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Travel, post-terrorism


In early January, I met a family friend who had found himself uncomfortably close to a terrorist attack. He told me he was alone in Paris last November 13th, the night when ISIL struck the City of Light. He was enjoying dinner some two kilometres from the Bataclan Theatre as the carnage unfolded, and once in his hotel room he grew alarmed by the reports on TV. Without hesitation, my family friend activated an app on his phone requesting an emergency evacuation. Within 24 hours he was on a flight back home to Manila.

I could understand why my family friend reacted the way he did: he had two young daughters and his wife was pregnant with their third child. Given the scale of the attacks, not to mention his responsibility as a father, husband and the primary breadwinner of the family, wasn’t he right to shield himself from potential harm?

It is sensible to weigh up the risks while planning a trip overseas. But that is not to say that we should avoid going to places hit by terrorism in recent months. To steer clear of Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and Bangkok for fear of future attacks is, I think, the exact opposite of what we should be doing. One of the best ways we can support the residents of these cities is simply to keep visiting – investing our tourist dollars in hotels and restaurants, transport companies and local businesses. To give into fear is merely to accomplish what the terrorists sought to achieve.

My brother is now in Beirut, Lebanon, on a trip he’s dreamed of taking for more than a decade. His enduring fondness for Lebanon mirrors my own obsession with Indonesia. While at college in Montreal, he took up Arabic classes at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies. For the first few years he lived with a Lebanese housemate named Patrick, who brought him snacks from Beirut every time he went back. Whenever I visited we’d go out and try Lebanese food: Montreal was where I had my first taste of fattoush, an aromatic salad of mixed greens and pita bread, and I had no qualms indulging in baba ghanoush, a smoky eggplant dip that I count as one of my favourites.

Even after he moved back to Hong Kong and his Arabic grew rusty, my brother’s zeal for Lebanon never really waned. He followed the construction boom in Beirut, as its skyline filled out with slender glass towers, and he lamented the dysfunctional government, the endemic corruption, and the lack of public transit in the burgeoning capital.

Beirut suffered a twin suicide bombing the day before the Paris attacks, but that did not dampen my brother’s resolve to go. As the months passed he told friends and colleagues of his plans; predictably, most reacted in shock. For many Hong Kongers, the Middle East is simply one big dangerous place. We are bombarded with updates about the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – not to mention the atrocities committed by ISIL – but we hear very little about the places where life goes on as normal. Sometimes I wonder if people realise that the Middle East includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi, cities associated with immense wealth, six-star luxury and manufactured greatness.

Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads wrote an eloquent response to the Brussels attacks, in which she said our perception of foreign places is often tainted by fear-mongering and inaccurate generalisations: “As someone who works in the travel industry, it saddens me to see the media paint entire countries with a wide brush borne of anger and alarm.”

Bali Bedugul

Last December my cousin told me she was planning to spend Chinese New Year in Bali with her family. Then an ISIL-linked group struck Jakarta on January 14, killing four civilians and wounding 24. My relatives soon cancelled the trip and turned their attention to the Maldives. Bali, they reasoned, was too great a risk. Even if it was almost 600 miles from Jakarta, which is roughly the same distance between New York and Cincinnati.

But anyone who knows Indonesia from the inside can see that January 14 was very different from the highly organised bombings carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah between 2002 and 2009. Elizabeth Pisani, the author of Indonesia Etc., called the attack “an incompetent attempt at terrorism” that “shut central Jakarta down for about 20 minutes”.

Before the successful crackdown by Indonesian security forces, Jemaah Islamiyah targeted places viewed as Western symbols: the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, alongside the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. In Bali, the group bombed nightclubs and restaurants popular with Western tourists. The target of the most recent Jakarta attack was far less clear. Was it the Starbucks on the corner? The city’s oldest mall? The UN information centre down the street?

That day, Indonesians reacted defiantly on Twitter with the hashtag #KamiTidakTakut: ‘we are not afraid’. A photo of a satay vendor quickly made the rounds on social media, for it embodied the indomitable spirit of the Indonesian people. The caption explained that customers were lining up at his stall 100 metres from the site of the attacks, a mere two hours after the gunfire and multiple explosions rang out. When I look at the bigger picture, the disorganised, amateurish attempt of a small band of ISIL supporters – and the speed at which ordinary Jakartans bounced back – gives me the confidence to go without fear.

56 Comments Post a comment
  1. You are in general right. But, I also understand the friend who returned home because of his family. Before we had the children I went to places and did things I would never dream of later on. When you are responsible for others and have a young family – I believe you should not go. When it is only your own life and your own responsibility – after proper calculations – go without fear

    March 28, 2016
    • Ann-Christine, thank you for sharing your thoughts here. I really admire what parents do for the sake of their children – being more cautious about where they travel can also be a demonstration of unconditional love.

      March 28, 2016
      • So it is, James. It is not only hormones – but also unconditional love and the need to protect the innocent and defenceless from unnecessary danger.
        Safe travels!

        March 28, 2016
  2. Well said James!!

    Good your brother was not dissuaded from going on his dream trip to Lebanon. I wonder when he was at McGill’s Institute of Islamic Studies? Likely long after I left (1993 – 1994) however remember it well. 🙂

    The perception and reality are often polls apart. Completely agree about your comment on ‘bouncing’ back being part of the spirit in Indonesia.

    Things here are little blurry at times as communal polarisation isn’t normal but is a factor. If perceived as ‘external’ like the terrorist attacks of 2008, there is a certain ‘rallying’ that takes place. Anyone I’ve had a conversation with about those events knew someone who didn’t ‘make it’ and generally see it as an isolated tragedy.

    March 28, 2016
    • Thanks, Carissa!!

      My brother was at McGill from 2005-2009, though I am not actually sure when he took the Arabic course. He lived so close to the building he could pretty much roll out of bed 15 minutes before class and still make it on time! 😀

      It is so interesting to hear about what you’ve observed in India. I wonder if South and Southeast Asia see violence and tragedy more as a fact of life rather than something to be feared. Compared to other regions, it feels like there is a greater acceptance of events outside our control.

      March 28, 2016
      • By 2005 I was in Delhi! 🙂 Alas I lived further away… had to cycle up a killer hill so was rather fit those years!

        I think I would agree that there is a greater acceptance of events outside our control in South and South East Asia. Even amongst those not originally from the region – Once you’ve lived through a few tragedies it somehow becomes the ‘new normal’…

        March 28, 2016
  3. The 1993 WTC bombing in New York, 1995 Tokyo subway attack, 2004 Madrid train bombings, and 2005 London bombings not only happened in major cities in the developed world, but they also took place in pre-social media times. Today news spreads through multiple social media platforms so fast, so much so many people forget about the importance of verifying what they read and watch. Social media amplifies human emotions: happiness, fear, hope, despair, etc, and we are now more connected than ever — cheaper flights, the Internet, and many more. Events that were once considered foreign and so far away suddenly feel closer to home, and we are constantly presented with images and narratives that sometimes we cannot process with our clearest minds. And there are fear-mongering politicians who exactly know that people can be united not only by hope, but also by fear.

    Traveling is in fact a way for ordinary people, like us, to connect with real people around the world as opposed to believing every stereotype the media provides us with. Therefore to travel is indeed one of the best ways to tackle fear, and broaden the horizon of those whose thoughts and conscience have been derailed. Hence the joke in Indonesia about radicalized people that ‘mungkin mereka kurang piknik’, maybe they should travel more.

    March 28, 2016
    • Bama, it is so true that social media skews and amplifies our emotions. It has completely changed the way we perceive the world and how we interact with others. The Indonesian joke about radicals makes a lot of sense. It brings to mind that fabulous quote by the Prussian naturalist/explorer Alexander von Humboldt: “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.”

      March 28, 2016
  4. I completely support your main point – that we cannot stop traveling because of fear and that if we do, we are giving the terrorists exactly what they want. A number of times in recent years, I have been met with incredulous looks when I’ve announced my travel plans (Turkey, Israel, Russia, Colombia, etc.). At the same time, I do get your friend’s reaction and I, too, have avoided some other places because I have kids and a husband and people who really would be traumatized if I wandered willy-nilly into a really dangerous place. But to bounce back the other way again (!), how do we know what the next scary spot is? I always say I could get T-boned by a heedless housewife on a cell phone on the way to the store in my own little town! Finally, I wrote a post on travel in times of terror a year or so ago, and I noted that I am much more nervous about my loved ones being in places of unrest than I am being there myself; it’s always scarier to be on the outside, I think, and that’s why so many non-travelers find the whole world so frightening sometimes.

    March 28, 2016
    • Absolutely, Lex. I guess a big part of the anxiety comes from not knowing where your loved ones are and what they are experiencing so far away from home. And yet it is all too easy to lose sight of the dangers that can affect our home environment.

      Back in 2003 we went into virtual lockdown for three weeks because of the SARS virus – Hong Kong felt like a ghost town and every night you’d just get these depressing reports about how many people were infected and how many had died. We also get typhoons every summer so it’s not like the place is free of natural hazards.

      March 28, 2016
  5. I was on my first trip alone traveling to Sweden, and I had a layover in Brussels, Belgium. I was there on Monday, March 21 at 8:00 am in the Departures Terminal. The bombs hit Tuesday, March 22 at 8:00 am in the Departures Terminal. I could stay home and never travel again. However, I realize that unfortunately in these times there is no safe place (even in America). You have to live your life fully and not be afraid of what’s going to happen overseas, because most things can happen in your own backyard as well to be honest. Great article on a relevant topic!

    March 28, 2016
    • Tiara, I had chills reading about your narrow escape – it is a miracle that you avoided the bombing by exactly 24 hours. In a way, it seems as though you’ve been given a second chance at life. Your experience makes me think of Tiziano Terzani and the premise of his book ‘A Fortune-Teller Told Me’. Kudos to you for choosing not to give into fear!

      March 28, 2016
      • Thanks so much James! Congrats on a great article 🙂

        March 28, 2016
  6. When I served in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine, I quickly learned that the only thing to fear is fear. No matter where you are in the world, you are never 100% safe. For instance, around the globe, 1.3 million people die in roach crashes annually and an additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled.

    The reason why people who let fear make their emotional decisions for them is because the corporate media that make sup about 90% of the traditional media around the world makes more money selling fear than feeling good, and the auto industry advert8ises in the media so the for-profit corporate media doesn’t report or compare the odds of dying every day in a vehicle crash compared to being a victim of terrorism. Terrorists do not advertise in the corporate media but the auto industry does.

    The comparison should cause people like the family friend to run screaming away from any car or truck that he might drive or ride in as a passanger.

    According to the UK’s Daily Mail, in 201r, 32,658 people were killed by terrorists worldwide but nations like Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria bore the brunt of those deaths.

    The Daily Mail’s piece comes with a global map showing where the incidents take place.

    89.5 deaths are caused by acts of terrorism daily somewhere on the Earth.

    compared to

    3,516.6 deaths caused by vehicle accidents daily.

    I did some research on the odds of dying in a vehicle crash at home (and wrote a Blog post about it) versus the odds of being killed in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan (or another one of America’s endless wars) and the results said it was much safer to be a trained solider fighting against terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan than it was to drive from your house to a Starbucks for a cup of coffee in your own car.

    I’ll bet that family friend, if the friends owns or leases a car, isn’t going to give up driving and for sure the corporate media isn’t going to waste any ink spreading the fear of driving a car or truck by scaring consumers away from owning vehicles that are much more dangerous than a terrorist.

    March 28, 2016
    • Wise words, Lloyd. The figures on road crashes are appalling but sadly unsurprising. We should have more confidence in the safety of an airplane than in any vehicle on the road – and yet there are far more people afraid of flying than getting into a car. It is concerning to see just how much of a stranglehold the corporate media has on the way we live.

      March 28, 2016
  7. Sorry, road crashes, not roach crashes. Curse that automated spell check and fix. I wonder what other types escaped my eyes.

    March 28, 2016
    • No worries – I have to say the image of a roach crash is a very funny one. One of the more unusual ways of celebrating Australia Day is to hold cockroach races. I wonder if the contestants get roach rage?

      March 28, 2016
  8. LOL

    Typos not types.

    March 28, 2016
  9. Well said James. Be safe wherever you are since no city is safe now 🙂

    March 28, 2016
    • Makasih, Wien. I wish you the same! 🙂

      March 28, 2016
      • Terima kasih kembali James. My heart goes with the victims; I can’t help myself to read or watch the news 😦

        March 29, 2016
  10. I’m headed to Paris soon! I am a little weary of spending time in the airport but I am confident I will be fine. In fact the attacks are part of the reason I want to go back. Now convincing my mother its a good idea is an entirely different story…

    March 29, 2016
    • It’s so good to hear you are off to Paris – and partially because of what happened last November. Travelling has to be one of the best ways to dispel fear. Have a safe trip and enjoy the City of Lights!

      March 29, 2016
      • Thank you! I will surely be blogging about it! I am super looking forward to it.

        March 29, 2016
  11. I absolutely agree with you! My husband was injured in the terrorist attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi (he was there on a business trip, while I was home with our three year old son). A lot of people have assumed that we would never want to travel internationally again after that experience, but our attitude has been quite the opposite. The goal of terrorism is to terrorize us, so we must refuse to be terrorized and go on living our lives to the full.

    March 29, 2016
    • Beth, I must say that you and your husband’s courage is deeply inspiring. Especially after the ordeal that your family went through. Thank you so much for adding your own voice and experiences to the discussion.

      March 29, 2016
  12. Ulasan yang menarik mas James. salam kenal

    March 29, 2016
    • Makasih mbak Sukma. Salam kenal juga!

      March 29, 2016
  13. Thank you for encouraging bravery and not giving into fear!

    March 29, 2016
    • It needed to be said. Thanks in turn for the comment!

      March 29, 2016
  14. Thank you for this very important post and reflection. Indeed, it is important for each of us to weigh the personal and professional risks that we take in our decisions. It is also understandable that we feel helpless in the face of recent attacks, but we cannot allow fear and frustration to rule our lives. In the face of recent events, I wrote the following (more poetic) piece. Perhaps it is interesting to you:

    March 29, 2016
    • That is one beautiful poem – thanks for sharing. You summed it up perfectly here: “How do we overcome the fear that we have of those we do not (think we) understand?”

      I have learned so much by travelling and being exposed to people of different cultures, ethnic groups and religions. It’s also challenged my perceptions and exposed the many prejudices I grew up with.

      March 30, 2016
      • Thank you very much for your kind words. I am glad that you liked the poem. And yes, we need to continue to challenge our own perceptions while being open to new ones.

        March 30, 2016
  15. You said it right. We should all keep going, living, traveling, enjoying ourselves since it is exactly what the bombers want us to stop doing.

    Thanks for your words.
    Happy travels!

    March 29, 2016
    • De rien, Jul. Wishing you the same – I hope all is well wherever you are!

      March 30, 2016
      • I am in Paris… for work. All good but have lived through the latest events and feel even more what you meant in this post because I am there.
        We need to read those words and spread them, to prove the terrorists wrong and show them no fear, because living is so much better and what we owe to those we lost.
        Thanks again for your support.

        March 30, 2016
  16. I totally agree with your main point that we should not stop traveling, however I can see why people, especially those who haven’t traveled much, might be unnerved and not want to go. The world is actually a very friendly place, but it doesn’t seem that way after a slaughter of innocent people.

    It is strange too how the media and people react. I wonder if anyone canceled a trip to the Thai islands after the Erawan shrine bombing? Nobody that I know of made their Facebook profile red,white and blue for that attack, but probably half my friends did after France. The Easter massacre in Pakistan was shocking, but the attack in Belgium gets all the attention. At least in America, attacks in Western Europe draw outsized attention and reactions.

    You have created an interesting post with lots of thoughtful comments. Well done.

    March 30, 2016
    • Thank you, Jeff. The comments here have really taken on a life of their own – it has been especially touching to hear from those who lived through (or narrowly missed) these tragedies. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people cancelled their trips after the Erawan bombing. When Bangkok was the setting of a military coup in 2014, tourism to Phuket and other places plummeted by at least 50%.

      March 31, 2016
      • I guess I’m not surprised tourism dropped about 50% – I think I was feeling cynical when I made those comments 🙂

        March 31, 2016
  17. In last January, when there was an explosion in Istanbul, I was in Antalya and would fly to Istanbul in the next following day. I could imagine until now how my feeling was. The hotel that I reserved during my stay in Istanbul for the next five days is only couple of steps from explosion location. I worried and scared in the same time, asked myself many times, should I leave Turkey or continue my trip back to Istanbul. At the end of the day, I decided to go to Istanbul even though I must cancel my hotel reservation as my family was going crazy knowing where I would stay in Istanbul. However, I could see that situation was back to normal in the following day. Travelling is the best way to know how the country is, instead of knowing it from media which sometimes mislead the real facts. I remember one of my colleague, asked me how Istanbul is when I came back from my trips. I didn’t know what to say when she ask, “how is Istanbul? Is it a nice place? Is the city civilized?” I guaranteed she knows Istanbul only from misleading articles she read.

    March 30, 2016
    • Nurul, that is one narrow escape, given the timing and the location of the hotel you booked. I am glad that you stuck it out and still decided to visit Istanbul the very next day. Had I been in the same situation, there would be a lot of people asking me to cut the trip short.

      Istanbul is one of my dream destinations and the recent bombings haven’t changed my view of it one bit. I have only heard good things from my friends and other bloggers who have actually been there.

      March 31, 2016
  18. Well said James. I know a couple who cut short their visit to New Zealand as soon as they heard about 9/11! Knee jerk reactions aside, I get why people with dependents would want to steer clear of perceived danger and inconvenience. But I am with Lloyd on this, and do believe that the odds of being run over by a bus on our roads are higher than being blown up by a terrorist bomb on foreign shores. It is just a matter of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. An American citizen visiting his ailing father in Chennai was washed away in the recent floods on his way to the drugstore. It could so easily have been you or Bama or us!

    As for terrorism, there is no running away from it anymore. If anything I see political rhetoric across the world feeding their ranks further. As Bama says, travel, and connecting on a people to people level is the only way to bridge the differences exacerbated by media and those in power.

    March 31, 2016
    • Absolutely, Madhu. The moment we step outside our homes, everything we do carries a certain degree of risk. It is beyond lucky that we left Chennai just before the deluge – and that you and R were safe in one of the few pockets of the city that remained largely unaffected.

      9/11 was an abhorrent tragedy that shocked and affected us all, but cutting short a trip to New Zealand? It strikes me as one of those countries that terrorists are least likely to attack. And as you said, there is no point in running because it can happen in all sorts of places. I hope the fear-mongering politicians see sense before things spiral out of control, but the way things are going in Europe and the US, I doubt that it will happen.

      April 1, 2016
  19. This piece is very thoughtful, well written. I agree with you that we should continue to travel to these places and enjoy them. To live in fear is to stop living. It is hard though as a parent and thinking about the potential risks…my husband and I loved our two trips to France and are planning a trip back…this next time bringing our kids on their first international trip.

    April 1, 2016
    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Parenthood changes so many things – I am glad you are still planning a trip to France with the kids in tow.

      April 1, 2016
  20. I remember asking my Grandmother (91 at the time) about if she ever could imagine such acts of terrorism around the world (this was just after 9/11 at the time) and the look on her face said it all. Disbelief. 99.9% of the people in the world simply have a hard time processing such senseless acts, but you bring to light something even more important – there is still life to be lived. While I hate to put myself in others shoes, it is the travel and connecting with people around the world that brings confidence and freedom, the exact opposite of what terrorists would want. I’m getting a bit off point, but this is a brilliant post James. You touch on such important issues here. Wishing you continued successful and safe travels!

    April 6, 2016
    • It is sad that what was unimaginable just 15 years ago has become almost normal for so many people around the world. I completely agree with you that travel brings confidence and freedom. If it is done with an open mind and heart, travel builds trust and knocks down walls between individuals, communities and even countries. That for me is one of the greatest joys of travelling. Great to see you add some thoughtful words to the discussion. Thanks very much, Randall – I wish you the same!

      April 8, 2016
  21. I try to imagine what people would think of me if they only knew about the three strangest moments of my life. I can’t imagine it would be flattering.
    I certainly can’t fairly judge a city or culture the same way.

    April 15, 2016
    • That’s a great analogy right there. I guess news outlets only pick up on strange/unusual events – so there’s a tendency to develop a skewed perception of the world.

      April 15, 2016
  22. Heartbreaking beauty

    April 15, 2016
  23. LivinAfrica #

    I love this! You’re right, we all have to keep living and experiencing the world. Most people think I’m crazy for moving to Tanzania because their perception of the African continent is so influenced by the media. But there is no ‘safe place’ anymore. The world is beautiful and we can’t be scared of it!

    April 21, 2016
    • Wow, Tanzania! That country has been on my wish list for a very long time. I think it’s sad how people see instability or a disease outbreak in one part of Africa and assume it applies to the rest of the continent. Kudos to you for moving to Arusha!

      April 24, 2016
  24. James…it is sad what the world is, has become, has always been. I don’t think you should “go without fear.” I think you should go. But bravery is doing what you need to do and in spite of your fear. I think this is who you are.

    April 22, 2016
    • Such wise words, Badfish – thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

      April 24, 2016
      • Actually, I read those words on the back of a cereal box the other day…

        April 25, 2016

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