Perhaps the greatest advantage to my semi-nomadic lifestyle is that I am prevented from watching too much news. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time I turned on a hotel television (I don’t have time) or listened to any of the running drivel that spills from the airport CNN (thank goodness for noise-cancelling headphones).

Only when I come home does the mindful stimulation of travel get replaced by the daily horrors of the world played out on loop, it seems, across every digital screen I encounter.

After traveling for an almost consecutive eight months, I returned home for a short break and the latest news of bombs exploding in Boston. Somehow, this particular tragedy felt closer, more real and more terrifying than the everyday earthquakes and wars that get reported from more distant places. In Washington, DC, I woke up to a city under heavy, black-clad security, and then up in New York City, the cute candid puppies I typically photograph were overshadowed by a rampant presence of serious and sinister-looking bomb-sniffing dogs.

In the two weeks following the Boston bombings, a hyperventilated tension gripped the city and country that I call home. Folks were not at ease—rather, we were unsettled by the drastic crescendo of horrific and deadly events that seem to occur with more and more regularity. Suddenly the odds of falling victim to random violence are less odd, and we now might risk our lives in such innocent pursuits as going to school, eating popcorn at the movies, or simply watching a race from the sidelines.

By definition, terror distinguishes a great fear . . . or an overwhelming intimidation against individuals and society. Tyrants use terror to control their populations, malevolent organizations use terror to cause mayhem, disrupt order and shatter the trust in the institutions they seek to overthrow, and rogue terrorists cause enough fear to let fear take over.

Unfortunately, fear has taken over much of the world—and the world of travel itself. Twelve years after 9/11, our institutionalized knee-jerk response to the horrific terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC has festered and bloomed into a source of intimidation for all travelers. The Orwellian acronym for “transportation security” has achieved just the opposite by spreading a mood of terror and apprehension throughout the general traveling population.

I am rarely discreet about my dislike for the TSA apparatus and the great illogic it represents, and how our travel security program remains perhaps the most un-American activity in America today. Rather than make me feel safer and more secure, our blue-shirted security force personally terrorize me just a little every time I pass through their unholy gates.

The War on Terror has resulted in the dull-paced norm of terror in our everyday lives, in which the traveling public has become the suspect-at-large. I resent this new reality, yet I refuse to follow the fear-mongers’ march. If I did, I would have to stop traveling altogether, and for me, travel is life. In fact, I view travel as the only effective antidote to the pervading fear.

—which is why, on the morning America watched police chase a terrorist suspect through the suburbs of Boston, I sat silently in a plastic chair, waiting for my number to be called. I returned to the agency the next day and retrieved my passport, a hundred pages thicker than the day before.

As head-wagging news anchors wrung their hands on the television in the room, I flipped through the fresh and empty chapter of newly-added passport pages, thrilled by the adventures that each empty square promised. Stalwart American quotes decorated the top of each page and I scanned them until I read this line from one Harry Emerson Fosdick:

“Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people.”

Somehow, this line of wisdom from John D. Rockefeller’s Baptist preacher offered me a firefly glow of hope. I am one of those ordinary people—most of us are—but democracy has granted us the right to a passport, which offers all of us extraordinary possibilities.

My personal tool against terror. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler).

My personal war on terror is manifest in using my passport regularly. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler).

A valid passport is my personal tool against terror, and on that scary day of terrorist aftermath, I calmed my own unease by adding pages to my passport. To travel freely and experience the world openly challenges the very notion of terrorism. Instead of suspicion and assuming the worst in others, travel forces us to trust total strangers and hope for the best. Instead of defining the world by enemies, it lets us color the globe with new friends.

I suspect that this is the reason why tyrants, dictators and demagogues tend to be poor travelers themselves, and why totalitarian regimes are often upheld by staunch restrictions against travel.

During his notorious purges, Joseph Stalin successfully terrorized the Soviet population through systematic arrest, imprisonment, and execution. It is believed that during Stalin’s “Great Terror” (1937-38), the NKVD killed at least 700,000 of its citizens. The effect was real—the population was terrorized and terrified, all trust was shattered between neighbor, friends and family, and Stalin’s power was solidified.

It is fair to report that Joseph Stalin disliked travel. In my guidebook to Ukraine, I wrote a section on Stalin’s summer dacha in Crimea—a bounteous and gabled chateau surrounded by a romantic vineyard on the Black Sea coast. And yet, Stalin rarely visited his own summer home—maybe only a handful of times. Some say the man despised the sun, others say he hated to leave Moscow. I think Stalin was no different than any other despot and that he disliked travel because any kind of new and different surroundings posed a blatant challenge to his own ideas and the brutal bubble he had built for himself. Likewise, the Soviet Union enforced extreme restrictions on travel within its borders and severely limited any foreign travel by its citizens. By so doing, they prevented ordinary people from achieving extraordinary possibilities—i.e. democracy.

The problem with travel is that it creates great empathy. You might study Islam extensively, or read the Koran cover to cover—but until you have traveled in a Muslim country and heard the evening muezzin, or lived in a Muslim neighborhood and benefited from its streetwise solidarity, you will lack any real understanding of Islam. The same is true of any culture, religion, race, language, or nationality. Travel grants us that deeper understanding and lets us see the world through others’ eyes. Travel makes the world infinite.

The opposite of travel is terror and the world’s ultimate postmodern terrorist—Osama Bin Laden (who once traveled extensively from his native Saudi Arabia)—became a victim of his own brand of terror when he spent the final five years of his life hiding out in a concrete compound in Pakistan. The man wreaked havoc in the world, and in consequence, had to stop traveling himself. His world became infinitely small.

Terror is the opposite of travel—instead of the freedom to wander and experience the world with child-like wonder, terror causes us to cower inside our personal safe zones, never growing, close-minded, suspicious, and learning very little.

Perhaps the best aspect of working for National Geographic Traveler is that every day on the job makes me feel just a little bit uncomfortable. I wake up in a strange place with a different language and uncertain surroundings and an unknown future outside my door. I have no idea who I might run into and how they might challenge everything I know and assume to be true. Every moment on the road holds the potential for terror.

As I travel the globe, I encounter terror with sufficient regularity. I have felt terror while dodging traffic in New Delhi and I have felt terror while diving (without a cage) in the open ocean as 10-foot sharks graze past my chest. I have felt the terror of being charged by an emotionally-disturbed elephant, being detained by secret police, bouncing around in worse-than-average airplane turbulence, suffering from unidentified intestinal parasites, confronting an angry street mob, and navigating the Tokyo subway.

And yet all those terrifying moments of travel have made me less afraid of the world and the people who live on this planet. Travel has taught me that most people are good and caring, most places are fascinating and hospitable, and even the most daunting situations will probably turn out alright in the end.

Travel is the opposite of terror. It is how ordinary people can overcome the fear and intimidation of the outside—it is the way we make the unknown world known.

This is why I travel and why I encourage others to travel more. I travel because it forces me to step outside my security perimeter. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable and scary at first, but in the end, I am confident that I will always find adventure, knowledge, and beauty.

I travel to conquer terror and I travel to live in lieu of the news telling me that real life is just too scary and dangerous. I travel because it keeps me on my toes, I travel because it’s great fun, and I travel to stay awake in a world that is half-asleep.

Comments

  1. Anoop Savio
    India
    May 7, 2013, 9:32 am

    I concur with you Andrew. And I love the statement that the travel is opposite to the terror. I will keep travelling :)

  2. Kathleen
    NYC
    May 7, 2013, 9:55 am

    Andrew…one of my favorite posts yet. Well said! …I need to get some more stamps in my passport :)

  3. John
    USA - Philadelphia
    May 7, 2013, 10:06 am

    Andrew,

    Wonderful story and viewpoints. I think it’s often lost on people that many of the most fundamental folks – any nation, any creed, any socio-economic class, any viewpoint, tend to lead very isolated, very unopen lives. My fear is that democracies will continue to get poisoned by special interests group and capitalist interests to the point where we’ve lost our culture. My hope is that people will continue to explore the world – not just on a cruise line or an amusement park, but real exploration of the places that are so different from them.

  4. Emily Dame
    Harrisburg PA
    May 7, 2013, 1:16 pm

    My older sister who lived and taught school in Germany for about 30 years often said the safest time to travel is immediately after some terrorist incident has occurred. I was scheduled to visit the UK with a friend right after the 9/11 attacks and my friend’s family convinced her not to go so our trip was cancelled. I should’ve carried on alone…

  5. jeannette hooper
    clearwater fl
    May 7, 2013, 2:06 pm

    I would like all my grandchildren to read this essay

  6. @MsBoice
    Holladay, Utah
    May 7, 2013, 8:02 pm

    Thank you for this post, Andrew. You actually helped me understand why I travel. I didn’t see it until I read this.

  7. Hope Smith
    Sierra Madre,CA
    May 9, 2013, 3:07 pm

    Andrew
    I have just returned from Kashmir which you know is a Muslim country. You are on the money with your view on travel I never felt unsafe and all I wanted to do is to learn more about the people of Kashmir & what has happened after those some years where no one was coming to visit. Thank you for writing a great article

  8. LJ Cohen
    Near Boston, MA
    May 10, 2013, 4:02 pm

    Yes. This. 4 years ago, I traveled with my family, including our two young teen sons, for a 3 week journey to Kyrgyzstan. We were there to attend the wedding of a young lady who had lived with us while studying for her master’s degree in the US. The only time I felt terror was when we were being driven around in a minivan. The drivers are worse than in Boston!

    In addition to recommend travel, I also think that opening one’s home to a foreign student is an amazing way to bring the world to your doorstep and combat the fear of the unknown.

  9. Andy
    Southport UK
    May 17, 2013, 6:15 am

    What a fantastic post! Last year I went traveling in Morocco through the Atlas Mountains and jumping into the culture of Marrakech and essaouira sometimes taking the wrong path but that’s when you find yourself! It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day grind but travel makes my soul alive

  10. Peggi
    Texas
    May 18, 2013, 9:36 pm

    Bravo! You’ve captured so nicely the thoughts I’ve had since well before (but especially after) 9/11. Travel was one of the great joys of having grown up in the military (and being retired from it now), but it’s so much trouble now. Still, when I’m sitting in a foreign cafe, literally watching the world go by, I feel hopeful. Thanks for sharing this!

  11. Endri Hasanaj
    London
    May 22, 2013, 5:38 am

    Well written post Andrew. I am from Albania and live in the UK now and I have to say that whenever people want to visit Albania they have in their mind a status of terror. People should understand that only travelling will make them erase this fake adjective. I have a personal blog where I write about cities and countries and I think Albania can be a good destination for a lot of travellers.

    Regards,
    Endri

  12. Aunul Fauzi
    Semarang - Indonesia
    May 24, 2013, 9:35 pm

    I think many of us in Indonesia should read this piece. I always believe traveling makes us younger and happier.

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  14. Sudeshna Deb
    India
    July 2, 2013, 5:56 am

    Thanks a lot Andrew for putting such beautiful ideas before the global populace. I have read several travel stories, blogs etc., but no one actually presented travel in such an interesting manner. After reading your blog, i have conquered over many fear bubbles that often knock on the doors of my heart. Now i could say that yes i will travel fearlessly and will experience cultures, colors and creeds from close quarter.

    Keep posting your ideas, experiences and adventures….

  15. Henry
    Lagos
    July 6, 2013, 9:06 am

    Andrew the great! This write top is just awsome. Traveling makes the whole different.

  16. Monica
    Missouri
    November 16, 2013, 1:42 pm

    Very well stated, Andrew. I always thought it was necessary to experience something to truly understand it. You always find the best way to bring about a point and your travel savvy wisdom prevails. Brought about by experience, your words ring true. Thanks for sharing your journeys. For now my travels are small but anywhere beyond my door is an adventure. Traveling mercies! Thanks for the journey! M