IN the bungling and bellicosity that constitute the back and forth of history, worsened by natural disasters and unprovoked cruelty, humble citizens pay the highest price. To be a traveler in such circumstances can be inconvenient at best, fatal at worst. But if the traveler manages to breeze past such unpleasantness on tiny feet, he or she is able to return home to report: “I was there. I saw it all.” The traveler’s boast, sometimes couched as a complaint, is that of having been an eyewitness, and invariably this experience — shocking though it may seem at the time — is an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the life-altering trophies of the road.
“Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger wagger says of many a distant place. I have heard it my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. In my experience these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling. I am not saying they are fun. For undiluted jollification you bake in the sun at Waikiki with a mai tai in your fist, or eat lotuses on the Côte d’Azur. As for the recognition of hard travel as rewarding, the feeling is mainly retrospective, since it is only in looking back that we see how we have been enriched. At the time, of course, the experience of being a bystander to sudden political or social change can be alarming.
Throughout history the traveler has been forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty: the wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: “There Be Dragons.” Or as Othello reported, “Cannibals that each other eat, /The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
But it is the well-known world that seems particularly dire at this moment. Egypt has been upended, and I smile at the phrase “peaceful mob” as an oxymoron; all mobs contain an element of spitefulness and personal score-settling. Tunisia before the mass demonstrations and the coup was a sunny shoreline popular with European vacationers, and the chief annoyance to the traveler was the overzealous rug dealer.
The recent disaster-in-installments in Japan of earthquake, tsunami, damaged nuclear reactors and near-meltdown is a particular shock; Japan has long been regarded as one of the safest countries in the world. And now it seems a perilous place of inundated cities and contaminated air and undrinkable water. The earthquake itself was enough to inspire a sense of deep insecurity. And the idea that Christchurch, New Zealand, could be flattened and feel dangerous — this polite, orderly, beautiful, underpopulated, provincial, hymn-singing place — is yet another surprise.
Many people think of global travel as though presented on a menu, one of those dense, slightly sticky volumes that resemble the Book of Kells. But it is a changing menu, as certain places are “discovered” and others deleted. Libya is now a war zone, but only the other day the Libyan tourist board was encouraging visitors with promises of Roman ruins and cusucs bil-hoot (the Berber version of couscous with fish). Baghdad may have been the Paris of the ninth century, as Richard Burton described it, but James C. Simmons points out in “Passionate Pilgrims: English Travelers to the World of the Desert Arabs” that it has disappointed most travelers since then as, in their words, “a city of wicked dust,” “odorous, unattractive, and hot,” with an “atmosphere of squalor and poverty” — and these descriptions are from travelers in the 1930s, long before the invasion, war and suicide bombers.
Afghanistan in the 1960s and ’70s for all its hassles (gunslingers, scolding mullahs, ancient buses, bowel-shattering cuisine) was astonishingly rich in tradition, ancient pieties and dramatic landscape, shimmering with the still-intact Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan, and penetrated with the sense of the medieval. There were robes, ragged turbans, daggers and even a certain dusty romance — dark eyes peeking from a Shmoo-like burqa. Kiss that goodbye. I well remember the jolting bus ride from the border city of Meshhad in Iran, the walk across the stony frontier to Islamic Qaleh, and finally the small-scale magnificence of the ancient city of Herat. It will be a long time before any farang with a backpack takes that bus ride again. And in Pakistan, the stupendous Greco-Buddhist ruins of Gandharan monasteries in and around Taxila, not far from Peshawar — only a dozen years ago a must-see spot — are now unvisited except by jihadis whose only mission is to deface them.
For the modern traveler there are recent and sharp reversals — the overthrow of longstanding governments, earthquakes, a volcano, the release of radioactivity into a blue sky and cows’ milk — all in the span of a few months. What then is the traveler to do except huddle and observe?
Tourists have always taken vacations in tyrannies — Tunisia and Egypt are pretty good examples. The absurd dictatorship gives such an illusion of stability that the place is often a holiday destination. Myanmar — yet another place recently traumatized by a deadly earthquake — is a classic example of a police state that is also a seemingly well-regulated country for sightseers, providing they don’t look too closely. (The Burmese guides are much too terrified to confide their fears to their clients.) Kenya’s 24 years under the kleptocracy of President Daniel arap Moi, which ended in 2002, never discouraged safari-goers, and in fact might have encouraged them to believe they were safe with so many conspicuous cops around. It is only relatively recently that tourists and hunters have begun to stay away from Zimbabwe. At a time when President Mugabe was starving and jailing his opponents in the ’90s, visitors to the country were applying for licenses to shoot elephants and having a swell time in the upscale game lodges.
By contrast, the free-market-inspired, somewhat democratic, unregulated country can make for a bumpy trip, and a preponderance of rapacious locals. The Soviet Union, with nannying guides, controlled and protected its tourists; the new Russia torments visitors with every scam available to rampant capitalism. But unless you are in delicate health and desire a serious rest, none of this is a reason to stay home.