Safe Travels, Dear

We’re all longing for a trip abroad. A break away from the COVID chaos. Less hand sanitizer and more sunscreen. Fewer face mask spots and more awkward tan lines. A reality where social distancing is a distant memory and we’re instead queuing up close, like real close. Just to get a glimpse of those overrated attractions that numerous overly edited photos on Instagram tell you to see. Actually, in all fairness, most of us would probably be happy to see those queues being left behind in the pre-COVID era, but you get my point. It would just be wonderful to go – You know, when it’s safe to do so. 

That’s what we keep reminding ourselves. We’ll travel again – when it’s safe to do so. When we’re sure to get some means of transport back. When an awfully long quarantine period isn’t awaiting. When all the attractions are open and the bars serve ice-cold margaritas again, well beyond 10 o’clock. We’ll certainly go when it’s safe to do so. You know, to the typical, safe tourist destinations. 

A destination where people speak English. Or at least a form of English that seems somewhat comprehensible. A place where we’re sure to find restaurants serving up classic foods suitable for a western palate. A hotel where socialising involves drinks with fellow countrymen or people from other western countries. A place where you never need to venture far to reach either the pool or the beach. And most importantly, a stress-free destination where our everyday worries can be long forgotten. 

Not surprisingly, eyebrows are lifted when someone decides to take the less travelled road. Especially if that someone happens to be a young female. We are worried about their health. For their well-being. And most importantly, for their safety. 

I remember the looks I got when I said I wanted to travel to South America by myself. The immediate scepticism and disapproval: ‘Dear don’t you think there are better places to go? I don’t think South America is safe for a young woman.’ As if South America was just a country. Imagine, if others assumed Germany and Spain to be the same. Same culture, same food and same problems. Absurd, right? Yet, no one seems to question these assumptions when it comes to the Global South.

There’s a simple reason why. We just don’t know much about these areas of the world. Our knowledge is based on news articles reporting the dangers of Venezuela or the war on drugs in Columbia. And certainly, there are places it’s well worth staying away from for the time being. But categorizing countries, even continents, on such basis, is not only naïve, but it’s also incredibly judgmental. 

Just like Africa is not all malnourished children working from the age of 5 to provide for their family. Nor does everyone live in clay huts with lions as their family pets. How many can even mention more than a few countries in Africa? Never mind, locating these. The Global South continues to be a mystery to the Western world.

Personally, I spent the majority of my time in South America in Patagonia, the stunning tip of the continent stretching between Chile and Argentina. Rocky, snow-peaked mountains, lakes in the most wonderful shades of blue and winds strong enough to push you out of course. Unlike the assumptions, Patagonia is one of the safest places I have ever been to. A quick Google search would tell you the same if you bothered to look. 

Wherever I went, I was met with such kindness. They introduced me to their local drinks, mate and piscola, invited me along to asados and karaoke (to which anyone knowing my lack of singing skills was a terrible mistake on their behalf) and miscommunications were solved with a smile and a laugh. Differences were met with interest and curiosity and they showed incredible patience with my shockingly poor Spanish skills. I truly wish travellers visiting the Western part of the world would be met with the same kindness. 

But we stay fearful, protective and scared of the foreign world. The unknown. We develop stereotypes based on old tales, news stories and the occasional odd character we have met on our way. Yet, we do embarrassingly little to learn about these ‘others’. Their world, their story and their experience.  

So while we’re waiting and dreaming ourselves away to warmer skies and easier times, perhaps this is the perfect time to learn about the mysterious south. Maybe, a wee look at a world map? Or a little history lesson perhaps?

So when the time comes, you can with a clearer conscience, tan away, sipping blissfully on your ice-cold margarita.

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