Brian: “When I was on an Erasmus exchange for my studies in Norway in 2009 I shared lodgings with a Pakistani by the name of Saad. He told me:“You know, in my country things are very different from what gets reported in the media in Europe and elsewhere. People where I come from are very hospitable and all you talk about are problems with the Taliban. Just the same as you French people we have to eat bread with our meals, otherwise we would still feel hungry!” He burst out laughing. Without my showing it, he awoke my curiosity about his country. He ended by inviting me to his home with the assurance “One day you will be able to stay with me in my house there. Just you wait and see!”

We learnt yesterday that Javier, a Spaniard traveler, was indirectly the cause of the deaths of 6 soldiers and the wounding of 5 others in Pakistan. They were part of an escort he travelled with in that country, and the group was ambushed by a posse of armed men. “It was only to be expected,” a Le Monde staffer told us. That the Spaniard’s Facebook entry gave the reassurance that he had emerged unharmed is logical, but that it made no mention of the people assassinated is a clear mistake. That the man should have accepted a military escort is a cause for raised eyebrows; it goes against the spirit of the traveler wanting to expose himself to the world as an individual. Then again it is difficult to know under what circumstance he accepted the escort – perhaps he was given no choice when he arrived at the Iran-Pakistan frontier. And it is a near certainty that the fact of his travelling with an escort was the reason for the attack. Looked at in this way this seems the most likely scenario. And does this mean that Pakistan is a land of cutthroats?

But it is not our task to conduct an inquiry. Journalists are there to examine these issues; and it is clear from their work that Pakistan is a high risk country. Some mountaineers were murdered this year by the Taliban in the base camp of Nanga Parbat. And yet every year a good number of bicycling tourists take the Karakoum highway between Pakistan and China on their way to East Asia. During encounters with other cyclists many assured us that Pakistanis were the people they liked best!  “Their sense of hospitality is astonishing!” they told us. So much so that we hesitated over whether or not to make their country part of our route back into Europe. The same with Iran, which has a bad press at home (as it does in western public opinion as a whole, which tends to put all central Asian countries in the same boat. Yet it was due to the kindness of Iranians that we were able to cross Turkmenistan. And that is just one of many instances on our trip.

Sharing a meal with Iranian truck drivers in Turkmenistan.

So the question asked is: what limits should be placed on where one chooses to travel?      

Javier took risks, resulting originally from making a wrong choice that cost human lives, which leave us feeling deeply distressed. Far from making light of the loss of life, we regard it as a terrible affair. And he does not seem to have communicated the full impact of the incident or its consequences. But to go from there to saying that he should never have entered the country in the first place is to renounce the principle behind the whole idea of the urge to explore. “That all men are brothers become a purely abstract truth in so far as one has failed to experience a genuine feeling of brotherhood in the presence of another man of flesh and blood,” Pascal Bruckner teaches us. And he who never takes a risk stops living life before even starting it. What is there to say about reporters assigned to the battlefront? About the recent assassinations of hostages, and those who are still being held as hostages? Should we condemn them? If it is legitimate to ask: how many orphans is a foreigner on a bicycle worth, one must ask the same question about the staff  that work in our beloved newspapers, television and other information sources. And then it would be Reporters Without Frontiers that would be outraged. And rightly so. But why should journalists enjoy the monopoly of risk-taking after all? Next thing you know, we’ll be setting up a “Travelers without Frontiers”…!!

Risk is intrinsic to progress. Except that today we prefer to watch it alongside the market reports on computerized screens. To be outraged in front of our television sets and to forge a permanently second hand opinion – isn’t that the way to take the risk of becoming ignorant without knowing it? Where does the real risk lie? Adventure by definition entails leaving one’s comfort zone. Nobody can stop one visiting a high risk country other than the country’s own authorities, and then at least the position is made quite clear at the frontier. Then as far as laws are concerned the answer to the question this article poses is self-evident. When we were in Venezuela we had been warned several times about the lack of security – the same with Honduras and Salvador. In fact we were well received and conversed with people well worth meeting. A handful of extremists is no more, by definition, nor even by name, than a marginal party within a nation of people far more worthwhile. So what is left to stop us going there if the wish exists?  Just rumors.

Should one hold back because of preconceived ideas? France, where our prejudices were born, itself retains here and there the stench of fear and aggression seldom matched elsewhere. One is left with the conclusion that the only safe place to be is in one’s own home with a guard on the door. This notion is kept alive through television by a relentlessly self-renewing spiral: by constant repetition of scenes of violence, the TV watcher’s protective cocoon becomes thicker and increasingly impenetrable; and from inside it he feels pity for the plight of the people outside who are caught up in what the TV is showing. This footage being highly marketable, the frightening picture it gives of the outside world is crying out to be shown. In short, the system is sufficient unto itself, and it is here to stay.

The images of bombardment and the bombardment of images: an effective artillery campaign that is destined to kill curiosity. If we listened too much to the media, we would be fearful of making a journey to Marseille. Marseille is Javier’s Pakistan. One would like to explore it but there are some no-go areas. And it is the same everywhere. What fundamental reason is there to believe that it would be so different in Pakistan?

A meeting with Chavez supporters in Venezuela

Obviously, to set off on adventure believing in teddy bears is a guarantee of a trip wasted. We would be the last people to wander naively about the regions of Syria that are in turmoil; and yet there are some decent people living there who despite present conditions, show signs of humanity. And that is what the traveler is looking for: the human being. Besides, journalists regularly spend their time in these dangerous areas to go about their business, do their job, assuage their passion to live the life they have chosen. Travelling is also, for some, a vocation. In the same way that reporters sometimes cross frontiers illegally in their search for information, the traveler sometimes takes the risk of ignoring the regulations (legal or just common sense ones). When one sets off one has no pre-figured system worked out, and that is the reason for doing it.

MORGAN: “The notions of risk, liberty and security are highly abstract ones. They mean different things to different people, so much so that I sometimes wonder if we are speaking the same language. On the other hand I believe that every one of us, whatever our education or origin will understand the legitimacy of the statement: the search for happiness, conducted with the greatest respect for our fellow mortals, should guide every step we take. But need I remind myself that there is no path that does not demand an effort? Sometime it is necessary to push back our own risk frontier a little. Also it is as well to acknowledge that one gives priority to routine security over revolutionary freedom for the sake of the happiness of ours. As to the journey itself, is it not just a tool used in the quest for happiness, and there are plenty of journeys to be made. But what really counts for those who have chosen this path is to know exactly to where one wants to travel.”             

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