Okay, everyone, we need to talk about what it means to travel brave.
People often comment to us, “You two are so brave, I could never do that.”
The thing is, we’re not really taking that much risk. We’re having some wonderful adventures, but they’re not so challenging that most people couldn’t do them if they wanted to.
I mean if Tim, the fat, blind guy can do it – so can you.
Traveling brave is a decision you make when you decide not to listen to all of the doubters, or the fear mongers and figure out what type of experiences YOU want to have.
We’ll dispel some myths about what you do and don’t need to be afraid of when you travel, and help you discover how to become the fearless traveler you want to be.
What Does it Mean to Travel Brave, to Be a Fearless Traveler?
Is it running around the planet playing Indiana Jones? Maybe in our dreams, though reality is so incredibly far from that. When you’re old, fat and disabled you come to learn that no matter how adventurous your heart, sometimes the body is not able. Even if you’re young and healthy that doesn’t mean tackling every physical challenge is your idea of fun. That’s okay. Adventure doesn’t have to be a sweat-inducing exercise in danger and derring-do.
Does it mean going to dangerous places despite government warnings? Sometimes. We’ll discuss this in more detail later, but some government warnings are overly cautious because they have to be, and some are overblown for seemingly political reasons. Then again, there are some that should be wisely heeded. We’ll discuss when to listen to government websites and when to listen to locals and other travelers.
Does it mean doing things you find challenging, whatever your skill and bravery level? Ding-ding-ding! This is the closest thing to a single right answer. We’re going to discuss why you shouldn’t be as scared as some people would like you to be and give you tips on how to travel bravely and become a more fearless traveler.
Brave Travel Tip #1: Don’t give into the fear. Push beyond your comfort zone to leave yourself open to new experiences.
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Let’s Talk About Fear
When you’re young, fear can keep you from getting hurt. You learn to fear the hot pans on the stove so you don’t touch them and burn yourself, or to avoid strangers offering you candy.
But fear is a great motivator and it gets used to discourage you from doing a great many things.
As you get older, these things you get scared out of doing are rarely for your own good. Fear is often used to force you to fit into societal norms, to not speak out against authority and to control you in other ways. Sometimes the person uttering the warning is imposing their own fears onto you.
Marketing agencies regularly employ fear to get you to buy things.
Buy these jeans, or you won’t be cool.
Buy this diet system, or you’ll be fat and no one will love you.
Buy this insurance plan, or you’re not being a good provider for your family.
Our point is, fear is used to manipulate us and when you recognize that fact, you can start to tear these ideas down.
When you look back on your regrets in life, how often has fear been the motivating factor?
Brave Travel Tip #2: Stop letting fear make you miss out on the great experiences in life. The next time you’re thinking of traveling and fear rears its ugly head, give it a poke in the eye.
Why is Recognizing Fear Important to Being a Brave Traveler?
Recognizing when fear is guiding your judgments lets you look at a situation more clearly and with an open mind. There are so many misconceptions about other people and places in this world that are just plain wrong – but you don’t realize how wrong until you experience them for yourself.
When you travel you get to see for yourself what a place and people are really like. You make your own decisions and don’t have to rely on the information someone else is feeding you. Especially if it’s someone that might benefit from you being scared.
It’s hard to make negative generalizations about a group – whether it be ethnic, religious, or regional – when you’ve met a great many people that belong to it. You realize that every group has its good and bad people. And you know what? Usually the good far outweigh the bad.
Once you start traveling, you stop fearing people that are different than you.
Playing a Different Role
Are you accustomed to being around people that look and act a lot like you do? Travel is great for getting you out of this comfort zone.
Maybe, for once, you’ll be the minority and you’ll find different challenges depending on where you are. In some places, the people will make you feel like more of an outsider, and some places they’ll make you forget that you’re different at all.
- Traveling in Africa as a white woman, I have been through this whole range of experiences. In Mauritania and Morocco, I always felt like I was on the outside, and always would be. In Benin, however, everyone made me feel extremely welcome and I became part of the family in short order. Ghana has made me feel entirely welcome, as well.
- Keep in mind that minorities in any country, or society, experience these things all the time. Once you’ve been the outsider, you can understand why it’s so much better to welcome people in than to treat them as outcasts.
- There’s also the chance that your uniqueness will make you a rock star. When we first went to China in 2007, Tim had everyone wanting to take a picture with him because he was black, and that was cool. I mean, teenage guys were coming up asking him to take pictures with their girlfriends. He was never that cool back home.
- Being a large woman in Europe and the US tends to get negative responses. Go to West Africa as a large woman and you’ll be adored.
This variety of perspectives will not only inform you of different cultural norms, but it will give you another look at yourself. Instead of feeling like you don’t fit, or aren’t good enough, you might find that it’s the norms of your society that are the troublesome factor.
Seeing yourself in different roles and from different perspectives helps you understand and accept who you are.
Brave Travel Tip #3: Be willing to put yourself in a situation where you may not be completely comfortable and conquer the fear of not belonging. The moment you choose to take this risk, you are already becoming a fearless traveler.
But is it Safe to Travel There?
Have you heard all sorts of stories about how dangerous the world is? This place isn’t safe, that place isn’t safe, such-and-such country is full of criminals.
Most of those fear-inducing stories are big, heaping, worthless piles of crap.
Let’s put this in perspective with a little exercise.
First, consider where you live now – if you live in a more rural area or small town, use the big city you visit most often, or one that you’ve lived in previously. For our purposes, this is your home city.
What do the travel warnings for your home city look like? Seriously, look it up just like you would any other destination.
Now, compare those warnings with where you’re considering going. They look pretty similar, don’t they?
I know there will be exceptions, but often, your home is just as ‘dangerous’, but you probably don’t feel like it is because it’s familiar.
Many years ago I was supposed to meet someone to travel in Egypt. They had to cancel and when I was deciding on whether I wanted to go alone, I compared the travel warnings for Los Angeles and Cairo. Then I looked at a few other supposedly dangerous cities and I realized something.
If I could handle Los Angeles, I could handle just about anywhere. This was my first big step to becoming a more courageous traveler.
Next, if the country you want to go to has potential problems, is only part of the country dangerous?
Maybe a border region is troubled, but the rest of the country is fine. Or maybe there’s upheaval in the north, but not the south?
Consider your home city. Are there neighborhoods you avoid because they’re less than safe? Probably.
This is no different.
If you want to go to a country that’s having regional problems, it’s time to do some research. The four easiest ways to do this research are:
- Check your government’s website for the current security conditions.
- Join a Facebook travelers group for the area you want to visit. You’ll be able to ask questions and hear from people that are in the region.
- Check out what’s being said on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum.
- And of course, when you get to the region, listen to locals.
No destination is ever completely safe. Bad things happen everywhere.
Everyone has to find their own line when it comes to safety.
This is how we decide.
- If the problems are internal and political, but not on the verge of a coup, we don’t worry too much. These types of things rarely end up involving tourists. We simply stay away from demonstrations and large gatherings that can get out of hand.
- If the warnings involve active groups of bandits, kidnappers or terrorists, we avoid the area. Some people still choose to travel in these places, and we wish them well, but that’s a line we don’t care to cross.
- Keep in mind that sometimes the warning is ‘don’t travel on X road at night because of bandits’. Then it’s simple, just don’t travel that route at night. That doesn’t make it a no-go, for us.
Don’t assume because you’ve heard some random story, or some fear-mongering news coverage that an entire country is unsafe.
Have you ever played the game, Firecracker or Gunshot? (Mostly for our US readers)
You know, you’re sitting at home watching a movie with your honey and you hear a loud bang. With barely a flinch, you debate – was it a firecracker, or a gunshot?
If you’ve EVER played this game, and especially if you play it calmly, most of the rest of the world is safer than where you live.
Seriously, with the proliferation of guns in the US, how often have you not started an argument because you didn’t know whether the other person might decide to pull a gun?
There are so many places where most people don’t have guns. These are places that you may have been led to believe are dangerous – but they’re not.
Even beyond the gun consideration, there are many places where violence just doesn’t happen much – not in petty theft, or as a way to handle arguments.
For example, walking around by myself, I had no hassles in Benin – except one guy.
I was at the big Dantokpa Market in Cotonou and this guy wanted to be my guide. I told him no, but he just kept hanging on. He tried to tell me it was dangerous (I’d already been happily walking around Cotonou solo for a month, so I knew it wasn’t), or that I wouldn’t be able to get along because I didn’t speak French (another falsehood). He just wanted to get commission at any place I chose to buy something.
I couldn’t get him to go away.
So at one point, I calmly, but firmly turned and confronted him. I did this knowing he wasn’t going to pull a weapon, or hit me – it’s just not part of the culture there.
It took some escalation, and persistence, but I finally got rid of him. Afterward, a woman came up to make sure I was all right (no shared language, but understanding). And I was – because I knew I would be safe throughout the encounter. If I had been in that kind of argument in LA, I would have been worried about it escalating to violence the whole time.
Our point is, most busy, populated places on the planet require about the same amount of situational awareness and caution. The tactics you use to keep your money and yourself safe at a concert or amusement park in your home city are the same as you would use at a market in Africa, or at a festival in Asia, or at Carnival in South America.
Brave Travel Tip #4: Understand that a place is not dangerous just because it’s unfamiliar.
On the Road to Being a Brave Traveler
The first step to becoming a brave traveler is simple. Stop making excuses and commit to going somewhere new and different.
Ready to take a really bold, brave step? Choose a place that is as different from home as possible – one that you find interesting, of course.
Seriously, it’ll be one of the best things you ever do.
You’ll learn, you’ll grow. You’ll find out what you’re really capable of. And, you’re probably going to have a whole lot of fun.
You know what else? You’re going to want more. Once you discover how awesome the world is, you’re going to want to see more of it.
And it’s okay if every new place scares you a little bit. That’s the thrill of the unknown. The important thing is not to let that seed of fear stop you. Plan that trip, book that flight and go. Just go.
You can do this.
If we can do it, you can do it.
By the way, if money is one of the things holding you back from taking your first step into fearless travel, we understand – and we have an awesome free guide to help you save money for your travels. It has all of our saving tips that have helped us travel over the years, even with modest incomes.
If you’re still a little unsure about diving into brave international travel, we have a few suggestions for good ‘starter’ countries. These are places that will still challenge you, but they’re a little easier to manage for a variety of reasons. These are all wonderful places that we’ve visited ourselves.
Brave Travel Tip #5: Pick a place, commit to it, and GO! You’ll figure it out when you get there.
Easy Adventure Locations to Get You Started Traveling Brave
Now that you know the keys to being a brave traveler, you’re ready to shake off the shackles of fear and dive into some great adventures. Just because these countries are a little easier, doesn’t mean they’re not fantastic. In fact, they’re some of our favorites.
(In alphabetical order)
The Easy Part – This country in West Africa is growing fast and has a rich, deep history and complex culture from the Vodun religion to the slave trade. Music is always sitting just under the surface here and it breaks out regularly. Benin is also very laid back and welcoming of visitors.
The Challenge – They speak French, and if you don’t (like us) some things will be a little more difficult, but not impossible. Also, while moto-taxis are everywhere, they’re not for everyone, so you might end up hiring a driver now and again to see some places. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes it insulates you from meeting local people. Try to make time to wander local markets and spaces on your own when you can.
The Easy Part – China is a fully modern country with all the comforts you could want. Transport around the country is easy, the people are wonderful and there is such a myriad of things to do it doesn’t matter whether you’re an urban adventurer, a culture hound or an avid hiker, there’s somewhere to do it in China.
The Challenge – Chinese is a challenging language, and the dialect changes from north to south. So words you learn in Beijing might not work in Chengdu. However, we have yet to find another country where the people are so good at mime and gestures for getting meaning across. They’re also quick to pull out a translation app on their phone. This is one of the easiest places to travel if you don’t speak the language.
The other challenge – squat toilets. Hint: The toilets marked with the handicap symbol are Western-style.
The Easy Part – Another West African country that we can say all sorts of good things about. Excellent culture and history, the arts and crafts are great and the people are super nice. Ghana is well connected and it’s very easy to get around with lots of transportation options. STC buses make transport between the big cities very comfortable. They speak English here, in addition to their local languages, so communication is easy most of the time. (We’re enjoying Tamale, Ghana as I write this.)
The Challenge – Sometimes the touts can get a little pushy, especially at Cape Coast Castle. They’re often sweet talkers and it’s easy to get drawn in because you’re just trying to be polite. Truly though, the people here are so nice that most of the time the touts are easy to brush off. If the attention ever gets tiresome, just don’t respond to them at all and they’ll move onto the next person. The touts aren’t everywhere, just in certain areas.
Oh, and be prepared to do a little bargaining.
The Easy Part – The people in Indonesia are incredibly nice and always ready to lend a hand. There are so many islands, each with their own flavor and different things to do that there are activities to please every kind of traveler, from orangutan tours to seeing Komodo Dragons to exploring amazing death rituals in Toraja and visiting awesome temples like Prambanan and Borobudur. There’s no shortage of places that could be called a tropical paradise, like Flores Island.
One of the things we love is that it feels like there’s a cool surprise around every corner. I’m being broad in my description because there’s so much diversity it’s impossible to encapsulate.
The Challenge – There are a few things that make Indonesia intermittently challenging. Sometimes the roads are quite bad – like get out and put rocks over the hole in the bridge bad, but you’ll probably have a driver at those points so they’ll know how to handle it.
Also, there’s a learning curve to getting across and along Jakarta’s busy streets. (We have advice for that.)
And once you start loving the place and want to extend your visa, the process at Imigrasi is long and complex. Hint: Just fly out of the country to Malaysia, or somewhere nearby, and fly back in to get a new 30-day visa. It’s easier, and sometimes cheaper.
Here are a bunch of posts about our adventures in Indonesia. Take your pick. Though we highly recommend our orangutan adventure where Tim offended the queen orangutan and that time we met some dead people in Tana Toraja.
The Easy Part – Thailand is one of the easiest countries to travel in Southeast Asia. The tourist route is well-developed and there are tons of things to see and do, from beautiful beaches to awesome temples to night markets, you won’t ever be bored. It’s also easy to get around with lots of transportation options. There’s also a 7-11 on every corner for your convenience.
The Challenge – Some places are over-touristed and that can be less than ideal, especially for the environment and activities like snorkeling.
Also, if you don’t schedule wisely, you could get ‘templed out’. Pace yourself.
One last thing – spicy food. All of the cooks understand if you say NO spice. The challenge comes when you like spicy food, but the level of spice they normally use would make your head explode. There’s no consistent standard for, a little spicy or medium spicy – it’s always a roll of the dice. But it’s always tasty.
Coming in for a Landing
It’s time to go exploring. The world is a big place and we only have so much time here, it’s better if you don’t waste it being afraid.
The world is not a big, scary place. It’s an absolute wonder and it’s just waiting for you.
Now is the time.
Make it happen.
Go! You brave traveler, you.
PS: We’ve designed a couple of cool T-shirts that go along with this post. Have a look.