The culture of fear (international bandit edition)

The NY Times’ own Kristof offers us 15 tips for surviving bandits in poor countries. Among them is “carry a fake wallet” and (the tried and true favorite) “pretend you are Canadian”.

While sometimes the article sounds like an excuse to recount the exploits of brave Kristof, I’d endorse all15 suggestions. I just have one problem: they undermine his ultimate ambition.
Kristof wants more students travelling to more dodgy places. So do I. But one emerges from the article thinking a bandit lurks around every developing country corner. 
How many more parents will now dissuade their son or daughter from the travel Kristof wants them to take? How many will go, but approach every local with an ounce of trepidation and a measure of fear? Americans have cultivated a culture of fear at home. Need we export it abroad too?
Here’s a simple truth: just like home, car accidents not bandits are the bogeyman. Malaria might be the second major risk, for which we have easy solutions. Thieves and rapists are typically a distant danger.
This is not to say you shouldn’t take precautions. But personally I try to remember that I have more risk of bandits in New York and New Haven than any of the countries I visit. (Note from experience: this point does not relieve spousal and parental anxiety about your international travel.) 
The essential point: foreign does not equal dangerous. Dwelling on the potential bandit round the next corner will make you miserable, paranoid, and make even a little prejudiced. 

14 thoughts on “The culture of fear (international bandit edition)

  1. This reminds me of an article I recently read about biking in Copenhaguen. The authorities there decided not to promote wearing a helmet because it usually had the effect of creating doubts about safety of bikeriding, thus discouraging people from using their bycicles more often. The interesting thing is that safety for bikers increases as the number of bikers increases. The result is, the authorities claim, that not promoting the use of a helmet actually *increases* biker safety. The article can be read here:

    Could it be said of Kristof's travel warnings that they are actually reducing the safety of those who travel by discouraging other travelers? Do more travelers mean safer travels?

  2. I winced reading this, thinking, "Are the skittish types likely to be scared off by this article the kind of people we want traveling to dodgier places?" but then realized that yes, yes they are.

    So, I'm torn. Even though Kristof's article and similar ones by other seasoned travelers (including an internal security note I once wrote for incoming field interns at the IO I was myself interning for) might frighten some poeple into staying home, they might also prevent the kind of incidents that have a disproporionatley negative impact on travel to certain countries. Most peple think in terms of stories, not statistics (Sarajevo is far safer than Dublin, for exmaple), and like to feel they have control over their own safety, even if that's neither true nor even necessary.

  3. Yo Chris, in NY you are just a regular dude while in Africa you are a white rich foreigner, therefore a target…so even though the crime rate is higher in NY, your chances of getting robbed are higher in Africa. When people tell you, dont go there, it's dangerous, they know what they're talking about and by believing you know better because you saw the statistics is not reasonable…this is why i got robbed in tepito for example…so do travel to dodgy places, but do listen do people's advice and be careful!

  4. This column reeked of disaster tourism by the end. #15 romanticizes muggings and malaria as "precisely the kind of authentic interactions with local cultures that, in retrospect, enrich a journey and life itself." So the children dying of malaria whom Kristof sometimes writes columns about constitute "local culture"?! For many, malaria is life-ending, not life-enriching.

    Yes, the decoy wallet, the money belt, the fake wedding ring and fake pregnancy are all good tips (and well-known among the well-traveled). But the the column was problematic for more reasons than pointing out the obvious fact that travel can be dangerous.

  5. I'm torn too. On the one hand, most places in Africa are way safer (by any count) than most places in America. And, as you rightly pointed out, it's car accidents and mosquitos that are the danger, not warlords or exotic diseases.

    That said, study abroad programs usually have a problem with one of two students who take far more risks than they would at home, or who don't realize that they have to take different precautions with strangers than they have to with the people who live in their neighborhood (either at home or where they're staying).

    Lastly, travelling in highly unsafe places does require a different set of rules, indeed more paranoid ones. I grew up in NYC during the height of its crime wave, and then went to college in New Haven during the worst of its crime. I know how to handle myself. The only time in my life I've ever been robbed, however, was in South Africa. A local told me that a particular route was safe, but I was attacked by three men on a lit street (it was night) in front of other people who turned their backs. I wasn't harmed, thankfully, and the three men who literally jumped me weren't armed, they simply overpowered me and held me on the ground. I wasn't the only one either. A number of other people attending the same conference had been also followed and attacked, including one man who was robbed in broad daylight on a busy street by a gang who pushed him into an alleyway and took everything he had.

    It turned out that the local who told me it was safe to walk always drove, and that Durban rules were different from those almost anywhere else. The Nigerian political scientists at the conference were appalled by what had happened, they said they couldn't conceive of anybody being robbed and bystanders turning away.

    Durban, like Joburg and some parts of Nairobi requires precautions that are paranoid, and are at the level Kristof describes. But few other places were/are, which is why Kristof's article is so wrong footed.

  6. That was one of the most frightening things I've ever read and so completely foreign to my own experiences living in Africa and Asia.

  7. Kristof markets a product, which you could call "poverty porn" or "I'm a great adventurer" or whatever. A few years ago, I sat in an internet cafe in Goma that has high-speed broadband (while also checking SMS messages on my mobile) reading Kristof's columns and blog posts in which he asserted the necessity of carrying a portable satellite dish and sat phone in order to be able communicate from his hotel down the street.

  8. RE: Joe Powell,

    Actually, people from countries much safer than the US DO get paranoid treveler advice for traveling to the US. The most ridiculous thing I can think of is how Australian high school study abroad programs warned that American public high schools were dangerous places after Columbine and that parents should be cautious sending their kids to the US.

    Also, I've overheard Belgians warning each other not to make eye contact with fellow passengers in American busses and subways, because Americans are quick to anger, irrational, and often armed.

  9. As a recent grad who is strongly considering working in many of the areas Kristof mentions, I wonder what Kristof was hoping to achieve by this column. Certainly, all the suggestions are valid, but stories of Japanese businessmen getting their hands chopped off do little to encourage college students (or their parents) to travel to such "dodgy places". Had Kristof spent more time discussing why such experiences were valuable, the column might have been saved from perpetuating a "culture of fear" (as you call it).

    As someone who is already nervous about travelling abroad, I would love to see a middle ground regarding travel–an account that is realistic (ie not overly idealistic) without feeding into a culture of fear. Even with the best of intentions, attempts to teach students or interns about international travel in so-called dodgy plages often devolves into a list of warnings and horror stories ("I got malaria three times!", "I made a video to send to my family because I didn't think I'd survive", "i got robbed at knife-point", etc.). Having just attended a training session for working in India (I'm interning with a nonprofit out of Stanford) that followed much the same pattern, I'm wondering what a balanced view of international travel work/travel would look like.

  10. I think Pierre Louis said it best. Its not the "poor country" that creates the risk, its about being recognized as a rich foreigner. (I don't think "white" plays into the equation). I was part of an attempted bag snatching the other day in Arusha, Tanzania and Arusha is by no means a poor town. I was on my way to my internship with two other interns. The thief knew where we were heading and figured he would take advantage of us. I've been in much poorer areas and never been threatened or accosted in this way, this is true inside and outside of Tanzania. Not to be cynical, but Kristoff's column seems more appropriate for the sophomore spending the summer in Madrid, not those traveling to "poor countries."

  11. Pingback: Survival of the Fittest | Engineer Without Borders