It all changed with a knock on the door. I was in West Africa, staying with the family of a friend in a mud-brick house at the edge of the Sahara. For several days, I had been living in an idyll: eating fried plantain and peanut stew, discussing the water shortage with my friend’s civil servant brother-in-law, hearing tales about nomadic life from the elders; then came the knock. A policeman: My friend and I were summoned to the gendarmerie.
“Do you not know the reality of Mali at the moment?” the chief inspector asked, in apoplectic French. “Have you not watched the news?” On the television set behind him were blurred pictures of military helicopters, soldiers with AK-47s and the palm-spiked Djinguereber Mosque, the landmark of Timbuktu. “They are evacuating all the white people,” he said. That morning, three Western tourists had been kidnapped and another shot dead. Northern Mali was now officially a danger-zone.
I’m drawn to marginalized, misunderstood places, curious to learn how reality differs from the often-erroneous image projected by mainstream media.
The incident was tangled in a complicated geopolitical web, stretching back into Malian history and encompassing the war in nearby Libya. Weapons spilling out of Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal spread around the region, filling the arms of dissidents and crooks, from smuggling gangs to Tuareg separatists to Islamist groups like Boko Haram.
Over the next few years, Mali became increasingly dangerous, and each of my subsequent visits was more fraught than the last. I had hoped to travel with a convoy of nomadic salt traders to the extreme north of the country. But after completing my training for the trip with a nomadic chieftain, Lamina, I met him to discuss the likelihood of this journey.
“The desert is like a village,” he told me, “and everybody knows everybody else’s business. I do not fear the desert. There is only one thing I fear: The people we do not know. Now there are too many of them, strangers with bad intentions, people who cannot be trusted.” As far as I was concerned, if my guide was warning me not to go, that was that.
My Malian experience was one among several in which I’ve rubbed against the edges of conflict. Crossing the difficult region of Helmand in Afghanistan, I was prodded with a Kalashnikov by an unofficial toll-collector high on opium; in Azerbaijan, I was mugged trying to get away from a dodgy nightclub; another mugging took place near a sacred mountain in southern Iran.
As Mark Twain put it, "An adventure is something that while it’s happening you wish it wasn’t." But while discomfort, anxiety or even plain old trouble may seem perverse goals, they can enliven an off-the-beaten-track adventure.
And in our increasingly homogenized world, there is a special thrill to finding oneself outside the parameters of conventional travel. As a writer, I’m drawn to marginalized, misunderstood places, curious to learn how reality differs from the often-erroneous image projected by mainstream media and to meet people whose life experiences are different from my own.
As families across the United States head out on vacations to postcard-perfect historical sites and cultural attractions, they should be aware that there is a wider world to explore. The uncomfortable experience off the beaten path, and the people you encounter while off it, can be more moving and memorable than any architectural icon or work of art.
The fee for these experiences is months of research, learning enough to demystify an otherwise intimidating, alien-seeming location. While many parts of the world simmer under continuing conflict, others are emerging from the shadow of war, willing to embrace the curious visitor. There are pockets of opportunity for exciting and relatively secure experiences. My own have included journeys across Lebanon, the Balkans and Sudan — some of the most engrossing places I’ve visited, with some of the kindest people.
Whether I’m dust-blown or rain-sodden, sitting around a desert campfire with Berabiche nomads in Mali, drinking rakija with Bosnian Serb war veterans or attending a wedding in Mauritania, I'm eager for opportunities to reach across the fault lines deemed insurmountable by media histrionics and State Department warnings. In attempting to do so, I’ve often felt surprisingly safe. In Iran, I studied Farsi at an institution connected with Tehran University. Being integrated into the academic infrastructure, along with meeting many kind local people, helped to allay my concerns. I travelled across the country on local buses and trains, often arriving late at night in towns where I knew nobody. Speaking Farsi helped to break down barriers, and several times I found myself hospitably accommodated.
My experience in the badlands of Sistan, in the south of the country, however reinforced how fragile the perception of security can be. There, I was bundled out of a car en route to a sacred mountain, knocked down and stripped of my cash. In hindsight, I should have taken more care before boarding the car, making sure its license plate and owner were known to my hostel. I misjudged the driver, and the incident taught me not to be complacent about character assessments.
In each case, there has to be a leap of faith — your research can only take you so far.
There was another lesson gained from this experience: distinguishing between regions, rather than nations. For all the conflict in which it is embroiled, Iran has a relatively low crime rate. Its border areas, though, are dicey. We tend to align danger with nation states, following State Department or Foreign Office warnings and the nation-orientated headlines of news bulletins. But closer inspection shows a range of danger levels within troubled countries. During my journeys in Mali, the danger was focused in the north (although central Mali has become a recent battleground), while the south was relatively untouched; in Iran, it was the southern and western borderlands.
In these and other countries, the dangerous encounters were exceptions. But since travel in remote regions can be perilous, precautions need to be taken and journeys to these places should always be approached with prudence. I usually take extra precautions, researching the lay of the land, learning as much of the local languages as I can manage, making contact with people in the vicinity and hiring (as far as my budget can stretch) local guides to help me across the more problematic stretches.
But in each case, there has to be a leap of faith — your research can only take you so far. At some point, you have to step into the unknown, and hope that everything you’ve learned or researched will be enough to prop you up. Because that’s when the adventure begins.