Travel, Perception, and Safety: Are you letting the media stop you from seeing the world?

When I told my family and friends I was moving to Mexico for a year, there was an audible gasp.  “Don’t get shot, ” one friend told me, only half-joking. 

Time and time again I would take a deep breath and still my frayed nerves before answering.  Then, I would calmly explain: Mexico is a large country; only certain parts (like the major border towns) are notably dangerous; with a bit of common sense and street smarts (necessary for ANY sort of travel) I would be fine.

I often would receive a dubious shrug in reply.

Unshaken, in 2007 I moved to Monterrey, Mexico for 11.5 months and you can probably guess the rest: I had the best time of my life travelling the country, fell in love with the people and culture, and was struck by the diversity (for northern Mexico is as different from southern Mexico as apples are from oranges).  Never was my safety ever threatened, never was one hair on my head disturbed, even when travelling around the country on my own.

This is why I hate the media.

News outlets like CNN will tell you that the world is a scary place.  They will make you think Latin America is riddled with senseless killings and drug crimes, Asia is a plague-ridden hole, that Africa is deep, dark, and desperate- a place no average (read: white) traveller with a healthy fear of HIV and  cannibalism should ever venture. According to the news, all of Middle East is volatile and backward- the rampant insurgency will make your head spin (if you make it out of there alive).  Russia is sordid and racist. But Eastern Europe is kind of okay, so long as you keep an iron grip on your purse (gypsies, you know).

 

But I’ll tell you what:  maybe they’ve got it wrong.  I’ve been to some of the most “dangerous” places in the world and I was fine. I’ve travelled solo in Chile and Guatemala and Mexico and didn’t get kidnapped. I’ve written loads on this blog about how Israel and Jordan and Turkey and Dubai and Kenya and Tanzania and Morocco aren’t backward or dangerous at all- they have been some of the safest and most interesting places I have been to. I lived in Hong Kong for two years and did the Southeast Asia thing.  While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the only thing I had to worry about while there were the people constantly taking my picture or touching my hair without asking (it’s not every day they encounter such chocolatey goodness, you see).

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Don’t believe me? Talk to some of my intrepid traveller friends, all girls (gasp!) who travel solo most of the time (double gasp!). Nailah from There’s So Much to See spent two months in Lebanon this summer and had a ball.  Adventurous Kate  just spent three weeks in South Africa and it has proved safer than she ever could have imagined. Brenna from This Battered Suitcase and Ariawen from Beyond Blighty are currently travelling South America solo, and two years ago Ayngelina, from Bacon is Magic, spent over a year in Latin America doing the same. A Lady in London has been to places like Kosovo and Senegal and Egypt and Tunisia.

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I don’t think the world is as scary as the media would have you believe. Most countries are only dangerous in certain parts, at certain times, and in certain circumstances.  People have been mugged in Minnesota, and stabbed in Saskatoon.  My friend was pickpocketed in Rome and a number of people I know have had their phones stolen right from their hands in London. No matter the destination, being informed and using your common sense is the best way to be safe.

How much of a role does the news/media play in where you will and wont travel?  Have you been anywhere that society considers dangerous?

 

48 Comments

  • Richard says:

    You should trying to sell Colombia! The State Department instills fear in all travelers. Yes, this is a dangerous country…in parts…stick to the well trodden route and you’ll encounter the friendliest people, the most beautiful landscapes and have a wonderful time. With more that 2 million visitors this year, good news is getting out despite the media’s best efforts.

  • I suppose after reading that I realize sometimes the media has an effect on me but I don’t travel to those countries you used as examples because I have no desire to go-but I don’t *think* it’s because of media, more my personal choices. I think the internet has both reinforced and dispelled some of those rumours. You hear people getting phones stolen from their hand or pickpocketed in Western Europe but then you hear some lovely stories from the same area. I think sometimes these things are all in the eyes of the beholder! If you expect somewhere to be dirty or dangerous, you’ll only see those aspects. Interesting post!!

  • Adam says:

    Okay based on your first photo from Mexico, it looks like I need to book a vacation quick! Do Mexicans usually run around naked or have I been misinformed by the media once again?! 😛

  • Agreed! Thanks for posting about this, and thanks for the mention!

  • Laura Bazile says:

    Hi Oneika, hi all,
    Firstly I would like to take the opportunity to let Oneika know that I absolutely love her blog! all is there: topics, tone, “real” facts and experiences, tips … Great mix!
    Focusing on the question arisen from your post, I am quite close to Auscanucksarah’s way of choosing destinations eg. “personal choices”. I would add work requirements as well. In this case, I overcome personal beliefs, that’s all. As a guest columnist for an online community, I wrote about my last experience (in Asia) http://www.blogher.com/frame.php?url=http://blog.blackwomenineurope.com/2012/07/09/sisters-sharing-knowledge-a-black-woman-in-asia-a-travel-from-the-inside/ in this specific pattern.
    Going further, as a travel addict, I discovered recently that “loved ones” may play in where I will and wont travel. In this case, my little sister (we share the same passion for traveling, me as a backpacker, while she selects a different path) had the most awful experience in Egypt: racism (to put it straight) was everywhere! at the hotel, on the streets and last but not least from the custom agent himself, at the airport on the day she left the country! Provocative, abject, everything you are not (really) prepared to when you love/are used to traveling. My point is that I won’t go to Egypt for this specific reason. Not even pretending to look for a “good” reason to go there. The world is a vast place, offering plenty destinations to discover.

  • Kat says:

    Oh completely agree! I was told to stay well away from Kashmir and Sri Lanka when both were going through conflict when I visited on my own in 2006 and felt much safer in both places than I do on my street in London most of the time. I got looked after incredibly well in both places. It’s a matter of being street wise and sensible when you’re there and obviously not making yourself a target. As Laura says – the world is a vast place, offering plenty of destinations to discover – if you really do want to go then you shouldn’t let other peoples’ perceptions put you off too much.

  • Kels says:

    When I told people (Americans) that I was going to live in Vietnam for a year, their first reaction was slight shock and questions about safety. After three months here, I can confidently say that I have felt safer at any time and place here than I have in ANY Chicago neighborhood (where I used to reside). Many Americans don’t know the Vietnam of today, they only know what their old textbooks and parents tell them.

  • Ellen Keith says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I studied abroad in Mexico, and got a similar reaction before I left: “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get decapitated?” When I left for a year abroad in South America, the question was rape. I find this infuriating. Mexico is one of the most wonderful countries I’ve been to. Yes it has it’s share of problems, but so does my home city in Canada. The problem is definitely the media, and Canada and the U.S. get the worst share of it. Here’s my perspective on the whole Mexico violence, if you’re interested:

    “Mexico: Tropical Paradise, or Violent Hell.” http://www.la-viajera.com/2012/01/02/mexico-tropical-paradise-or-violent-hell/

  • Yes, the media (and family) does play a big role in instilling fear of where to travel.
    The media shows the worst of these countries, put them in a bad light and send subliminal messages that every single parts of these countries are the same, which is not so.

    I have to admit that I sometimes think of theses things too, but then I remember where I’m from and how much negativity my country gets, this helps me realize that where ever I wish to go is probably not as bad as the media makes it out to be. 🙂

  • Cora says:

    Great post! This is so true! I moved to France which is probably a lot “safer” than the other countries mentioned, but even then I got terrified looks. When I told people I was moving to the other side of the world, alone, they all thought I would be “taken” by an Eastern European trafficking syndicate. I agree with your opinion in that the media really does dictate how people understand and view other countries and does a good job at keeping people away and instilling such a fear in people that they’ll never go.

  • kami says:

    I completely agree with you! I’ve traveled all over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and lately China + Qatar on my own and never encountered any dangerous situation! I actually feel much safer there than in Western Europe. I’ve heared so many times I’m insane I’m going to such places I stope counting a while ago. And explaining that I’m more in risk going i.e. to London didn’t help me – no one believed me. It probably also comes from people not knowing much about these destinations hence the fear. well, just use your common sence and you’ll be fine.

  • Melissa says:

    I’ve never heard Senegal being marketed as a dangerous place, but I guess as it is in Africa assumptions are made. Anyways, the media has never swayed me when choosing where to go. It has always been personal preference as other commenters above have stated. However you are bang on with how media, and some governments portray other countries as being a no go. After the Tsunami in Japan the rates of people visiting went way down. If people had actually considered where it was they wanted to visit they probably would have realised that they were fine to go ahead with their travel plans. I think this is why a lot of savvy travellers do look to blogs to get a realistic perspective on visiting an area.

  • Julika says:

    Great post, Oneika! From what I know – which is very little, but I’m working on it (baby steps!) – you are absolutely right! And I LOVE that picture of you with those naked guys 🙂

  • Amanda says:

    AMEN, sister.

    As someone who has both traveled a lot AND worked in media, this is a topic close to my heart – and one that frequently gets me really riled up!

    The media does a fantastic job of convincing people that the world is dangerous and travel is scary. And it’s not just news outlets like CNN, either. I can’t tell you how many people have made comments to me about staying in hostels or getting kidnapped in Europe because of movies like “Hostel” and “Taken.” The reality, of course, is that they are just movies.

    I nearly ALWAYS travel alone, and I have never once found myself in a position where I felt scared for my safety. It’s all about having common sense!

  • Sab says:

    Wow… This is what I’ve always thought, written in the best possible way in the form of an article. If this were FB I would’ve liked every sentence and commented each statement with a ” F YEAH “.
    All the media has to say about these so-called ” dangerous ” places is a pack of lies, as long as you kinda know where to go. Like you Neikita, i’ve been to a lot of these places and nothing has ever happened to me.
    As a good counter-example, i can tell you the story of my boy Arturo who came from a rich-a*s family in Bogotá and never had anything happening to him while he was there. However, brother got stripped naked walking around the old town while on holiday in the French Riviera…
    All i gotta say is ” don’t believe the hype ” as the song goes and experience everything for yourself (i guess this piece of advice goes for a lot of other things.)
    I have a very good book to recommand about the image of the Orient being depicted as threatening and mysterious since the beginning of time: it’s called Orientalism by Edward Said.

  • Sab says:

    recommend*

  • Oneika,
    I agree a 100% with what you say in the article. I also congratulate you for highlighting the positive aspects of many countries. I think that is part of what we should do as travelers: talk great about places which have captured our hearts even though the media insist to thrash those places.

    I have said it before, it looks like the latest trend or fashion is to consider any country outside the US dangerous. I don’t understand what is the point or why citizens believe so much in what the media have to say. The consequences of talking and talking baf about “how dangerous” is a country go beyond reputation. The economy and lives of many are being negatively affected (as I discovered in Oaxaca a month ago).

    This year I went to El Salvador and Honduras. A month ago, I visited Puebla and Oaxaca in Mexico. Last weekend, I went to Mexico again (Ensenada this time). I had a blast at every one these trips. There is no doubt we should go beyong what is presented daily in the news.

  • Nicole says:

    So right! Thanks for sharing. I’ve traveled alone within several “dangerous” countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America, and had I listened to random others (which I never do) I’d not have anywhere near the rich life that I have had. For those who’ve never left the US, much less their own state or region of the country, Mexico, Senegal, or Thailand seem “all bad” when the media covers one or a few incidents over a time. We live well and travel when we do our own research, follow our hearts, and take precautions as we would normally at home, leaning towards more or less based on what we know about where we are and our own inner voices. Happy trails!

  • Wonderful and important article, Oneika!! I have been to so many “dangerous” countries, or those criticized by the media in some way: Morocco, India, Colombia, Thailand, Guatemala, Russia, Honduras, etc. etc. I am constantly telling people that it is safe to go to these places – sure, there may be some risk involved, but most big cities in countries like Canada, the USA, or the UK have just as many risks. I totally agree with your last paragraph – it’s always important to be safe, of course, but in all my travels I’ve found that people are generally good and trustworthy!

    Thank you so much for the mention!

  • I agree with you, though let’s not mix that the media is usually talking about dangerous zones, but other parts of the country can be safe. One more thing is that I would NOT choose a country as my destination just because it is dangerous enough for me. I choose country because of its culture and nature, and if this is in a country which is labeled to be dangerous, I DO ask around and do everything that I feel safe and well-informed. I do not think it is a good idea to be anxious all the time instead of enjoying. Thanks for sharing this article.

  • Great stuff Oneika!… Keep on marching to your own drum!

  • Brendan says:

    I’m kinda afraid of everything and everywhere, which I can only partially blame on the media. I’m not keen to travel Mexico but I always forget about the cartels and random violence as I’m too busy worrying over dysentery. Same with India. Same with China. Same with… everywhere.

    Hanging out in the Caribbean for a week was a little intimidating but there WAS a dengue fever outbreak at the time. Sure, I was pretty hesitant to follow a couple guys into a dark parking lot to have them drive us miles out of their way for a previously arranged sum, but I’m just wary of dark parking lots and strangers wherever I am.

    Eastern Europe has some sketchy looking militant motherfuckers. None of them bothered me. I was never mugged, shot, abducted or otherwise molested in Ukraine despite what my Eastern European relatives (and the entire nation of Poland) warned.

    Still, to this day the prospect of traveling the American south freaks me out. Legacy of hate. Legacy of poverty. I can’t say this is entirely the media’s fault.

    What I can say is that I grew up in the utopian fantasyland of San Francisco. Where I’ve seen people brained with bricks. Gangs beating each other with bats. Guns on the bus. Knives in your face. People shot to death in front of two separate places I’ve lived. Lunatics screaming in the street. Cars burning in the middle of parks. Bodies in the gutter. Hordes overturning cars. Just your average peace love and understanding fest as depicted in the media.

  • Chinye says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I just returned from spending three months living and working in Uganda, and every person I told I would be moving made a point to mention how extremely dangerous the country is, how people eat people, and how I would most certainly catch some weird disease and die. Add to that I was actually there during the Ebola outbreak, which ALL media sources completely OVER EXAGGERATED. Like seriously, while Ebola is an awful disease, the outbreak was contained, and only a few people contracted the disease. It really saddened me that so.many.people/groups canceled their trips to Uganda over the outbreak. I’m so happy I didn’t let the media’s portrayal of Uganda and friend’s trepidation deter me from visting the country I so properlly fell in love with. Keep exploring and visiting new places chica!

  • This post makes a lot more sense than many travel posts out there. Yes! a lot of stuff on the news are just exaggerated and nothing more than that. They never speak about the good part of any country first. There are lot of awesome places in India, Nepal, China, and other Asian countries than just plaque ridden places. In fact, the conditions have been improving a lot lately. Great post!!!

  • GIRL.. you right! LOVE this, btw. I think a lot of my friends back home are the same when we tell them we’re going to places like Bolivia or India. It’s all media hype and I hate it. I just simply stop trying to explain it since they choose NOT to go and see it for themselves. I love that you’re not letting any of that get to you. You’ve had an awesome travel experience. Keep doing what you do!

    ps. They touched your hair?!

  • Beatrice says:

    Good post! I went to Colombia by myself and was very safe! I think if I ever felt unsafe it was due to people’s warnings and the media. I agree that common sense is required anywhere. Buenos Aires was amazing and I never felt unsafe there alone either. I had a blast in Manila and made a wonderful group of Philippino friends!
    My probable move to South America next year illicits the same reaction you got when you told your friends and family you were moving to Mexico. Thank you for addressing this topic!

  • Rhona says:

    OMG! Preach! What an amazing post. I am not saying that some places you should not fear due to certain climates but seriously, use your brain. I walked Germany at all hours of the night (a place that apparently hates blacks so you better watch out!) and I came back home fit and fine. To me, the whole thing with travel is lose the fear, open your mind, practice common sense and take precautions where necessary and have a damn good time. I love you! 🙂 Excellent post Oneika.

  • I haven’t been anywhere considered “unsafe” but I have been in dangerous situations since I have been a solo traveller for three months now. When I was in Milan, Italy I had to fight a guy on a train. Yes, I had throw a few punches at him as well as get pushed and hit by an Italian man that had no right to touch me. In Nice, France I was mugged on the beach and yelled at from three guys. As well as pushed a few times. Yes, even in some of the “safest” cities woman can be treated intolerable. BUT that hasn’t stopped from going to some of the dangerous cities that you’ve mentioned. ONCE A TRAVELLER, ALWAYS A TRAVELER. I will be looking forward to reading your blog form now on.

  • Loved this post girl! Especially the section saying “News outlets like CNN will tell you that the world is a scary place.” Excellent!

  • Erika says:

    So true! I feel as though I am constantly justifying my desire to travel to “dangerous” places. I’ve spent time living in Jordan and Tunisia and never felt threatened. Now, I’m off to Namibia for a year and so many people are terrified for my safety. I guess most people don’t realize their overreactions to the media until they experience travel themselves.

  • ashley says:

    YESSSSSSSS. Agree with every word.

    And this line makes me love you a lot: it’s not every day they encounter such chocolatey goodness, you see.

    haha, so great!

  • Jennifer says:

    I like your article, I always like the saying that the media will always report all the bad things that happen, but they don’t report about all the travellers around the world who are having the times of their lives. You have to have common sense where ever you travel, whether that be in your home town or on the other side of the world. If you let the media scare you then you would never leave your house.

  • Trish says:

    Blogging from Central America and could not agree with you more! I can’t believe how nervous I was to arrive to nothing but happy, safe surroundings. I feel more nervous riding the BART/subway in San Francisco. 🙂 Great post.

    • Oneika says:

      I think the key is to be aware but not to completely discount a place before doing intense research and getting the full picture!

  • Carla says:

    Ahh, this is all so true! I wish my mother could have read this post 10 years ago when I started traveling to these same “dangerous” places. She was thoroughly convinced I was going to die if I made plans to travel anywhere outside the US and western Europe because all she knew about any place else was negative thanks to the media.

  • Didi says:

    Yes! This post really resonates with me. The media does a lot of damage so that you fear traveling anywhere because it’s ‘dangerous’. To the point when I think of Mexico, I think of drug wars, cartels etc and this has only been in the last few years due to what is going on the border. Granted there are places everywhere in the world, but as long as you heed advice, travel smart, you will be fine.

    There are beautiful places to see all over the world, but you shouldn’t let what CNN or other media news outlets portray to discourage you from seeing these places. Thankfully, I have been fortunate and have traveled internationally and have plans to see more of the world. For those sitting on the fence, you don’t know what you are missing 🙂 Great post Oneika!

  • OCDemon says:

    I actually had to point out to a friend that Rwanda has a lower homicide rate than the United States. She still thinks travel is scary, even though she had been followed home by strange guys and held up at gunpoint multiple times, yet somehow she thinks it’s unthinkable that I’d even consider going to Thailand. Thailand! Land of a million not-dead tourists! And it’s scarier than the US!?!!? Argh. I can never convince anyone. Oh well. I’ll hang out in paradise and they can stay in the high-crime-rate-having “greatest country in the world.”

  • Maddy says:

    You’re SO right – the media (and parents, friends, family, etc) definitely play into my thoughts about a country, its safety, whether I’d be ok traveling anywhere solo. My friend took a several-months-long trip after we took the Bar and I remember my parents saying, what? by herself? Now, it’s so much more common than anyone even knows! Great post – always good to be reminded to branch out and form your own opinions! 🙂

  • Marie says:

    Ahahaa. I do totally agree. We were having this discussion the other day with my husband. If i describe the world with the TV conception I grew up with; the US is basically filled with serial killers. Whole south America is a terrible place where you can get shot right in front of your door. I won’t even talk about Egypt. Canada is known for maple syrup and reindeer. I doubt there are any human being there.
    Africa is third world nothing more. Asia is just weird and we need to be afraid cause they’ll eventually invade us (that was such a concern in the news when I was little). Eastern European countries are still communist, some thing will never change. And if I remember well, there are awesome beaches in Hawai and Bora Bora.
    Only France is safe and normal.

    I am so happy I turned off the TV and moved. Super write up, 🙂
    Have a good day 🙂

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