Bali is supposed to be a tropical paradise where you sip pina coladas next to glistening swimming pools, and dive into the warm, still ocean before lying back on a beach recliner for a foot massage. But the first time I visited, I felt nothing but apprehension as the plane descended towards Ngurah Rai airport.
I’d carefully crammed enough clothes for the week into my carry-on luggage, because it wasn’t long after Schapelle Corby’s arrest at the same airport. But my greatest fear wasn’t awkward questions from customs officers.
The friend who I was meeting in Bali had texted that I should make my way straight to Jimbaran Beach for a seafood barbecue, and we could head back to the villa afterwards. The beach is right next to the runway and a famous spot for sunsets, so it was an excellent suggestion.
But while I should have been looking forward to kicking back with a Bintang and some freshly-grilled prawns, I was feeling spooked. The beach’s popularity with tourists had seen it targeted just a few years before my visit for what became known as the second Bali bombings. In 2005, those same charming beachfront ‘warungs’ had been targeted by terrorists whose backpack bombs had killed 20 people, while injuring 129 more. Some of the victims had been Australian tourists, just like me.
I remembered the cruel unpredictability of their fate as I gingerly stepped onto the sand. But before long, I was at ease, chatting with my friends and eating some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever tasted while watching a truly incredible sunset.
Later in the holiday, my friend and I drove through Kuta, past the site of Paddy’s Pub and the Sari club, where 202 were killed. It was a sobering sight, even among the undiminished raucousness of the island’s backpacker district. And every time we drove to a new venue and watched while security guards checked under our car with mirrors on a pole, we remembered why.
I can tell myself that these feelings of dread are precisely what terrorists seek to create, and that if we shy away from visiting the places we want to, it hands them a victory.
I’ve been back to Bali twice since then, and every time I return, I remember. The locals I’ve chatted with have commented about long it’s taken for tourism to recover, and how grateful they are to those who do come. It reminds me that the victims of these kinds of attacks go beyond those caught in the blasts. And I’m always proud that I overcame my fear to return.
It’s hard not to remember these attacks, though, when you travel somewhere that’s recently been targeted. Even though I remind myself that getting hurt in a car accident is more likely than falling victim to terrorism, I can’t help feeling apprehensive. I felt profoundly ill-at-ease the first time I visited Ground Zero in New York, too.
Last month, those same emotions returned when I visited Nairobi for the first time. Not long ago, a mall popular with foreigners had been targeted, and when our tour bus stopped off at a similar place so we could use a supermarket, the memories of those horrific reports about the shootings at the Westgate Mall returned unbidden.
But had I not travelled to Kenya, I would never have visited the Masai Mara, which is the most extraordinary landscape I’ve seen besides our own outback. I wouldn’t have been able to see some remarkable animals up close, and I wouldn’t have made some new friends in a thoroughly lovely part of the world.
While I still read travel advisories with great care, the world still feels too precious to shy away from.
Later in the trip, I spent a week in Paris. The European football championships were on, and security was extremely tight – heavily armed military police patrolled constantly. Various experts said that another attack was likely during the tournament, and they haven’t yet been proved wrong.
It hasn’t even been a year since those horrific, indiscriminate shootings across the city, and the sorrow I felt at that news returned frequently during my time there – especially at Père Lachaise cemetery, when passing the grave of one of the victims from the Bataclan Theatre. She had only been 21 last November, and her resting place was adorned with dozens of fresh flowers.
I can tell myself that these feelings of dread are precisely what terrorists seek to create, and that if we shy away from visiting the places we want to, it hands them a victory. But the world nevertheless feels a scarier place than when I first began travelling solo in the 1990s.
Travel has always been an exercise in risk-management, but these days, the risks somehow feel more palpable. Whenever anything happens, we feel connected to it, even if we’ve never visited the place. Social networks put us in touch with people we know who’ve been affected. An attack becomes not just another downbeat item on the news, but an emotional landmark.
Whenever I return to Australia, I count myself lucky to have survived another encounter with the big, bad world. But it wasn’t long ago that on another trip to Bali, my poolside reading was interrupted by news of a siege in my hometown of Sydney, just around the corner from where I went to university. It felt strange being in a place where I’d initially felt so vulnerable while terrible things were happening back in the city where I’d always felt safest.
Travel makes the unfamiliar familiar. My timid initial feelings soon evaporate, and I’m left with a sense of connection with places that once seemed exotic and distant. And while I still read travel advisories with great care, the world still feels too precious to shy away from.
We Australians are extremely fortunate to be able to travel as much as we do, and despite the violence that regularly breaks out across the world, I hope our love of travelling remains undiminished.
And if you’re pondering a winter break, I strongly recommend Bali. Those sunsets really are something.
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