Don't Believe the Hype: Fear, Culture & International Travel

I was talking to my sister recently about a job offer she received to work in a pueblo in the Dominican Republic for 6 months.  She was actually given the opportunity to work in a few different countries in Central and South America and I have to admit I cringed for a moment at the thought of living in a few of them. She showed me pictures of the guest home where she would be staying, blankets over holes in the wall and a 5 inch gap between the ceiling and the roof, where presumably any critter could enter, and it took every fiber of my being to give her encouragement and support without telling her to run for the hills.

I’d like to think I’m not high maintenance, but I will certainly say there are some places (for example, Morocco) I would have visited by now were it not for the concerns of safety and access to modern conveniences.  Not to mention, I probably would have chosen to live in a Latin American country instead of Spain were crime and poverty not a consideration.  After all, one of the primary reasons I moved to Spain was to learn Spanish and that can be accomplished in many other countries.

When my sister sensed my resistance to the idea of living for a short time in Central America, she asserted that I was a bit of a travel snob. She said that I primarily look at travel as a means of relaxation and not as a conduit for growth by getting to know different cultures. I denied it, but knew it was true and more than that, it made little sense because I don’t typically think of myself as a person who makes decisions based on fear.  In the time that I lived in the US, I lived in two cities notorious for high crime, New Orleans and Memphis. Furthermore, while living there I lived in high crime neighborhoods within those cities.  Essentially I learned how to be happy in those places whilst functioning with the awareness that I needed to be vigilant.

In contrast, Spain has afforded me the freedom to almost never think about crime because I factually know how rare violent crime is here compared to the US. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been insecure about my surroundings since moving to this country.  The only thing I am definitely more aware of is pickpocketing. While I don’t fear that I’ll be robbed in my apartment, harmed or even mugged by force, after being relieved of my phone in the Madrid metro (within my first few months of moving to Spain) I learned to be conscious of my personal belongings in public.  In the states (with a few exceptions) people are typically just not in close enough proximity to one another for pickpocketing to be a common occurrence.

There’s a lot to be gained from having experiences of all types, it teaches survival skills.  So for this reason, I’m thankful for all of my moves and travel. The most important thing I learned from my experience in Memphis is that being a victim of crime is usually, if not always, a preventable thing because it’s simply not as random as the news may make it seem. If you’re smart, aware and confident about the way you interact with people, you can avoid conflict even in the most seemingly volatile situations. Notice I said smart… most of the time when living in those cities I simply didn’t put myself in volatile situations. But I also didn’t allow that fear to COMPLETELY dictate my actions. I thought about it sure, there were some sleepless nights after watching the odd suspense movie, but let’s just say fear is not the dominant memory of my time spent in those cities. For some reason or another though I had failed to apply this knowledge to my travel related decisions, I just forgot how resilient and adaptable I actually am! I had to admit that most of my travel choices looking back on it have all been pretty inside the box because my openness to experiencing different environments has been limited by a fair amount of western judgment about how people “should” live.

So what role should the news play in the decisions we make for travel and even living? The most important challenge is to examine the misconceptions and stereotypes that we have of each other and educate ourselves about the world from an array of different sources. In other words, be aware and prepared for cultural differences, but don’t buy into negative hype.  Travel is so powerful in that it allows us to educate ourselves in the most direct way that exists (if we can open ourselves up to it) by connecting with people of different cultures in their habitat.  Keeping that door open and pushing the bounds of our comfort zone in order to learn about one another is really the call of being human. 


Ayan lives in Sevilla, Spain and her least favorite question is ¿de que parte de EEUU eres? She's basically a Southerner, equal parts Louisiana and Tennessee, with some Oklahoma and Texas mixed in. She looks at the world in big picture terms and enjoys learning about psychology and history.  Even though her default facial expression is serious, she's actually equal parts serious and funny, but always blunt. She loves DIY anything, playing and watching tennis and adding new music to her Spotify playlists. She's currently working on developing a way to make a career out of all these unrelated interests, until then she teaches English.