When I tell people here in America that I’m heading to Bosnia this summer, I have gotten a lot of interesting reactions. Most people I tell have a confused/skeptical expression that looks kind of like this:
Then they start giving me safety tips. “Oh, don’t forget your bullet-proof vest!” “Be sure to bring your AK-47!” “Don’t get raped!” “Have fun in Dubai–I mean Bosnia. Same difference.” (This last comment truly baffled me. I wasn’t sure whether to be thrilled that the person who told me this knew that Bosnia had a significant Muslim population or sad that he confused Eastern Europe with the Middle East. Last I checked, Sarajevo does not have a per capita GDP of $48,00 or luxury islands in the shape of the world.)
Frankly, these remarks are absolutely absurd. Bosnia today is relatively safe to travel to (no more dangerous than traveling to most American cities), and I think people probably make these remarks because they don’t quite know how to respond to my announcement that I’m going to Bosnia. Most people like appearing informed in conversations, so instead of saying “I don’t know a lot about Bosnia today–tell me more” or even considering that the situation in Bosnia has become safer since the war in 1995, they think back to what they last heard about Bosnia–the war–and then use that information to shape their comment. To be fair, though, most people pay so little attention to Bosnia’s position in world affairs–even I knew nothing about the current conditions in the country when I first applied to the Bosnia Project–that they generally don’t even realize how misinformed their comments are.
In addition to these comments being completely misinformed, they also completely baffle me. All the time, people try to tell me that Bosnia is dangerous. Do they think I haven’t studied up on this issue myself? I might only be a 19-year old college student with limited experience traveling outside of the US, but I do have common sense. Before accepting my place on the 2013 Bosnia Project team, I looked up both the US State Department and UK’s traveler’s information for Bosnia. (Any prospective visitor to Bosnia should start by reading the government traveler’s information available here and here!) I also talked with other W&M students who have traveled to Bosnia, professors who study the region, and consulted many travel blogs about the region. I was fully informed about any potential safety issues before I made my decision, and being told by random strangers at parties that I should bring weapons or a flak-vest is not information that’s going to surprise me or change my traveling decisions. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s fairly difficult to travel with automatic weapons. Furthermore, most residents of any country don’t appreciate it when foreigners show up packing heat.
I’m not saying that traveling to Bosnia is completely danger-free. In addition to typical travel dangers such as pickpockets, there is one real danger in traveling to Bosnia. It’s not one that anybody who I’ve told about my travels has warned me about. It’s also not something that I can defend myself against with a flak jacket or a rifle. Because of the war, Bosnia has the most unexploded landmines of any country in the world. These landmines pose a real threat to travelers to the country. Fortunately, the capital city of Sarajevo, where we’ll be spending most of our time in Bosnia, has been fairly well de-mined. Also, although landmines are a serious problem, they’re fairly easy to avoid. You can generally predict where landmines are– they’re usually found only in unpaved, off-trail areas or in abandoned towns and buildings. We’ll be sticking to the pavement in Sarajevo as we go about teaching, and we’ll be accompanied by guides whenever we go out of town (such as when we go hiking in Kravice). With these precautions, I don’t imagine we’ll have any problems.
Even though it annoys me when people tell me to bring a AK-47 or a bullet-proof vest to Bosnia, I’ve learned a lot from these conversations. Travelers to destinations off the beaten path must learn to accept silly questions about their travels as part of their experience. Even though I want to simply ignore or rebuff some of the more obnoxious questions I’ve been asked about Bosnia, I’ve learned to treat these questions as a teachable moment. Instead of berating the asker, I simply explain that no, I don’t need a bullet-proof vest or assault weapon or whatever, because Bosnia is much safer now than it was fifteen years ago. If the landmine issue comes up, I sometimes even point out that the US ranks #1 in the world for handgun ownership (#2 is Yemen) and gun violence is far less predictable than mine activity, so no, I’m not worried about going to the country with the most landmines.
In addition, friends of travelers also have a lot to learn from these conversations. If somebody you know is going to somewhere off the beaten path, they probably have researched safety in that country before they booked their trip. Anything you have to say about safety probably won’t affect their travel decision or be anything new to them. Therefore, if you don’t know much about the country they’re going to, don’t rehash a safety warning. Instead, simply let them know that you don’t know much about current conditions, and ask what the country is like today. They’ll appreciate you asking and you’ll learn something new in the process.