Chuck Thompson is not your typical travel writer, but his book Smile While You’re Lying made that abundantly clear. In this book, Thompson takes the issue of fear head on, traveling purposefully to places that few would consider vacation spots (albeit his last stop on this worldwide series of journeys). His travels to the Continent of Africa, the country of India, and the capital of Mexico (along with Walt Disney World, a section he titles “To Sneer or Not to Sneer?”) each provokes some type of underlying anxiety and other worldliness.
Africa and the Congo
For most travelers, even those among us who are considered well-seasoned and fearless, there’s something a little anxiety provoking about traveling to the Congo, the main stop on Thompson’s journey to Africa. Even shaking off the mystique of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” there is plenty to fear: disease, war, corruption, and a general lack of infrastructure that makes even potable water a daily concern once one leaves the main cities.
Among the most annoying (but certainly not life threatening) problems in Congo is bribery. It’s rampant and soon becomes a factor in every move Thompson and his hired entourage make (in part a fact of daily life because of the meager resources, so that nearly every civil servant who can find a way to capitalize on a little side income takes full advantage).
Facing the fear and doing it anyway
However, the horrors one supposed (and which Thompson’s friends and family members warn against) never come to pass. That’s the lesson in all these places. There are certainly dicey situations, but far less than one might suppose for travels to lands known for their inherent danger.
In part, one can blame the sensationalist media, but travelers also have to look at themselves and the travel industry generally (a point well made in his first book, Smile While You’re Lying). Do any of these places reflect the essence of what ideas have been pre-ordained and spouted over and over again in government warnings and media stories? Is Mexico City any more dangerous than Los Angeles or Detroit or Chicago (my own hometown)?
Embracing the unknown
The unknown and what we (the public) have been told doesn’t always match up with the reality, Thompson so ably demonstrates. Sure there needs to be caution in certain situations, but one can say that about everyday life, too. The larger point that Thompson makes so entertainingly is that travel removes the barriers to understanding. Whether its our own snobbish superiority (at the happiest place on earth, Disney) or creeping anxiety about adapting to unfamiliar cultures (like India) or blatant fear of becoming a victim of crime (Mexico City), travel has a way of melting away the images seared in our minds and very often replacing them with something totally unexpected. That is its magic.