Reportedly, public outrage at the travelers’ perceived irresponsibility was intense enough to inspire a bill that would require tourists rescued from dangerous situations abroad to repay rescue costs (aid workers and journalists excluded). A coordinating author from Lonely Planet was on hand to discuss the proposal and its implications, a discussion that centered around issues of travel safety, and real versus perceived dangers abroad.

Here’s something most independent travelers, including myself, rarely check before going abroad: the Department of State’s Current Travel Warnings. When you grow up amid a culture of fear mongering, it’s easy to get desensitized. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think, the world’s sooo dangerous and I’ll get kidnapped and killed the moment I leave the US. Fear is one of three reasons discussed in Nomadic Matt’s article, Why American Don’t Travel Overseas. Once certain travelers step outside the country and see the rest of the world isn’t the depraved war zone it’s often portrayed to be, they get cocky. And brazen. And sometimes stupid.

Take that to the extreme: extreme tourism. I haven’t heard this term in awhile, but it was tossed around the hostel table in Bogota that afternoon. It refers to a type of off-the-beaten-path thrill-seeking travel that prides itself in brushes with danger. Real danger. As in, I’m-gonna-walk-through-Baghdad-just-to-prove-I-can danger. Implicit in this type of travel, I would argue, are entitlement and bragging rights.

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Which begs the question: should risk-taking travelers enjoy the luxury of being rescued, at the expense of their countrymen? The French don’t seem to think so. Nor do the Germans. The United States—well, we don’t really need to worry about it, since so few of us travel to begin with. Reportedly vague and insufficient, the French bill also opens the door to a lot of loaded issues—namely, who decides what countries and regions are dangerous, and whether travelers are behaving recklessly?

I’ve been to three gasp-evoking places often deemed too dangerous for travelers (let alone a solo white girl): Caracas, Mexico City, the entire country of Colombia. I didn’t go to any of these places because they were considered dangerous, but despite them being considered dangerous. One I ended up in circumstantially, but the other two I sought out—I’d heard too many good things from other travelers. I did my research. Street sense and good luck got me through unscathed. But there’s certainly people who would have regarded my traveling in these places as reckless, stupid and asking for trouble.

I remember thinking Colombia was a lot like Oakland. Which isn’t true: armed military don’t roll through city streets, and you can’t smoke cigarettes inside shopping malls (not even Eastmont). But both places have a sort of infamy to them, a danger that either lures or deters. As in Oakland, many parts of Colombia feel totally safe; as in Oakland, other parts of Colombia continue to feed the unsafe reputation. To stay safe in Colombia, I did everything I already do in Oakland: don’t go out at night alone, stick to main streets in safe neighborhoods, don’t ride buses at night, check my back like a motherfuck.

The Swedish guy in the Colombian hostel reminded of suburban kids that move into Oakland warehouses (snark alert). They proudly tell you they live in the Lower Bottoms, Murder Dubs, Dirty 30s, Ghost Town. “The thugs aren’t that bad, really,” they tell you. Then, knowingly, as though they’re imparting some great gem of karmic street ethics upon you—“If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.” Then they mugged/assaulted/held at gunpoint, and they leave, go back to their suburbs bruised and bitter and hating the town they so recklessly glamorized.

There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real. It’s the wild-eyed rapture of Futurists (which for all of their sexism, fascism and idiocy still created some good art). It’s as easy to write off as the uninformed fear that keeps some folks away from Oakland, away from traveling, and comfortably cocooned in familiarity.

But neither side is right, neither view complete. They’re just two sides of the same coin—exoticizing someone else’s world, treating it as the Other, instead of attempting (however falteringly) to meet it, understand it and experience it as it is. Can I claim to have traveled so honorably? Not really. But I can claim to have tried.

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Good times with the Colombian military

Which could all be an elaborate rationalization for why the rules don’t apply to me—why I haven’t gotten into any real trouble while traveling, and why I would surely be rescued in the event of any dire incidents. And not expected to pay for it. (Because, after all, I’m not French.) But I suspect the truth lays somewhere muddled between all this, between embassies and travelers, the frightened and the intrepid, the streets of East Oakland, the seas of Somalia and hostel kitchen tables around the world.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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