Is It Possible To Be Too Cautious Abroad?

November 20, 2014

pink pangea foreign correspondent

In brief: yes. It is possible to be too cautious abroad.

As women, we’re absolutely faced with a host of traveling concerns that men don’t necessarily have to deal with—I don’t want to discredit that. Navigating cultural and social norms is often more complex for women, physical safety is never guaranteed, and feminine hygiene can be a serious inconvenience. These concerns don’t disappear for women who live overseas long-term as opposed to passing through as tourists or backpackers—they are perhaps even more real for foreign residents.

But I worry that these realities often limit women’s travel and experiences abroad significantly more than they need to because rational concerns can be allowed to bleed over into the irrational. That, in turn, can trap us longer in the “obvious foreigner” category, delaying “confident resident” status.

Why move overseas if you’re not going to push yourself and your comfort zone in your new home?

The same weekend that I moved to Cameroon, a dear friend moved to Martinique. Many of our early expat trials and successes have paralleled so far, but most recently we were discussing transportation. Both of us have spent the last five weeks agonizing over whether or not to invest in our own transportation (for her, that means a little grey car; for me, a little grey motorcycle.) We’ve come close to buying several times but always balk at the last minute, every time wondering, “how can I know for sure that this is the right choice?”

But, as with everything else, we can’t know. We have no idea if this is the “most right” choice. Humans are equipped with that unfortunate gift (or plague?) of hindsight for a reason. But the truth that I’m trying to rest in is this: the vast majority of the decisions that I make in this new, unfamiliar, expat life will either be right or they will be “less right.” They will not be wrong, because these decisions are being made in the name of personal challenge and experiential learning.

The wrong decisions are the ones that find their foundation in concession to fear or worry. My friend in Martinique summed it up well with, “if [the car and moto decisions don’t work out], it’ll all be a good story.”

We are, all of us, abroad for a thousand different reasons: personal, professional, hedonistic, philanthropic, whatever. The common thread is the fact that we are faced nearly daily with unfamiliarity and we have the opportunity (and here I will also dare to say that we have a responsibility) to make that unfamiliar a little more familiar for ourselves and for others. By stepping forward and making decisions that are a bit irreverent, that take us out of our comfort zones, we do something right. Those decisions may turn out to be successes or failures or a combination of the two.

Either way, we test the waters, we collect stories and advice for those coming after us and for our future selves. Why move overseas if you’re not going to push yourself and your comfort zone in your new home? Taking risks in how you alter your daily life abroad is important, from testing out phone plans to finding apartments to driving to the way you spend your weekends. Here in Cameroon, I’ve encountered expats who reject risk in every sense, who stay in their houses, who go to and from work only and who rarely or never eat local food (a tragedy, considering that street food abounds and the existence of street food is one of the world’s best gifts to humankind.) I worry—I really do, deeply—about what those people say about Cameroon when they go home.

And, I suppose, what can they say? If the way they choose to spend their time here comes from a place of fear and irrational caution, then their report once home will inevitably be given in a fearful and irrationally cautious tone. And so the cycle of fear-mongering for travelers—women in particular—continues, which is so dangerous, especially when discussing sub-Saharan Africa (and here I wholeheartedly admit my regional bias.)

Women, we owe it to each other to travel honestly. Take risks knowing that failure is a possibility, and pass whatever wisdom you glean on to the next woman. Failure is not inherently wrong. Travel, solo or not, to any part of the world comes with certain risks and certain necessary cautions, and without them there is no point anyway, so take the risks.

Take caution into account, too, but don’t overdo it: keep out of dark alleys alone, wear a helmet, carry a first aid kit. But also hitchhike, go hiking, eat everything (and carry Imodium.)

Take risks knowing that failure is a possibility, and pass whatever wisdom you glean on to the next woman.

As of a few days ago, my friend in Martinique is the proud owner of a little grey car, and I am the proud owner of a little grey motorcycle. We’re learning about the ins and outs of ownership paperwork in new cultures, we’re learning the best places to get petrol, we’re experiencing the adventure that is police checkpoint protocol (on this one, I guess, I actually speak only for myself.) Additionally, yes, we assume the possible risk of accidents, of mechanical issues, of unforeseen expenses.

But despite the possible risks, there’s a serious satisfaction that comes with such a major decision in a new culture. It’s a next level of integration, a niche that we can now relate to. And, no matter how right or how “less right” our decisions ultimately end up being, we each have at least one good story: “the time I dropped a few hundred dollars to be able to drive around Cameroon/Martinique.” Here’s hoping I can resell this moto in June!

cameroon 2

About Gretchen Baldwin

Born in Maryland but adopted by Michigan’s dunes and forests, Gretchen Baldwin is currently carrying out a nine-month research grant in Cameroon. Past (and current) adventures can be found on her blog, and you more visual folks can follow along on Instagram: @gretchenbaldwin.

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