Monday 1 September 2008

Intrepid is My Middle Name

Last Thursday I delivered another of my travel writing talks. This one was at the public library in Sunbury, a commuter town just outside Melbourne, Australia.

In my address, I talked about how the things that go wrong when travelling often make great travel writing material, finding their way into my published work.

There were over 40 people at the event, with lots of questions afterward, which gave me the chance to digress into other areas involving travel (just don't get me started on light packing, we'll be there all night!).

Some questions were related to writing, others to practical travel matters. Then one woman asked if I felt safe when travelling alone.

I didn't really know what to say. I nearly always feel safe; which is to say, I don't find myself thinking consciously about personal security very often.

My first instinct was to quote The Doctor's line: "Just walk about like you own the place. Works for me." And this led to a good discussion with another audience member about how showing confidence and purpose when walking through a foreign location is a sensible approach.

I also commented that I do have a 'train station protocol' when travelling overseas, in that I put my wallet in an inside pocket and make sure bags are all zipped and locked when I'm going to be hanging around a train or bus station. Just makes sense to not tempt thieves.

But as far as my personal security, I don't feel threatened very often. That's partly, I suppose, because I'm a big bearded male, and partly because of the 'own the place' approach. But frankly, I don't consider it much, and my sense of curiosity is too strong to stop me wandering wherever I feel like.

Does that make me intrepid or reckless? I have a feeling that these are mutually exclusive concepts, the correct one being identified by subsequent events. If you come back from the seedy part of town with nothing bad having happened, you've been intrepid. If you come back having been mugged and beaten, you were reckless.

So I went to laugh off the questioner's concern for my safety as a lone traveller, when I remembered a scary bus trip in Poland in March 2006. This was an occasion when I did feel a tad worried and the adrenaline was flowing.

I'd departed the city of Przemyƛl in the country's southeast, on a bus across the mountains to the town of Sanok. Winter had been long and cold and showed no sign of concluding early, so the slopes and peaks on the way were covered with snow. It was a beautiful sight - what glimpses I had of it - though I was more focused on two of my fellow passengers.

It was the beer-drinking tough guy who spoke to me first, and it didn't take long for him to realise I didn't speak much Polish. Then his friend, calmer and sober, chipped in with a bit of English. It turned out he was accompanying his friend home to Sanok, as he'd just been released from prison. While we chatted about music, the ex-con kept drinking beer and occasionally wandered up the front to be obnoxious to the driver.

Then at one point the ex-con decided I should buy him beer (piwo in Polish).I wasn't sure when this was supposed to happen - presumably at one of the small villages we were stopping at along the way - but it sounded like a bad idea. So he kept demanding beer, and I kept saying "Dlaczego?" (Why?). Then he casually threatened violence, but his friend said not to worry about it, as he wasn't serious.

Nonetheless. When the bus pulled into Sanok bus station, just on sunset, I zipped through the terminal building, then crossed a pedestrian bridge to the train station while my new friends were probably still assembling their luggage.

Probably not the brightest move, in retrospect, as there are very few trains from Sanok, and the train station was dark and deserted. But at least I could walk into town from there, without being seen from the bus station. I never did see the duo again.

So I don't know what I learned from that incident. Catching a bus couldn't be seen as reckless; and not buying him beer might have been reckless, but not as much as actually buying him beer, in my judgement.

If you worried about everything that might go wrong when travelling, you'd never leave home. Your personal security, to be honest, depends on a mix of commonsense precautions and just plain chance. But that applies to life in general, doesn't it?

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