Fear and Loving in Bali

I have found that you get the same questions from every cab driver in the world: Where are you from? Is it your first time here? How long are you staying? When did you arrive?

In the few taxi trips I’ve taken in Bali, after saying I’m an American, every cab driver has said the same thing “We don’t get many Americans here anymore.”

For those who are news impared, back in 2002 there was a terrorist bombing at Bali nightclub. 202 people were killed, mostly foreign tourists, the largest group of which were Australians. Since then, tourism in Indonesia has never fully recovered.

The subject of safety is probably the biggest issue which comes up when people talk about traveling overseas. Both for myself and other people who have taken longer trips, everyone is first and foremost concerned about safety. So far, I can’t say I’ve really had any experiences which I’d consider dangerous (other than almsot being trampled to death in Taipei). Everyone I’ve met in Indonesia has been exceptionally nice as they were in the Philippines, both of which the US State Department has issued travel advisories about.

This is due to a very asymmetrical information we get from other countries. We only hear about bad things so our perceptions of other places are built on only negative information. What have you heard about Indonesia in the last few years? There was a tsunami, a landslide, an earthquake, the Bali Bombings, a battle for independence over East Timor, and fighting in Sulawesi. When all the news is bad, it is natural to be apprehensive.

This is not to say I don’t take precautions while I’m on the road. I always lock my computer when it is in my room. (the potential of theft from other travelers is probably greater than what I’d experience on the street). I avoid nightclubs. I have no plans on visiting any war zones.

My biggest fear while traveling is being in a car crash. This is by far the biggest killer of tourists. I just read in a local paper that 800 people are killed in Jakarta a month on motorcycles. This is one thing that I really have no control over other than picking taxis that look relatively new. I also try to pay very close attention when doing simple things like crossing the street and walking. In Indonesia for example, most places do not have sidewalks or controlled intersections.

Likewise, I’ve met some Europeans who are terrified at the idea of coming to the United States. They think they will get off the plane and a gun battle will break out because every American carries a six shooter. What is even funnier, is that I’ve talked to Canadians who were afraid to come to he US. (I suppose the culture shock of crossing the Sault Ste. Marie bridge into the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan would be to much for anyone.)

I do not worry about terrorism. The are thousands of things to worry about before terrorism. Terrorism gets the headlines but the honest odds of being effected by it are very low, even if you live in a place such as Israel. The reaction to terrorism can often be worse than terrorism itself. In the aftermath of 9/11, many people avoiding flying and drove to destinations instead. The increase in traffic fatalities above the mean during three months after 9/11 was about 1,000 people. If you extend that out farther, you probably would equal the entire number of people killed in the terrorists attacks. Car crashes don’t dominate the headlines however, and there was probably never any one single accident you could point to and say “this happened because the person was afraid to fly”.

I actually don’t fault the media for only reporting bad things. A flood of stories every day from around the world about how disasters are not occurring isn’t really that interesting. It would quickly get like Homer Simpsons “Everything is OK Alarm”. That being said, when you think of travel, just remember that there are billions of people every day who are NOT being killed in natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

I have yet to meet a person who was hostile to me because I was an American. Usually, the reaction is quite the opposite as Americans are not nearly as well represented traveling as other countries. (The only time someone has yelled at me for being an American was in Iceland back in 2000, and that was because we spent money to release the Free Willy whale while Icelandic whalers were losing jobs.)