I'm not generally afraid of traveling to so-called "unsafe" places.
Sure, I put on full hijab regalia for my Saudia flight from Riyadh to Medina three months after 9/11, but that was mostly because I wanted to escape notice. Was it intimidating to board the plane and look across the sea of red-and-white scarves to the aircraft's television screens, which featured steady footage of a qibla that changed direction as we flew, always pointing to Mecca? Absolutely. But was I ever scared? Not really.
And sure, I noted the limited escape potential as I walked through the narrow, towering walls of the entrance to Petra in 2003. But there was the cheery Brown University flag waving over excavations, and the sweet Bedouin children who followed us around in ratty Kansas City Chiefs sweatshirts, trying to sell us rocks and chanting the only English they knew. It wasn't scary.
But something changed before my 2008 trip to Egypt. I blame three things:
Now, clearly, they're not clairvoyant, because I'm still here. But it's a bit disconcerting to have the two people who know you the best relate to you their eerily similar dreams. So when the flight from Frankfurt to Cairo started to shake uncontrollably (I thought) upon takeoff, I put in my headphones and tried not to think about my inevitable demise. And as we walked around the temple of Luxor, I made mental notes about the locations of the guardhouses so I could find the nearest machine gun when we came under fire.
So there I was, in the middle of thousands of years of history and culture, constantly distracted by my horror and curiosity. And worse, I had a deep mistrust of the people around me. Hollywood had me convinced that everyone I passed was a potential killer, and that foreigners in the Middle East get ambushed in the streets all the time. So I walked nervously through the souk, head down, ignoring the salesmen, missing the fun. (Yes, the same souk in Cairo that was shattered by a suicide bomb a few months later. That souk.)
We arrived in Cairo on New Year's Eve. Our guide had told us that restaurant reservations would be impossible, so she had booked us a table at the gala dinner at our hotel. The dinner, she explained, would be fun--it was well attended by American and British expats who brought their families and danced in the new year. The day before the gala, it occurred to me that this might make a great terrorist target. I asked my brother, who works in that-part-of-the-world and whom I consider to be an expert on that-kind-of-thing. I thought he would laugh off my fears, but instead, it went a little something like this:
Me: So, since this is a big gathering of expats at a well-known hotel on a big Western holiday, don't you think it's a good target?
Brother: Yeah, probably.
M: But it's good that it's not a Western hotel, like a Hilton or a Marriott or something.
B: Well, it's an Oberoi. That's what they shot up in Mumbai.
M: But that was really an India-Pakistan thing, right? They weren't really going after Westerners.
B: They were absolutely going after Westerners. That's a landmark hotel, that's why they picked it.
B: Listen. You can go back to your room at ten minutes to midnight if you're worried about it, but the reality is that it would be really difficult to coordinate a midnight attack.
M (Sigh of relief): Oh, you think?
B: Yep, they'll strike whenever they can get access; the time isn't really going to matter.
Needless to say, I was not consoled. Nor was I blown up that night. And my brother's point, while obscure and not all that kindly put, was this: you can't be a slave to your fears. You can stay home and run the risk of car accidents, smoke inhalation, or pneumonia, or you can travel and risk plane crashes and terrorist activity, which you might also get at home.
While I like that attitude, it's easier to embrace with the help of a few practical tips. Since I already have my plane tickets to Russia for later this year, here are my resolutions for the next few months: