In 1989 the world was transformed. The change was so drastic that it would not only directly effect the direction my life would take but also have the greatest impact on the way mankind moved about the world (with the exception of the two great wars) since the Grand Tour. The fall of the Soviet Union made an unfathomably vast and equally varied amount of territory – one which had gone relatively unseen for the better part of a century – available to the world over night. Indirectly it would rejuvenate a spirit of adventure in the hearts of the world’s most wander-lustful and pave the way for a golden age of interest in the world’s bounties.
At family gatherings in the early 1990s we sat around the dinner table as beautifully articulated letters were read of my cousin’s travels to the most far flung corners of the former Soviet empire – from the forbidden nerve center of our most feared adversary to the world’s least inhabitable reaches of frozen Siberia to the mythical Disney-fied lands that had long been crushed under that iron curtain. I likened his tales to that of a modern-day Marco Polo introducing west to east once again.
When presented with my own opportunities to visit the former Eastern Bloc I jumped – first as a student and a year later as an expatriate. Being a first-hand observer of the massive cultural revolution was enlightening and a privilege. For a year I spent my weekends quite literally choosing fabled destinations to visit by looking at train schedules spider webbing out from our local Czech train stations. The options were endless.
The state of travel was thriving. Ballooning economies were feeding personal vacation funds. Then 9/11 “happened.” In an instant travel routes closed up – literally. I was in Prague, ironically, already with a one-way ticket back to the United States later in the month. Though Prague had become a second home for the year plus time I’d lived there I felt like a foreigner in a very foreign land that day. As quickly as the world opened with every hammer strike to the Berlin wall in 1989 I could equally feel it closing in around me only a dozen years later. My time living abroad was reaching an end but in the back of my mind I wondered if all travel too would become a luxury only afforded by the privileged few. Throughout the ensuing first decade of the new millennium there certainly were some downs but there were some ups too.
While many political jurisdictions that were open for a decade prior to 9/11 became off-limits there were others, notably in Central and South America, that had become increasingly friendly to travelers. No longer was political unrest a deterrent in places such as Chile, Panama, Nicaragua and Columbia. In fact, in the wake of a changing world, Columbia had become the new “it” destination for the young and adventurous.
As the decade progressed the times seemed to improve. At the beginning my own travels were focused on exploring my local environs – something that was actually a net plus since it was an area I had largely ignored, saving up vacation time for extensive international ventures. From my home in Columbus Ohio we took multiple road trips to dynamic Chicago, one of the world’s greatest cities. I had fashioned an exceptionally comprehensive Civil War from Gettysburg to Washington D.C.. We took weekend trips to our regional metropolises of Cleveland, Cincinnati and Louisville. We explored the mountains of Appalachia and made it as far as New York City to witness the source of our limited travel. The term “stay-cation” had even been coined for the growing phenomenon.
In the second half of the first decade of the new millennium we began to venture out further as we might have five or ten years prior. We made it to Hawaii in 2005, the Yucatan in 2009 and even a bucket-list trip to Peru to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. However, we already started to experience signs of yet another looming change. Interestingly, while the once ultra-violent countries like Columbia were new hot spots, locations that for decades had been the go-to destinations for relaxation and fun in the sun were quickly becoming areas of concern.
Friends and family tossed one-eyebrow-raised glances of confusion when hearing we would rent a car and road-trip for two weeks through the remote jungle interiors of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. In recent times Mexico’s reputation as a tropical paradise had been replaced by tales of drug trafficking gang warfare, municipalities overrun by cartels and the graphic image of beheadings. While we returned safely, having a wildly successful trip and with our heads in-tack, morning empenadas were much less appetizing if accompanied by the morning newspaper which were always coated with photos of the previous day’s massacres. Just recently Texas advised against spring break travel in 14 of Mexico’s 31 states and the United States Government’s breakdown of each state is enough to scare anyone into staying home. In any case it’s a problem so severe that it’s breaching our own boarders.
This is just an example of the changing winds with our immediate neighbors. The same drug trafficking cancer that has spread through Mexico is metastasizing in other countries as well. The route originating in Amazonian countries of northern South America is leaving it’s trail all through Central America. Honduras, where Amanda had spent more than a year working for a NGO and where I had visited a number of times is not only one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere but is now one of the most dangerous and lawless in the world. The recent political unrest – the ousting of a rogue President by what was in essence a military coup – was just another example of rampant corruption spreading from the neighboring volatile totalitarian states of Cuba and Venezuela. And the trend which had us confined to our hotel room on our last visit in 2008, before the coup, doesn’t seem to be isolated to Honduras.
Then in 2010, across the ocean, another revolution would affect an unprecedented amount of territory. Again, almost over night, protests starting in Tunisia would spread all over the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Nary a country went unaffected. A year later, countries that were once relatively welcoming to travelers were suddenly absolutely no-go zones. Tunisia would no longer host the most adventurous Star Wars pilgrims. Libya became an all out war zone spear-headed by western sorties. Egypt, never friendly toward women travelers yet hosting thousands upon thousands drawn by it’s historic treasures, became a dangerously violent state during its revolution. Yemen overthrew its President. Oil rich playground for the world’s wealthiest Oman and Bahrain are riddled with civil unrest. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan too joined the mix. Israel and Lebanon, religious and cultural heavyweights became further entwined in territorial and political standoffs with liberation groups and an increasingly hostile Iran. And while not friendly to the west, Syria, like a cornered rabid dog, commenced unspeakable atrocities against its own people and is growing to become the world’s second greatest threat second only to its ally Iran.
The region, where some once ventured and now in flames, is indefinitely unfriendly to any western visitors. Let’s just say that with the exception of Iran and Syria I would have felt comfortable visiting in 2009 but today it’s out of the question. Even as early as 2007 an English friend of mine had crossed Iran’s borders on the grounds of pleasure.
As to come full circle, the complexities happening with Iran have directly influenced an increasingly isolated Russia. It’s difficult to accept that that country has become less friendly than during the decade following the fall of Communism. With questionable characters in power, rigged elections, delinquent foreign friends, rampant violent organized crime and a murder rate five times the United States, Russia is no longer the beacon of cultural and historical treasures it once was. While traveling to the historic spa village of Karlovy Vary in the Czech mountains the locals spoke not so softly about the Russian mafia who occupied their sumptuous mountain-top mansions, probably an indicator of the years to come. In short, I’d love to visit but getting man-handled by a chiseled-jawed man of 30 who’s forcing suicidal quantities of “wadka” down my throat and pointing out all of the ways that American men are weak is not the idea of a good use of time to me.
While Europe is still the friendly bastion it has always been the economic conditions happening in Greece and spreading around the continent can create an unattractive image. I mean barricaded streets and Molotov cocktails can put a damper on the charms of some of the world’s oldest urban centers.
The world map, constantly reshaping, seems to be much smaller than it used to be. My personal travel wish-list seems to be shaping with it as well. Among those destinations at the top are Croatia and the Dalmatian coast a region severely war torn in the mid 1990s and Istanbul, the only place that can legitimately claim to be where east meets west no matter what the travel hosts may say, is safe and inviting now but right on the geographical and political front-line.
Since President Obama has been in office an new and intriguing opportunity has presented itself – one that’s been a unattainable dream for decades. Cuba, where never in my wildest imagination did I think I’d be able to travel in my lifetime, has opened to Americans (albeit limited) for the first time in sixty years. All of a sudden not only do I have to imagine all the wonderful possibilities for exploration in that complex geopolitical microcosm but I have to confront my personal moral convictions as a potential tourist. It just goes to show how quickly this world changes and how unexpected it can be.