‘Exercise increased caution’
Summer travel abroad now comes with stepped-up travel alerts and complex risks, but worthwhile pleasures
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Nicaragua has always been one of the safest countries in Central America, and until two months ago it had the region’s fastest-growing economy. But weeks of street unrest and a brutal crackdown this spring by President Daniel Ortega has left 150 people dead, threatens the country’s prosperity, and has made life unexpectedly hard for Naomi Heidorn.
The director of Los Rayos de Esperanza, a mission organization, had 120 volunteers lined up for short-term mission trips, but by early June the unrest forced her to scrap all the trips.
“One team canceled and of course other volunteers are immediately concerned,” Heidorn said. “Ultimately what to do comes through me, and for many I had to make the decision for them. It was agonizing.”
Heidorn, who’s been traveling to Nicaragua for 20 years, said she’s never seen such danger unfold there or had to face such consequences since she founded Los Rayos in 2012. The group operates a nonprofit mission base in Diriomo about an hour south of Managua, the capital, where it runs a medical clinic, school, and other ministries. Los Rayos partners with churches, volunteer organizations, medical groups, and schools to carry out some of that work, providing the short-term summer teams with housing on the base.
As civil unrest exploded on the streets, Heidorn made hard decisions. “To be pulled away at the moment people need you most is terrible,” she said.
The hardship is also financial: Los Rayos takes in more than 50 percent of its budget to run the base via the contributions of summer teams. “Half of what they pay to come covers their expenses, and half funds the mission base for the coming year,” explained Heidorn. “People are donating to make up that difference, because they don’t want to see the mission base close, but it’s a big hit for us.”
Sudden upheaval is one of the perils of international travel, whether for work, for leisure, or for Christ. Despots and other troublemakers don’t take a vacation just because summer months are the peak time for Americans to go abroad.
About 120 million Americans have passports, and somewhere between 70 and 80 million are likely to use them in 2018, most in June and July. When it comes to international travel, the United States runs a trade surplus. International travel-related expenses totaled $245 billion in 2016, according to the U.S. Travel Association, while travel imports totaled $161 billion.
About 120 million Americans have passports, and somewhere between 70 and 80 million are likely to use them in 2018.
The U.S. share of international arrivals hasn’t recovered from 2001 terror attacks—inflow to the United States represented 7.5 percent of all international arrivals in 2000, compared to 6.1 percent in 2016—but terrorism and the hassles of air travel in a post-9/11 world aren’t keeping Americans at home. Since 2011, American travel overseas has grown on average 5.7 percent each year.
The advances of mass air travel in a digital age make getting from here to there easier than ever before—and sudden dangers in more uncertain political times make such journeys more complex.
In Roman times, merchants and traders journeyed from the Euphrates River in Mesopotamia to England’s Thames without crossing a border or being asked to show a passport. Goods moved mostly by sea, but the Roman roads were famously well-plied by overland caravans.
With well-plied airways the journey somehow has become enormously more complex. That same 4,000-mile journey today, from Baghdad to London, requires a $110 U.S. passport, a dozen border crossings, and an array of often-changing security procedures.
Vestiges of Roman roads remain, but Americans face a confusing new lineup of visa rules—not to mention safety issues—to begin in a place like Iraq. They will find it impossible—or at least gravely unwise—to cross the Syrian border. Following the Euphrates to Turkey, they will need a $30 e-visa ahead of time plus a confirmed flight reservation onward. From Turkey to London, a traveler might cross 10 borders, most of them EU countries without border control but subject at any time to passport checks and searches.
Europe remains Americans’ favorite overseas destination, but terror attacks have changed the landscape. The State Department’s travel alert system (revised early this year with a new four-part, color-coded system) designates nearly all of Western Europe yellow, meaning “exercise increased caution.” Tanks greet tourists in Brussels outside the European Parliament, and rapid response units are now a common site at European train stations.
The State Department map shows Turkey—another favorite destination for Americans—in orange stripes, meaning it contains areas of higher security risk so “reconsider travel.”
NICARAGUA ON THE MAP IS ORANGE but without the stripes for added risk, even though the State Department issued a new travel advisory on June 8. Visitors are likely to find it much less safe than Turkey.
For Heidorn, State Department guidance wasn’t a prime factor as she weighed concern for her teams’ safety. First for her was monitoring violence using her own contacts, and realizing clashes were moving closer and closer to her group’s mission base. She followed daily news of the U.S. embassy closures. And she monitored transportation, as roadblocks meant it would be hard for teams to move easily and difficult to evacuate if necessary. A final factor, she said, was the role of police: Ortega’s police and paramilitaries are the ones killing protesters, with no check on their power.
“It was all those things together,” Heidorn said. “If someone needed to go to the hospital, we could not get there due to roadblocks. If we had a problem, the U.S. embassy was closed. And we could not call the police if we had a problem, because the police are the problem.”
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to,” warns the journeying Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings.
For some, overseas travel is obligatory, made essential by work, ministry, or distance from family. Others only long for it, yet find it unaffordable or impractical. And for some, travel is a last option, to be avoided if possible. But everyone hopes for assurance of safety and success when they step on the plane. Living with uncertainty and being flexible—no matter what the State Department or tour guides may say—is part of the secret to making the most of a trip.
AS A REGULAR OVERSEAS TRAVELER—and one who also cherishes the routines and rootedness of home—I’m learning all over again to appreciate the jolts, even to see meaning in them. When we reflect on life as a journey and see travel as a metaphor for how we live as “pilgrims and strangers” in a world we’re only passing through, the physical discomforts—time changes, strange food, hard beds, and more—become the hurdles we grow by. Surviving the journey makes the mundane unknowns we face every day perhaps more navigable.
A sudden downpour many years ago in Kenya meant hours of delay for me before making a hard trek into unknown territory in Sudan (now South Sudan). I was on my way to see rebel commander John Garang, who was killed several years later in a mysterious helicopter crash.
A journey by four-wheel drive best done in daylight instead began in the dark, with no marked roads or lights and where dry wadis suddenly could become raging rivers. My guide and driver arrived, friendly, and we set off. Halfway there and fording streams and mud, someone joked, “Here we are on the Cape to Cairo highway.” At that moment I realized (long before smartphone GPS) no one I knew and loved knew where I was, and I didn’t know where I was, except in the dead middle of unmarked Africa.
We arrived without incident, and the next morning when I sat down with Garang and his wife, breakfast was Cornflakes—forever a memory of the familiar intruding to comfort me amid all that was strange. So much of our pilgrim journeys, and our far-flung travels, can be like that.
Sometimes we gather information as Heidorn did and we call off a trip. Sometimes, as I did, we plunge into the dark. Risk-taking is part of travel, but in reality part of stepping out our front door like Bilbo each morning.
I arrived in orange-striped Turkey in March, needing all these reminders. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a surreal place with tens of thousands of citizens in political detention since a 2016 coup attempt. Erdogan regularly sends soldiers to fight across the borders with Syria and Iraq, and I was blocked from visiting pastoral areas with ancient churches I have visited before. Other Americans warned me to wipe data from my phone—a herculean task—because border control regularly checks phones, even Instagram feeds, for anything that looks like government opposition. I obeyed, but was never searched.
All the while, tourists disembark from Mediterranean cruise ships to a city that remains full of both Byzantine intrigue and modern convenience. Hookah bars thrive alongside shops selling Turkish towels in the narrow cobblestone alleyways, all just off a revived pedestrian thoroughfare in Beyoglu with Starbucks and H&M. The popular Taksim Square throngs with people, but listen closely and you will hear the sounds of more than economic change: Many street-goers are speaking Arabic, not Turkish.
Turkey since the Syrian War has swelled with more than 3 million refugees, mostly from Arabic-speaking Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Beneath the Western retail vibe, Turkey is becoming in many ways more Eastern than ever.
The window-shoppers in Beyoglu seemed unaware, but the week I was there Erdogan’s judiciary sentenced 24 journalists to prison for terrorist ties—meaning they opposed the government. Independent media has been shuttered, so I was learning about the crackdown from emails I could check over a latte. A police state is emerging, but the cafés hum as before.
The undercurrent, however, is a far cry from Nicaragua’s street scene, and following Heidorn’s decision-making steps is helpful. Turkey remains tourist-friendly. Turkey’s State Department downgrade has mostly to do with armed conflict 1,000 miles from Istanbul, not blockades or embassy closures. Knowledge of a political situation actually can increase appreciation in such places. Understanding grinding poverty next to a Pacific resort, for example, helps us realize we are traveling in a real place, not its Instagrammed cardboard cutout. To go further, contact local churches (an enormous resource) or aid agencies like Los Rayos ahead of time to see if you can visit or help out. My family plans to do just that while visiting Jordan this summer.
Another great way to get real in travels—particularly if you want to visit somewhere exotic but aren’t sure you’re up for it—is to mine your church missionary roster. Plan a trip around one of those areas, and make time with the missionaries your church supports there. It will be a welcome connection from home for them, and you will return home with lasting memories and your prayer life recharged.
State Department advisories are a helpful guide, but not always the last word. They overemphasize isolated trouble (think Turkey). They also can lag in latest news, particularly if an embassy is closed.
Ahead of international travel set up news feeds for the place you are going in order to get a feel for local politics and pressing issues. Google Alerts, Feedly, and other aggregators can provide regular updates.
The wired world is a phenomenal tool, but abundant information is no guarantee for adequate understanding. So travel like a reporter. Read widely and deeply before you travel overseas, and seek out those in your church or other organizations who have expertise. I keep clip files on Evernote of places I hope to visit—and real travel has yet to dull my appetite for armchair travel.
Last of all: Be prepared for the surprise you can’t prepare for. It’s what I call—from many, many such moments traveling in the Middle East—finding water in the desert.
My husband and I had one in February on a brief stopover in Rome. We arrived on a dreary, wet, cold afternoon, dodged downbursts by ducking under awnings as taxis splashed our soaking feet until we found a warm trattoria. The next morning we awoke to a magical scene: thick snowflakes falling on the orange trees outside our balcony.
No one expected the snow to stick, but it lasted for hours, leaving in some places 6 inches of white stuff, something the city had not seen since 2012. Our day’s excursion to see Rome’s ruins turned into a winter wonderland, as the city came to a standstill and everyone had a snow day.
At the Circus Maximus, where ancient chariots once raced, whole families went sledding using large blue IKEA shopping bags for sleds. Children built snow cats instead of snowmen, and snowball fights reigned between the Forum and the Colosseum.
What was better, we had conversations with Romans and a young Polish couple we never would have had on a typical tourist day, as traipsing through snow brought a strange kinship. My husband remarked, “It’s like heaven, everyone is just so happy to be in it.”
And there you have the essence of travel at its best—removed from daily grinds to enjoy new wonders, yet as in the Isaac Watts hymn, “No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”
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