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Are We Safe Anywhere? An American Traveller Confronts Unspeakable Violence at Home and Abroad

An American traveling abroad faces Al-Qaeda kidnapping warnings, while a horrific act of violence shatters her idyllic hometown in Oregon.

"We're coming up on kidnapping season," said the terrorism analyst.

We were at a meeting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. A recent spate of violence in Mali prompted the agency to update its travel warnings, and it was seeking perspective from people "on the ground." My partner has driven through Africa a dozen times and is considered something of an expert.

I sat at the end of the table and plunked a sugar cube in my tea. Kidnapping season? Back in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon we have snowboarding season, raspberry season and morel-picking season, but I'd never heard of a season for kidnapping.

In a few days, we planned to drive our colorful bus to Africa. We'd stop in France, Spain and Morocco before eventually arriving in Mali. Once there, we'd visit the Dogon Cliffs and take a friend to visit her former Peace Corps village.

But since 2008, over 25 aid workers and tourists have been kidnapped in the region and sometimes shot or beheaded. These crimes are attributed to Al-Qaeda-linked gangs that raise money through the ransom payments. There is reason to believe the incidents will become more frequent, and visitors are being cautioned.

As much as I like to think of myself as one of those laidback travelers who scoffs at the Dangers & Annoyances section of her guidebook, the discussion was getting to me. This was Al-Qaeda they were talking about: America's Ultimate Bad Guy. Would I even be able to sleep in our bus at night with the prospect of Al-Qaeda lurking nearby?

I often hear fellow travelers making fun of Americans for fearing all sorts of dangers "out there" in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, they hear stories of our legalized firearms and school shootings. America, in the minds of many abroad, is the scary place. I accept their point, but haven't felt scared myself. My hometown is peaceful, almost to the point of caricature. Tame deer wander Ashland's neighborhoods browsing tulips and the residents are well versed in trees and wildflowers. Guru-types like Neale Donald Walsch and Gangaji call Ashland their home and continually espouse the world as a place of loving potential.

At the London meeting, the experts hoped to quantify the risk for travelers by drawing a line on the advisory map that would designate the dangerous areas from the safe ones. For years, the hostage-taking has been confined to areas north of the Niger River, near the porous borders with Mauritania and Algeria. So far, the areas south of the Niger seemed safe.

We set off on our trip a week later. My partner assured me that if we made it all the way to Mali, we'd stick to the main roads, travel in groups and stay in the safe regions south of the Niger. And if I got too worried, I decided, I could always cut my trip short and head back home to Ashland.

Along the way, I thought a lot about Africa. I'll admit that I have the world's second largest continent crammed into a few clichés. Some are positive -- evoked by the wild wildebeest beauty of the Serengeti with Attenborough voiceovers and the soulful sounds of Senegalese singer Baaba Maal. But some are negative, formed by early exposure to imperialist narratives like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and chilling movies like Blood Diamond. What was the difference between the sensationalized stories and stereotypes and the actual statistics?

In early November we arrived in Tarifa, Spain. From this windswept southern tip of Europe, I could see Africa just nine miles across the shimmering Strait of Gibraltar. We nested in a hillside apartment for a few weeks, and I compulsively checked the travel warnings. Then, on November 19 I learned of another attack. A 23-year-old cashier had nearly been decapitated -- in Ashland.

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