I was recently watching a documentary on favelas in Brazil where an underground travel agency was now giving guided tours of the slums, and travelers, mostly Europeans, were gladly being taken into the worst parts of Brazil to observe the local culture, eat food and buy things. This helps demonstrated that which I call the “brave traveler phenomenon,” which is mostly a good thing, though it can be dangerous for the occasional traveler.
This phenomenon is characterized by a feeling of invincibility one feels by being in a foreign country, the sense that nothing is quite that real and that, even if you do have something to worry about, it’s not like at home. This can lead people, who otherwise would avoid slums and scary backwoods areas, to get outside of their nominal terrain when they are outside of the country. However, since those places they go, which the locals avoid, are actually dangerous, it means they do put themselves in harm’s way (though often, admittedly, the statistical danger is exaggerated). Putting yourself in odd situations may not always be pleasant, but it sharpens your senses and can make you more alert to danger, and can open your mind a bit when you get back to your home.
One personal example of this are the buses in Peru. When I was in Peru I rode some of the worst buses imaginable all around the country. I felt fine. Peru doesn’t feel all that unsafe a lot of the time, but surely I was taking some risks, not just in getting my stuff stolen, or getting a knife in my back, but in flying over the side of the cliff as the bus swerved to miss an oncoming fuel truck. I took them all around the country, the cheapest, ugliest buses I could find. When I got back to the US, I talked to middle-class Peruvian emigrants, who looked shocked, telling me that they would never even consider taking one of those buses. And they were Peruvian. Of course, most middle-class Brazilians would give you the same response to going into the favelas, just like a lot of Americans would tell you not to visit Harlem or take the Greyhound across the country, like I still probably wouldn’t, but for some reason Europeans do those things, usually without trouble (though occasionally there’s a tragedy), and seem to think that we Americans are crazy for worrying so much . . . but I’m sure those same Europeans avoid the outer suburbs of Paris like the plague.
So why do we feel so strong abroad, and so ill-at-ease at home? Well, part of it is the desire not to see the less desirable parts of your own country. I don’t like the existence of slums in America and I don’t want to be reminded of them. I have to live there (sort of). Also, I’m aware of many a happening in those areas and I’m not dumb enough to allow myself to become another victim. Also, if you take a guerra de clases point of view, I, a native, non-poor person, have more to worry about than a non-native, who is merely traveling around and doesn’t bear the feeling of mutual responsibility for the problem. He can look on more detachedly; it’s not his country, just a crazy place he’s passing through. Why are the natives so scared, anyway? It ain’t that bad. Which is exactly how I felt in Lima and some parts of Buenos Aires . . . until I was there for a while and started to get annoyed and agitated with having to live in or near slums and the so-called transitional districts. Having to live there makes it a great weight on the brain. It’s no longer an adventure to go visit; it becomes a hassle to avoid and to survive. And part of the problem is the local prejudice against such regions or areas, which even though they improve and change, linger in the consciousness as “bad areas” in the locals’ minds, stultifying investment and keeping the places from reaching their potential for a long time.
Fortunately, we have brave travelers to reminds us of the interesting, if not necessarily pleasant areas of our countries, that need to be brought to light, so that they are not simply forced away from consciousness, and are viewed as areas for opportunity, not places to be pushed away and forgotten.