If there’s one question that I can guarantee will come up in a post-film Q&A, it’s the one about safety.
“Didn’t you ever feel threatened by people?”, someone will ask me of my 32-country bike trip. “What was the most dangerous situation you had to deal with?”
“No,” I will answer, and honestly so. “By far the biggest danger was enormous lorries flying past, six inches from my face, on developing-world highways with no hard shoulders. I never encountered any outright aggression from people anywhere. Even the gangs of Ethiopian children throwing rocks at me I can’t count as aggression, because they were just playing!”
This will prompt a chuckle from half the audience, which will irritate me later because it wasn’t actually a joke. The other half will just look thoroughly unconvinced. I’ll see the visible split between those who suspect that news reports of the world are the real joke here, and those who are still unaware that the human race is for the most part composed of families going to work and drinking tea, not misanthropic marauders and terrorists-in-training.
The broad assumption that the foreigner is a potential target is based on a false extrapolation. It is true that if you are a foreigner with a high political or economic agenda and an entourage of 4x4s and bodyguards, and you’re deliberately travelling somewhere that you know plays host to groups who would see the eradication of ideals you represent, you are indeed at a higher risk of being a target, because you have made yourself so. A defensive shield of flesh and metal is an obvious way to create the illusion of safety. You’ll be the one creating the news reports if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You are for whom government agencies publish paranoid travel advice.
It’s really important to understand this as an independent adventurous traveller. Because you have no high political agenda. You aren’t surrounded by broad-shouldered men with Ray-Bans and earpieces and sidearms. You don’t have a whistle-stop itinerary of sensitive locations, nor an NGO or aid job that predicts your whereabouts, and you probably don’t hang out at 5‑star international business hotels. You are, for the most part, not for whom government agencies publish paranoid travel advice.
And so I find it difficult to know what to say when someone asks if I took self-defence training before setting off. Partly this is because I did take some self-defence training. But mainly it’s because to assume that hand-to-hand combat skills are what’s going to keep you safe when you’re wandering the Earth is to see the traveller’s role in the world all upside down.
Wherever you go, you will be on someone else’s territory, and you’ll be arousing their curiosity. You will attract attention. By all means try to puff up and deflect it, but it would be much better, surely, to have local people on your side. Wouldn’t a small army of new friends be better security than an intimate knowledge of knife-disarming techniques? Perfect the art of making friends, without reservation or hesitation, and the world will only conspire to help you.
Maybe you are naturally introverted and self-conscious. Well, you’ll have that hammered out of you, especially if you happen to have chosen the bicycle as your mode of transport, in which case wearing the same clothes for a fortnight, loafing on a grubby patch of pavement to eat your lunch every day, and being questioned every waking moment about what the hell you’re doing on a bicycle will have already eliminated any concern of appearing slightly strange.
And, over time, you will find yourself automatically ingratiating yourself with new communities of people. You’ll be disarming folk with smiles alone. You’ll be left wondering why other foreign travellers are so suspicious and offish. You’ll wonder why you’re still carrying around that heavy chain and padlock when you feel so much more comfortable leaving your worldly possessions with a table of tea-drinking retirees you just met outside a cafe, instead of locking your bike to a lamppost. You’ll wonder why you ever bought into that skewed world of mainstream media in the first place.
And so it’s friendliness, not defensiveness, that’ll keep you safe on the road. Right?