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.
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.