Dangerous Places Worth Visiting
Is the world we live in really so dangerous, or are we just falling for western propaganda aimed at scaring you into watching more news and being petrified at leaving the comfort of your own home?
As a student in Moscow in 1993, I spent a day with the BBC and asked Angus Roxborough why the western media portrayed Russia is such a negative light. His response was that people back home wanted to see something newsworthy that was out of the ordinary—an empty shop, preferably with a long queue stretching out of the door and with any luck a babushka waving her fist. If you really played your cards right, the Russian mafia might be trying to sell plutonium to Saddam Hussein, or an entire village going blind after an attempt at making samogon and distilling it at the wrong temperature.
Now that’s news. Nobody wants to hear about the trains running on time. Well, I know a few London commuters who might beg to differ as that probably would make the news in the UK, but back to the main point of the article: how dangerous are some of the world’s hotspots? I thought I’d check a few out, mainly so that you don’t have to, and I’m still here in one piece to tell the tale!
There is a lot more to Venezuela than simply oil and Hugo Chavez’s tub-thumping. The capital, Caracas, does suffer from spates of street crime—although much of this is either turf wars or opportunist—so take the usual precautions, dress down, don’t make it blatantly obvious that you are a tourist, avoid flashing cash/jewellery around, and be on your guard at night; best to take taxis.
Having said that, this is a big country with lots to see without fear. Sun seekers head for Margarita island, whilst I flew down to Canaima in the middle of the jungle to see the famous Angel Falls, the world’s highest.
One travel tip: you can get much better exchange rates than the banks offer by changing money on the black market— this is the norm and most hotel receptionists and taxi drivers will happily oblige. This is one place to avoid using plastic as you’ll be charged the official rate, which makes for a more expensive trip. Likewise avoid ATMs (although I couldn’t find any that would accept foreign bank cards). On the whole it’s an inexpensive holiday destination, and the Russians are now coming thanks to the recently installed visafree regime—shame it’s such a long way away or I’d be back again in a heartbeat!
You have to feel sorry for Yemen sometimes. How they didn’t make it into Bush’s Axis of Evil, Allah only knows. Their President might be firmly anti-terrorist and we were warmly welcomed by the locals that we met on a recent visit, yet there is more to this place than you’ll read in the Daily Mail.
Yemen is poor, and has an exploding population, a problem not helped by an increasing number of Somali refugees. It also has few natural resources and even fewer friends. OK, this isn’t Ethiopia in the 1980s, but it’s a world away from the Skyscrapers of Dubai. This is a fiercely clandriven society and the authorities don’t have full control of some of the more mountainous regions up in the north where head-bangers are freer to plot to destroy the world’s infidels.
So my simple advice is—don’t go there! Stick to the beautiful capital Sana’a and get lost walking around the ancient buildings and markets, where you can buy cheap spices to take home. You are unlikely to bump into many westerners here, the international media with its overblown stories of kidnappings has all but killed off the demand for anyone to visit Yemen other than as an absolute necessity. This is once of the few remaining places on earth where foreigners are actually a novelty and yet unlike Egypt or Tunisia you won’t be permanently surrounded by hustlers trying to sell you junk. And one of the most pleasant surprises is that you will find the people and the southern half of the country far friendlier and more welcoming than wherever you come from.
If someone back home gets shot, beaten up, knifed or glassed then unless a D-level celebrity was involved, it barely makes the papers. For some reason if the same thing happens to a tourist visiting South Africa, out come the headlines claiming that the crime rate there is worse than in Afghanistan. Black locals can tell the difference between a white Saffer and a white tourist within a split second, for the simple reason that there certainly are some dangerous parts of South Africa (downtown Jo’burg or some of the townships) but then again there’s little to see there anyway so, go somewhere else!
South Africa is a beautiful country with beautiful scenery, a welcoming rainbow of different nationalities, plus everyone there speaks English!
My trip this summer was my first for a decade, and timed for the World Cup. All the pre-tournament hype about the high crime rate in the end predictably came to nothing. Hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the world enjoyed themselves without a hint of trouble—the country pulled out all of the stops and made it happen. Sure, they’ll still got a way to go but it’s worth it, even if just for the wine!
Most people associate Colombia with cocaine and the FARC rebel group, and they would be right, even if both are less than in their heyday. Sure, if you stride up to the head of the Medellin drugs cartel, poke him in the stomach and tell him that his grandmother wears cowboy boots, then you’re likely to finish up chopped finer than a line of the white stuff. In recent years former president Alvaro Uribe—with considerable assistance from the United States—has enjoyed success in disarming the paramilitary groups and making the majority of the country safer to both live in, and travel around.
You’ll probably kick off a visit in Bogota which, at 2,600m above sea level, is the third highest capital city in the world. With a population of over 8 million it sprawls out for miles and is prone to rain and mist due to the nearby mountains, but there are enough sights to keep you busy for a day or two. Stroll into the main square and then check out Narino Palace, the Presidential house. The safest and most convenient way around is by plane, and the national airline Avianca runs a modern fleet whose routes extend beyond this large country to much of the continent.
I buckled up and headed for Cargatena up on the Atlantic coast, which is now UNESCO World Heritage site, no less. You’ll see why when you arrive; it’s a beautifully walled city overlooking the sea, and stuffed full with Spanish, colonial, architectural gems. Get there early before the crowds, and the heat swallow you up and I promise you that your jaw will drop. Cartagena doesn’t disappoint. Oh, and when you visit, just make sure that you pronounce (or spell) their country correctly—it’s Colombia, not Columbia (as in the University in the USA)—or else you may well have a war on your hands!