The World Traveler Getting Back into the Game

Kevin, a traveler I helped over the course of four months and twenty very long, rambling email sessions, was eager to remind me that he’s almost double my age.  He also trumps my “country conquest numbers”; by July 2000, he’d been to 80 countries around the world.  He took a break for a year to have surgery on his knee.  By September 2011, he was ready to travel again.  On September 15, 2001, he canceled his his scheduled trip to Cape Town, South Africa.  Then over 14 years passed.

Kevin’s granddaughter grew up and majored in international relations.  Kevin’s passport expired.  He stopped making weekend trips from his native Edinburgh to London.  “I used to be able to make that trip on a bike,” he said.  Sure, it would take him a couple days.  Now it would take him a couple days to dig out his bucket list, read it, realize he was “better off” at home, and go back to watching National Geographic lion cub videos.

I wasn’t sure how to help him at first because I didn’t know what the problem was.  Fear of terrorism?  Fears of violence or illness in South Africa?  I told him I happened to be going to South Africa on May 24, 2016.  I could work through his fears as I confronted my own, and we did a lot of that through our emails.  It eventually became clear what he was most afraid of: not living up to the “standard” he’d once set as a younger traveler.  He would be ashamed and embarrassed to tell anyone he knew that he did what he secretly wanted  on a trip– sit around and enjoy his hotel room all morning, eat a deli-mart breakfast on the beach instead of eating shark meat or something else to tell his friends about back home, and then go on a day safari instead of renting a jeep and plunging into the backroads to see the lions in what he said would just be a “stressful” experience.  He said he wanted to take it easy and see the animals, not have to constantly monitor them.  But…

“Travel is like a sport to me,” he wrote.  “I have this feeling that if I’m not going to make a great accomplishment, and get every minute out of every hour, then I shouldn’t even bother playing, Rita.”   How do I get an ambitious perfectionist to relax and do what he truly wants with his hard-earned vacation money?

“What if you didn’t tell anyone where you were going?” I asked him.


“Don’t tell anyone,” I said.  “Then there’s no updating your Facebook page with travel “accomplishments.”  There’s no racing around town to find people the “best” souvenirs.  There’s no exhausting yourself just so you look like a hero with a passport.”

I lost contact with him for a week.  Then, all of a sudden, an update on his Facebook page: he was taking a three-week bike trip from Edinburgh to London.  He wasn’t taking his iPhone, much to the chagrin of a lot of his 733 FB friends.  He was going off the grid.  Don’t even bother looking for him in the hills outside London, he announced on his wall.  Then he wrote to me: “Need you to help me buy a three-week trip to Africa.  Never bought airline tickets online before!”

Conveniently enough, British Airways flies nonstop from London to Cape Town and back.  I didn’t dare mention the escapade last year to Kevin about two South African refugees who hitchhiked in the plane engine all the way back from Cape Town to England.  He wrote to me a few hours after he checked into his hotel overlooking the Table Mountains.

“This doesn’t feel like Country #83,” he said.  “It feels like Country #1.”

We agreed he should avoid all subliminal reference to anything being “#1.”  But, dang, Kevin, you beat me to it.  My flight for Cape Town doesn’t leave for three more weeks.


Alpha male with a plane ticket

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