Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Debunking Travel Fears, Part Two

Relax and enjoy traveling: sharing a laugh and mehndi with some new friends, the Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Last week, I wrote the first part of my post about conquering the Top Ten most common travel fears and getting out into the world. This week, I am continuing to (hopefully) mitigate more fears and inspire more potential globetrotters. The short life that we all have is a wonderful gift and traveling is an incredible opportunity to make the most of that gift. Until very recently, it was much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive for the average citizen to travel, either domestically or globally, but with today's technology and the much more affordable cost of travel, it is within the reach of almost everyone. Women and minorities, for example, are able to travel freely today and with little hassle in most countries, an unheard of endeavor only a few short years ago. The Internet, the telephone, GPS, electronic books and language translators, Ipods and Ipads, rolling suitcases, backpacks and clothing made from lightweight, wrinkle-free microfibers have all made traveling almost foolproof.

An average, peaceful summer day relaxing on the dock, Salzburg, Austria (photo by Simone Cannon) 

4) The Media Says It's Not Safe to Travel

Today the biggest obstacle to travel, by far, is fear. U.S. citizens in particular are inundated daily by frightening TV news reports, chilling magazine and newspaper articles, and best-selling books whose premise seems to be "Be afraid, be very afraid". No wonder people are scared out of their wits. Media is big business and highly competitive; sensationalist stories draw big audiences who keep coming back. The truth is that, as fellow travel blogger Gary Arndt of Everything, Everywhere put it in his excellent guest blog for the Huffington Post, "the media lies" and "the world is a boring". The rarity of those frightening stories is what makes them news. Many more people die each year from heart disease, household accidents, road accidents, cancer and domestic violence each year in the U.S. alone than combined travelers' incidents in the entire world, but we seldom see these individual stories on TV because they are so commonplace. They don't make exciting news. A couple of years ago when I was visiting Caracas, Venezuela, there were a series of student protests organized against the policies of the president, Hugo Chavez. Although the protests were peaceful for the most part, Chavez's police force moved in aggressively, arresting students at random. I was staying with my husband's family in a residential part of the city, far from the action, but my family members in the U.S. and Canada were extremely nervous about my safety. When I saw the photos on the Internet, I understood why. Although the protests had been confined to a relatively small number of students and a few square blocks of the capital, the stories reported by the international press and the accompanying photos made it seem as if the whole city was under a Beirut-like siege, when in fact, the vast majority of citizens were going about their business as usual.

Carry a phrase book in Japan: a temple and lake nestled into the wooded hills of Kyoto, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

5) It's Impossible to Communicate with People from Other Countries

English is the second most widely spoken language in the world, with 480 million native speakers (Chinese Mandarin is first with 1.12 billion speakers). English is also the universally acknowledged language of business, technology, aviation, tourism and global communications. Most Europeans, especially in large cities, are fluent in English. In other areas of the world that don't include many English speaking countries, such as Asia and South America, there are still large numbers of locals, especially in cities and heavily visited tourist sites such as Machu Picchu and The Great Wall of China, that are fluent in English or at least proficient enough to communicate with English speaking visitors. The odd exception is Japan, one of the most highly industrial and technologically advanced counties in the world, where very few people speak English. However, the Japanese are also exceptionally polite and helpful and will go out of their way to understand you. In rural areas everywhere, there will generally be only a handful of English speakers, but people tend to be friendly and helpful and will make every effort to understand visitors. It's useful for a traveler to carry a phrase book and to learn some basic words in the local language such as please, thank you, excuse me, "may I have...", "I need..." and "how much". When venturing out to sightsee, always take a card with the name of the destination and the name and address of your hotel written in the local language to show the bus or taxi drivers. Even though is it occasionally challenging, some of the most fun I've had while traveling is trying to make myself understood. Trying to pronounce the local language and communicate what I need, often quickly devolves into a hilarious impromptu game of charades, with everyone greatly enjoying themselves, especially the locals. And think of what a great story you will have when you return home.

No altitude sickness here: two tiny Peruvians share a snack, Colca Canyon, Arequipa, Peru (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

6) There's a High Probability of Being Sick or Injured When Traveling
The most common illness by far when traveling is motion sickness, brought on by a discordance between what we see and what our brain is telling us is happening. If a traveler is stuck inside a cabin in a violently moving ship, for example, the inner ear feels the movement but the eyes see that all is calm. The brain, not knowing which input to believe, responds by erring on the side of caution, believing that the body may be under the influence of toxins and induces vomiting. This condition can be avoided or treated by staying above deck or by taking one of the many anti-motion sickness medications available, including a nausea-preventing patch. When traveling in industrialized cities, it is highly unlikely that a traveler will encounter serious illnesses, but in developing countries and rural areas, health threats may include digestive problems brought on by unclean water or food, conditions such as dengue which is transmitted through a mosquito bite, more prevalent in low altitude, humid areas, and sunstroke and altitude sickness in mountainous areas. Although generally not serious conditions for reasonably healthy people, they can cut into the enjoyment of traveling, but luckily are, for the most part, easily preventable. When eating and drinking, stick to bottled or boiled water, fruits and vegetables that can be peeled and use your best judgment when accessing the cleanliness of an eating establishment.

Deer have their own language barriers: domesticated sacred deer wander freely through the streets and shops of Nara, Japan (photo by Simone Cannon)

Always wear a hat, use sunscreen and mosquito repellent and, in high altitude areas, move slowly, drinking lots of fluids, until you become accustomed to the altitude, usually 1-2 days. Most medication to treat these conditions can be bought over-the-counter and cheaply locally, but it is handy to carry a little first aid kit with band-aids, anti-altitude sickness tablets, an antibiotic such as Cipro (ciprofloxacin)anti-diarrhea pills, an antihistamine such as Benadryl , aspirin, antibacterial cream and Pepto Bismol tablets, just in case. It's comforting to know that these medications are at hand when you're not feeling well in your hotel room at 4am in a strange city. If you are traveling in very poor, undeveloped, rural or thickly jungled areas, its best to be vaccinated against yellow fever and hepatitis. Check with the Center of Disease Control website for specific country requirements.  Having said all that, don't let the fear of getting ill prevent you from traveling. It's extremely unlikely that you will contract anything truly serious; most conditions are minor and short-lived, are easily preventable and many travelers are not affected at all.     
In high humidity areas, use mosquito repellent: Angel Falls (Salto Angel), Canaima National Park, Venezuela (photo by Simone Cannon) 

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