I'm hooked on Netflix's brilliant and slightly flawed series Narcos. When I arrived in Bogota, Colombia in 1996 Pablo Escobar had been dead just 3 years and the country was still reeling from his legacy. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups (like AUC and ELN) added to the instability. The value of your life felt flimsy, and fear constantly hummed like a fridge. More than one person told me, "If a stranger approaches you downtown it's 100% a setup." They were mostly right.
Despite precaution I need both hands to count the number of incidents I had in 9 months, though I got lucky every time. Once, in a rapid mugging, the only thing the thieves successfully extracted was a fake bill in my back pocket (recently acquired from the currency museum). In my greatest escape I ran across a thoroughfare, in a serendipitous gap of traffic, to evade 5 thugs in hot pursuit.
I found one silver lining to all this danger: Tommy and Tiny the Tourists did not want to come to Colombia. This was certainly a devestating blow to the vendors, hoteliers, and travel agents in the tourism industry. I was a blooming off-the-beaten-path traveler and it suited me just fine.
Who is Tommy the Tourist? The idea of travel is to go someplace different, but Tommy wants the destination to take a few steps towards him and meet closer to the middle. He'd like to have TV channels from home in the hotel room. He'd like to frequent familiar coffee shops and fast food chains in the small towns. He'd like his menu in his native language so he doesn't have to learn any of the native one or fuss with translation.
Tommy is usually a sucker, paying more for an experience/product/meal than he should. He never bothered to look up average prices. Because of this, his presence will bend the environment to his needs. In a world where money talks Tommy and Tina the Tourists carry much more weight than Trevor and Tasha the Travelers. When Tommy discovers a destination it's on a countdown to doomsday.
The one thing Tommy the Tourist can't abide is danger. You wouldn't find Tommy in Times Square at night before Rudolf Giuliani cleaned it up, and you certainly wouldn't have found him in Colombia in the 90s. When I traveled Syria in 2010 I didn't see Tommy once.
Naturally I'm not advocating violence. I want our planet to continue moving towards safety, and the evidence says it is. So how can we keep the world's diverse neighborhoods from losing their flavor? Leonid Bershidsky, who wrote a great piece on the subject of tourism backlash, concludes that tourists themselves must be accountable: maintain a low profile, don't overspend, behave as if you are part of a community. Just as shortcutting switchbacks erodes a mountainside, flashing loose cash in a neighborhood deteriorates its ecosystem.
Another possible solution is legislation from localities with a tourism flow. In the Cambodia episode of Road Less Traveled, we explored this concept. The government, aware of how tourism can chew up SE Asian destinations, entered into a pioneering partnership with an NGO to preserve the integrity of what makes their country special. Santa Monica, CA is also following this route with a controversial crackdown on Airbnb short term rentals. Here is Mayor Kevin McKeown's rationale: "When a landlord or other property owner takes a unit off the housing market and uses it for vacation rental, there is no permanent resident on the site, we've lost that part of the fabric of our community."
Finally, countries that dispatch tourists across the globe could provide a modicum of cultural sensitivity training to anyone seeking a passport. After a handful of embarrassing incidents, China has taken serious steps to make their tourists more cosmopolitan. In America one needs to pass a test to drive on our roads. Should an aspiring traveler not also prove a certain worldly knowledge before navigating the globe?
If all else fails a handful of FARC combatants or narcotraficantes extradited to frustrated Barcelona and fed-up Berlin would certainly keep Tommy away.
"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold... Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." Hellen Keller
My dad was moments away from falling to his death. We were traversing a jagged ridgeline in Oregon's Eagle Cap wilderness when we came to an impasse: a slick chute full of loose rocks which plunged 20 feet towards a towering cliff. My old man told me to wait as he risked walking directly through. About half way across he started to slide. He dropped a meter when the small rock collection under his feet, descending like a stony snowboard, momentarily stopped. It was clear that any motion to extricate himself could cause the whole pile to flush down and off the edge. My father was in big trouble.
"I'm stuck," he said, the panic creeping up in his voice.
"I have a rope," I replied.
I could feel the timebomb ticking as a rifled through my backpack, whose 10 pockets seemed like a bonus at the time of purchase, but now felt like they could be my dad's demise and I opened one after the other, hands shaking, to find it empty.
"Jon.. you gotta hurry. I can feel this thing sliding"
I unzipped the 6th pocket to find it nothing. Oh God I was sure I put a rope in there this morning. Not because I had a plan for it, but simply because it made me feel like an outdoorsman. I was a graduating high school senior from the suburbs of Peoria, Illinois. My father encouraged these trips to proper mountains so I'd grow up with a healthy appreciation of nature. I wanted to do him proud. Now I was his lifeline.
With 4 more pockets to go it weighed on me that there may not be time to go through them all. If my dad slid off the cliff I would forever ponder the misfortune of not having the rope handy.
zip - no
zip - no
zip - got it!
I tossed an end to my father, braced myself, and held on with every muscle fiber as he climbed back to me. Had I first run my hands over the backpack might i have felt the rope's place and thus acquired it faster? Perhaps. This was my first misadventure, and it may have set a precedent for all to come.
When you read a step by step guide to handling emergency situations, step #1 is almost always "Don't panic." This seems like a ridiculous sentiment until you find yourself in a real jam. A panicked decision is what inspired me, swept out by a riptide in South America, to freestyle furiously straight for the beach. Might I have persisted until I was completely gassed with no progress made? Perhaps. Luckily a friend, caught in the rip with me, told me to relax and conserve my energy. So we kept our heads above water until it pulled us out and across the beach. Then, timing the sets of waves, we dashed between a cluster of rocks to make shore. My buddy's cool demeanor in the face of danger taught me a lesson, and our riptide escape ended up being one of the best stories of our trip along the Brazilian coastline. If I had drowned that day the rip should only get 50% of the blame. My bad decision to swim straight into its teeth should take the other half.
Nowadays I take "don't panic" like religion. When another friend's car ran over a boulder in the Owyhee high desert, dead south of where dad and I had our rock chute debacle, we realized the situation was serious. We were 30 miles from the nearest paved road and had just a few liters of water between us. But we sat down to make some tea on a camp stove and assess our options calmly (wasting more water than planned as I accidentally tipped the first pot into the dirt).
A few days ago this same friend and I woke up on his 17 foot catamaran, still in our sleeping bags, to find ourselves drifting out into the open sea from our mellow little cove on remote Santa Cruz Island. The anchor had slipped off into the deep. Gazing through the pitch black our panic subsided as we realized we had a moment. The cliff walls were not impending. It would be a few minutes before the open water currents snagged us. We stuffed the sleeping gear in dry bags, donned our swimwear, and talked over the plan.
If you were standing on that dark rocky beach you would have been hard pressed to see us approaching on that moonless night, oars plunging into the opaque bay as we charged the shore. But if you had you might detect slight grins on our faces. And if you listened you'd have heard one of us say, "We got our first good story!"
I'm Jonathan Legg
I went to college, but I still graduated a closed minded young man. The road, however, has been my greatest teacher.. challenging stagnant beliefs, disarming prejudices, and facilitating understanding and appreciation for people different from me. I hope the content on this blog and my shows can bring a sliver of that juju to you.