I have a theory. I have a theory that someone high up in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is sleeping with someone high up in Tourism Australia. One night, lying snug in each others’ arms after an assortment of mattress-based acrobatic activities had been performed, Terry Tourism had a whinge to Fiona Foreign Affairs about how nobody travels in Australia anymore (probably due to the unfailingly unpredictable weather). Fiona Foreign Affairs patted him on the shoulder (or elsewhere) and said, “I can fix that”.
And so she did, because the travel advisory section of the DFAT website – on which you can view a series of safety warnings for any country you may wish to visit – is the best argument for domestic travel you can find. Such is its thoroughness that taking its advice with a grain of salt doesn’t quite cut it; try supplementing it with an entire ocean’s worth.
I found myself regularly reading the Smartraveller website last year, when I spent over seven months travelling mostly solo in South America and Europe. I had initially considered flying from Sydney into Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to engage in the legendary frivolity of Carnival (which took place for 2012 just the week before last). Smartraveller changed all that. Brazil, which had reigned with such supremacy in my mind as a land of balmy beaches and supermodels, apparently has a dark side: for instance,” ‘express kidnappings’, where individuals are abducted and forced to withdraw funds from ATM machines to secure their release, are common in major cities including Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, Salvador and Recife”. Kind of like the express lane at the supermarket… but different. Brazil has an overall travel advisory of “exercise a high degree of caution”, and warnings range from the risk of carjacking (“common”) to gang-related violence (“common”) to criminal activities connected to drug-trafficking (“common”). Spot the trend?
I reluctantly relinquished my hopes of attending last year’s Carnival – not because I thought it was too unsafe full stop, but because I was a non-Portuguese-speaking, twenty-one-year-old girl who would be alone and (as much as I hate to admit it) somewhat vulnerable. Instead, I started my trip in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This country’s travel advisory is at the least alarming level: “Exercise normal travel precautions”. I’m pretty sure this has been downgraded since last year. Like Brazil, Argentina bears the risk of express kidnappings and violent crime, but even with a Lonely Planet guidebook as my only companion and little more Spanish than the most bogan-like of “hola”s, I was fine (except for when I almost had my wallet stolen on the subte, but that was my own fault anyway).
After Buenos Aires, I spent over two months volunteering and travelling in Peru, in which DFAT recommends Australians “exercise a high degree of caution”. It’s easy to get psyched out when reading the warnings – sexual assault, dangerous taxis, tourists targeted when walking home from bars, drink-spiking, fake road-blocks to trap unsuspecting cars travelling by night, fatal crashes involving inter-city buses, river pirates working on tributaries of the Amazon… the list goes on. But I caught more taxis than I can count (often alone), took four multi-hour, inter-city bus trips, rode in an Amazon riverboat, braved public transport on crazy roads several days per week, and walked around – even after dark – by myself. Smartraveller is fantastic if you take it for what it is – a worst-case scenario guide. It tells you what can happen – what you should be wary of. But its warnings bear no reflection of probability – if they did, I would have been stripped penniless and heaven knows how battered a long time ago. If you ask people who have been to places about their experiences, talk to locals about what to watch out for, and carry your wits about you, chances are you’ll be safe. And can you imagine missing out on something as amazing as the Amazon purely because of fear?
Thankfully, DFAT seems to have mellowed out in the past year and toned down the alarm (maybe Terry and Fiona have hit a rough patch?). Before I left for my trip, it was a struggle to find any country deemed safe (apart from New Zealand - ha); even visitors to Canada were advised to “exercise caution” due to the risk of terrorist attack, pickpockets, icy roads, wind-chill, earthquakes, avalanches, tornadoes, tsunamis, forest fires and bears (oh my!). I’m not making this up, people. Canada! These days, Canuckland happily occupies a lower warning level of “exercise normal safety precautions”.
Next time you feel daunted about visiting somewhere slightly risky, there’s one exercise you can do to make your destination seem as cuddly as a newborn puppy – and it works every time. Simply take a peek at the holy grail of DFAT disaster warnings: Afghanistan. Here’s some handy, though not particularly optimistic advice: ”You should consider dedicated armed protection, though even these precautions cannot guarantee personal safety”. Potential locations for terrorist attacks include shops, restaurants, airports, markets, hotels, transport infrastructure… basically anywhere that anyone might ever be. Afghanistan earns DFAT’s highest advisory level: the rather straight-forward “DO NOT TRAVEL”. See? Now Brazil and Peru look about as threatening as a Rotary Arts and Crafts Fair.
Alyssa Robinson has written 12 posts.
If you dissected me you'd get a lot of opinions, a lot of inconsequential stresses ("but where did the bobby pin go?"), a lot of half-baked entrepreneurial ideas that get smothered by more pressing needs like blog posts and frivolously humorous tweets, and a lot of Diet Coke (it fills the void). Oh, and I guess you'd get guts.
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