OPINION: I watch most of Anthony Bourdain’s travel and food TV shows in a state of highly focused jealousy.It’s my kind of travel.
That is, until the other day when I watched the episode of No Reservations set in Panama, and Bourdain and his crew took a flight south to the Darien Gap, that huge section of almost impenetrable jungle that separates Panama from Colombia, Central America from South.
I sat there for about 15 minutes watching Bourdain sweat and stumble and swear and I thought to myself: No. Thank. You.
It made me realise that, as curious and adventurous as I may be, there are parts of the world that I have no desire to visit.
I’ve written before about North Korea, saying that I actually do want to visit, that I am fascinated by this strange and kind of scary place that seems like nowhere else on Earth.
However, after following the case of Otto Warmbier, the American student who visited North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, and eventually returned home in a coma in June this year before dying six days later of a severe neurological injury – all because he’s supposed to have stolen a picture or poster from his Pyongyang hotel – my mind has been changed.
There are plenty of great places in the world to visit, and it really doesn’t seem like North Korea is one of them.
As an extremely popular and fashionable child I used to collect stamps – still can’t figure out why I didn’t have more friends – and one of my most treasured, most exotic stamps, was from the Pitcairn Islands. I fantasised about what this far-flung tropical destination must be like. I dreamed of one day going there and seeing it for myself.
Then, of course, I heard about the child abuse scandal in 2004, when six of Pitcairn’s 50 residents – including the mayor – were imprisoned for sexual offences, and I heard about the subsequent call for new settlers to the island which went pretty much unheeded, and then a travel writer mate of mine visited a few years ago and picked up an exotic and unidentifiable tropical disease that he’s still suffering from. Yeah, nup.
I’m not a big fan of the jungle. It’s humid, you sweat a lot, there are insects everywhere, leeches, other weird things trying to bite you, and most of what you’re probably there to see – the animals – are hidden from view by the dense foliage. When you take a place like the Darien Gap, however – this huge, roadless, lawless section of jungle that separates Panama from Colombia – and throw in drug smugglers and their associated militia attempting to shift their product north, plus several species of poisonous frogs, and snakes, and jungle scorpions, and major problems with flooding… Bali sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?
When your most recognisable landmark is a notorious Australian immigration detention centre; when you have an unemployment rate of around 90 per cent, and a major part of your economic model is reliant on phosphate deposits from bird poo, which will be completely exhausted by 2050; and when your only legitimate attractions for tourists are beaches that are probably not quite as nice as the ones most Australians can access by driving for 15 minutes or so from their homes – it’s a pretty tough sell to encourage people to come visit.
I can appreciate – and I honestly hope – that there will one day be a time when it’s a sane and reasonable proposition to want to go to Somalia on a holiday. Right now, however, I could think of few worse places in the world. Somalia is war-torn, lawless and incredibly dangerous, a place no travel insurance company will cover you to visit (given the country’s “do not travel” rating from DFAT), where kidnappings and random acts of violence are as strong a possibility each day as breakfast and lunch. Somalia does have tourist attractions – however, I think I’ll be waiting a good few years before I set about discovering them.