You Did WHAT on Your Trip?! Travel, Adrenaline, and Taking Risks: The Connection

Have you ever sat next to someone like this on the plane ride home from your vacation?:

  • A 45-year old woman with a bulging disc in her spine who felt so fantastic in Auckland that she went bungy jumping… then wondered why she couldn’t walk the next morning
  • A bipolar, alcoholic Swede who blew his entire food budget to take a helicopter ride over a volcano blowing near Reykjavik
  • A guy arrested for slipping into St. Basil’s Cathedral for his own “private tour.”  Twice.
  • A 25-year-old woman from Australia who decided to learn how to drive on the right…  on the Autobahn

Do these things sound crazy, stupid, reckless, and just plain thrilling?  Before you answer, think about some of the things you’ve done on a trip that have made you, well, question your better judgment.   I’ll even leave room for you to mentally write them out:



(it was)



Are you smiling, or grimacing?  Well, it probably depends on how your adventure turned out.  You may want to roll your head in your hands and say, what was I thinking? Or you may want to say: Hell, yeah.  What happened in _______ stays in _______.  And you know: you’d never pull such a “stunt” at home.

We do different things in a new and different environment; that’s one reason travel makes us feel so good, makes us feel so alive again.  We see something we like, and we do it.  It‘s quite often as simple as that.  The future doesn’t enter much into our minds.  We haven’t had time to obsess over the consequences.  And the same often holds true whether you are a natural daredevil — or a hesitant, and even anxious person.

It’s in the latter case that the effects of travel-inspired risk-taking can rear their ugly head.  Many sensitive, cautious individuals have low tolerances for stress, or — to put it more eloquently — for “shit happening.”  The violate their personal limits more easily; they raise the stakes on their psychological well-being.   If things work out, they feel euphoric.  If their risk ends up in minor (or major) disaster, they can feel terrified and regretful.

All four of my plane mates briefly described above — Terri, Edvard, Josh, and Amy — are what I’d describe as hesitant, cautious people.  Maybe even worrywarts.  Certainly, people who view the glass as half-full only as long as things are going “as they should.”   And yet they did what they did.  I could tell that each of them would spend a lot of time thinking about their thrill-seeking quests.  They would probably have some psychological scars.  They were amazed — and scared — over what a short memory they’d had when they decided to seize the moment.  Their own tunnel vision both frightened them and inspired them.  And finally, I got the sense that most of them were going to become bold wanderlusts; maybe even minor adrenaline junkies.  (Amy is still fighting with her car insurance company.)

So what happens for you when you cross the line from adventurous to risk-taker? Do you feel thrilled, or just plain reckless?  Many times, that extra shot of adrenaline helps you do something that you never thought you could pull off.    There’s a big long definition for adrenaline, but I have a simple description: it’s that stir of now setting both your mind and body free.

Some of the happiest travelers I’ve met live like they’re not planning to come back home from their vacation.  That might not be you — or it may be you to a lesser degree.  Either way, we get a high off that first impulse, that first sense of possibility.  It keeps us traveling; it keeps us moving forward.  It keeps us thrilled.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Wow, that looks great!  And this whiplash of mine is, like, almost totally healed

Afraid to Vacation in These Places? You’re Not Alone

Should you visit them anyway?  Absolutely, if you’ve dreamed of going there for years.

Where, exactly, am I talking about?  Egypt?  Yemen?  Mali?  El Salvador?  No, I don’t mean countries that are considered major and immediate threats to your safety and security, and routinely make the State Department’s travel warning list.   I’m talking about six major global cities that many tourists shy away from for various reasons: concerns about their geopolitical position,  racism, unfamiliar laws, severe air pollution, military unrest, and other hazards that have a statistically minimal chance of  threatening your well-being on a trip.   These cities have dubious reputations — and yet they offer visitors an amazing array of things to do and see that outweigh their drawbacks every time.  Without further ado, these are my picks of the  greatest big cities you might be missing out on.

1. Seoul, South Korea.  This Asian gem has the drawback of being only about 40 miles away from the border of one of the most dangerous dictatorships on the planet.  And yes, North Korea has threatened Seoul many times — and not a whole lot has happened.  Year in and year out, Seoul is on par with Tokyo in terms of its appeal: ultra-modern, with a high standard of living and brimming with cultural treasures, attractions, and great shopping and dining — and boasting some of the safest streets in Asia.  Yet people stay away in favor of Japanese and Chinese cities that are a lot farther outside a possible North Korean missile strike.  What if?  What if?  What if you got on a plane to see Seoul in addition to Tokyo and Beijing?  Your chances of getting trapped in a North Korean air raid are about the same as your likelihood of never reading another blog for the rest of your life.

2. Cape Town, South Africa.  When most people think of South Africa, three things usually come to mind: soccer, racism, and crime.  While it’s true that crime rates are high in South Africa, and that the devastation caused by apartheid can still rear its ugly head, Cape Town does not suffer from these problems nearly as much as the capital city of  Johannesburg.  And this doesn’t even begin to give Cape Town the credit it deserves for being such an amazing destination: on the ocean, full of natural wonders and cosmopolitan nightlife, and teeming with friendly and open-minded people.  Still make you uncomfortable to go somewhere that’s been so deeply affected by racism?  Go there, smile, have a drink, start talking and forget what you and everyone else looks like.

3. Macau (Special Administrative Region of China).  This densely populated “Las Vegas of China” has often gotten bad press for its untamed casino life, toxic air pollution, and chaotic, pedestrian-unfriendly streets.  It’s also one of only two great cities in China that most Westerners can visit without a visa — and it’s a short, very scenic ferry ride from Hong Kong .  Yes, you don’t want to breathe deeply in Macau; you don’t want to head there restless either, since the whole SAR is only about twelve square miles.  Perhaps that’s why most people are in the casinos — and when the air does clear after a good rainstorm, go outside and check out some of the amazing architecture inspired by the fusion of classic Chinese style and Portuguese colonialism.  ( Just make sure not to jaywalk.)

4. Singapore. At first, Singapore might seem like an odd pick for this list.  But does anyone remember Michael Fay?  He’s the young American who, in 1994, was caned and imprisoned for four months for non-violent crimes (vandalism and theft).  Since then, Singapore has been as notorious for its draconian laws as its diverse attractions and spotless streets.  If you tend to do reckless or impulsive things when traveling (particularly when drunk and not in full control of your inhibitions) you might fear doing something in Singapore that could cost you time in jail, or worse.  Even slobs or gum-snappers may have a hard time (forget to flush a public toilet?  You could be fined.  And don’t bring chewing gum into the country).   So what do you do?  Recognize how easy it is to assimilate.  Surrounded by law-abiding, respectful citizens in the downtown area, in the malls, and at the tourist attractions, you’ll realize how painless it is to take a cue from other folks and be on your best behavior.  And because it’s Singapore, your chance of being the victim of theft, assault, and tourist scams are slim to none.

5. Belgrad, Serbia.  Many of us are old enough to remember the carnage of the Balkans War unfold on TV in the 90s.  The war is long over and several functioning democracies have emerged from the former Yugoslavia — but since Serbian rebels were blamed for the bulk of the violence and ethnic cleansing in the 90s war, a negative view of Serbia, and its capital Belgrad, persists.  Is it fair?  If travel teaches us anything, it’s to not stereotype cultures, or hold individuals accountable for sins committed by armies over fifteen years ago.  Last I checked, Belgrad is a vibrant, intriguing city where multiculturalism works, and the welcome mat is laid out for the curious tourist.

6. Tel Aviv, Israel. The number of security issues Tel Aviv faces on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis might cause anyone to cross this incredible city off their travel wish-list.  Who, you might think, wants to step into the “state of perpetual turmoil”?  Well, lots of tourists, every season of the year.  They’ve discovered that the city’s inhabitants are a special breed entirely — resilient, determined people who manage their fate of constant uncertainty by knowing how to have a good time, and knowing how to make the most of every day.  Israel is not going to solve its problems anytime soon — and Tel Aviv is not exactly “going anywhere.”  You might as well drop in, go to the beach, exercise the usual safety precautions, and have an incredible cultural experience.


Nervous about venturing outside the “quintessential” and “safe” vacation spots?   It’s natural — but pack your common sense, and go anyway 

Has 9/11 Become the Safest Day of the Year to Travel?

Quite possibly.  Very possibly.  And why, you ask?  Are you kidding?

Have you been to a major American or other Western airport on 9/11?  The lines are shorter, but the screenings take longer, because they’re more thorough.  There are fewer distractions.  The music blaring from Duty-Free is turned down a bit; there isn’t the same raucous chatter from tour groups and families about to depart.  Everyone is watching everyone else.

The pilots and flight attendants are more vigilant.  Passengers don’t leave bags unattended for five seconds (much less a couple minutes) to recheck their boarding time on the screen.  There’s a subtle, but depressing and deadened hush from gate to gate, from terminal to terminal.  Planes are triple-checked instead of double-checked.  Air traffic controllers watch every move on their monitors and across the sky as if their lives depended on it.

Which to me, at least, all suggests that 9/11 may in fact be the safest day of the entire year to get on an airplane — at least in the West, and at any number of other areas scarred by a  terror attack.

But would you care to fly on 9/11?  My guess is no.

As we approach the 12th anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth taking a brief look at what’s happened at airports and on airplanes, both in terms of safety and security.  Besides a couple of terrifying near-misses involving a shoe bomb and liquid gels, there hasn’t been a major incident or threat.  Newer security measures (which are now years old) border on knee-jerk reactions  (no one had to remove their shoes before Richard Reid’s threat; no one had a problem with our jug of water until the scare with the bottles of chemicals onboard).

It’s impossible to say if terrorists want an encore of  a certain tragedy to drive their message home.  From what I’ve observed, they usually move on to some other tactic once they’re successful at a particular “mission.”  Take the World Trade Center, for example: after some unsuccessful tries to bring it down, the jihadists accomplished their “mission” and moved on to… well, a variety of other things.  Embassies will always remain vulnerable targets.  Car bombings are smaller-scale, but accomplish the same basic “goal.”

To me, the people that seem most scared — and maybe rightfully so — are the ones with the Eurail or Amtrak passes.  I need to glance through my own travel anxiety book every time I get on a train now.  Of course I’m scared.  Isn’t everyone?

Will I be flying on 9/11 this year?  No, because it’s still a little too hot in Turkey during the first half of September.  I’ve given myself a good reason (excuse?) to fly on the less auspicious date of 9/26 instead.

Will you be flying on 9/11 this year?  Maybe not, since it’s coming up fast, you might have other plans, and it still holds that sickening power of imagination and dread over us.  But would you consider doing so in the future?  You might.  From my look around during the last 9/11, it seems about as safe as you can get, and your courage — and indifference to the date — flies right in the face of what every jihadist most wants.


It’s 9/11.  Am I all alone in here?

Those Little Things that Cause Us Stress on a Trip… that We Keep Doing

…usually to make someone else feel more comfortable, or happy, even though it’s our vacation, and we might very well be in self-gratification overdrive… and if not, then our minds are already full of plans and distractions, addresses and schedules.  Sound familiar?  Even if you consider yourself a “tunnel-vision traveler,” the kind that has their nose to the itinerary and way more interest in the sights around them than the people, you might find yourself spending more energy than you planned in order to make things easier or nicer for someone else.  Personally, I never cease to be amazed by fellow tourists who struggle against their own impatience, social anxiety, discomfort, or pride in the name of kindness or sensitivity to those around them (or waiting for them at home).  Here are some observations of how we often make things a little harder for ourselves abroad… and usually don’t feel bad about it.

Speaking the Local Language When You Know the Other Person Speaks Good English.  Sometimes even perfect English.  But not necessarily comfortable English.  What’s the big deal?  you ask.   Can’t the thousands of underpaid and overworked hotel receptionists at all the Americanized hotels out there just help us in our own language so we don’t have to choke on a few recitations out of a Lonely Planet phrasebook?  Of course.  But does it sometimes irritate or tire them out?  Yes, they’ve told me when I’ve actually asked.  Personally, I’ve been amazed at how exhausted and disconnected I can feel from my own thoughts and feelings when I have to navigate back and forth all day between two languages.  For some of us it’s natural; for others, it’s a major brain-drain, and can make a person feel downright lonely.  If I see a depressed Parisian hotel manager hang up the phone after clearly losing an argument in English, I’m going to do my best to converse with him in my rudimentary French.  Yes, it stresses me out.  But it helps him regain his confidence and frame of mind.

Smiling at Service People. Should we smile at the maid for cleaning our room?  Will she think it’s condescending?  Should we smile at the TSA security guy who looks like he’s ready to drop from exhaustion?  Will he think I’m trying to distract him?  Should I smile at the Muslim couple running a convenience store in East London, who just helped me pick up all my spilled groceries off the floor (what’s to smile about? Will the man think I’m being too forward?) or should I nod and get the heck out of their way?  Well, often we’re not sure… especially if we’re in a drastically different cultural setting.

Am I alone in getting pretty nervous over little things like this?  Probably not.  It’s taken me awhile to realize that even if someone doesn’t smile back, it doesn’t usually mean they dislike your nice expression.  They’re just too taken aback or tired to smile back.

Offering to Take Someone’s Photo Have you ever actually said no to someone who asked you to take a photo of them in front of a landmark?  Maybe if you had a baby in your arms, or were in a mad hurry.   I know I feel a little bad for the oddball solo male or female traveler standing in the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower trying repeatedly to center themselves in front of their own camera… which is why I stop and offer to take their picture.  I’m always worried it will result in an awkward conversation, or the person will follow me asking me to take another photo, or that (worse) I’ll do something and actually break their camera… but it never does.  And it actually causes me less stress to offer a photo than see someone ten feet away obviously trying to work up the nerve to ask me.   Afterwards I’ll think, what was the big deal?… and then some 80-year-old guy from Alabama will nab me near the Louvre and want me to help him buy a metro ticket.

Bothering to Mail Postcards.   We have email, and cell phones.  Some of us have Skype, and most of us have blogs.  You can now send “digital postcards” from a variety of websites.  So why do I find myself in line with many other befuddled tourists in  a foreign post office as we try to figure out how much it costs to send where, and how?  Apparently I’m not the only one who has a sentimental thing for a mass-produced piece of cardstock with barely enough room to describe what I did for the day, much less how I feel about it.  But I know that card is going to mean the world to a parent or grandparent who can’t find the power button on a computer, much less remember to be by their phone at midnight Central European Summer Time (CEST) when I try to call.

Yes, it’s often a royal pain to figure out the local version of the Royal Mail.  For example,  I’ve asked three different Correo attendees in Buenos Aires how much it costs to mail a card to the U.S., and gotten three different answers.  I’ve heard of people wasting a good afternoon of touring trying to track down the DHL service in Moscow only to end up at the rather inefficient and expensive local post office.  And I’ve had my share of beautifully-written postcards simply never make it to their recipients.  To be honest,  I have mail postcards on my to-do list for every city right under look up local embassy and do laundry.  Yes, it can be a chore, and a source of possible stress.  Some things on a trip just are.  But most of the time we find them to be well worth it.


Ever been late to a nice tourist attraction while you fretted over whether the postcard that fits into the little box would actually make its way across the ocean?  

Travel, Terror, Strategy, and Luck

It’s August.  I don’t need to know it’s high-travel season; I read your blog entries written from around the world every day.  If you’re not on a trip right now, then you just got back from somewhere, or you’re ready to go abroad, or you’re thinking  about it.  This is the time of year when many of us most want and need a vacation.  Summer is running out; students go back to school soon; the dreary months of the year seem depressingly near.  Many of us wait until August to take our summer vacation because we had too much to do at home in June and July.  We’re relieved to finally, finally be on our way.  Then the State Department issues a travel alert… for the entire month of August.  Do they call it a terror alert?  No, they call it a travel alert.  That makes us feel so much better, right?  And yet do we sit on our passports and let the doubt and fear creep into our minds?  From what I can tell, the answer is definitely no.

The anticipated targets are just vague enough, and just specific enough, to be infuriating.  The embassies are closed across the Middle East and North Africa.  But I’m not in the Middle East, you answer.  Should I stay the heck away from the embassies in all the most popular European capitals because they might be threatened too?  Well, we don’t know.  It would be a “good idea.” It might be a good idea, too, if you weren’t on top of the Eiffel Tower at 3 pm on a beautiful afternoon.  Or aboard The Eye in London the next evening.  Or somewhere else insanely popular at an insanely popular time.  The point is, there are lots of ways to minimize that thing we call personal risk.  Personal risk is about reducing the chance that you’ll be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And what does it really add up to?  Does something either happen or not, and we’re along for the ride either way?

 The questions really is, does a travel alert actually change our behavior?  I’ve talked to tourists who won’t take a direct flight across the United States because they believe there will be a repeat of the 9/11 attacks.  They will lay over in Toronto on a flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and then tell me how much safer they feel when they land.  I’ve talked to other people who won’t stay in any kind of large chain hotel overseas because they think that an independent or locally-owned hotel won’t be targeted.  I’ve been on board a flight from Paris to London that was running three hours late, and the people next to me didn’t complain once because they would rather sit on the tarmac all night rather than deal with the stress of riding through the oft-threatened Chunnel.

Personally, the travel alert isn’t going to change my plans to fly into Istanbul next month.  The fact that Turkey isn’t on the Middle East and North African “danger list” hasn’t inspired me to keep my plans.  I just don’t think anything’s going to happen to me.  I trust my instincts, my common sense.  I trust in my vigilance to notice my surroundings, to know when something’s “wrong,” and to be a small part of preventing a tragedy.  Is this arrogant?  Yes, I think so.  It distracts me from the idea that I believe in my own luck to save me from a serious incident abroad.  Am I alone in believing this?  No, I don’t think so.

Most of us will use the travel alert to reduce our personal risk.  We might choose to travel “smaller,” travel more quietly.  We’ll travel “smarter,” whatever that means, and keep an eye out.  The more cautious among us will stay the hell out of and off “popular” destinations and routes, and go to bed thinking about how there’s no strategy for luck.  The more brazen among us will feel more relaxed and invigorated after 2,000 miles on a Eurail pass without seeing a single nervous-looking security guard.  That’s 2,000 more miles without incident… ha!  And we’ll keep going, and going, and going.

If nothing happens this month, then we’ll all feel lucky, and we’ll love traveling (and in one sentimental figurative embrace, the world) even more than we do now.  If something does happen, then we’ll rage over it, we’ll adjust, we’ll wait, and head right back out.  With a more watchful eye this time.


When I was in Russia in late June, I didn’t say anything to anyone about the two unattended bags below the Olympic countdown clock.  Now, I would.  Would it make me feel any safer?

Can Smartphone Applications Take the Worry Out of Touring?

…or the fun?  And the discovery?

Imagine standing in a foreign street and holding a smartphone out at arm’s length, and having the names and uses of each building in front of you pop up on the screen — along with info about the nearest metro station, store business hours, and more.  Sound impressive?  This type of application is actually pretty common these days.  It uses a technology called augmented reality (AR), which is a live view of your real-world environment, captured on a screen and narrated by computer-generated input (usually text, but also graphics, sound and GPS data).  It can be invaluable if you’re touring where you can’t make heads or tails of the language, or if you have a hopeless sense of direction.  In other words, it can help you avoid getting lost, misunderstood, taken advantage of, and other very stressful situations.

So what’s involved in an AR device?  The hardware usually consists of a processor, a display, and sensors (all three of which are rolled into one unit and shaped to fit your hand) and the output device (usually a headset, which may not be necessary depending on how easy your display is to use).  Standalone units were common at first, but more and more, smartphones and tablets have the camera, sensor, and output needed to support AR.  Right now, the application (including all the required software) averages about $400, and can be worth every penny.  Consider the following it can help you with:

  • ŸIdentifying the full route of a bus you see down the street;
  • ŸPotential hazards in your path (such as poorly marked construction);
  • ŸRoad conditions and traffic updates (if you are driving); and last but not least,
  • ŸTranslating foreign text on signs and menus.

So why isn’t everyone walking around with one on tour?  Well, there are some definite drawbacks to using AR.  Some that I can think of include:

  • Dangerous levels of immersion.  You can get so absorbed in the interface that you become oblivious to your surroundings.  AR will tell you a lot, but not about the bad habits of drivers or the motivations of the people around you.
  • ŸYou can become dependent on AR.  It can erode your observational skills, your intuition, and your problem-solving skills.  Consider the possible effect on your confidence, and your ability to guide others someday (like your kids!).
  • ŸThe application can take some of the discovery and personal experience out of your trip.  If part of your touring enjoyment comes from figuring out whether you’ve just stumbled upon a great tattoo parlor or just a music store, or whether an odd building is a museum or an antiques shop, then think about saving AR for occasional use, when you’re really stuck — or just opting to travel the “traditional way,” with a map in your hand instead.


Can’t imagine where this escalator-in-a-forest leads to?  Me neither, but to be honest, I’d rather just keep walking to find out.