People wonder why we go to some of these more remote places –“It’s so dangerous!” they say. Well, we recently returned from Colombia, which is still the subject of a travel advisory from the US State Department. The people of Colombia could not have been nicer or more helpful. Sure, there were lots of checkpoints, and we did not go to some of the more dicey places, but we travelled to very remote locations and went through a bunch of military checkpoints and felt no more threatened than at home. In fact, I felt much safer than, for instance, in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, much of New York, or even nearby little Stockton, the “Murder Capital of the US.” Foreigners coming to the United States think of it as being practically an armed camp – everyone is toting a gun! And you know what, they are right – compared to where most of them live, it is very dangerous! Surprisingly, even our bank told us that they would not help us if we had financial trouble while we were there. We could use our ATM card and all, but if anything went wrong, it was our problem – thanks a lot!
Remote little Mitu, near the border with Venezuela on the Vaupes River, is one of the places that scares people. We went out and spent a couple of nights in remote villages in hammocks, neither of which had any doors between us and the great unknown. We were even awakened in the middle of the night to be told (we finally comprehended the very broken Spanish) that our guide was caught in the rain storm and could not make it back until the next day. We had neither phones nor electricity so our guide had called the village chief who had a phone and walked into the community hall where we were sleeping and woke us up with his flashlight. I must say that he seemed to be at least as apprehensive as we were. He probably thought we might have a gun or something. It was raining as hard as I have ever heard, and it was a little difficult to get back to sleep in our hammocks – tin roof on a thatch, sheeting rain, thunder – you get the picture. Still, the only really anxious moment was when the guy came in with the flashlight and we did not know him.
We also went through many checkpoints in the area around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as it is a FARC hangout, but again – no feeling of danger. (This may have been very different ten years ago) The most off putting time for us was our first forays into Latin America years ago. Guards seem to be about 15 years old and they carry automatic rifles or machine guns. They are everywhere, from airports to restaurants, but you get used to it, and have never seemed especially aggressive to us. I admit we look pretty “white bread,” but that could also work against us.
We don’t stay in expensive hotels or eat in expensive restaurants, and, of course, we don’t travel with any expensive jewelry or tons of equipment. I’ll never forget this Aussie dude who was complaining about being pick-pocketed in the Patpong area of Bangkok. He had been walking down the street with his wallet in his back pocket, and they just lifted it from him – the indignation! Well, imagine that – being pickpocketed in a notorious sex district, walking down the street late at night with his arm around a prostitute (he had hired her for the week so we met her – about 16) and a big Rolex on his arm and gold chains around his neck. I thought he was lucky he wasn’t totally stripped! That kind of attitude won’t fly in most cities, never mind which world.
We’ve been pickpocketed once, on a bus in Costa Rica. They didn’t get anything but embarrassed for being caught – stay aware of your surroundings! My favorite story is when I left my purse with all my travel papers, passport and money on the train from Casa Blanca to Fez. (Yes, I know – really dumb.) Got all the way in to the train station and realized – OMG! Ran back to the compartment where the cleaners were just finishing up – no sign of my purse. A train conductor asked me what was wrong and escorted me to the police station in the terminal where the police were digging into my purse, trying to find something to identify me. They insisted that I count my money before they let me go. Not a penny was missing and all papers were in order. So you see – travel is not as dangerous as you might think!