Travel in a Time of War
A Conversation with Rob Sangster
Rob Sangster, author of (Menasha Ridge Press, 3rd ed.) and travel columnist for Gorp.com,
left a successful business career to devote his life to travel and teaching others how to travel. In his book he quotes a priest who reportedly said, "In
all my years, I've never once heard a man on his deathbed say, 'My only regret is that I didn't spend more time in the office.' " "I'll never say
that either," says Rob.
Traveler's Tool Kit is both practical and, as the priest's words suggest, inspirational, a book to help the reader decide
to visit the places of their dreams. Since some of us are asking if now is the right time to travel, this is the first question we put to Rob.
Sangster: Giving full consideration to the attacks that began on September 11, my answer is "Absolutely, but. .
. ." Safety is always a matter of timing. I love Sri Lanka and Kashmir, but I wouldn't visit either today. When tourists are specifically targeted for
attack, take a pass. When random violence is so frequent that a traveler could be an accidental victim, take a pass. If animosity toward Westerners grows
intense, and your presence in a country might cause a problem, take a pass.
By the way, local violence is seldom as troublesome to a traveler as it may sound. I was present when governments were toppled in Madagascar
and Bolivia and felt no personal danger. During major demonstrations in Santiago, Bangkok, and Jakarta I kept a low profile for a while and had no problems.
Experienced travelers are always cautious. They use their eyes and trust their instincts. Safety requires alertness. But overall, weighing
risks versus rewards, I continue to feel quite safe in traveling.
TA: So you will continue to travel. But what about readers who are planning a pleasure trip? Should they postpone it?
Sangster: If I were to make any change in my travel choices in light of the terrorist attacks, it might be to visit
places less frequented by tourists. Explore Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. What about a fabulous trip to South America or Africa? This is
the perfect time to go where large numbers of tourists typically do not, where prices are low and people are genuinely hospitable.
TA: Why do you think more Americans don't venture farther in their travels?
Sangster: People often cite lack of money and time and concern about language as reasons. Secretly,
many believe they are indispensable at home or work. The deeper reasons are fear of the unknown, addiction to familiar comforts, and the difficulty of climbing
out of deep, deep ruts.
Then there is the biggest reason of all. People greatly underestimate the rewards of travel-the wonders waiting for them in the lesser-known
world. True travel, like reading a good book, can be a life-changing experience. Travel is an opportunity to think of beginnings and endings, to challenge
inhibitions, to experience pure joy.
The real risk in traveling far from the familiar is that once you've been in Ladakh, Peru, Botswana, and the like and gotten to know
the people, no Florida beach will satisfy.
TA: The kind of extended travel you describe takes work: planning, studying the language and culture
of your hosts, and perhaps staying in uncomfortable places.
Sangster: The true rewards of travel-exploring, inquiring, meeting challenges-are
so profound that they vastly outweigh any effort. Besides, the effort we're talking about is actually pleasure. It's called learning. It's fun to learn about
a country, plan an itinerary, and make choices about how to get from place to place. Sure, some accommodations can be pretty basic. On the other hand, accommodations
are often far more interesting than those at home-and at a fraction of the cost. Just consider a few of the rewards of travel:
As a traveler, you develop a deeper understanding of the strivings of billions of humans. You realize how
much of what you'd accepted as universal truth is based on only the values of the country in which you grew up. You learn tolerance or appreciation for deeply-held
beliefs of others. Think about the extent to which present problems are related to isolation and to fear of and failure to understand the unknown "other."
Freed from the cocoon of home, a traveler learns how people live in the rest of the world, what they care
about. After you've been to Beijing, television coverage of helmeted soldiers beating students to the pavement in Tienanmen Square affects you in ways that
people who haven't been there simply cannot appreciate.
You are exposed to the greatest beauty of man and nature: the architectural brilliance of cathedrals and castles,
the breathtaking majesty of the Himalayas.
While on the road, you are summoned neither by a ringing phone nor by a yard waiting to be mowed. Instead,
there's time for contemplation, even solitude. Travel provides time for setting new priorities, deciding how to allocate your time when you return.
For some, travel means meeting personal challenges, such as trekking, diving, or climbing-awakening what someone
called the "adrenaline angel."
After the daily exercise and mental stimulation experienced on the road, you return full of energy and plans,
eager to get into action.
The longest-lasting travel memories are of people. As we travel, we trade life stories, speak our minds, break
free from familiar roles. Staying in touch with friends made on the road, local people as well as other travelers, is one of life's pleasures.
Travel stimulates many emotions. For example, you may find yourself in the midst of people living in wretched
conditions. Seeing such people as individual human beings rather than electronic images on a TV screen may arouse your compassion, compelling you to take
action to improve their conditions. It doesn't happen to all travelers, but it could happen to you.
Travel is part of the solution. The more people understand about the beliefs and principles that motivate
people of other cultures around the world, the more likely we are to find common cause and harmony.
In the end, travel is freedom. Freedom from the weight of possessions, freedom from ruts, freedom to be the
person you think of yourself as being.
One last point. I don't intend to travel to prove to terrorists that I'm not afraid of them. I won't let them
motivate me one way or the other. I'll travel to experience other cultures and challenges to help me reach my full potential as a human being.