Stranger danger & other myths about our scary world

On my way home from Africa this summer, which was a scary mess of 4 flights and over 26 hours in the air, I had almost a full day in Johannesburg to kill time. I decided to take advantage of the good exchange rate and treat myself to a bit of a spa day. I stopped at a nearby airport hotel and indulged in a massage, facial, mani & pedi. It was a huge contrast to most of my experience in Africa, but that’s not the point of this story.

While I was getting my nails does, I struck up conversation with the manicurist. I learned that she was born in South Africa but her parents had relocated to Australia. As Australia was my next trip, I was really interested, and we chatted about that. Then she began asking questions about where I was from. After correcting her assumption that I was American (happens almost every time!), I told her a bit about Canada. She wasn’t too familiar with the country, but asked a few questions about our Southern neighbours.

We chatted about the big cities (LA, Las Vegas, etc.) and landed on New York. Neither of us had been, but we both knew about the famous US city. She also asked about natural disasters, like earthquakes and hurricanes. I explained that hurricanes were more likely to occur on the east coast, while Vancouver, on the west, was actually long overdue for an earthquake. She was shocked. I willingly lived in a place that was pushing its seismic luck everyday?

Finally, I asked her if she would ever visit the US (Canada didn’t seem as appealing). I figured a woman who fairly regularly flew to Australia wouldn’t be daunted by the long trek to North America and her interest in cities like New York was clear.

To my surprise she replied, “No! I’m too scared. I would never go over there.”

Too scared to go to the US? Here I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, a place people had been warning me about forever, and this local woman was scared of my home. After getting over my shock, I tried to convince her that North America could be a great (and very safe) place to visit, but her mind was made up. She would never travel there.

And that’s what scares me.  When people allow their fear to hold them back. Especially when the fear seems so irrational in my opinion.  Her fear was built off hear-say and overly negative media reports; she didn’t have a personal account to verify her fears. But I can’t say I don’t fall victim to fear as well. I have let my fears hold me back; being afraid of not being accepted, not being good enough, not being able to handle something. But I can’t imagine a fear great enough to hold me back from seeing and experiencing the world. In fact, it’s my fear of missing out and running out of time that pushes me to travel.

Of course, horrible things happen all over North America: there are murders, thefts, flooding and a bunch of other events that make the 6 o’ clock news. I’m not naive. I know that dangers do exist and of course it is important to be prepared and smart. But I also know that there are kind people and beautiful experiences, though they aren’t as popular in the media.  And these things, good and bad, are true about every place on earth.

Last year in Barcelona, I wrote about my meltdown. It was an embarrassing episode for me but also a huge growth moment. A perfect storm of exhaustion, loneliness and confusion lead to me heaving and sobbing in a metro station in downtown Barcelona.  But the biggest thing I took away from that experience was the kindness of complete strangers. Within seconds of my first tear,  a man approached and asked if I needed any help. Moments later another person asked if I was okay and if I had been mugged. Perfect strangers, who I would’ve otherwise ignored on public transit, were so quick to reach out to me. That show of kindness will stay with me forever.

I was fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) enough to have a similar experience on my first night in Melbourne. I accidentally booked a flight to Melbourne’s suburban airport, meaning what should have been a $5 and 20 minute sky bus was now a $22 50 minute bus ride. From there I got lost at the station, took a tram, found out my next tram was re-routed due to track work, got on an alternate tram, was told to get off and walk to where my original tram was being re-routed, waited ten minutes, got on this tram, got off four stops too late and could not find the street for where I was staying. It was almost midnight, I had landed just past 8pm. My suitcase handle was broken, I was cold and I was hungry. Another perfect storm. I began walking up and down the main street, trying to hold back silent tears and pep-talk myself through the situation. Desperate, I asked a guy crossing the street if he knew where I needed to go. He didn’t. Defeated, I finally remembered the obvious solution and pulled out my phone to call for directions. As I was dialing, the guy I had stopped to ask earlier pulled up in his car. He and his girlfriend had looked up my street inquiry and wanted to point me in the right direction. Even after assuring them I was getting directions by phone, they asked multiple times if I was okay before heading off. Perfect strangers being perfectly kind.

So when I hear about people who are too scared to travel or are convinced by sensational news story that everyone is evil, it’s upsetting. I’m disappointed that those people haven’t had the chance to see the kindness and love of strangers all over the planet. I’m angry that the media creates this culture of fear and convinces people to live in a bubble. And I’m sad that these people might never give the world a chance to prove them wrong.

 

This post was written in October 2013

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