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Are you locked in the toilet?

With so much travel advice and dire warnings, where do you begin? Iraq, perhaps.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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IF YOU FOLLOW the torrent of travel advisories emanating from USA, Britain and Australia, you will be entirely forgiven for tearing up your air ticket, retreating to the toilet, and bolting the door. The world is full of crazies out to get you. It’s all in the National Enquirer, that proud bastion of free speech. When a mom on veggie diet gives birth to a green baby, Dr Phil forks out US$200 million on a divorce, Britney Spears heads for rehab yet again, and aliens arrive at your shopping mall, it’s time to batten down the hatches.

Head for the safety of London, New York, or Sydney, where you’ll only have to contend with school shootings, the occasional fertiliser bomb at the airport, and the hail of sniper fire that invariably follows Hillary. No other place is really safe. Smart bureaucrats, some even able to tell the difference between How-Do-You-Do and Ouagadougou, are shining the spotlight on new and uncharted areas, saving untold numbers the harrowing ordeal of dealing with a travel agent.

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The plucky Australian government (www.smartraveller.gov.au) has placed Hong Kong on its list with this stern warning: “We advise you to be alert to your own security.” Quite right. It goes on to mention some heinous crimes against Australians in this thrumming “World City”. Chiefly, “Drink spiking is on the increase, particularly in bars in the Wanchai area.” No mention is made of abusive taxi drivers or people closing the elevator doors in your face.

The Australian government has placed Hong Kong on this list, citing heinous crimes like "drink spiking"...

British government (www.fco.gov.uk/en) travel advisories include a long list of hot spots including India – “There is a high threat of terrorism throughout India.” My brother would agree. Until the age of seven he was part of the Indian space programme in which I regularly locked him up in a cupboard, before giving it a good shake. “You’re going to Mars,” I told him.  The Indian space programme was later overtaken by countries with bigger budgets and better cupboards. India is profoundly unsafe. Cupboards fall apart. The British report goes on to say that of the 600,000 or so annual British tourist visits to the country, most are “trouble-free” and consular assistance has in the main been required to help replace stolen passports. It concludes, “No one was hurt by terrorist action.”

The US Department of State travel warnings (travel.state.gov/travel) as of June 2008 included a list of all possible suspects including friends (Israel and Saudi Arabia), former buddies (Pakistan), and evil empires (Iran). Also on the list were Nepal, Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq, though not as yet Narnia, or New Zealand (from where boatloads of sheep would emigrate for an inviolate life abroad if only they could sing the Canadian national anthem).

Yet, despite dire official pronouncements and travel sanctions, a brave few are venturing where no man has gone before. Why not romp through the poppy fields of Afghanistan? Play golf on dirt-and-oil “browns”, fly kites, check what’s left of the Bamiyan Buddhas, and dodge rocket-propelled grenades. Wild Frontiers (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) is one outfit that can get you there to “follow in the footsteps of Marco Polo” and Alexander the Great, if not Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Don’t fret about car bombs. Travel is by donkey.

Iraq is in fact home to one of the largest and biggest spending international tour groups - the US Army

Iraq Tours (www.iraqtours.net) offers a picture of a fighter jet taking off on its home page with the caption, “Enjoy a wide variety of sightseeing tours in Iraq.” Among the places you might wish to visit is the fortified Green Zone, also referred to as Little Venice on account of the numerous waterways criss-crossing the area between the palatial homes once occupied by Saddam’s family. As in Venice you might get that sinking feeling but this is perhaps the safest spot in the country. One of the largest and biggest spending international tour groups – the US Army – is based here. And boy they’re having fun.

Iraq Kurdistan Tourism (www.tourismkurdistan.com) is seeking capital, ideas and travellers to leverage its mountain views, rivers, idyllic sheep farms, and relative peace from Kirkuk and Erbil to Mosul. Taking a leaf from the US, the Turkish Army was among the first to respond. It conducted long hikes, took pictures and let off fireworks. The overjoyed local population threw up its hands in welcome and ran, in the opposite direction.

If all this does not slake your curiosity, what about Palestine (www.visit-palestine.com)? The tourism department is promoting trips to places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Nablus, the Dead Sea and Gaza. Roll about in Dead Sea mud without paying a penny, or visit historic Gaza for a crash weight-loss programme involving a scientifically calibrated zero-calorie diet – courtesy Israel – and lots of walks. Everyone walks. There’s no petrol. This is how the other half live their healthy, well exercised lives.

It’s time people around the world had a chance to enjoy Planet Earth. You may not be keen to step on a landmine in Somalia, selflessly distributing your largesse – and yourself – over most of Africa, but there is a world of options available. You need arm yourself with just one thing. Common sense. And perhaps one day, when I’ve perfected the art, I’ll get you to Mars.

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