Life is full of risks. Period. Growing up we learn how to cope with the risks around us.
- Traffic is dangerous, so cross at the lights.
- Germs are dangerous, so don’t eat food off the floor
- Strangers are dangerous, so don’t go down dark alleys by yourself
As we grow up, we learn to accept these risks and no longer consider ourselves in danger when we encounter there situations. We know how to react, and what to do to keep ourselves safe. However, much of what we learned is no longer effective when we travel and live in other countries. New risks are everywhere, and even familiar risks become more dangerous because how you are supposed to react changes based on cultural expectations.
For example, traffic is a problem in most countries (and all major urban centers especially). Although this is something we learned a lot about as children (look both directions before crossing the road, never jay walk, etc.), these rules are much different in other countries. In Ghana for instance, my friend Yazan and I lived in different parts of the country. I lived in Accra (in the South), where there are a lot of cars and mini-buses (and barely any traffic lights). He lived in Tamale (in the North), which is full of motorcycles. Although we were both nervous about crossing the street when we first arrived (you basically have to run when there’s a break in the traffic), we both acclimatized rather quickly and were able to cross safely after a few weeks of practice. However, due to the different traffic flows between different types of vehicles, we were both total beginners again when we visited each others cities. This shows how quickly we adapt to new rules in risky situations, and how little you have to travel from a city where you’re comfortable before you have to adopt a whole new set of strategies.
Bad quality phone pictures of Tamale (left) and Accra (right).
Risks can be seen as one of the negative drawbacks of life in developing countries, but it is also one of the things that makes life so exciting for people who constantly travel. When you first arrive and don’t know how to take the bus, or haggle over produce, or who is friendly… it’s scary. However, as you live in a place for a week, a month, or a year, you come to understand how these things work. By conquering your fears, you really develop a sense of independence, and it helps give you a feeling of confidence, and the idea that you can handle all sorts of situations. It is only through the initial anxiety and practice that you learn how to overcome these risks. Eventually all risky things become routine as you perform the tasks regularly, but that might be hard for some people to accept (who think that you should limit all risk in your life). But without any risk, there’s no reward. Why do you think it’s so exciting to try new foods, or go skydiving, or travel to exotic lands? Sometimes excitement is heightened when a little bit of risk can be found in the adventure.
Admittedly, there are more risks in developing countries. Since infrastructure isn’t as developed, the risk of contracting a disease or tripping into a sewer is higher, and the ability to seek help should a bad situation occur is more difficult, since social services (such as police or doctors) are often lacking. However, as foreigners we often have more resources than the local people. We have people (like insurance companies, foreign embassies, and international organizations) who will fly us out in an emergency (such as major health problem, natural disaster, or dangerous conflict).
As a prepared person, I always ensure that I am signed up with the list of Canadians abroad, the Canadian embassy in Dhaka, and Bangladesh travel advisories from Canada (as well as the UK and America). I also get daily Google alerts about Dhaka and Bangladesh to ensure I stay informed. Friends and family tend to stress about safety when you travel. Since they can’t see you for themselves, they start to worry what might be going on. This is why frequent travelers (or expats) are often much more worried that their family will hear bad news out of the country/region where they’re located, instead of actually worrying about their own safety. To make this situation worse, friends and family sometimes have no sense of geography relating to the place you are actually living and working, which might make them worry about any problem that occurs on your entire continent!
For instance, in September 2015, all expats in Bangladesh started to receive warnings from the government travel advisories that militants were planning attacks on Westerners, and that people should try to avoid places where foreign people congregate, such as hotel, restaurants, and large public events. The next day, an Italian NGO worker was shot and killed in the many “foreign/downtown” area of Dhaka, called Gulshan. People were worried but mostly continued with life as usual… work, home, with a few less social activities. A few days later, a Japanese man was shot in similar style, with ISIS claiming responsibility for both.
My primary concern was trying not to convey my slight fear to my boyfriend and mom, because I worried it might turn into a huge fear for them. If I didn’t chat with them one day, would they worry I was dead on the street somewhere? Although these stories are all over the news here, they often don’t make it into the main stream western media, which is a shame for the people of developing countries whose stories are never told, but was great news for those of us in Dhaka (since we didn’t want to needlessly worry people back home). I will discuss the current security situation in a future blog post. Note: I have since discussed it with them, since the situation did not blow over quickly.
Similarly, when I was in Ghana in the fall of 2014, Ebola was everywhere in the news. There was not a single person in the country with Ebola, yet friends and family regularly asked about the risk I faced. Even friends in Malawi, Uganda, and South Africa were contacted by worried relatives who didn’t understand just how far away the outbreak was from those respective locations. In the news they represent Africa as one cohesive place, which must suffer from all the same afflictions right?
I’m not saying nobody should ever worry. Anxiety and feelings of nervousness are actually great tools that we can use to keep ourselves safe. However, when first arriving in a country we must take a few weeks to orient ourselves to the local situation. It helps to explain where exactly we will be living and how we can communicate with people back home so they worry less. It is also great if friends and family take a few minutes to research the area where their loved ones will be staying, so they know not to freak out because there was a a problem in a city that is actually quite far from where the person is living. I urge people at home to not guilt their travelling loved ones about travelling to these “risky places”. Do not try to make them stay home, or make them come home once they arrive. This will only make them want to tell you less, and will cause guilt and resentment to build up. If you want a good relationship, try to ask questions about different risk factors and the measures in place to mitigate them. You never know, this will likely bring you even closer, and create a more open communication channel that will be useful in the future, and make the person more likely to open up to you about things they worry about. It is up to all of us to communicate better about risks…