Are you aware? Do you know yourself and the way you respond to stress? Can you read people’s expressions and body language? More importantly, how well can you read a situation?
Travelling is dangerous. There isn’t a way around that fact, although of course the relative risk varies hugely from guided tours around Brussels to hitchhiking through Aleppo. Even the safest cities play host to horrific crimes, while the most unstable areas can offer short periods of normality for the brief visitor – but there’s often no way of knowing when and how quickly a formerly stable region can descend into sudden chaos; it was a lesson I learned the hard way when I went to Bangkok last November.
It happened while making my way back to my hostel from an unforgettable and spontaneous train journey. In the back of a tuk-tuk speeding down the main road away from the train station, we swerved around the Democracy Monument roundabout; in my mind’s eye I was still in third class, careering around the lush green valleys of the River Kwai. But the tuk-tuk and my daydream came to an abrupt stop as throngs of people suddenly rushed into every available space all around us; the few vehicles I could see were similarly hemmed into small pockets among the crowd and the usual hustle and bustle of the city had heightened to urgent, chaotic shouting. Hundreds of locals held signs covered in home-painted Thai script, flags fluttered erratically in the scorching evening sun, and angry chants echoed repetitively around the square. The driver edged his way through wall after wall of people until we eventually arrived at my hostel, but the sights, smells and sounds of the protest were permanently etched into my consciousness. A quick Google search explained that Thailand’s lower house had recently passed a bill of amnesty, ostensibly meant to reconcile offences committed following a political coup in 2006, but seen by many as a thinly-veiled attempt to ignore several recent human rights violations and thereby restore a highly divisive former leader to power.
My instincts at the time had been to get as far away from the situation as possible. After all, I had no way of knowing if, when or how the protests would reoccur. The bill was to be debated for a final time in the Senate, Thailand’s upper house, on the day of my departure – surely the demonstrations would build towards that inevitable climax? Could I still enjoy Bangkok without running into trouble? Was it worth the risk, to be caught in the midst of political turmoil that I couldn’t fully understand or participate in as an outsider?
I eventually decided to stay, and nothing bad happened to me until my departure in mid-November. Perhaps that was sheer luck. In the past I’ve travelled to much more dangerous places; having passed safely through Beirut in 2006, it seemed silly to turn away from such a relatively peaceful city at the time. Perhaps I was just overreacting to that first stimulus … And yet I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve instinctively turned away from a particular street, shop or person while abroad, knowing that the uncomfortable feeling in my stomach was more than just fear of the unknown. As someone with a high dependency on logic and reason in my daily life, I find it hard to admit to the fact that while travelling I become a slave to my emotional and sensory reactions. I find it even harder to admit that sometimes, those very emotions might be more accurate than my usual reasoning, a set of rules formed from familiar cultures and experiences that can become essentially meaningless when applied to vastly different situations. I find it hardest of all to admit that ultimately we have very little control over our own personal safety when travelling; I can barely process the extent to which we blindly trust that luck will remain on our side.
I will always travel, despite the omnipresent danger; after all, we run countless calculated risks in our everyday lives – so why not abroad? I know very few people who travel uninsured (certainly I don’t know any sensible people who do so) but the mental scars of bad travel experiences aren’t easily undone, and neither are physical injuries. Two weeks after I arrived back home, opposing protesters in Bangkok clashed amidst gunfire leaving 4 dead and 57 injured, just 15km from where I had first been caught in the uprising. It certainly serves as a sharp reminder that even the subtlest hint of danger while travelling deserves more credit than it usually receives, at least from me.