Thursday, March 24, 2011

I Can't Believe My Luck

I’m in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, and am reminded again that disaster can strike anywhere and at any time.  A clock on the Old Railway Station tells when that time came here.  For close to half a century, the clock has been stuck on 5:17 a.m., the precise minute on July 26, 1963, when a devastating earthquake struck, leaving over a thousand people dead, more than three thousand injured, and some 150,000 people homeless.  Nearly 80% of the city was taken out, including the railway station, which has now been converted to a city museum and earthquake memorial.

I read that the people of then-Yugoslavia considered abandoning the city outright.  Just forget it and move elsewhere, some people thought.  But in the end they decided to stay and rebuild—and I’m glad—because I’ve really been digging Skopje’s mix of old and new, including the Bit Bazaar in the Turkish part of town, and the newer Ramstore Mall, where I’ve been going for my daily cappuccino and to write. 

Interestingly, I read that Skopje held an international design competition for the rebuilding of the city center in which renowned Japanese architect, Kenzo Tange, took the top prize.  Of course, that reminded me again of the sad events in Japan, and of all the other tragic and scary things happening in the world today.  I must admit, recent happenings have left me feeling unsettled as of late.  I can't help but think—what if something bad happens here?  what if terror strikes?  will calamity find me in the wrong place at the wrong time?  They say that the Balkans are the “powder keg” of Europe.  Could something break loose here?  Who can say.

Macedonian police at the ready.
I know this sounds a bit self-centered.  I think it goes without saying that my heart goes out to those in despair, but I'll say it anyway:  my heart goes out to those in despair.  Still, for someone traveling alone in today's world, I think these are valid questions.   The fact of the matter is, if something were to happen, I’d have only strangers to depend on in a crisis.  Could I count on them for assistance? My experience and the things I see on television tell me yes, but I won't know until the time comes for me to ask.  (Which reminds me, I really should look up how to say "help" in Macedonian.)

I'm sure all the bad stuff I see on the news is the reason my natural penchant for worry has reached this fever pitch.  For a few weeks now I’ve been feeling like something bad is bound to happen to me on the road; like it’s just a matter of time.  In fact, just yesterday a dear friend sent me an email out of the blue, telling me to be careful.  “Come back in one piece,” he said.  I got his email right in the middle of writing this post, and thought, What does he know?  Did he have a dream or something?

The thing is, I have now traveled through fifty-plus countries solo, and I’ve yet to be struck by travel disaster.  No pickpockets; no scams; nothing of significance lost; nothing ever stolen.  I’ve never needed serious medical attention; never had to grease a palm or talk my way out of a bribe; never had to scream for help in any language.  I know I shouldn’t be counting my blessings aloud, because surely I’m just inviting the jinx my way, but it is this track record of good fortune that’s been making me fear what must lie around the corner.

It’s not like I’m imagining stuff either.  Things are constantly happening to others around me.  Take some of my fellow travelers on this trip, for example.   One night I had dinner with a friend-of-a-friend who happened to be traveling in Ukraine at the same time.  The next day she lost her purse with everything important in it—passport, money, credit cards; everything.  My movie companion from the other night had to cut his trip short due to an “infection of the large intestine” (his description) that landed him in the hospital for a night.  An Argentine backpacker from my hostel in Krakow had just fallen victim to an expensive-beer scam that set him back 100 € when he thought he was spending 9 €.  And the list goes on. 

To be sure, these examples are relatively small things which weren’t the end of the world.  My new friend from Nevada had a temporary passport within days, and family to wire her money.  My British friend with the intestinal problem flew home to universal health care, knowing that he can always ski in Bulgaria another time.  And while my Argentine friend was still pretty angry over losing the money, he was able to chalk it up to experience and move on.

Scary space heater in my room.
But for some travelers, the end of the world does come.  I remember traveling in Punta Arenas, Chile in the same week that a fire burned down a hostel, sadly killing 13 people.  I had stayed in another hostel down the street, and knew it could just have easily been me.  I thought of this last night when I flipped on the space heater in my dorm room.  I’m always careful not to knock it over, but who knows about the French guy in the next bed who keeps going out for a cigarette.

Could I be hit by this Macedonian bus?
Sometimes I check the State Department’s website for potential dangers lurking in regions where I travel.  Once, a few years back, I clicked on a random tab and discovered a publication entitled “Death of U.S. Citizens Abroad by Non-Natural Causes.”  I spent the next few hours paralyzed by fear, reading all the ways other people had died abroad.  I've since checked it again for Macedonia.  It says three U.S. citizens died in the past three years; one was “drug-related,” the other two auto accidents.  The latter doesn’t surprise me, considering the drivers here aren't the most strict adherents to the rules of the road.   So I govern myself accordingly.  Here in Macedonia, I pay close attention when I cross streets, I don't get in cars with crazy cab drivers, and I don’t do drugs.

Recently I confided my fears in some fellow travelers back in Sofia.  "I'm afraid I’ve been too lucky," I told one long-term backpacker from San Francisco, currently traversing Europe by motorcycle.  “Maybe you’re just smarter than other travelers,” he speculated, in response. 

Maybe so.  I do have some pretty good wits, I think, and I try to keep them about me at all times, especially in places like Johannesburg, or Cairo during Ramadan.  Also, I suppose the natural paranoia helps some.  I’m constantly looking to see who's walking behind me, eyeing suspicious characters, and concocting wild backstories for people whose questions seem a little too uncomfortably-pointed.  No, I'm not traveling alone; I'm with my husband.  He's a Sumo wrestler.  Where is he?  Oh, he's at practice right now, for a local competition in town.

And don’t get me wrong—I’m not asking for trouble.  I’m perfectly happy remaining unmolested and problem-free.   It’s just that, if this is a numbers game, I think it's only natural to fear that my number's coming up soon.  But you’re right, I shouldn’t think this way.  I’m sure everything will continue to run smoothly, and sooner than we all know it, I’ll be back home, in one piece.

But before I close, I want to say one more thing, just in case.   For me, the joy travel brings is worth the risk, so don't feel bad if something does happen.  Sure, sometimes it’s a slog and a hassle, but for the most part, I love it.  I mean, how else am I going to get a personal audience with the Delphic Oracle in Greece?  I could use a little prophecy right about now and, in fact, have already prepared questions.  Here's the first one:  Dear Oracle, Will my book be finished/published/on Oprah?  And the list goes on from there.  I can't wait to get the answers.