Why you should travel overseas even if you’re scared

Nepal-Kathmandu-Durbar-Square1 560

Kathmandu. Photo courtesy Barbara Weibel

Because though travel adventure comes with risk, the rewards are usually far greater

“In the wastes of civilization, Luristan is still an enchanted name. Its streams are dotted blue lines on the map and the position of its hills is a matter of taste. It is still a country for the explorer. I penetrated only a vey little way. But I spent a fortnight in that part of the country where one is less frequently murdered.” Legendary travel writer and explorer Freya Stark wrote these lines in 1934, after an extremely arduous trip, by donkey, into parts of the Middle East no European woman had previously visited. Her book about this trip, The Valleys of the Assassins, is filled with adventurous tales of avoiding bandits, sleeping under the stars, looking for hidden treasure and suffering every kind of discomfort, mishap and illness.

It was typical for Dame Freya Stark, who lived to be 100 and was many times decorated by the Royal Geographical Society. She set off on many daring journeys, usually alone, with only one native guide. Yet all of her trips ended well; she always found safe passage; and most of the people she met along the way were kind, generous and helpful. And so it goes.

Freya Stark understood the true nature of travel, that discomfort and risk are to be expected, and that without them, there is no chance of adventure. She also knew what most travellers eventually discover: most people are good. Most of the time, when you actually get on the ground somewhere — even places that are considered unsafe, risky, impenetrable, challenging — the everyday people that you meet will make you feel comfortable, if not down-right welcome.

photograph of Mariellen at the aarti in Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela, APril 2010

Me at the aarti in Haridwar during the Kumbh Mela, April 2010

This has certainly been true for me during my 17 months of solo travel in India over the past seven years. People often wonder in amazement how I can be so brave, and I sometimes let them think of me that way. But the truth is, I have rarely felt unsafe in India; I have always found the people to be warm and welcoming. And … I have always travelled prepared. I never expected India to be like Canada. Consequently, I wasn’t overly perturbed by stares, or Delhi-belly or delays. I wanted adventure and I accepted the conditions.

And it seems to be this combination of having realistic expectation and being open to the inherent kindness of strangers that makes for the best travellers. Some of my favourite travel bloggers agree with me, and here they offer stories from their travels to some of the world’s more forbidding places, like Iran, Nepal, Jordan, Taiwan and Colombia.

Read on and feel encouraged and inspired by true tales from travel bloggers about what it’s really like to visit off-the-beaten path destinations.

In a mountain village in Iran. Photo courtesy Audrey Scott.

In a mountain village in Iran. Photo courtesy Audrey Scott.

Real stories from Iran

When we told our family and friends we were going to visit Iran, some of them said goodbye to us as if it would be the last time they saw us. They thought we were crazy, reckless. But we had Iranian friends and knew people inside the country; they all told another story than what we had seen on the news. And we knew we had to see and experience Iran for ourselves to discover that other story. We’re so glad we did.

From the moment we boarded the plane for Tehran to the time we took the train from Iran to Turkey, we were welcomed everywhere we went by ordinary Iranians we met on the streets and markets. And when people found out we were American, the hospitality went up another notch. Iranians asked us to go back and let people know about the “real Iranians,” not the ones they see on the news. While our governments may not get along, people are people. And it is these connections that transcend boundaries and politics.

Daniel Noll and Audrey Scott are writers, digital storytellers, speakers and consultants. They love to tell stories about a destination’s more personal and human dimensions, often challenging stereotypes and shifting perceptions along the way. Over six years later and 75 countries later, they are still traveling…and still married. You can follow along with their journey at Uncornered Market.


Bret Love and Mary Gabbett in Jordan.

What if … you have a magical time in Jordan?

When we told our friends and family we were traveling to the Middle Eastern country of Jordan, nearly every response was the same: ‘Is it safe?!’ Far too often, we let our fears prevent us from chasing our dreams. Our imaginations run wild with negative ‘What if?’ possibilities, without giving equal weight to the potential positives. What if I learn amazing things about a rich indigenous culture whose people, cuisine and music move my spirit in ways I never imagined? What if that inter-cultural dialogue gives way to greater mutual understanding and respect? What if this adventure changes me, and my life, for the better? For years I’d dreamed of walking through the ancient city of Petra, riding camels through the desert of Wadi Rum, and immersing myself in the Bedouin culture. But the reality of the experience was far more emotionally resonant than anything I could’ve imagined. And yes, it was safe. But more importantly, it was magical. 

Bret Love is the co-founder of Green Global Travel, an award-winning website devoted to inspiring stories about the joys of ecotourism and the conservation of nature, wildlife and indigenous cultures.


Barbara Weibel at a home stay in Nepal

Feeling welcomed in Nepal

When I tell people I travel solo all over Nepal, including trekking for nine days in the Annapurna Himalayas, most express shock and concern for my safety. This attitude seems more prevalent in the U.S. than any other part of the world. Americans have somehow become convinced that overseas travel in general is dangerous, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’ve been traveling solo for years and the ONLY place I’ve ever had a problem in in the U.S. – I was robbed in Hawaii a number of years ago. While Nepal is a desperately poor country, it is quite safe. I have visited remote locations where few speak English, ridden the local buses, and stayed with local families. Anyone considering a visit to Nepal can rest assured that Nepalis are lovely people who will enthusiastically welcome you to their country and help you in whatever way  possible.

After years of working at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, Barbara Weibel walked away from corporate life to travel around the world solo for six months and recreate herself as a travel writer and photographer. The travel bug bit so hard that Weibel subsequently opted for the life of a digital nomad; today she travels nine months each year and writes about her experiences on her blog, Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel.

Matt Gibson Taiwan pic

Taiwan. Photo courtesy Matt Gibson

Spoiled by honesty in Taiwan

When I first moved to Taiwan eight years ago I was worried about my safety. I knew little about the country except that the culture was Chinese and they produced top notch GI Joe action figures. Over time I found the country to be refreshingly free, not only of crime, but also homeless people and beggars — both of which I was accustomed to after living in Vancouver. I later started a magazine there. One day, while writing an article I learned that Taiwan had the lowest poverty rate in the world. I came to see most Taiwanese people are incorrigibly honest, almost to the point of naiveté. I’ve never felt more safe than I did in Taiwan. After a few years there I wouldn’t think twice about leaving my work briefcase — which would often contain $,1000-$2,000 USD, contracts, and my laptop — alone at a cafe table while I visited the restroom. Now that I’m back in the U.S., every time I walk through a sketchy neighbourhood or sit uncomfortably on a subway in a car with a group of unsavoury young, I remember how spoiled I was in Taiwan.

Matt Gibson is the blog manager for Flight Network and an award-winning adventure travel blogger.

The Family on Bikes in Colombia.

The Family on Bikes in Colombia.

Overcoming fear in Colombia

“You’re not planning to cycle through Colombia, are you? It’s way too dangerous!” I can’t even begin to tell you how many times we heard those words as we slowly made our way south. Our goal – to cycle from Alaska to Argentina – involved, of course, a passage through Colombia. And its reputation went before it. For years, Colombia was plagued with violence – that’s very true. For many years, it was dangerous for foreigners to travel through the country and there was a decent probability that you would be kidnapped if you attempted it. Now, the country has been cleaned up and, as the ads say, you’re biggest danger is that you won’t want to leave. And yet that reputation just won’t go away.

In the end, out of 15 countries that we cycled through, Colombia was one of our favourites. If we had heeded the warnings and given in to the fear mongering, we would have missed a delightful country. I am so very glad we made the decision not to give in to fear.

After 21 years of classroom teaching, Nancy Sathre-Vogel of Family on Bikes made the decision to leave her teaching career behind to travel the world on a bicycle. Together with her husband and twin sons, she cycled 27,000 miles throughout the Americas, including traveling from Alaska to Argentina. Now she lives in Idaho, pursuing her passions of writing and beadwork.

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24 Responses to Why you should travel overseas even if you’re scared

  1. Adam Pervez May 3, 2013 at 5:08 am #

    After you travel enough, I guess it’s hard to remember a time when you got butterflies in your stomach about going to a faraway location. But this is a great post. I hope others find inspiration and, as I call it, “take the plunge” into travel. Few things in life offer as many rewards and opportunities for growth. Great post!
    Adam Pervez recently posted..Sunrise Over BaganMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 6, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Oh, I remember the butterflies — giant ones! — that I felt when I flew to India for my six month trip, back in 2005. I will never forget. It was the most exciting time of my life, and I’m just glad I didn’t give in to the fears and anxieties I felt, and let them ground me.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Dazzled by Indian classical music maestrosMy Profile

  2. OCDemon May 3, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    It’s quite often the people that refuse to go that are the ones that would benefit most from exploring the world. It’s so easy to live in a mental box and assume things about every other country, but if you spend 5 minutes in them you realize they’re quite often doing certain things way better than others.
    OCDemon recently posted..Spectacular 2013 Travel Goal RoundupMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 6, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      That’s a very good point. We only see the world through our own little windows … but when you travel, that window tends to widen, and allow you to see more about what people in other cultures are really like. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness…” Mark Twain
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..A year in JapanMy Profile

  3. Nikhil Chandra May 4, 2013 at 12:49 am #

    Brilliantly penned! I agree with all your points even though I have yet to travel overseas as in different country. But living as I am in India, traveling to different states has helped me gain the same perspectives as your traveling to other nations. Feeling welcome in remote villages in Ladakh and Uttarakhand to the thrill of traveling in Maoist/Naxalites affected Chhatisgarh and from traveling to beaches of Goa to the sand dunes of Bikaner, traveling to unknown places does help broaden your perspective about people and places. I do love to travel because never mind the hardships, the reward is indeed far greater.
    Nikhil Chandra recently posted..Tomb of Yusuf Qattal: I Love my City DelhiMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 6, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      Thanks Nikhil. You are lucky, being in India, that you don’t have to leave your borders to experience a dazzling variety of cultures!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Photo Essay: Stories of DelhiMy Profile

  4. Charu May 5, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Lovely story! I went to Jordan when I saw six months pregnant, on the heels of the Arab Spring. It was hot as heck, and I camped in the desert with the Bedouins. I actually fell very ill too—had to be rushed to the hospital, but I was fine after a treatment. I never regretted my trip at all and did everything my group did–including climbe the Monastery’s 900 steps. You cannot live your life in fear and regret…loved the opening quote of Freya Stark’s story!
    Charu recently posted..For Cinco de Mayo, Celebrate with Unusual MargaritasMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 6, 2013 at 10:40 am #

      That’s a great story Charu! Have you written about it? It seems the more risk you take, the more reward you reap. You have great stories to tell your children 🙂
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Photo Essay: Stories of DelhiMy Profile

  5. Dallas May 5, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    This is so true and very inspiring! I am constantly surprised by the number of people I speak to who have never visited another country. In these modern times, when travel is pretty affordable and so many enjoy the freedom to just up and go, I cannot believe how many refuse to open their minds and step out of their comfort zones. The news is the scariest show on tv and unfortunately there are numerous 24 hour channels constantly telling people how scary the world out there is. Hopefully more and more people can continue to share their own travel stories and inspire others to overcome their fear and travel.
    Dallas recently posted..Visiting Heidelberg CastleMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 6, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      It’s true, Dallas, when people tell their travel stories, I think it inspires others — and reassures them that travel is usually completely safe. Most people, all over the world, are kind, helpful and welcoming. And you learn this when you travel. It not only opens up the world, it makes you realize how similar we are all, how we are “all in this together.”
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..A year in JapanMy Profile

  6. abhilasha May 6, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    Oh wow…I came across your back a few hours ago and im hooked 🙂
    You have seen more of my country and its culture than I have 🙂
    lots of love

  7. Andrea May 6, 2013 at 2:27 am #

    Colombia is the only place we were a little, tiny bit nervous about on this list (have only been to Jordan otherwise, and weren’t afraid to go there at all), but we had a wonderful time. Iran is a dream destination for me…
    Andrea recently posted..The Red, Red Wines Of the MedocMy Profile

  8. Majida May 6, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    Great topic! My genetic origin is from Pakistan, I know the language and the culture and have been there time and again. However after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, we were very apprehensive of going there again, even of we would have loved to see friends, see the country’s treasures of history and geography. My husband is European- this was another source of our apprehension. A few years later, I met a colleague, who is half Pakistani and she was planning a trip to Pakistan for 2 months with her kids. She pinned it rightly:”you should know, where NOT to go!” After a few other encouraging advices, we finally planned a trip to Lahore, which is historically interesting for the Mughul empire heritage (UNESCO heritage sites).
    We had a great trip except for the cold in December and no centrally heated places. We visited the historical sites, my husband was in awe for all the constructions of the 15 – 16th century and very sad, for the state they are in today- maintenance and and restoration is lacking and still you can’t but admire the beauty, the elegance and the finest of craftmanship in the Lahore fort (esp. the marble inlay work, the wooden carvings) and then Lahore Mosque, of which the outlay has been used in the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque. Life in Lahore was going on normal, we were just another tourist there, Europeans were visiting the historical sites – some were a bit wary of going to central Lahore, but in general there was no feeling of insecurity (back in 2011!). Departing Lahore after 5 days of my new year leave, the personal at the airport were a bit sceptical, but as soon as they realised, that I speak the native language (Urdu) and that we only bought garments, things were relaxed.

    What did strike us (and was no surprise) was, that the average Pakistani is as much concerned about a normal future as an average American in his home country. Fanatics are a minority, however yes, they can disrupt life occasionally for everyone and that’s not only tragic, but of serious concern!

    On another note: The basic facilities are lacking more and more (and things are getting worse) for the normal upper middle class person, whereby middle class is vanishing. Twelve hours a day they won’t have electricity, gas is scarce, petrol is getting more and more expensive, infrastructure is not cared for. Normal foods are too expensive for a middle class person to enjoy fruit every day. And despite all that, they will go out of their way to have you as a guest and not let you feel these inconveniences. I will add posts about our trip to Lahore on my blog soon.
    Majida recently posted..Treat yourself to a Spice and Coffee Farm, Bali PulinahMy Profile

  9. Prasad Np May 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    For some reason every body advises you against traveling alone not only in so called underdeveloped countries but in developed world also. I remember on my first trip to US of A, I wanted to go to Niagara Falls. I only had money to afford a Greyhound bus return ticket. It involved changing buses in Cleaveland, all my friends and colleagues in my office told me I am nuts traveling by Greyhound that too in the night. In the end It turned out to be a memorable trip with fond memories of the Falls and the Maid of the Mist. Truth be told I did feel scared waiting alone at midnight at Greyhound station, but it was my own fear and nothing else. Thanks for introducing some great travelers to us.
    Prasad Np recently posted..My Experiments in Low Light Photography With Slow Shutter SpeedMy Profile

  10. Charli l Wanderlusters May 22, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    I sympathise with anyone feeling a little nervous of exploring the world. I remember butterflys taking up residency in my belly a month before I left to travel the world indefinitely. As a number of people have mentioned I think once you’ve had some experience of travel your perception of your strength of character and resolve changes. You feel much more able to cope with situations both in the heat of the moment and emotionally afterwards. Plus I think you develop a 6th sense with regard to avoiding ‘bad’ situations.

    Great piece Mariellen, I loved reading everyone’s experiences of off the beaten path destinations.
    Charli l Wanderlusters recently posted..Cliff Diving In Bosnia | Kravice WaterfallsMy Profile

  11. Michael @ Changes in Longitude June 1, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    These stories are so true. My most memorable life experiences have come on my travels, certainty not in the neighborhood where I live.

  12. The Fundamental Alchemist August 2, 2013 at 2:11 am #

    Wonderful post! I’m sorry to say I’d never heard of Dame Freya Stark before but you’ve completely sold me on reading The Valley of the Assassins.

    I don’t consider myself a nervous traveler but certain places do give me pause. In most cases, it wouldn’t stop me from going there but I’d probably be slightly on edge. I’ll take courage from the you and the people in your post!

  13. Ferrial Pondrafi September 23, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    fear is something to overcome, and travelling is one of the ways to overcome it. thanks for this post anyway, it can inspire me to travel or go to new place I haven’t been there before.
    Ferrial Pondrafi recently posted..Villa Pagi Siang SoreMy Profile

  14. Steve Chen November 10, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    the title says it all, and your writing supports it very well. i think far too many people are afraid to leave their comfort zones and go somewhere unknown. hopefully more people go for it, regardless of where they are in life!
    Steve Chen recently posted..Thru The Lens: OhridMy Profile

  15. Jen Ruiz January 16, 2017 at 9:48 am #

    I love this post! I’ve been debating going to Istanbul in May and eeryone has been trying to encourage me but I think I’m going to just go for it! Seems like you’ve had incredible experiences in seemingly “dangerous” places.
    Jen Ruiz recently posted..Chasing Windmills in the Netherlands: Day Trip to Zaanse SchansMy Profile

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