Lisa Bonner

Girl On The Fly

Confessions Of A Travel Danger Junkie

Growing up the youngest child, the only girl in my family, heck, the only girl in four generations of my paternal lineage, bestows upon you an incredible feeling of luck, like the gods are watching over you and you are supposed to be here. Living in New York off an on for the last 20 years gives you the sense that you’ve amassed some street smarts over these past two decades. Or I could just be crazy…all are probably true to some degree. Whatever the reason, I have stopped looking for the answer and just accepted, to the horror of friends and family that I am somewhat of a travel danger junkie. Not in the bungee jumping adrenaline junkie kind of way, but my travel choices over the past few years have raised more than a few eyebrows and questions peppered with the phrase “Are you crazy?” have been lobbied at me more times than I can remember.

It started a few years ago when I was offered a press trip to Medellin, Colombia. As an 80’s child, I remember the horrific stories of drug wars, the cartels and Pablo Escobar, the kingpin of all kingpins, but if the tourism board is going to take press there, how bad could it be, I thought? A leopard might not be able to change its spots, but a city sure can, and Medellin was proof of that. A quick 3 hour plane ride from Miami transports you to another world to Colombia’s second largest city, with its year round temperate climate and lovely botanical gardens lives up to its name, City of Eternal Spring. I found the locals kind, many partaking in efforts to rebuild the city’s image by volunteering at new community centers, others getting involved in Medellin’s burgeoning arts, culture, fashion, and restaurant scene. The love for their city was evident from the charming vertical neighborhood San Javier, with its authentic street art, and the clubs and local eateries that pepper the sidewalks of Parque Lleras. I loved every inch of this authentic Colombian city, and even venturing around never really felt anymore unsafe than I had in any other big city.

I enjoyed Colombia so much, I went back the next year, this time to Bogota and Cartagena. This time people really thought I was nuts because this was before Cartagena was considered “sexy” by U.S. standards. The old Cartagena, reflective of The Inquisition, cholera and horrific slave trade, has been carefully preserved and repaired like an aging Hollywood starlet and the “new” Cartagena has re-emerged, better than ever. The walled Old Town is peppered with pastel colored houses, plazas that ooze Colombian charm and is a perfect mélange of the city’s Spanish and African roots. The Plaza de la Aduana, a non descript square where the Spanish auctioned their African slaves, sits just around the corner from Church of St. Peter Claver, who educated and provided a respite for these same slaves. The Plaza de Ferdinand de Madrid, a famous backdrop in many movies, including Love in the Time of Cholera (author Gabriel García Márquez was a resident of Cartagena until his death last year) left me feeling like I was in one of those old movies. I sat in the square watching old men playing cards, drinking local beer, and women hawking local fare, I thought something felt very “Colombian” about this place and I loved it! Venturing out of the walls of Old Town gives you a more authentic Cartagena, so it’s wise to keep your wits about you. I left Colombia with no troubles, but was careful to return to the safely ensconced walls of Old Town to wander the cobblestone streets at night, going from restaurant to bar enjoying the food scene that Cartagena is now famous for.

Beirut was another questionable travel destination, but I have a Lebanese friend who opened her home to me so how could I refuse? Lebanon, part of the Holy Land, is the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East. I found Beruit a perfect confluence of religious cultures mixing seamlessly with its Arab identity. The St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Sidon houses the Shrine of Saints Peter and Paul, where the two Apostles are said to have secretly reunited after Jesus’ death. A short walk from this Christian shrine sits the Bab Al Saray Mosque, the oldest mosque in Lebanon dating back to 1201 A.D. I walked into this gorgeous mosque, a top tourist destination on many travel sites, after midday prayer. While the tourists were admiring the architecture, a cleric was holding an open meeting calling for nusra Jihad. Needless to say, we hauled a$% out of there, quickly! That little scare gave me a friend at the FBI on speed dial but that still didn’t deter me from enjoying Beirut’s natural beauty. My favorites were Jetta Grotto, a breathtaking underwater cavern that contains the largest stalactite in the world and Pigeon’s Rock.

Raouche Rock, as it’s known to locals, are actually two giant rocks joined together, creating a spectacular archway. It took its local name from Beirut’s tony neighborhood of Raouche, where it sits just offshore in the distance. The truth about Beirut is it’s Lebanon, a very volatile part of the Middle East, and it shares a border with Syria. There were certain places that were beautiful parts of the Holy Land, but we dared not (knowingly) visit. The warring factions are real and danger is possible at every turn. Maybe I underestimated it before I went, but it was ever present when I was there. By the time I returned back to my friend’s apartment after the Isis scare, a bomb had gone off in Tripoli, an hour’s drive from where we were. Still recovering from her brother’s lecture about my possible kidnapping in Sidon earlier, my friend, now watching the fallout from the bomb on TV, said sympathetically, “These things happens here everyday.” Maybe it was time to go.

I cooled my jets with a few less dangerous vacations, but if you really want to have certain experiences that you can’t have elsewhere, you have to resolve yourself to be as smart as you can and just go. I recently returned from Roatan, Honduras, in spite of travel advisories from U.S. Government. Stories of kidnappings, drug cartels and crime abound on the mainland, so I flew right over that and landed in Roatan from Miami. My agenda was simple, I wanted an off-the-beaten path, warm destination to complete my SCUBA certification in the summer and Roatan didn’t disappoint.

To allay any off site travel fears, I chose a resort with a 24 hour guard and an on-site dive shop, Barefoot Cay www.barefootcay.com near the quaint French Harbor section of town. We nearly had the 35 room resort to ourselves, and enjoyed a private beach in front of our bungalow. Honduras is part of the second largest barrier reef system in the world, the Meso-American Reef, which made the diving spectacular, and I particularly enjoyed cageless diving with Caribbean Reef sharks. The West End, the touristy part of town has an authentic laid back beach vibe and is peppered with local and ethnic eateries. I couldn’t resist the smell wafting from Tong’s Thai Restaurant, then I popped next door to enjoy beach front cocktails at Frank’s Hideaway.

If you are a golfer, the 5 star Black Pearl Golf Course, https://www.pristinebayresort.com/golf/ is a challenging, beautiful 18 hole course in Pristine Bay. I found the people welcoming to Americans and ready to share their stories. We hired the same taxi driver from the resort, and he shuttled us back and forth, so we avoided any unsavory places and were warned first hand if somewhere was rumored dangerous. On the way to the airport, my driver told me that he moved to Roatan from the mainland because he and his brother were kidnapped and held hostage for a weekend in 2014. The only thing I could do was thank my travel gods that with common sense, planning and a lot of luck, my jaunts have been more fortunate.

 

Tiffany Smith