Photographs of angry protesters holding signs and flags, police officers in riot gear, fires stretching high into the night sky – these were the images coming out of Belfast, Northern Ireland last week. Reading the news stories, and looking at those pictures made me think about how strange it is when your experience of a place is so different from the public perception of it.
I found my way to Northern Ireland by chance. I was on vacation in Dublin and had decided to get out of the city. I stopped in to the tourist office to look at the day trips offered and was immediately seduced by the pictures of the rocky cliffs and sapphire waves of the gorgeous Antrim Coast and the Giant’s Causeway (Full disclosure: I had also seen a TV show that said the Causeway might sink into the ocean in a few years, so I figured I better get on that if I wanted to see it in person).
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Irish history (or, really, to even know much about it beyond the potato famine and an awesome book I read about a fairy exorcism. Seriously, guys, it was a really interesting (non-fiction) read), but I had a vague notion of the troubles that had plagued Northern Ireland. Because of that, I paused for a minute before booking the trip, but ultimately I figured, they wouldn’t offer the trip if it wasn’t safe, right? So the next morning, pre-dawn, I found myself on a bus heading north.
It was an amazing day of wandering along picture-postcard cliffs that plunged straight into the sea, taking pictures of myself in ridiculous poses on the Giant’s Causeway and strolling along the streets of Belfast and Derry. I’m glad I didn’t let my fear dictate my travel decisions. If I had, I would’ve missed one of my favorite days of the whole trip.
But as much as I want to feel free to go/see/do anything and anywhere that strikes my fancy, there are plenty of places I’ve dreamed of visiting that I would hesitate to actually go, because of the things I’ve read/heard. I’d love to go to Egypt to see the pyramids, for instance. And I’ve always wanted to go on safari in Kenya. The list goes on and on, and can change in an instant. It’s difficult to balance what we see/read in the media versus what others tell us (“Oh, I’ve been there. It was fine!”). The news media is there to report the facts, but also to get a good story. Are they exaggerating the danger for effect? How can we really ever know?
The fact is, I know that anything can happen anywhere. You could be in the safest city on earth and get mugged; violence is unpredictable. So you have to weigh the risks versus your desire to see a certain place. My suggestions are to read the State Department travel warnings, and travel blogs/forums. The best information will come from people who’ve actually been where you’re thinking of going. And read/watch the news; be aware of what’s happening in the world, not just in our country. Information is the best defense, and will be the best preparation for your trip.
I don’t want my trip itineraries to be dictated by fear; I love traveling too much. But I also want to be smart about my safety.
Is there anywhere you’re scared to travel? Or anywhere you were hesitant to visit that turned out to be amazing?
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Featured image via ShutterStock