Taking the Risk

Published in Treveller, no 13

“My mom can’t even let me go from the kitchen to the dining room without
saying ‘Take care’,” said my American friend, wistfully. My mother was just
explaining that she had done nothing to dissuade me from hitchhiking to the
Middle East when I had turned 20.

My life as a traveller shows that risk-takers are a product of nurture as
much as nature, and I just thank God that I had parents who nurtured my
adventurous spirit. They had to work hard at it. I was a shy child,
unwilling to take any social risks, though reckless over my physical safety.
A few painful experiences persuaded me to be more cautious physically, but
travel taught me to be open to the kindness of strangers.

You can’t travel properly without taking risks. You can’t live without
taking risks. In today’s pursuit of a risk-free existence, we find someone
to blame for every misfortune; nothing is ever our fault. That’s not going
to work in the developing world. If you are stupid enough to fall into a
hole in the pavement, it’s your problem. You’ll look where you’re going next
time. If you take a mountain path, it’s not going to have a hand rail. You
must watch your step. And if you get lost you must turn to strangers for help.

What wonderful freedom! What heady responsibility! You realise that the
local people are, mostly, surviving in the face of appalling risks. Tiny
children play with knives around an open fire; little boys herd mean-faced
bulls to pasture; men ride precariously on the roofs of trains; women walk for hours in the mountains carrying their goods to market. I wonder how often would you hear the phrase “Take care” in a non-Western language?

In this country, our greatest fear is to be murdered by a stranger.
Statistically, we are more likely to win the lottery. But mistrust pervades
our every social action. We daren’t turn to strangers for help, lest they
turn out to be murderers, so we live in our own little bubble of paranoia.

But this doesn’t work when we’re travelling. Every day we must put our trust
in people: dodgy-looking people, too. Our hearts pound with fear as they
lead us up a dark alley, then soar with pleasure when a glass of sweet tea
is put into our hands in a softly-lit, mud-walled living room. Every day we
make a quick judgement: can I trust this person? Sometimes the gut feeling
is ‘no’, and we make our excuses and walk away. More often it is ‘yes’, and
we add another positive experience to our collection.

I can think of so many such ‘yes’ moments, when I have taken the risk and accepted hospitality from someone – even lone men. Women travellers feel particularly vulnerable because of the possibility of sexual attack. There’s no denying that this can happen, and no underestimating its terrible psychological effect. However, most women who have travelled alone will confirm that this very vulnerability is an advantage that outweighs the risk. They are more likely to be offered assistance and hospitality than a lone male traveller who local people may reckon can look after himself. We develop a sixth sense about men and their offers of commerce or companionship. We learn how to say ‘no’ firmly yet politely, and ‘yes’ when it feels safe. And when we get it right’ it is often so very right.

Just occasionally we get it wrong and we are robbed, attacked or raped.
Terrible. Horrible. But oh, it’s worth the risk. It has to be worth it. I think it was Mae West who said: “I’d rather burn out than rust out.” Me too.

© Hilary Bradt

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