Recently I received an email from a friend sharing a new Facebook page called, Protected Travels.

The About section states:

“Protected Travels is a community for sharing travel tips, stories, and supporting the safety of all travelers on a global adventure.”

I thought, hells yeah!  Very timely.  Don’t travelers need a portal like this?  Especially women.  Who – if you believe everything you read – is the group likely to be more nervous about safety issues.

Sometimes inspiration stems from tragedy, which is sad, yet necessary.  With Protected Travels, the impetus to create the page came from the recent and unexplained deaths of travelers in Southeast Asia.

The latest in these mysterious deaths are Kari Bowerman and Cathy Huynh.  Both English language teachers working in South Korea, they decided to embark on a backpacking trip last July and visit Vietnam (incidentally, one of my favorite countries).

It seemed like a standard travel adventure until they were admitted to hospital, suffering from dehydration, vomiting and labored breathing.   Bowerman died that day; Huynh only clung on for two more days before meeting the same fate as her friend.

In fact, it was a group of Bowerman’s friends who created Protected Travels.

Last June, Canadian sisters Noemi and Audrey Belanger visited Phi Phi in Thailand and died under unknown circumstances, found by the hotel maid. There was no evidence of assault, but one could conclude that both sisters either ingested or were exposed to something that caused a violent reaction in their bodies.

Another prominent case is Sarah Carter, a young woman from New Zealand who was staying at a hotel called the Downtown Inn in Chiang Mai when she and  six other tourists mysteriously died, three in the same hotel.  Again, her symptoms were similar to the case in Vietnam.

Her parents have been tireless to find answers from the Thai authorities and one ballsy New Zealand reporter pinched samples from the room she stayed in and had them analyzed.

Traces of a pesticide called chlorpyrifos were found.  That long word that I can’t pronounce is a pesticide that has been around since the 1960’s, manufactured by Dow and is no longer used in the residential market, however, the agriculture industry still uses it.  Chlorpyrifo can affect the nervous system and shouldn’t be exposed to developing children, which is why it’s off the residential market in the US and Canada.   What’s interesting is chlorpyrifo is marketed to developing countries.

So the conclusion that Sarah Carter might have died from overzealous spraying of chlorpyrifo to rid the hotel of bed bugs is plausible.

However, autopsies show some of the tourists had a common pattern: inflammation of the heart muscle, while classic chlorpyrifo exposure gradually shuts down the heart and lungs (not inflames it, I guess).

Basically, these deaths continue to be confounding.  Unanswerable.

I need to say a few things before I continue, because truthfully, this post is really a rant.

One, it seems that most of the deaths fit a profile: young, attractive women, in their twenties, in the prime of their lives.  And that seems to be pointed out continually.

Not completely true.  Two people identified at the Downtown Inn were an elderly British couple.

Still, the fact that they are mostly young women, disturbs me profoundly.

Two, my heart and soul goes out to their families and friends.  They deserve answers.  Most of all, they deserve closure. If a parent loses a child, it’s the kind of heartbreak that you never recover from.  Yet, you still go on despite the void in your heart.

Finally, I give the creators of Protected Travels a standing ovation.   I’m waving my pom-poms, swinging my pigtails, twisting my body into cartwheels and back flips, even doing a human pyramid in homage to what they are trying to accomplish.  Inform.  Get justice.  Basically – protect.

Onwards to the rant.

Protected Travels sings to my mother earth, empathetic side, but pisses off my adventurous, traveler side.

It’s not the message of Protected Travels, but some of the information being shared.

I sat down and combed through the fan comments and got continually riled up.  Some of the comments were so heartfelt, while others… Dammit, I’m just gonna say it, were…

Paranoid:

 “Use the buddy system. Don’t go solo, especially females.”

Ignorant:

“They don’t call it the 3rd world for nothing.”

Moral fire and brimstone:

“If your purpose is to educate, begin by educating your young women to go easy on the drugs, liquor and sex they engage into when traveling abroad! No one says a word about their irresponsible behavior!!!”

Do I need to even qualify this?

“I also don’t think women traveling alone is a good idea. I don’t care how feminist things have gotten in the western world.”

Missing the point of travel altogether:

“Why on earth would intelligent people, ever eat food from vendors on the street !??? And order drinks? Stick to cans of coke and bottles of beer….you need to have good sense!!”

If I were a 21 year old woman doing research and happened upon Protected Travels, I’d feel a mixture of relief and frankly, FREAKED OUT.

So in order for women to travel safely they:

  1. Should never, ever travel ALONE.  Cause who would be loco enough to do that?  (Ahem, let me quickly point out that these poor women who died were either traveling together or with friends, not alone!)
  2. Wear a medieval chastity belt, go on an alcohol dry-out, find God and set feminism back 50 years.
  3. Realize now that travel isn’t about exploration or being open, but shunning ANYTHING cultural and sticking to North American products, cause we all know those won’t make us sick and those nasty backward third world peoples should kneel and bow to our superiority.
  4. That women, for the most part, are weaker, incapable and unable to handle the rigors of traveling.

Essentially, everything I’ve done, who I am, is crap.  I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.

Wake up, Miz 21 year old.  Stay in the USA.  Stick to the Canadian winters. Forget about it.

I ain’t gonna sugar coat it, the logistics of travel downright sucks sometimes.  I’ve caught myself crying on trains, losing it on a ticket agent who’s just doing their job, second guessing my moves, getting gypped, too drunk, not drunk enough, fucked and fucked over.

Absolutely, completely women should pay heed to advice.

HOWEVER…

There’s a massive difference between awareness and fear.

There’s a massive difference between useful dialogue and misplaced, ignorant information.

There’s a massive difference between uncontrollable factors and bad choices.

I think the best way to honor the deaths of these travelers is to not plant seeds of divisiveness, misinformation or panic.

My advice to women?

Make mistakes.  Be stupid sometimes.  Don’t be perfect.  Allow space for spontaneity.  That’s how you have authentic travel experiences.  That’s how you quiet fear.

Do be informed. Do learn how to vet good advice from nonsense.  Do research that satisfies you.

Don’t go in blind, but don’t go in closed either.

That’s how you turn paranoid travels into protected travels.

Photo:  Edward Kimber