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

World's safest spots

For some really cool advice, just ask the Inuits.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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EVER SINCE CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS sailed off – in entirely the wrong direction – in search of India, tandoori chicken and the missing Panama Canal, travellers have been getting it wrong. The good sailor wandered about the Americas naming everyone he met “Indian”, deeply upsetting the natives who wanted US passports but ended up instead playing cricket, a laborious five-day game that often has no outcome.

In the aftermath of the tsunami that struck Asia, there has been similar befuddlement and despair as travellers look at their holiday calendars anew wondering what might be a safe bet. Is there a safe bet? If anything, recent events illustrate that nature’s intent is impossible to predict. Add to this, sneezing chickens, Saddam Hussein lookalikes set on blowing themselves up when simple liposuction would suffice, and the George Bush re-election – and, well, anything could happen.

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Alaska has been rocked by tsunami-generating earthquakes three times this past half century, in 1957, 1964 and 1965 – a genuinely alarming statistic. But not travelling to Alaska would be to miss out on those incredible snowscapes, rugged peaks, hardy timber lodges with no central heating, minus-thirty weather, raging blizzards and 25,000 Inuits wondering what on earth they’re doing there welcoming tourists when they should be hightailing it to the Maldives for a good dose of sunshine. If someone asked you whether you’d like to take your family to visit Thailand (where you’ll find white-sand beaches and chilled Singha beer) or the Ring of Fire (where you’ll experience bone-rattling earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and rivers of hot bubbling lava), what might you pick?

No one is going to cancel their vacation to see Dolly the Cloned Sheep's siblings cavorting lustily with Kiwi farmers

The “Ring of Fire” refers to the intensely active seismic and volcanic ring girdling the Pacific and encompassing places as innocent and diverse as Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Hawaii, Latin America, California and Chile. This is where the ill-tempered Pacific Plate bangs heads with the unyielding Indo-Australian, Antarctic, North American and Nazca Plates all at once, causing all manner of commotion. Yet, based on this scientific fact, is anyone going to cancel their vacation to see Dolly the Cloned Sheep’s siblings cavorting lustily with Kiwi farmers?

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 turned much of Tokyo into rubble. Just as Kobe emerges from the memory of its terrifying 1995 shake-up, scientists are watching closely for the next Big One. I came across an article headlined – “Seismologists Predict Trillion-Dollar Earthquake Will Strike Tokyo Soon”. Here’s what it said: “Based on a recent series of moderate shocks and historic earthquake cycles, experts say a magnitude 7.2 earthquake – a major tremor called chokkagata in Japanese – is imminent.” Are those Hongkong travel agents busily diverting traffic from Thailand to Japan, aware of this?

Tokyo remains one of my favourite cities. On my last visit, a temblor had my 21st floor hotel room swaying. I called reception to ask if Godzilla had checked in, as the suitcase rack laden with heavy baggage started “walking” across the room unaided. “Goh-jilla? What the suh-name-o?” A few days later as I headed for Narita Airport, the biggest typhoon in a decade made landfall. The check-in lady was unflustered: “Your flight leave 5pm and typhoon arrive-o 5.10pm, so no ploblem.” “Are you sure about this lady? Those planes are taxiing and the engines aren’t even on.”

Three-and-a-half million brave people go to work each day when they should be at home, windows sealed, playing mah-jong

Then there’s California. Any time the San Andreas Fault twitches, the place is a hair away from turning into the Lost State of Atlantis. And in Hongkong you only need to breathe to get belch-fresh factory pollution from across the border loaded with nasty Respirable Suspended Particulates (RSPs). A year ago Hongkong recorded an average 120 micrograms of air pollutants (per cubic metre), compared with 34 for Singapore and 26 for New York. Jaunty Hongkong – Live It, Love It, Leave It Unless You Have A Gas Mask – consistently serves up air pollution figures two to three times in excess of what the EU considers “safe”. Still, three-and-a-half million brave souls go to work each day when they should be staying home, windows sealed, playing mah-jong. And almost 20 million visitors poured in last year, mouths agape, breathing in every last available RSP.

Statistically, nothing is really safe. That’s why we have insurance – because, things can go wrong. We insure our car, computer, travel, silicon implants and office. We insure our homes against Acts of God like lightning, fire, floods and visits from Jehovah’s Witnesses (who believe the world is about to end RIGHT NOW which makes it a tad difficult to plan holidays). The world goes on. If an alien spaceship lands on your mother-in-law are you going to say, “Gosh, I’d better never step outdoors again” or, “Whoopee”!

It ultimately boils down to perception, and access to quality information. Seventy percent of our planet’s surface area is covered in water. You can’t get away from it and it is foolish to try.

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