a unique perspective on this crazy world

My silence the past few days relates to the potentially insane idea I came up with to celebrate my 50th birthday.  This is normally a fairly quiet period for me work-wise.  The original thought was to take three months and try to knock off all the outstanding “must see” locations on my wish list, climate permitting.

But then I did the reality check and realized neither my current career plans nor my bank account could support such an extravagant scheme.  So I scaled it back a little and made sure I was spending enough time in Vancouver the clients wouldn’t think I had forgotten about them.

You have already heard the stories from round one.  I am now madly preparing for round two.

The 2012 concept is to revisit some old favourites – and to tick off at least a few new destinations from the wish list.  So… I have already been back to Paris and Berlin.  I’ll be on a plane to Amsterdam next week.  Hoping to schedule in New York City and London later in the year.

Istanbul was the first of the wish list destinations.  The original vision was to also visit Cambodia and Vietnam this year.   But I went on a wild google search last autumn and checked out all the must have’s.  Back then the Arab Spring was still fresh and not too many people were going to Egypt.  I have wanted to go to Egypt forever and Abercrombie & Kent tours to Egypt were on sale.

In that time frame I thought I was pretty savvy.  I have travelled just after major world events before and it is usually the perfect time to show up.  Of course, none of those trips involved a destination in the Middle East…

So I was using the wee hours of the morning last week – when my jet lag had me wide awake – to assess whether I was certifiable to be contemplating getting on a flight to Cairo.  According to the Canadian and UK consulates, non-essential travel to Egypt is not recommended.  But I have already invested a lot of non-refundable cash into this adventure so I knew I had to dig deeper.

My thought was that if I stuck to being a tourist and didn’t go protesting in Tahrir Square on Friday I was likely pretty safe.  My research suggested I was right.  And possibly safer than in more normal times – everyone is too busy fighting with each other to bother with tourists.

And given the role tourism plays in the Egyptian economy, there is a good chance I will be welcomed with open arms.  I was hoping to have the Pyramids to myself but supposedly my tour is sold out so I guess I am not the only crazy one out there.

A keen understanding of calculated risk is the key to an interesting life.  My travel stories prove that I am not adverse to taking a risk with my life… but I have never come to any serious harm on any of the six continents I have traversed, including any of the streets of foreign cities I have walked by myself at 2am.

But I always do my homework and know the general lay of the ‘hood even if it’s not my own ‘hood.  And have great people skills and a general sense of girl guide smarts and calm.  You always need to keep your wits about you, you should never panic and you should be able to talk your way out of most situations.

This is not to say that you should just show up in a war zone and see how it goes!  It just means that you shouldn’t freak out unnecessarily – and that you should calculate the risk before venturing in.

The rewards can be phenomenal.  I have been in a lot of places at times the average person would have shunned the place because they weren’t willing to do the risk assessment. I have been thanked for coming to New York City so soon after 9/11 there was talk of funerals in the hotel elevator and the tributes to the firefighters were still outside the fire stations.  Even more memorable was my arrival in Zimbabwe when white farmers were being killed and the economy had collapsed from fear.

But showing up then can become an experience you didn’t even have on your itinerary.  I didn’t even think much about it when I planned my trip to Botswana in 2001.  Victoria Falls is just over the border and a natural inclusion.  I had dreamed of Africa for decades but this was my first actual trip to the dark continent.  The line at the airport in Jo’burg definitely proved one needs some  patience to travel successfully in Africa.  From there we landed at the airport in Vic Falls.  We arrived but our bags did not!

But – sans luggage – we loaded onto the minibus en route to the Victoria Falls Hotel, which would have hosted Queen Victoria with aplomb.  But more impressive was our young local guide who made an impassioned speech thanking us for coming to Zimbabwe.  At that point, Mugabe was killing white farmers and it was a country in chaos with a faltering economy and a nose-diving currency.  Foreigners with US dollars were welcomed like the second coming of the Messiah… and buying crafts in the market made you feel like you were making a difference in the world… the prices were so insanely cheap I kept rounding up 100%…

So, knowing that flying into touristy Vic Falls was not being a white person holding a placard in a white farmer’s field and any risk to my personal safety was minimal provided a memory I will always treasure.  And the coolest part – we got to ride to the airport and back with this guy to collect our lost luggage – so learned about how he was an African success story, supporting a lot of not so impressive branches of his family… one of the people I’ve met in the developing world who have inspired my desire to do something useful for them with my developed world dollars.

Life is all about calculated risk.  One shouldn’t wade foolishly into war zones without doing your homework.  But I don’t want to be the kind of ignorant westerner who shuns an entire country because of a few bad apples.  I’ve been clamouring to see the Pyramids for decades – what better time than in the aftermath/afterglow of the Arab Spring.  One shouldn’t learn all one’s history from textbooks…

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