As the protests in Egypt continue, my heart goes out to the people. What must be going through the hearts of Egyptians as their country remains embroiled and embattled? What will be the outcome? Will a new Egypt emerge out of these demonstrations?
But there are other people to think about too. Foreign journalists in the last several days have told audiences around the world that they have been harassed, attacked, and detained. And of course, there are other foreigners: the tourists, the expats, the students, the volunteer workers. What has happened to them? What happens when events within a place occur without a moment’s notice and the decision between staying or leaving becomes extremely urgent?
The New York Times recently wrote an article about stranded Americans in Egypt. The United States State Department created a public service announcement (PSA) and tweeted evacuation instructions for American citizens wishing to leave the country. I travel overseas at least once a year and as I prepare for my trip, I always pause to consider registering my name with the US Embassy in the country I am visiting. Then I usually shake my head and shove the idea aside because really, what could possibly go wrong that the embassy would need to know my presence in country X?
Well, Egypt has reminded me of the reason why I should do so. It is an extreme case of what is possible. Highly unlikely, yes. But possible nonetheless. Besides political unrest, I can think of other instances when the need to escape while traveling becomes compelling.
Natural Disaster: In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caught people completely by surprise along the coasts of several Asian and even African countries. Devastating tsunamis struck and killed hundreds of thousands of people, most of them in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.
Mechanical Difficulties: US Airways Flight #1549 departed from NYC’s La Guardia Airport and shortly after take-off collided with a flock of Canadian geese that resulted in a loss of thrust in both engines. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived.
Disease Outbreak: In 2003, an outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) began in mainland China and spread to other areas such as Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Acts of Terrorism: Sadly, this is the reality of the world we live in — the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, the 2008 coordinated attacks in different parts of Mumbai, and just last month a suicide attack in the Moscow airport.
I am so blessed and very grateful that I’ve not yet found myself in a situation where I’ve had to evacuate. The closest I’ve come to civil unrest was in La Paz, Bolivia in 2003 when my bus was re-routed because a group of strikers blocked the roads. Despite these possibilities, it has not deterred me from traveling. In fact, it can be argued that these devastated places are precisely the ones we should travel to because they could benefit greatly from our tourism money. I recall the Kenyan safari companies encouraging all Westerners to visit after ethnic violence erupted in 2008 due to the controversial outcome of the presidential election in December 2007.
In your travels, were you confronted with a circumstance that required you to decide whether to stay or leave? What happened and where? What factors led to making your decision? Please share your story in the comment section below. I look forward to hearing them.