The World is Safe

I used to bristle at the notion that the North American media makes mountains out of molehills without pause for perspective or context on stories from abroad.  Then I started to travel.  It is true – we often report on things without really having a sense of place.

Remember the brats from Canada who stripped on top of a Malaysian mountain not long before a deadly earthquake?  Common sense says keep your clothes on – and abide by other local laws, no matter how different they are compared to where you’re from – and you get to stay out of jail.  Yet somehow the conversation winds its way to crazy laws in foreign lands you might get done for if you’re not careful.  Sigh.

This weekend’s story Airbnb “horror story” from Spain left my family uneasy when I told them that yes – in fact – I’ll likely use Airbnb in some places when I’m traveling.  Thousands of people rent a room or an apartment every day, around the world, using Airbnb – and they don’t encounter these situations.  But the reporting never reflects that in some instances an edge case is just that – an edge case.

I’ve always hated “edge case” stories. “Hear from the woman who says she was SHOCKED that a grocery store left deadly cleaning products within reach of her 18 month old toddler.” “He barely got away with his life – hear the harrowing tale of the man who says he will never step foot on a boat again, and why you shouldn’t either!”  These are not stories – they are people who’ve had extreme (and sometimes terrible) things happen to them. Their foibles shouldn’t necessarily serve as a fable for us all.

I’m a proponent of the belief the world is (mostly) safe.  People are pretty much the same no matter where you go.  Most of us all want the same things in life – health and happiness.  It’s the basic operating standard you need to work from when embarking on a trip like the one I’ve planned.

Then, I wake up this morning to see that this happened.

The images from today’s blast in central Bangkok are terrible.  As I’m writing this, the number of dead continues to fluctuate, and I really don’t feel like going back and revising this post later so I’ll leave it up to you to find the number for yourself.  The Thai government says they’re looking for the culprits and decry this as an attack intended to damage the country’s tourism economy, considering the blast took place at a popular shrine.  It is senseless and terrible what happened in Bangkok today, and I feel for the people who lost loved ones there.

When family and friends ask me, “are you still going there,” (which I know they will), I don’t know what to tell them.  I do know from covering other stories like this that often there is no safer time to go somewhere than after something bad has happened (it’s tragic but true.) I do know this story seems like an extreme case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time – with no track record for this kind of thing having happened in Bangkok.  The BBC’s defense and diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus provided this analysis this morning :

There is no previous history of attacks in the Thai capital on this scale or with such murderous intent. One possibility is that they might be the work of Malay-Muslim insurgents in the south who have been fighting Thai rule for more than a decade. However, they have never targeted Bangkok before and casualties from their attacks have been falling.

National political turmoil has prompted some low-level bomb attacks by rival factions in the past – but again, nothing on this scale. There also seem to be few, if any, links between Thai militants and groups like the so-called Islamic State.

Aside from aggressive touts, cabbies who don’t run the meter, and red-light district scam artists which anyone who has been on the SE Asia backpacking trail can tell you about, there has never been much cause for concern to go to Bangkok – and nothing a street-smart traveler like yours truly can’t handle.

I can ask those concerned about my well-being to repeat after me : the world is safe.  Hearing those words come from them might satisfy my desire to feel like they’ll be okay – but deep down inside I know that such a mantra won’t necessarily change how they might feel.

Talking about destinations has been a tricky business over the course of planning my trip.  The support of those close to me is important, but I also understand that sometimes incidents like the one in Bangkok make it just a bit harder for them to process and accept the thought of “why would you want to go there?”  I get it… and I wish I had a better answer (and they deserve a good one) which didn’t feel flippant or glib.

Part of my reason for wanting to explore the Southeast Asian backpacker trail is a desire to go to places which push me outside my comfort zone.  I want to feel a little uncomfortable.  It’s like lifting weights at the gym – you tear the muscle, it rebuilds and gets stronger.  Experiencing how people live in other parts of the world strengthens your understanding of those places.  I want to build that muscle.

Ultimately, my standard operating premise has not changed about this trip.  The world is safe.  Many bad things have happened in perfectly “good” places – not just far-flung destinations half-way around the world.  Unless there is a major political upheaval or a rash of unrest in Thailand, my itinerary isn’t changing.  I’m still going to Bangkok.  I’m just challenged by the thought that it might be more difficult to explain to everyone why.

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