|S.R. Karfelt/The Glitter Globe|
"I'd like to visit America," said my driver, the guy the restaurant employs to run customers—free of charge—from the popular port area of Skiathos, up to the restaurant with a stunning view of the sea (Olive Thea), "but it's too dangerous."
"No, it's not," I said.
"Yes," he said, "it is."
My European friends in the backseat are cracking up.
It's not the first time I've heard this. In fact it's the most common refrain I've gotten from people when they realize I'm American.
"America's not safe," said the young Englishman with alcohol-glazed eyes, so intoxicated he can barely stand. So intoxicated he's stumbled out of a pub near the London Eye to join the crowd of evacuated hotel guests at 3:00 a.m. The fire alarm had gone off because someone lit a cigarette in an adjoining hotel. "I'd go there, but I don't want to get shot."
"We love Americans," said a souvenir vendor at the pyramids in Egypt. "Tell your friends to come here. It's safe here, no one shoots you like in America."
"Tell me," said a Greek taxi driver, "Does America want to take over the world? Do they want to shoot everyone?"
It's ironic, isn't it? Because the first thing people in America say to me when they hear about my travels is, "Is it safe?"
While I was in Egypt this past March I read Rick Steve's book Travel as a Political Act. It's a fascinating and informative read. I loved the statistics, the cold hard facts about travel. How twelve million people a year go to Europe. How we're twice as likely to be killed by a toddler playing with a gun than by a terrorist when traveling.
It shocked me that a 747's worth of people die on American highways each WEEK. 33,000 die on our roads each year. Reducing highway speed by 20 MPH would save thousands of lives, but are we willing to do that? You know we aren't. We take our chances.
Then why are so many of us who wish to visit places we've dreamed of not doing it?
It's because we're afraid. The question is are our fears legitimate? I don't think they are.
What has happened to us? Are we mixing up movies with reality? Do we hear the same horrifying news story again and again, embellishing it with each retelling? Do we stop and think how each and every horrid story we hear hashed and rehashed over and over on the news really only happened once.
Terrible things happen everywhere. Do you really want to hunker down and live safe and sound and terrified all of your days?
Egypt is the first place I've visited that's very different than where I come from. I loved it. I loved the people. I loved the slower pace. I loved the pyramids and tombs and food. But was I afraid?
Admittedly there were times I was nervous. The first week I had culture shock. The traffic, especially in Cairo, scared the hell out of me. (But so did Boston when I lived there.)
I'd never been in a predominantly Muslim country before. There I was in cargo trousers and my Agatha Christie linen shirt with all my blond hair riding a camel. Several times a day Adhan sounded the Muslim call to prayer. Do you know how many people harassed me for not being Muslim? None. Nobody cared. I can't wait to go back!
A friend I hung around with during some of my time in Egypt likes to announce she's Jewish. She travels often and likes to see how people react. The majority of her family died in the holocaust. Even though she's a secular person she makes a point of sharing her heritage. In order, she says, to defy stereotypes.
Not a single person cared who was Christian or Jew.
In Egypt there's a greater police presence than I'm used to. I was often with a group of Egyptologists, some of who've been traveling there for well over thirty years. It's always like this, they told me. It's safe, they insisted. This is how they employ so many young men.
After a few days I noticed the friendly smiles of those police and of people greeting me on the streets. I felt the Adhan deep in my bones. It reminds me of the chants I've heard in so many monasteries. Kids and adults hurried to greet me in English. "Hello, beautiful." "Welcome to Egypt." "Welcome, this is your home now."
But was I afraid? No. Sometimes I was nervous.
What woman doesn't know that feeling? It's been years since I've been approached by young men on the street. Especially men young enough to be my son. "You look worried," said one who would not go. "Don't be worried."
"Where I come from," I said, "Strange men don't approach women they don't know on the street for any good reason."
"Where I come from," he said, "Women don't walk alone on the street. I'm offering to be your escort so you don't have to walk alone."
The reply startled me, but of course it's the truth. Although I saw plenty of young women walking alone. Most had their hair covered. That's simply how women dress there. Some wore the exact same types of clothes young women wear in the west. Some wore burkas.
But the fact is I was the stranger who didn't know or follow the rules. I still felt as safe, if not safer, than I feel when traipsing the streets of large cities in America. Maybe it's due to the police presence or maybe it's due to the always polite populace, but I didn't worry about being robbed or pick-pocketed as much.
In Greece I'm more comfortable traveling solo than I am in the United States.
Not that I'm afraid here, just smartly cautious especially in cities. Greece feels like home to me. Especially in the smaller islands where everyone seems to know everyone else.
That driver who told me of the dangers of America also teased me for not being Greek, while kindly helping me with my limited and sad attempts at speaking his language.
"Do not take this wrong," he said, "I do not mean to be rude, but I can tell by the way you sit in that seat that you are a closed and cold-hearted person. You are dead inside."
By now my European friends in the backseat are really enjoying this.
"We Greeks," he said, "We do not talk just with the words. We speak with our hands, with our bodies, with all of us! You come here, every year, and you go to that little boring island where nothing ever happens. Why you go there?"
"Well. It's the perfect place to go when you're dead inside," I said.
"Oh! OH! You cut me! You cut me!" He's using his hands and entire body to show me just how deeply. But we're both laughing and this is the kind of communication I strive for when I travel. I will remind him next year that I'm the cold-hearted writer again.
Maybe by then my Greek will be good enough to tell him I've written an entire series of books about heart, or maybe, just maybe I'll keep it all at the bitch witch level. I mean that book did come straight from my cold heart too.
When I travel I find it's important to carry my inner Kahtar warrior, my open-hearted Covenant Keeper, and always, always, Sarah Archer—that witch genetically predisposed to manipulate dark matter in her favor. Above all, I take my pragmatic writer self and remember every day is a story and life isn't about being safe. Life is about living, or did I miss another memo?