Don’t Even Go There!

It’s been a year since I met Anna and Michal. Seems as long since I’ve thought of them.

The young married couple from Bydgoszcz, Poland, wrote me last August to ask if they could stay two days at my Miami condominium that overlooks Biscayne Bay. They had just flown to the Magic City from Honduras on their way back to Poland after an amazing two years traveling around the world.

When I received their request for lodging through the travel and hospitality Web site, I initially thought to say no because of the short notice and I was already hosting two women from Berlin, Germany. Anna and Michal weren’t arriving in weeks or even days but in a matter of hours. Although some members of the Couchsurfing community are able to receive guests on short notice, my schedule simply did not always allow for that. But when I looked at their couchsurfing profile, I rechecked my schedule and quickly agreed to host them. Two people who had just traveled around the world, I just had to meet. I needed some insight, as I was planning my own global adventure.

Anna and Michal on the Western Coast of Australia

The photographs of their two-year trip spoke to me, and so did their travel philosophy, which was similar to mine – independent, unstructured, free-spirited. And by golly, after two years of planes, trains, boats and automobiles, and of climbing and jumping out of and off of things, these two people, with no place to stay for their two-day layover in Miami, needed any comfort Miami could provide.

With the two women from Berlin, the guest bedroom was already taken. Michal and Anna had no problem sleeping in the living room – she on the couch, he on an air mattress and sleeping bag on the floor. It beat the alternative: pitching a tent in a park or some parking lot behind a McDonald’s. At least that’s what they said they were considering. That may have worked fine in Vanuatu or the Australian Outback, but not a good idea in urbanized Miami.

When Michal and Anna arrived, I instantly took to them. Great sense of humor, a real sense of adventure, a fearless spirit, and as I pointed out at the time, newlywed love for each other even after two years on the road together. Don’t people who travel that long together want to kill each other? 🙂

Chilling out in the living room, Michal and Anna showed me some of the videos and photographs they shot during their journey, and all I could say was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

With each picture, Anna and Michal shared stories. They had spent much of their time traveling to remote areas of just about every country they visited. And they toured some countries I could only dream about.

With breathtaking video footage and photographs as evidence, Michal and Anna didn’t have to convince me that those places were worth visiting. But alas, I told them that as an American some of those places would not be safe for me to go traipsing through. Parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan or any part of Iran, which views Americans as a threat to their society, is unsafe for anyone holding a U.S. passport.

In some countries around the world, Americans are taken hostage, decapitated or shot on sight, I reminded my well-traveled and well-meaning guests.

“Ah yes,” Anna said jokingly. “Half the world hates you.”

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal in Iran

This week I’ve been thinking about that “hate” Anna spoke about. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “half the world” is unsafe for Americans, but when I was mapping my global adventure, it wasn’t easy. Flying from country to country is easier given you are hopping over hostile territory. But trying to go by road, as I am, from one country to the next creates some logistical problems. How do I get from Egypt to Israel then Jordan then Turkey with Syria in the way? And from Russia to India with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China as obstacles? And to Thailand with Myanmar ahead?

Unlike my dear Polish friends, I had to be more conscious of where I was and was not welcomed. Iraq? Pakistan? Afghanistan? Iran? No way. For them, when asked, all they had to say they’re from Poland and nobody cared. If anything, my guests joked, some had never even heard of Poland 🙂

Anna and Michal and countless other travelers I have met have no such concerns over geopolitical conflicts. Iran has no beef with Poland, so a Polish person can crisscross that country and feel very welcomed, as Michal and Anna were. I’d probably be arrested, thrown in prison and tried for spying, as e Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were.

The reported conviction of the two American hikers this week is what made me think of Anna and Michal, who now run a family owned hotel in picturesque Tlen in Bory Tucholskie National Park, about 60 kilometers north of their hometown, Bydgoszcz. Our conversation a year ago resonates with me today. Sure, I wish I could freely travel to Cuba, or see the antiquities in Iran, or see what Syria looks like from the ground.

People have asked me if the South America part of my trip includes Venezuela. The truth is, with all the hate, the disrespect shown to U.S. presidents, the going out-of-the-way to befriend sworn enemies of the United States, I don’t feel I would be welcomed there. Unfortunately for the Venezuelan people who would love to get their hands on some of the billions in “yanqui” tourists dollars, many Americans now view Venezuela as an enemy of the United States and refuse to support the government of Hugo Chavez. So as a result, my world travel looks very different from that of say, someone from neutral Switzerland.

I have to be very alert about shifting sands in the global community. Egypt in an uproar? Change in Tunisia? Unrest in Morocco? How does that impact my plans to travel there as an American?

Shane and Josh, unfortunately, apparently didn’t give serious thought to location. If I’m hiking anywhere near the Iranian border, I want to make damn sure where I’m standing. Friends and relatives say the hikers may have been forced by Iranian border guards into Iran, but again, if you’re that close to Iran, well, you’re just too close.

Personally, I wouldn’t have found myself hiking even in Iraq, which is still unstable, as witnessed by a string of recent bombings. Time and time again, Americans around the world do foolish things and expose themselves to danger. Recall the case of the American journalists who unknowingly entered North Korea. If the border is unmarked, and the avowed enemy is on the other side, stay as far away from it as you can!

According to the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, an official television station, Shane and Josh were convicted of illegal entry into the country and for espionage. They were sentenced to eight years in prison. Their Iranian lawyer said he was not aware of the convictions and sentences and that he would inquire. Really Mr. Lawyer? Are you sitting down on the job or is the Iranian system of justice simply so flawed that the defense lawyer is not aware that his clients are going to jail – for eight years on top of the two already served while awaiting trial.

The two men, who have been held in Tehran’s infamous Evin prisonfor more than two years, said they were hiking near the Iraq-Iran border in the Kurdistan region when a soldier of unknown nationality told them to approach. It was at that point they learned they had crossed into Iran, which shares an unmarked border with Iraq. They were with Bauer’s fiancée, Sarah Shourd, who was released for “humanitarian” and medical reasons on $500,000 bail in September 2010, after more than a year under arrest and months in solitary confinement. Her case is still pending, according to Iranian officials.

Sarah Shourd

I do share Shane and Josh’s passion for learning about other cultures and travel. I understand why they would want to venture, especially Shane who like me is a freelance journalist always on the trail of a good story. I feel a kinship with the two backpackers and anyone who looks at their travel videos and photographs will immediately see that these guys are no spies – they’re just a couple of backpackers, like me, just trying to see the world and hopefully make it better. They ought to be released now!

As for me and my travels, maybe I ought to start telling people I’m Polish. Nah! It won’t work.

A profile of Josh and Shane from CNN:

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