In Response to Fear & Travel Warnings

We don’t need no set of standards,
We don’t need no new set of rules.
Heard all that shit before
About stomping out any difference.
We say stand together!
(Not to fight just to exist)
-Operation Ivy, Take Warning

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut, Mali, and elsewhere, there’s plenty of fear to go around. Politicians aren’t much help as they would rather go on their fearmongering ways instead of providing comfort, support, and compassion. The basic response has been to stay home, be heavily armed, and don’t allow any outsiders into the country. They also want citizens to report suspicious activity, which most people tend to turn into racial profiling rather than behavioral profiling.

To add fuel to the fire so to speak, the US Department of State issued a worldwide travel warning (I have never seen such a thing) just before we’re ready to celebrate Thanksgiving (during which we’re supposed to give thanks to the native people of North America who helped those poor refugee pilgrims survive in the harsh land).

This sign cheered me up while wandering through alleys
This mural cheered me up while wandering through alleys

According to the warning, “The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats.” It doesn’t get any more specific from there. The advice the State Department provides is to remain vigilant in public places and be aware of your immediate surroundings. I hate to tell you this, but that’s the advice for travel at any time in any place.

This warning was just two days too late for me as I headed for my short birthday trip to Indonesia. Yes, after all these terror attacks perpetrated by Islamic extremists, I took a trip to the most populous Muslim country in the world.

Children fishing in the canal in Jogja
Children fishing in the canal in Jogja

Was I afraid? Was I on heightened alert. Not really. I was more worried about pickpockets and scammers. During my stay, I only felt uneasy once, on my final night, when a bicycle taxi driver followed me through the market (fortunately, he turned away before I had to confront him).

My bus stop in Yogyakarta
My bus stop in Yogyakarta

Most people would say that public transportation is a questionable choice in developing countries, and buses also make for easy targets. I still took the public buses in Yogyakarta a few times (even got off at the wrong stop twice because I was lost).

I think I'll eat here
I think I’ll eat here

In all honesty, I felt less safe in Rome last summer. I was on higher alert to keep my hands on my camera and wallet in Rome than I was while wandering streets of Saigon or Phnom Penh. Honestly, my greatest fear in Vietnam and Cambodia was avoiding food poisoning, not the violence against foreign tourists that occasionally makes headlines.

By now most people are probably wondering what I found in Yogyakarta. I found some pleasant people, wonderful sights, and delicious food. I did not change the way I travel because of potential threats. I interacted as I could, which was difficult because few people speak more than a little English and I speak no Bahasa Indonesia (and I forgot my notes for basic phrases at home). I found people who were curious about the foreigner–they were more curious when they asked, “Where do you come from?” and I answered, “Taiwan.” The few who spoke more English asked followup questions and I politely answered that I am from the US. Even the people who couldn’t speak English tried to help me when I asked for directions or simply asked what something was.

I don't know what's going on with some of the street art in Yogyakarta
I don’t know what’s going on with some of the street art in Yogyakarta

The point of all this is that we shouldn’t allow the fear–dangers in life that are real or imagined–to control our lives. There’s still so much more that’s positive in this world–wonderful, caring people. Where would I be without strangers who offer help when I’m lost and trying to get somewhere?

It’s important to take precautions when traveling, but you should do the same every day. The likelihood of danger is just as high wherever you are–how is traveling to a developing or underdeveloped country any more dangerous than driving on the roads of New Jersey or walking through New York late at night?

Go out and enjoy life.

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