Is it safe to travel through Islamic countries?
Jun 24, 2004
"Americans are a major target right now", someone explains in an online discussion. Most people are afraid to travel through Islamic countries right now. It reminds me of the hysteria following September 11. I was in Indonesia on September 11, and the months thereafter. I want to share stories from my experiences in Indonesia which will hopefully show you that Muslim countries aren't what you might expect, and that you can feel free to travel in them.
September 11, 2001: I was on a small fishing boat in the middle of the ocean with 15 other tourists. We had no radio, no source of news. In wasn't until the following day, that I learned of the tragedy in New York. We arrived on Komodo Island, the home of the famous Komodo dragons. The park ranger, in very broken English, told me what happened. He also told me that he cried for the dead. My first, post 9/11 experience is an Islamic man crying for dead Americans.
The park ranger told me that 50,000 people were killed in New York. I guess that a more exact count wasn't known until a few days later. I was desperate for news. In Flores, I found a TV at a dive shop. I saw only 2 minutes of news, just a plane crashing into one of the towers, and then the power went dead.
We had another boat to catch. My friends were all moving on to another island. I was tempted to miss the boat. To wait for more electricity and more news. But, I decided that in an emotionally difficult moment like this, I needed to be with friends. We went on to Kanawa Island. I had no more news for a week.
It wasn't until I returned to Flores, that I learned only 2,000 people were killed. After a week of imagining 50,000 dead, the much smaller number of dead was massive relief. Since that moment, Sept. 11, hasn't seemed so terrible to me. It remains in my mind as only 2000 people. This was reinforced when I arrived in Cambodia a few months later, and heard first hand about the deaths of 2 million people. Now, that is a tragedy.
It makes one a little edgy to be in the conservative part of an Islamic country when the US may bomb Afghanistan literally at any moment. It makes one really edgy to wake up on a bus in the middle nowhere and find 4 masked bandits on your bus. From Flores, I took a bus back towards Bali. I'm sleeping with a hat covering my eyes when someone bumps into me and wakes me up. Groggily, I take off my hat and see that the bus has stopped and our bus has been boarded by armed men. Instantly, I'm wide awake. These guys are standing in the aisle. Their heads are wrapped so that only their eyes showing. Three of the guys are wielding sticks. The leader is armed with a big rusted machete.
There is a moment of fear and indecision, before I decide that we're only being robbed. Very carefully, I slide my ATM card out of my wallet, and flick it onto the floor. So long as I have the ATM card, I can get money, go shopping, and keeping traveling.
Suddenly, the bandits walk off the bus. I'm completely puzzled. I ask the only other tourists on the bus, a Dutch couple, if they had any idea what was going on. They were as clueless as I was. I didn't speak any Indonesian (Bahasa) and thought that no one else on the bus spoke English. The bus continues on it's way. Finally, I make eye contact with one local. He must have seen my confusion, and he tells me "Not terrorist!" He repeats this in Indonesian, and everyone laughs. I doubt that I will ever know who those guys were, or what they wanted, but at least they were "not terrorists." And, it's good to know the Indonesians can find amusement in our terrorist paranoias.
It looks like things have gone from bad to worse. I arrive back in Bali as the US is about to invade Afghanistan. CNN is reporting riots and protests around the Muslim world. The Jakarta Post has confused reports stating that roving bands of Muslims may or many not be "sweeping" the streets and checking hotels looking for Americans. The American embassy has advised all Americans to leave Indonesia, and is voluntarily evacuating non-essential personnel from the embassy. I think long and hard, but eventually I decide that the reports must be exaggerated. I catch a boat to Java. The other tourists think that I'm nuts.
I continue to watch CNN, trying to keep informed about the latest news and potential dangers, but in Yogyakarta, I finally realize that it's a joke. The US just invaded Afghanistan. CNN reported on a riot in Pakistan. The camera zoomed in on the face of a guy throwing a fire-bomb. He might have been the only guy throwing a fire-bomb, but they freeze the shot, with his angry face filling the screen, and continue reporting. "In Jakarta, a hundred thousand muslims march on the US embassy. Other protests are going on throughout Indonesia including in Surabaya and Yogyakarta."
I had watched the protest in Yogyakarta. 30 students marched peacefully down the main street. They taped one small sign on the window of the KFC telling everyone to boycott American products. I couldn't believe that this protest made it on to CNN world news. The protests in Santa Cruz must have been larger and more violent. I later got details about the massive protest in Jakarta. It wasn't very scary either. It was organized by "Mothers Against Violence", a fact that CNN neglected to mention. This is not the version of the Islamic world that sells newspapers!
My parents sent me an email wanting to make sure that I had an escape plan from Indonesia. I don't think that they wanted to hear that my plan involved me going through Jakarta. Jakarta had always scared even me. Everything that I had ever heard about Jakarta was terrible. I planned on only spending one night and then getting a boat out first thing in the next morning.
What I didn't plan on, was arriving in the middle of a major protest. I was reading the Herald Tribune (still trying to keep up with the news) on a train headed for Jakarta. The paper said that another massive protest was scheduled at the US embassy. On top of that, it was scheduled to start at the same time my train was due to arrive. Then I check my guidebook, and am horrified to learn that the train station is located directly across from the US embassy. Oh shit! I'm about to attend an anti-American protest in Jakarta. Perhaps, I've stretched my luck to far this time....
The protest made headline news on CNN, but in person it was quite an anti-climax. There's a great view from the train looking down on the embassy, the police, the barricades, the barbwire and the protesters. But, there doesn't seem to be much going on. I didn't want to push my luck any further. Instead of walking the 1/2 mile to the backpacker street, I escape by taxi.
So, I went through Jakarta on the day of the biggest anti-American protest since the bombing of Afghanistan and nothing happened. Some expats that night told me their version of the protest: "Some people showed up after prayers then the whole thing just kind of fizzled out." On an island of 100 million people, a few thousand showing up for a protest just isn't a big deal.
That night, I was hanging out and drinking beer with the expats. Jakarta doesn't sound so bad. if I hadn't already booked my boat ticket, I would have probably spent a few days sightseeing. The boat ride is a slow tedious 24 hour journey on a large, not very clean, cruise liner. The boat stops at a small island adjacent to Singapore. All of the passengers are crowded around the exit doors.
Suddenly I realize that 3 protesters are standing beside me. They're wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts and matching green jackets. They had obviously just come from the protest the day before, as one is carrying a megaphone and the other two are carry a rolled up banner. The guy with the megaphone asks me "Where are you from?" Perhaps, I should have been scared. Perhaps, I should have lied. But I decide to tell them the truth. With 300 other passengers around, I figured they couldn't touch me. "San Francisco", I tell him. His response -- "America, good".
At this point, I suppose that I shouldn't have even been surprised. The protesters were wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts, but that does not mean that they hate Americans or that they support the deaths of 2000 people in New York. Instead, they love McDonalds and want to move to the US. The Osama shirts are just an expression against US foreign policy. They might yell "Death to America", but do they really mean it? Not in my experience. It just more impact than chanting "American foreign policy sucks." It is true that there are a tiny minority of extremists in Indonesia who do want to kill Americans. But that it true anywhere. Oklahoma City proved that.
I would recommend against going to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and probably even Kuwait right now. As for the rest of the Islamic world, you should be fine. But, as with any country, check the latest info before you go. Your best resource is expats and tourists on the ground in that country. You can usually find them through Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree message board. Remember - CNN's job is to sell the news, not necessarily tell the truth. And, the State Department is worse than your mother; They think that everywhere is dangerous.
Update - Jun 27, 2004. Just before the NATO summit in Istanbul four people were killed by a bomb blast. Is this a reason not to go to Turkey? Do the math before you get too worried. Istanbul is a city of 6 million people. There is a much greater chance of being killed by a red light runner in San Francisco than by a terrorist in Istanbul.