LIVING ON THE EDGE; AVOIDING DANGER WHEN TRAVELING ABROAD

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1. Posted by Eric Bullard (First Time Poster 1 posts) 5d Star this if you like it!

LIVING ON THE EDGE; AVOIDING THE DANGERS OF INTERNATIONAL ADVENTURE TRAVEL IN THE MODERN WORLD.

Travel has always been a tricky, somewhat tenuous endeavor. In the old days, it was just ravenous dinosaurs and marauding bands looking for captives and booty that one had to look out for. But as the centuries have passed, and the world and travel have become more complicated, the list of possible dangers and things to avoid has grown to mammoth proportions. Everything from the old standbys of wild animals, kidnapping, robbery, assault, and murder to the more modern dangers of countrywide strikes, unstable and life-threatening transportation systems, shady characters of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities, guerrilla uprisings and beyond. In over thirty years of travel, I have seen a lot of it, survived most of it, and lived to tell my many tales of near misses, fortunate saves, and unbelievable good luck that has gotten me around the globe many a time and always back home safe and sound. The key to any safe trip is to do your homework regarding the places you are planning on visiting and while there, keeping your wits about you. And most important, always paying attention to what is going on around you at all times and knowing how to handle difficult situations as they arise.
According to the U.S. State Department, approximately 1,000 American tourists die abroad from unnatural, as opposed to natural, causes each year. Vehicle accident is the leading cause of death followed by homicide, other forms of accidents, and drowning. Mexico is always responsible for most of those deaths, roughly a third, a third of those which are murders, followed by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Honduras, and the Philippines. And just to get a good overall picture of the situation and statistics, over 60 million Americans travel abroad each year so if only 1,000 of those people die, your odds of having a safe trip are pretty darn good. Although, if you go rafting down a river in Mexico during flood season with gun-toting drug lords then drive a vehicle afterward, those odds are greatly reduced.
I was first introduced to the dangers of international travel in 1981 on my first trip to New Zealand when a very large section of the Fox Glacier broke off at its terminus and let loose cars-sized chunks of ice and frigid water in a flash flood down the glacial valley. Seeing the immediate danger that was unfolding, I quickly scurried over to the valley edge and then up one of the sides where I watched in horrified fascination as a father raced across 50 yards of valley floor to scoop up his two small children and carry them to safety just before they were carried away by the flood. Right there I learned lesson numero uno: always be aware of what is going on around you and the possible escape routes for yourself and those with which you are traveling when dangers arrives.
Over the years I spent a lot of time in the South Pacific and even though it is one of the cushiest places to travel, there are still many mountains waiting to be fallen off of, rivers to be drowned in, and local uprisings to be either kidnapped or killed in. I actually got pretty lucky down there. The only real mishap (besides the glacier) was falling off Mount Solitaire in the Blue Mountains in 1993 and dangling over a 100-foot drop for a few terrifying minutes before I was able to pull myself back up again.
Falling off something and dying, or at least breaking something important, is probably the easiest way in the world to get into trouble. And over the years I have fallen with the best of them but lived, again and again, to brush myself off and walk away virtually unscathed. Besides glaciers, buildings, mountains, and hills there are also horses, camels, yaks, and elephants to fall off of as well as bikes, motorbikes, rickshaws, taxis, buses, combis, micros, and tuk-tuks, all of which fall under the nebulous heading of “Unstable and Life-threatening Transportation Systems”. And believe me, once you leave the U.S. and other comfortable, first world countries behind, there is a menagerie of mind-boggling, unstable, life-threatening transportation systems out there that can and will kill you without a moment’s notice. Just take a minute to google “bus wreck” and add any third world country to the search and you will begin to get an idea of what I am referring to. Over the years I have fallen off my share of buses, bikes, motorbikes, and horses, gotten into more wrecks then I care to mention, and had a few misses too! But the doozy of all doozies happened to me in Dharamsala, India in 2005.
It was about ten PM and we were taking the red-eye bus from Dharamsala across the Dhaula Dhar range of the Himalayas to the village of Manali which would then lead us up to and over the Rohtang Pass (13,050 ft.) and into the inner Himalaya. It was about ten minutes after departure in the crowded, rickety bus when all of the sudden the right side of the bus lifted a bit off of the pavement. No big thing there, there are always lots of bumps and potholes in third world roads so I was used to a bumpy ride. But when the right-hand side of the bus continued to rise up into the air and then was catapulted up and over the left-hand side of the road and down into the valley below, I immediately began to take a keen interest in what was going on.
Actually, it all happened so fast, there really wasn’t any time to think about it; one minute we were casually departing and the next we were on the bus ride from hell falling to our deaths. The first thing I became aware of was the incredible racket of the bus rolling down the mountain, disintegrating in the process: the walls of the bus were being crushed inward, the seats were coming undone from their moorings, and everyone, myself included, was screaming as if their life depended on it. Besides that, the lights both inside and outside the bus were flashing on and off like some sort of demented carnival ride and all of the passengers, luggage and now unsecured seats were blending into a screaming, hysterical muck, mixing, revolving, and bouncing its way down the mountain as every single window in the bus imploded and blended into the untamed fury inside the bus. I had no time to think, no time to act. All I could do was to try and hold on for dear life as I was manically swirled into the mosh pit of the inner contents of the bus. I do remember having one quick, fleeting thought though: this is it, this is how it ends, this is how one dies.
We must have rolled about four or five times, twenty or thirty seconds of incredible noise and horror before all the sudden, out of nowhere, as if by some sort of miracle, we stopped, braced against one of the very few houses on the hillside. Landing on a broken window of the bus now sitting on its side, all I remember was that I smelt gas and in smelling that gas, every Hollywood movie and scene of a vehicle exploding raced through my mind in rapid-fire succession.
Before I knew it, I was standing on a broken seat and pulling my way up through the broken window above and back up to the road one-hundred yards above. I was in shock, who wouldn’t be? And I had to bum a cigarette off of a passing pedestrian and light it up before I was able to talk myself into heading back down to the wreck and helping out. No one actually died in the wreck, but over half of the passengers were rushed to a local hospital and treated for broken bones and concussions. I got lucky and only suffered a few major bruises, a lot of pain in my right arm, and the hundreds of minuscule pieces of glass from the broken windows that I found myself pulling out of my skin over the next two weeks.
After two and a half years in India and numerous other close calls, and even one death, I considered myself an old hand at third world county traffic disasters (numbed into reluctant submission.) So when the taxi I was riding in began to do a whirling dervish spin on a narrow, icy road at twelve thousand feet close to the top of the Rohtang Pass years later, I just crossed myself in catholic fashion, shouted out a few hail marys and then sighed a breath of relief when instead of skidding off to the left and down into the valley and certain death below, we slid over to the right and slammed into a snowbank. Lesson number two: always, always, check out your transportation system and the conductor, many times they can be drunk or drugged, and if you have any doubts, never hesitate to pay the extra money to upgrade your ride. Taxis can be incredibly cheap in the third world, even when rented for an entire day of travel.
In between my South Pacific years and my Asian years, I spent a lot of time in southern Mexico and Central America, even living there for many years. And it was there that I got a major eye full of the real dangers of traveling in third world countries. Murders, kidnappings, rape, and assaults were so frequent in the news that, again, one almost had to become numb to the frequency of it all. But in 1997 when my boss was drugged, kidnapped, tortured, and brutally murdered in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, I found myself confronting emotions that I had never known before and looking back over my shoulder with a greater frequency. I was never kidnapped or assaulted I Mexico, but once while I was hitchhiking to a small beach community I was threatened at gunpoint. And then again while I was in the Lacandon Rainforest, where I had inadvertently left my bag (which contained my passport, visa, and cash) in a store and had gone back to reclaim it, I was confronted by a man with a knife in his hand who told me that it would be better if I searched somewhere else for my lost belongings. It was there that I learned lessons number three and four: always be cautious when accepting food or drink from strangers in unknown situations and always, always, ALWAYS watch your belongings, keep your money and passport in a very safe place, and keep a low profile financially speaking.
Three years after the Zihuatanejo murder I crossed paths with murder once again, although this time it was of a very different category. I was staying in the Indigenous village of Todos Santos high in the Cuchamatane Mountains of northern Guatemala. Todos Santos was another one of those cute, quaint, laid back Indigenous pueblos sprinkled throughout Central American and a place where I spent a lot of time over the years. I enjoyed the mountain scenery, living close with the Indigenous culture, and more than anything else, the quiet, slow, friendly pace of the village and its inhabitants. But two weeks after I left Todos Santos in 2000 all hell broke loose as two innocent tourists were violently murdered and numerous others were injured by a crowd of enraged Indigenous.
It all started simple enough: market day in Todos Santos, one of the most beautiful, eye-catching, peaceful events that I witnessed (again and again over the years 1994-2000) during all of my travels in Central America. But things took a dramatic turn for the worse on April 29th, 2000 when a group of 23 Japanese tourists arrived on a tour bus and began to mingle with the market crowd and take pictures. One man, Tetsuo Yamahiro, aged 40, began to mix a little too freely with the crowd, even touching babies on their mother’s backs in the hope of getting them to pose for that perfect photograph. Suddenly a baby’s mother began to scream and point at him accusing him of trying to steal her baby. A crowd quickly gathered around the two and more shouts arose then pushing until finally, the crowd began to beat the trapped, helpless tourist to death. Now, out of control, the ignited crowd quickly soared to over 500 people assaulting other Japanese from the group, other tourists, and even the local police force sent to restore order.
As the shouts and cries of “Satanas, Satanas” (demons, demons) filled the market area, all tourists in the market either tried to flee town or sought refuge in their local guesthouses. Edgar Castellanos, the Guatemalan tour guide for the Japanese, sought refuge in the local police station but, feeling unsafe there, he decided to run elsewhere for protection. Followed by part of the infuriated mob, he was quickly run down, caught, tied up, doused with gasoline, and set on fire. Meanwhile, groups of enraged Indigenous began a house to house search for more tourists to kill. Luckily there were still a few sane heads left in Todos Santos and all of these tourists were hidden and protected by their host families.
But how did this happen? When I got the phone call in Mexico directly after the event explaining what had happened by a friend, I simply could not believe it. Not in Todos Santos, not something so terrible and gruesome perpetrated by the most peaceful and friendly people I had ever known. But it had and now two innocent people were dead and numerous others injured. The best that I, and many others, could piece together was that in recent years rumors had been circulating in Guatemala that satanic groups of tourists were kidnapping babies and selling them for body parts. But how this rumor started and why, nobody knows. The rest was an almost an automatic reaction fueled by the leftover emotions from the extremely violent, recently ended Guatemalan Civil War; fear, anger, ignorance, and a distorted group consciousness mentality.
The Indigenous, and many other countries of the world for that matter, be it Guatemala, Kenya, Thailand or Indonesia, live in a very different world with a very different mindset and set of beliefs then we do here in the U.S. And as weird as it might seem at times, it will be the reality that you will be traveling to and living in while you are there so you had better study up on it beforehand and respect it while you are there or else the unexplainable could happen to you.
Sometimes it might just be the simplest of things like insulting someone in Asia by breaking the taboo of not touching someone’s head. Other times it might be walking into an explosive situation brought on by long-term misunderstandings and miscommunication. But whatever the case, always remember lesson number five; that YOU are the outsider, the stranger in a strange new land, and it is up to you to know and abide by the new set of rules while you are in that new land. And if you decide to go to third world countries and get intimate with the various Indigenous cultures there, as I did, the rules get an even wider variance then say if you venture to Italy or New Zealand. So, before you go, do your homework.
This brings us to wild animals, which as always, since the beginning of time, have been high on the list of potential dangers while on the road. Whether it is charging elephants, angry water buffalos, venomous reptiles, lions, tigers, bears, or killer bees, this is definitely one of the quickest and most gruesome ways one can get one’s self into very big trouble fast. I was once attacked by a herd of mad cattle while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. One minute I was strolling along peacefully through a pleasant meadow and the next an entire herd of twenty cattle was chasing me trying to run me down. Thinking quickly, I fought them off with my trekking poles then beat a hasty retreat to safer ground. Surprisingly 22 people are killed by cows in the U.S. alone every year.
But there are far more exotic animals to be killed by in the world than cows. Elephants kill 500 people annually according to National Geographic magazine. Hippos kill 3,000 people annually according to the Mother Nature Network. Crocodiles kill 2,000 people a year according to the UK Telegraph. And lions kill 250 people a year, UK Telegraph again. And then there’s sharks, water buffalo, tigers, jellyfish and the list goes on, ad infinitum. Even the simple and beloved horse is responsible for over twenty deaths every year in the U.S. alone. But the most dangerous of all is the lowly mosquito, killing two million people worldwide every year just by spreading malaria.
And don’t forget snakes. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 20,000 human deaths occur each year from snakebites around the world. Though with unreported incidents taken into consideration, that total might be as high as 94,000. That’s about two hundred and fifty people a day, every day of the year. While staying in a Hindu ashram I was bitten by a snake once and spent a very frightened hour or so until it was decided that the snake that had bitten me was not poisonous. While there I was also stung a few times by scorpions and again it was the fear that almost killed me more than the bite. Although according to Medscape, over 3,250 people die worldwide every year from scorpion stings.
Granted, most of these people who die are not American tourists on vacation. But do you really want to run the risk of being pulled headfirst into the murky depths of a dark river by a fifteen-foot-long crocodile as Hendri Coetzee, a guide for two American kayakers, was on December 7th, 2000 while kayaking on the Lukuga River in the Congo? Or, more recently, (August 2015) as I was writing this article, mauled to death by a male lion as was 40 year old Zimbabwe guide Quinn Swales while he was leading a group of tourists on a photo excursion in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe? Things can change very fast when you are out there, especially when wild animals are around.
Even domestic animals can be dangerous. In fact, I would rate domestic dogs as one of the greatest animal dangers in third world travel. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to fend off enraged canines in Indigenous villages throughout the years. With all of that in mind, lesson number six is pretty much a no-brainer: always be alert around all animals wild or domesticated, get all your immunizations, and make sure you get your rabies shot too. Approximately 55,000 people, one death every ten minutes, are killed by rabies every year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
But by far the most interesting of all life-threatening dangers of adventure travel in the modern world comes under the title of “Local Uprisings”. I will never forget the afternoon in 2001 when 15,000 hooded, machete welding Zapatista guerillas marched through the streets of San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico in a protest that brought the usually lively city to a silent standstill which echoed of fear, apprehension, and grudging respect.
That was a pretty quiet demonstration, as were the many “roadblock” demonstrations that I encountered in Mexico and Guatemala over the years. But it was in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2007 that I really got a taste of what can happen when a country decides to go on strike. I was at the Boudhnath Stupa just outside of Kathmandu trying to get into to town to a bank so I could get some desperately needed cash. But Kathmandu in 2007 was still in the midst of a countrywide civil war as the communist Maoist party fought to gain control of the country from the status quo. Cars were overturned, building windows were smashed, fires were burning in the streets, and people were getting beat up by roving Maoist youth gangs. Some days yes, some days no, no one ever really knew when the strikes would be called by the Maoists. But when they were, no one was supposed to travel on the roads. But this day I needed some cash badly so after an hour or so of haggling with frightened taxi drivers, I finally convinced one, at four times the usual fare, to take me downtown. I will never forget his instructions for that fateful ride: “Keep your head down and whenever we go through an intersection or get stopped, just hold your passport out the window and say that you are a doctor for the United Nations,” which I wasn’t. Needless to say, it was one of the most interesting taxi rides that I ever had.
Probably the most interesting situation I ever got into as far as local uprisings are concerned was a trip up into the Chiapas cloud forest sometime in 2001. Chiapas is the most southern state in Mexico and, if you remember, in January of 1994, it was the site of an incredible amount of violence as 3,000 armed insurgents of the newly formed Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army) tried to take over the state. The fighting was gruesome and when it ended twelve days later, hundreds of people lay dead. Seven years later the revolution was still going strong in many parts of the state and people were still getting killed. At that point, I had been living in Chiapas for almost four years and not only knew the mountains well but also a lot of the Indigenous communities and even a few Zapatista rebels due to a clothing business that I had which required me to journey up to remote villages in the mountains every week.
It must have been sometime around mid-morning that I was riding my horse up to the small Indigenous village of Mipoleta in the Tztozil Highland Mayan reserve of Chamula just outside of the town of San Cristobal de las Casas to pick up and pay for some textiles. I had been to Chamula many times before, I knew a lot of people from there, and I was even somewhat fluent in the Tzotzil dialect. But I had never been to Mipoleta before so I was entering new territory. Not only was it new territory for me, but it was also outside of the “safe” town center area which was usually open to tourists, most of the rest of the reserve always closed to outsiders. Riding up through and into the thick mists and foliage of the cloud forest, suddenly four young men, three of them carrying rifles, appeared out of the mist and demanded to know what I was doing there and just where I thought I was going. Actually, one of them said, “Oye gringo, donde diablos piensas que te vas?” (Hey gringo, where the hell do you think you’re going?).
Fear momentarily shot through me, but thinking quickly, I replied in the Tzotzil language that I was going up to see a friend of mine named Dona Maria in the hamlet of Mipoleta. Scowling fiercely and raising his rifle, the most menacing of the guerillas asked me in Spanish, “Do you KNOW Dona Maria gringo?”
“Yes”, I replied. “She is a friend of mine and I am going up there to buy some textiles. She invited me”.
Suddenly grinning broadly, the guerilla put down his rifle, moved forward, reached up to take my hand, and said, “Well, I’ll take you there then. She is my cousin and she told me to keep an eye out for you this morning, that you might be coming.” Last lesson of the day: when on the road, always expect the unexpected and help from unexpected quarters.

2. Posted by karazyal (Travel Guru 2634 posts) 5d Star this if you like it!

? ?

Long rambling first post.

3. Posted by karazyal (Travel Guru 2634 posts) 5d Star this if you like it!

(Some paragraphs would be helpful.)

[ Edit: Edited on 15-Sep-2020, 22:23 GMT by karazyal ]

4. Posted by ToonSarah (Travel Guru 1325 posts) 4d Star this if you like it!

Quoting karazyal

(Some paragraphs would be helpful.)

A question would be helpful too, given that this is a travel forum. This reads more like a blog post?

5. Posted by Beausoleil (Travel Guru 1648 posts) 4d Star this if you like it!

He's an author so may be inspiring us to buy his books. It was a fun read although I'd hate to travel with him.

6. Posted by Appfillip (Budding Member 2 posts) 4d Star this if you like it!

Quoting karazyal

? ?

Long rambling first post.

I know!