Safety and Travel


When I read last year about an attack on two British volunteer teachers on a program through i-to-i (a volunteer travel company) in Zanzibar, my heart sank. The motive wasn’t robbery or rape, it was simply to do harm. Some have speculated that it was religiously motivated. Zanzibar is 99% Muslim, and as anywhere, there are some very conservative elements. I contacted a British friend who has lived there for years, and asked what she thought. She said, “The acid attack was very unusual and very unexpected - I do not think there is a clear motive to be honest.”

The perpetrators have never been found. Whatever the truth of the story, it is a reminder that travel has its dangers. It is impossible to eliminate all risk from travel, and I won’t say that it is as safe as staying home. It’s not. But any traveler who is crippled by fear of travel would be best off staying home, or going on a tour. Perhaps a few well organized trips will help overcome the fear. On the other side of the spectrum is the naïve traveler, one who equates travel with a trip to Disneyland: “I’m on vacation. See no evil, hear no evil.”

Racism, sexism, religious intolerance, envy, all the usual vices still exist, even on vacation! You can minimize the odds of encountering these by being as invisible as possible. By that I mean, look at the locals. How do they act? How do they dress? If men and women don’t display affection in public, then neither should you.  If women don’t wear pants, than neither should you. And that goes for men. Are shorts acceptable? T-shirts? This doesn’t mean that you need to dress exactly like the locals, just take your cues from them. By respecting their culture, you become less obvious, and less of a target.

I’ve been traveling on my own for over 40 years, and I’ve been fairly lucky: some scam artists, some anti-American sentiment, a run in with Russian mobsters, some petty theft. Actually it's surprising how few anti-American incidents I’ve experienced. After all, the U.S. has not always endeared itself to other nations. The fact that a woman in a marketplace in Nicaragua started yelling anti-American insults at me was embarrassing, but given our history in Nicaragua (and Guatemala and El Salvador, etc.), why wasn’t everyone in the market joining in?

Fortunately, most people see others as individuals, not as stereotypes. The fact that I’ve only had a handful of negative encounters is proof of this. Nicaragua is actually very welcoming. Volunteers we have sent have loved their experiences there. As for my Russian mobster story, that will need to wait for another day!

Interested in Nicaragua?

By Kevin O'Neill


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