Traveling soon? Biggest hurdle may be your own fear

"Think About What There Is To Fear."

Rob Sangster, who lives in Nova Scotia and is the author of the "Traveler's Tool Kit: How to Travel Absolutely Anywhere," posed that challenge in an essay he wrote recently for Transitions Abroad, a magazine aimed at international travelers.

His piece was about feeling psychologically as well as physically safe during times of heightened tensions around the world.

I thought about what Rob had to say while I was in Europe a few weeks ago.

I walked past the Bank of Iran and the Bank of Saudi Arabia on the way to and from my hotel in London's Kensington neighborhood. Across the street was a Gap store; down the block, a Starbucks. Between the two banks was a Lloyd's of London cash machine, where I withdrew money from my account in Seattle.

With talk of war with Iraq building, the papers were filled with opinion pieces critical of George Bush and Tony Blair. One day the headlines reported a failed terrorist plot to bomb Central London. Another day an underground station was closed for a few hours due to a security threat.

Was I afraid? No. Did I think about what there was to fear? Every time I used the cash machine, bought a newspaper or rode the subway.

It's easy to feel worried as the anti-war movement mounts across Europe. We see pictures of protesters stomping on the U.S. flag in Munich and wonder how the anger will spread. A recent survey by Condé Nast Traveler magazine cited unfriendliness toward Americans as the No. 1 concern respondents had about traveling during wartime.

In the end, for me, the casual conversations I had with people reassured me that while our government's policies are being called into question, we, as individuals, still have many friends among the people we'll meet while traveling.

Talking politics

Bad feelings toward American travelers? I didn't encounter any.

The anti-war protests grab the headlines, but as travelers, most of our encounters are with people who go about their daily lives much the same way we do. They go to work, attend concerts or sporting events and shop the winter sales. If anything, there's a "we're all in the same boat" feeling that's bringing us together at the same time our governments are moving further apart.

In Dublin, I walked by posters calling for the U.S. military to leave Ireland. I felt uncomfortable, but what I remember more was the warmth I felt from the locals I met during the split-second chance meetings that make traveling a joy.

There were the women on the bus who made sure my husband and I got off at the right stop; the older gentleman who steered us away from a tourist shop to a store he said had better prices; and the young woman who offered to take our picture next to a statue of Molly Malone.

What I did find is an eagerness on the part of almost everyone to talk about what was behind the U.S. call to war. In that sense, no matter how you feel, if you're traveling soon, be prepared to be an unofficial spokesperson for your point of few.

On a pub walk in London one evening, a doctor on a weekend vacation from the Isle of Man shyly asked me what I thought of President Bush. He had read a lot in the papers but hadn't yet had the chance to talk to any American.

At a Paris cafe, I struck up a chat in Italian with a waiter from Naples who asked me if the threats weren't really a bluff, and at dinner in a vegetarian restaurant, I listened as a friend told me she feared the start of World War III.

Still comrades

Adrian Leeds, writer and editor for Parler Paris, an Internet newsletter for Americans living and working in France, joined an American contingent in Paris last weekend during an anti-war march.

"The French are our comrades, our friends, our admirers," Leeds wrote. "They are not in any way anti-American. ... What is clear, however, is that they are frightened and concerned by the threat of war. They never want to live through a World War II again. ... This doesn't make them anti-American. Only anti-war."

Travel guidebook author and television host Rick Steves, who has made five trips to Europe since Sept. 11, says that although he's seen popular opinion of the United States take a fall, he remains hopeful based on his experiences.

"In 30 years of travel throughout the world, I've always been treated warmly as an individual, regardless of what someone may think of my government's actions," Steves said.

With that in mind, I asked Rob Sangster if I could reprint his article for Seattle Times readers. He agreed. It follows, with what I think is good advice for anyone thinking of traveling soon.

Whom might we fear?

Rather than asking whether we can travel safely in Muslim countries, perhaps we can put the question more honestly. Who might we fear? Is it the ordinary person on the street? A hot-headed zealot? A terrorist?

Ordinary people. I have always found ordinary people in Muslim countries to be extraordinarily friendly and generous, and that has not changed.

The zealot. Encountering a hot-headed zealot eager to provoke trouble is possible but highly unlikely. The important thing is to identify and avoid locations where militants gather. Local people know. Never call attention to yourself. Refuse to be provoked.

The terrorist. Terrorists are trained to attack symbolic targets to achieve maximum physical and psychological damage. That may cause some travelers to choose less-traveled destinations — say, Brazil over London and Paris. We cannot know with certainly how to avoid a strike, but we can refuse to be terrorized by the possibility. An attempt to avoid all risk would make life intolerable. Still, given these circumstances, I'll describe some protective steps I take.

Timing. Any place can become off-limits for a time. Think Afghanistan. Being in Palestine and Israel a year and a half ago was a valuable learning experience, but I don't plan to return in the immediate future. As always, research a potential destination carefully in terms of relative tranquility or turbulence. Timing is not a Muslim issue. It has been an important consideration for me in Peru, Colombia, Northern Ireland, Rwanda and many other destinations.

Large crowds. Traveling often means public transportation, public spaces and large crowds. Experienced travelers know that these situations have some risk — mostly from pickpockets. To be especially cautious, it might be wise to avoid cruise ships, huge tourist hotels and resorts popular with Westerners (I avoid them anyway, for other reasons).

Local turmoil. I was in Bolivia when the government was thrown out in an armed coup. Something similar happened while I was visiting lemurs in Madagascar. In both cases, I stayed out of sight in my hotel. In Bangkok and Santiago, I left town for a few days to avoid huge anti-government demonstrations. Hearing about those occurrences in the media worried friends at home but none presented the slightest danger to me. However, if street violence is frequent and apparently random, there's no good way to protect myself and I take a pass.

Being cautious. Wise travelers are cautious. That's how you control risk. Be aware of what's going on around you. Use your eyes. Trust your instincts.

Avoid giving offense. Learn and observe the customs of the place you will visit. Dress with a degree of modesty acceptable to local people. Don't flaunt your nationality. Never engage in a heated political or religious debate. Keep a low profile. Blend in.

Rob Sangster can be contacted at His book is available on

Speak out

How do you feel? How will fears of anti-American sentiment abroad and the possible war with Iraq affect your plans? What's on your mind as you think about spring and summer travel?

E-mail or call me with your thoughts and I'll share them with readers in the coming weeks. Include your name, the city where you live and a daytime phone.

Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month in the Travel section. Comments are welcome. Contact her at or 206-464-3701.