"Is this tap water?"
The man in a luau shirt and board shorts gave our bartender a serious look from across his margarita. In front of him ice clinked in a fresh glass, the tap water in question. Christmas lights twinkled overhead and a few feet away the boards of the beachside bar ran into sand and a long, largely empty Puerto Rican beach.
We were a few miles outside of San Juan and our bartender had clearly heard this question before. He took the glass back, emptied it into the sink then filled a new one from a Dasani bottle nearby. As I sat there sipping my Medalla beer, I couldn't help but wonder if our now-satisfied companion knew his drink had come from the Atlanta city spigot. I didn't imagine he would care.
One of the great truths about travel overseas (including, often enough, destinations like Hawaii and Puerto Rico) is how nervous it makes many people. People who would run red lights and eat gas station sushi at home suddenly begin stuffing money into inseam wallets when they go on a vacation.
The reason is not complicated and it is not, as many people often allege, about ugly Americans or racism. (Not always, at least.) It's about losing our ability to competently judge risk.
At home we rely on hundreds of small, often subconscious, cues to manage our own health and safety. We know on an instinctive level what "normal" and "safe" look like in our own neighborhoods, and can equally judge when something is out of place.
Traveling, though, we don't know what's normal. We don't know when loud noises are just part of life or are something to be afraid of, don't know the streets not to walk down, the foods not to eat or the habits that would mark us as a target. As travelers we're acutely aware that we simply don't know the rules.
So many of us overreact. We get hyper-vigilant, avoiding anything that could possibly be a threat regardless of how realistic the actual danger. The result is a combination of overcautious behavior that can cripple a vacation, while at the same time warning fatigue that can make us miss real warning signs.
That said, it is possible to sort out the real dangers from the false flags. It isn't possible to always protect yourself, but there are some smart steps you can take to know whether you should worry about a particular danger or not. In particular, pay attention to three key rules of thumb: From where did your warning come? What is the real risk involved? And how easily could you recover if things went wrong?
Some sources are simply more reliable than others. That family member who roots for Ohio State, Fox News or the makers of the door alarm stop all want attention, and the easiest way to get that is by spinning dark tales of trips gone terribly wrong. Meanwhile, guys who walk around barefoot in Southeast Asia and post on travel forums need the world to be a big, green M&M because otherwise they've probably made some pretty poor choices along the way.
Ignore them all. When you get a warning, consider the source. A clerk at the front desk of your hotel wants you to have a safe and pleasant time, and their advice is likely to reflect that balance. Professional travel writers at the New York Times or Lonely Planet can say the same.
Look, too, for a nuanced take. For years histrionic warnings circled about terrorism and violence in Greece, which was always a far cry from the languid beaches the sun-kissed nation enjoys to this day. By contrast, expert comments such as this piece from Rubens, Kress & Mulholland law firm will publish complex data taking into account many factors you should consider before booking a flight.
Sober, complex analysis is almost always going to serve you better than a simple, fearful warning.
What could really go wrong?
That might sound like the first step in a series of terrible decisions, but it's a legitimate question. What is your real risk?
In some cases the answer is "a lot." A zip line accident in a community that doesn't really train its personnel can lead to severe injury. On the other hand, a bit of food poisoning from bad pad Thai will lead to little more than an unpleasant 24 hours.
While you decide how seriously to take a warning, also ask yourself what's at stake. It's easy to take a risk seriously because the warning is credible, but consider too whether that warning conveys a real injury or just a bit of inconvenience.
Yes, in some cases your warnings will involve a genuine risk to your safety. Lax standards on adventure travel, carelessness with medication in some tropical regions, ignorance of crime where that truly is a problem, it can all lead to very real personal harm. In many other cases, though, there's less danger than it might seem. If your downside would involve a bout of food poisoning or a power outage, it may be time to embrace the adventure. Don't downplay the risks just because something seems like fun, but make sure to analyze them realistically.
Finally, ask how you could recover if everything went wrong.
You've planned this trip because it will add something meaningful to your life. Especially for a vacation overseas, this is not a small investment of either time or money. It means something, whether that's a bucket-list hike up Machu Picchu or just the chance to sit by a Maldives seaside.
So work hard to make it happen, and that includes possibly even embracing a manageable risk.
The truth is, not every danger is irrecoverable. Most South American countries come with the warning of crime and theft, and many tourists have been robbed seeing the sights in Brazil, Argentina and Peru. This is a very real danger to visiting those parts of the world. But physical injury to tourists is relatively rare, and insurance can cover most personal losses. So what does that mean?
For a traveler willing to either insure their belongings or, preferably, simply leave the valuables at home, South America is a far more accessible destination. You can recover from those losses, and the chance to see Buenos Aires may well be worth the (considerable) trouble.
On the other hand, numerous Americans have been arrested on pretextual charges while taking the increasingly popular tours of North Korea. This is a real warning with a substantial risk, and there is no good way to recover from that disaster.
In other words, even if your risk is real and the warning credible, it may be that you can handle the danger. If a trip involves problems that you could manage, put that in the context of your plans.
Spotting dangers in any trip is incredibly difficult. We're not equipped to know the lay of the land, and there will always be a chorus of voices crying both danger and safety for any destination. Figuring out how to find the real red flags is a matter of paying attention and making a real risk analysis. Listen to the voices who are most likely to know what they're talking about, and ask what they're really warning you about.
It will help make your next adventure simpler, safer and a lot more fun.