Monday, January 21, 2008

On Safety

When contemplating to cycle Colombia and Venezuela, my thought first and foremost turned to safety. The most common first question asked by friends when we say we’re going to Colombia is “what about safety?”

What did I know about Colombia? I knew that people – rich people – were kidnapped there. I knew that drugs and drug wars were part of the culture … really the only part of the culture that I could remember reading about in the newspaper. So initially, we settled on Venezuela. It didn’t have quite the same guerilla-brand reputation as Colombia. I knew their government had a bone to pick with my government, but I had already examined that travel fear years ago. I did a little sleuthing on the internet and found a few cyclists’ blogs saying that Colombia suffered needlessly from a bad reputation. They all gave it high marks for being a gorgeous, friendly, little-touristed country caught in a bad marketing campaign. I lobbied Willie to add Colombia to our itinerary in addition to Venezuela and he readily agreed. Should say, slyly agreed. He had already figured it all out but knew that I needed to want to go to Colombia rather than merely agreeing to go to Colombia with him. He knew full-well that if something went wrong – anything went wrong – that it would be his fault. He was so right and he played the game perfectly.

So I research a bit more on the internet – not cycling blogs, but links from travel forums and found stories of ATM withdrawals at gunpoint and worse. Too often, my web searches happen late at night and I stewed in the fear they instilled. After one such fitful nights sleep, I sat comfortably in front of the morning fire sipping coffee and reading the Seattle PI. Flipping through the paper, I come to a story in the Nation/World section. A story that read like a bad traffic accident that you don’t want to see but you can’t resist looking. It’s a story about 3 kids in Detroit who brutally beat, torch, kill and behead a guy for… for what? It was senseless -- a random act of violence of extreme magnitude and it wasn’t front page news. They didn’t just steal some money from this guys ATM account. They didn’t just take his bicycle or passport or camera. They didn’t just strip him of all his belongings. They killed him in a horrible way yet nobody was suggesting that it was too dangerous to go to Detroit.

I know the odds are greater that I will be killed crossing the street in Seattle, or driving a car on I-5, or hit on my bicycle on my way home from the grocery store than the odds that I will be kidnapped or beheaded in some foreign country.

Managing fear for me is about managing perspective. It would be horrible if any of those things happened to us or to anyone. It’s more horrible that crime and lack of safety are the first things people think about when we say we’re going to Colombia. The respect of a whole country is at stake.

Will we be safe? We will take reasonable precaution by talking directly with locals and other travelers who can best tell us places to avoid. We can try and blend in and not flash our expensive gadgets or shiny new clothes.

With a safety reality check now in place, I can go back to fostering my irrational fear of la cucaracha – the oily-backed bugs that click their heels across the cool tile floor. I haven’t yet been able to rationalize away that travel fear.

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