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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.

Yes it’s safe to step out

But stay away from poodles, kebabs and aircraft carriers

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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SOME TIME AGO, JUST WHEN I THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE to travel, I opened the newspaper and a shocking item caught my eye. A poodle had been brought to court in the Philippines to stand trial on a death sentence charge. It had bitten a child. The child had lived. But the parents were mad as hell because bringing up a child in the Philippines is a tough and expensive proposition. The poodle had botched the job. Now the parents would have to PAY for the kid’s education, deal with teen tantrums and battle some ogre of a daughter-in-law. They charged the dog with murder, as it had no rabies vaccination certificate. The dog remained unfazed by all this. Call it canine sang-froid. Or perhaps the mutt had not bothered to read the papers, and who can blame him, when there’s the Internet?

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This however was not the headline that caught my attention. Not was it the screamer in the National Enquirer proclaiming “MOM ON VEGGIE DIET GIVES BIRTH TO GREEN BABY!” It was a small headline below. A Russian aircraft carrier moored in Shenzhen, China, just across from Hong Kong, was causing all manner of commotion. A Russian aircraft carrier in Shenzhen was unusual. Not because it would appear to be excessive force, even for hyperactive tattooed triads who have been known to steal entire sections of the underground train escalators. The ship is a bankrupt “tourist attraction”. With all the firepower to humble NATO, this behemoth couldn’t terrorise the nearest bank, or dampen Shenzhen’s exuberant crime wave. And why was it bust? Because local travellers, brought up on Star Cruises itineraries where you can battle crazed grannies for the buffet and the microphone, failed to shell out for a visit to a dull, rusting, hulk.

I hid my money and locked the door lest an overzealous entrepreneur singing revolutionary songs barged in

The once glorious Minsk, now a creaking theme park portraying “War and Peace”, had clearly been better at the former. I hid my money and locked the door lest some overzealous entrepreneur singing revolutionary songs decided to seize my stash from under the mattress and appoint me Chief Executive Comrade, The Minsk. Then it was Aussies going nuts at a Sydney's Cronulla Beach, bashing anyone remotely Arab or eating a doner kebab. The mob should have been sent to Iraq to get a real taste of things. Doner kebabs are far better over there. UK travellers may think twice about Oz and just decide to stay home where they only have to contend with the 10,000 annual "car-jackings" as reported by The Times.

Venturing out is always worrisome. It needn’t be. Pills and politics are the twin scourges of any peripatetic. And now you have poodles and kebabs to contend with. The Asian map is covered in hues of aggressive saffron, green and red. And, everywhere, there’s the doomsday drone of an Aedes mosquito.

But statistics are not all they are cracked up to be. Take health. Dengue fever in Singapore and Malaysia probably causes less irretrievable brain damage annually than late-night screenings of World’s Scariest Police Chases. The USA has around a dozen deaths a year on account of bubonic plague. But would you stop travelling there? Viruses, crooks and sweaty chickens lurk everywhere.

A traveller’s best defence is common sense. Give Kabul a miss, sure. It’s cold in winter. We all know that. But what’s the problem with an adrenaline-charged heart-pumping thrill? People pay to get their pants scared off at amusement parks and have their kids barf upside down on intestine-knotting roller coasters, but complain hideously if they get mugged. I am all for organised Harlem or Mongkok “mugging tours”. Busloads of thrilled tourists could be mugged and relieved of their money under the watchful eye of the government, while the muggers could come on the state payroll and get rehabilitated. Of course muggers are finicky too. But the government could attempt to ensure their attendance especially after dusk when tourists would be prepared to pay peak tariffs.

The world is as safe as you choose to make it. Use your common sense and, whatever you do, don't bite any kids

There is something inviting about danger. In New York, my Haitian taxi driver refused to take me to Harlem. He didn’t know where it was. And that’s not all that was incredible. I made it to 125th Street eventually, dragging along a banker friend who, after treating me to a five-course breakfast at a white-linen place where people talked in whispers as they fingered through the latest edition of Vogue, thought it a remarkably poor trade. But nothing happened. NOTHING. I was devastated, and my friend, delighted to be still alive, bundled me into a cab to return to safer precincts. Back in Times Square we watched cops slam bad guys up against walls as we breathed in the intoxicating aroma of pure carbon monoxide. In the cab back to my hotel, the driver handed me a leaflet with an Identikit portrait of the “Screwdriver” killer. Ah, civilization.

London cabbies will get you there, safely. They do a test called “The Knowledge” ensuring they are intimate with every byway before they are licensed. In Delhi, you ask the cabbie where he’s going and plead with him to help you. Singapore is a lot more tech savvy. You get satellite-call taxis over there. These sophisticated vehicles are easy to spot as they bear large signs on the windshield indicating the driver’s destination. Travel is getting sophisticated. And the world is as safe as you choose to make it.

But, whatever you do, don’t bite any kids.

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