Iconic Don't Walk signals in Detroit, USA


don't even go there

to travel or not to travel - that is the question


Detroit looked wonderful online. The skyline speaking of cosmopolitan living: glass towers, revolutionary brick skyscrapers, a dramatic waterfront bordering Canada's city of Windsor. Nope. As we found out to our cost, Detroit's skyline, which pops up on google images, is very misleading. Very. Never rely on google images to give you a sense of a place before you travel. Ever. Always read travel forums such as Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor before planning anything. Always. Indeed, a potential trip to Johannesburg in South Africa was re-considered and then abandoned. It is one of the great conundrums of travel: you start at ground zero and spend planning and plotting time trying to inform yourself of the travel-worthiness of a place. You have to rely on inaccurate, jaundiced, petulant and infrequently accurate online reviews in order to make your judgement. The conundrum is whether you allow yourself to be fully informed by what you read online: Johannesburg was a case in point. Lots of negative reviews and blogs meant that plans to travel there were shelved. Opportunities missed or danger avoided? After all, part of the buzz and lure of travel is taking risks; heading into the unknown, taking your chances. Surely doing too much research is kind of missing the point? Or is it just sensible? Opportunities missed or danger avoided? The trouble is, you never find out because you never travel there.


Opportunities Missed or Dangers Avoided? 

There have been a few cases where danger has lurked close by. By the law of averages, having been to quite a few places now, that is not entirely surprising. Our first taste of a less salubrious side to travel was the bombed out buildings, being guarded by a soldier, which we saw in Serbia's capital city of Belgrade. This was a NATO response to Serbia's atrocities in the Balkans. Grim and unsettling to see - but fascinating.

A further example of where a little risk pays off was my trip from Israel and into the West Bank. An Israel-only holiday quickly absorbed Palestinian territory thanks to the help of an Arab Israeli taxi/tour driver called Jason. For a total of £175 he took us, across two days, into the West Bank, Palestine, the holy sights of Bethlehem, the Dead Sea with its supposed magical properties, the ancient city of Jericho - the oldest city on the planet. It was money I'd never planned to spend to see places I'd never planned to see. Had Jason never approached us in the hotel lobby in Jerusalem, we'd never had gone to any of these places. This is, perhaps, the scariest thing about the whole trip: lost opportunity. Regret. His local know-how got us through both Israeli and Palestinian checkpoints - he knew the things we were to say - and not say to the severe looking Palestinian/Israelis with the machine guns as they peered through the taxi window. The sad truth is that no Jason = no West Bank. His religion and Arabic ties gave him direct access to the West Bank, whilst his Israeli citizenship meant that he had the backing of Israel and could travel freely in the country. A little risk paid off in spades and the places we went to see were, actually, the highlights of the trip. Tel Aviv, it must be said, felt like a fortress anyway - soldiers in groups of twenty walking openly with machine guns, being searched at entrances to shops and malls, military helicopters circling overhead.

I digress. Back to Detroit. We arrived in Detroit having been put through the wringer at US Customs on the Windsor (Canada) / Detroit (USA) border, the US border protection man concluding the interrogation by asking "why the hell" we wanted to go to Detroit. Back in Windsor, we'd got similar comments from a couple in a cafe where we'd had lunch who, in typical Canadian style, started chatting to us about where we were travelling - our huge back packs acting as the perfect conversation starter: "Are you going to Detroit with those bags? Good luck" came the comment. Not reassuring. Having been to many places where people had issued warnings and consequently found them to be groundless, we brushed off the cautionary notes. This time, however, the warnings were truly deserved. 

Within minutes of being on foot downtown I was verbally abused and threatened by a man in a car who thought I was taking photographs of him. He was out on probation. The first thing we noticed was that Detroit was eerily quiet; the streets were deserted. There were no retail shops; most shops were boarded up, apart from a couple of convenience stores. Normally this wouldn't set off alarm bells, but this was the city centre, or 'Downtown Detroit'. There were several 'bums' on the street, the stereotypical ones you see in American films; clumped hair and a bottle of alcohol in a brown paper bag. The steam rising from the road plates just added to the cinematic-feel lawless city we'd just walked right into. The city was so bad that our hotel, as a matter of course, laid on a free shuttle to take people staying at the hotel anywhere around the city they needed to go. 

I have never been to a hotel where they offer what was essentially a safety shuttle. The famous brick skyscrapers I'd some to see where nearly all derelict and empty. There was a real sense that 'The D' had just been abandoned. At this point, having made a daring photo-raid on the buildings I'd wanted to see for about an hour, walking up deserted streets, I googled Detroit from the safety of our hotel: for the last four years Detroit was, according to CNN, the most dangerous city in America. In 2011 it had dropped to position 2, having been beaten by St Louis in Missouri. Oops - really should have researched this a bit more. We were in Detroit for two nights and had to make the most of it whether we liked it or not. Oops.


An Uncomfortable Reminder

As if a reminder were ever needed about the dangers of travel, a year after our visit to Marrakech in 2010, the restaurant we ate almost every night, The Argana, was blown up in a bombing carried out by Islamic extremists. Fourteen people were killed at the very spot where we had eaten. Sobering thought indeed.

Furthermore, during our 2012 trip to Jordan - a country slap bang in the heart of the troubled Middle East - we spotted road signs for Iraq and Syria which extracted gasps of awe/shock/fascination (delete as appropriate) from usJordan's location in the middle of such a turbulent and fractious region has the potential for people to misjudge it.  Don't let its location put you off, it is a great place - and this is the point: too many travellers may have been deterred from travelling to Jordan because of it's geography, its naughty neighbours being Iraq to the north east, Syria in the north and the troubled Israel/West Bank to the east. Jordan was wonderful but will always have the potential to suffer a kind of unfair tourist guilt-by-association on a tourist's 'Travel Risk Calculator'. Jordan would certainly be an opportunity missed.

Opportunities missed or danger avoided? Difficult to say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. The facts are, however, that travel forums are really useful - offering tips about things you would never have thought of. Also, an online trip to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's website is useful - if a little bit scaremongering. It will, however, give you a worst-case scenario snapshot of the danger zones. Your friendly copy of Lonely Planet or Rough Guide should also be read - sometimes reading it on the plane is a little too late! I have been guilty of this far too many times.

The best you can do is prepare yourself using your common sense. One such measure would be to update someone via text messages to let them know where you are: simple but important. I tend to text my facebook home page with my location, particularly if I'm travelling around in a country or region, regularly 'checking in' so that if anything were to happen, people would know where to start looking. Some of the most rewarding aspects of travel include elements of risk. It's a tricky choice: safe and boring, risky and interesting? Travellers walk this tightrope all of the time. Travel No-Go? Probably not. A compromise would be 'Know-Go' rather than 'No'-Go. Make calculated risks: to avoid a place entirely just because of a little risk factor is a great shame indeed.


We pass the exit for the Syrian border in Jordan; a group of Israeli soldiers patrol the promenade with machine guns in Tel Aviv; a group of soldiers in blue combat gear are a common sight around Almaty, Kasakhstan.


Like many tourists visiting Marrakesh, we ate at the Argana Cafe in the main square. In April 2011, the restaurant was attacked by Islamic extremists right where we ate. The photograph is from my holiday snaps, the second a press shot taken from the Guardian website showing the ruins soon after the explosion. Fourteen people were killed - mostly tourists.




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