This morning, we took our first walk from our villa near Tangalle in Sri Lanka along the beach. It was stunning. Coconut palms and mangroves right up to the shoreline. Big Indian Ocean waves. Deserted sandy beach. Just idyllic.
And then I spotted this chap.
He was only about 20cm long and I thought from his markings that he may be a baby python. I kept a reasonable distance, put my big lens on my camera and took a few snaps. Jane silently picked up a long stick.
When we got back to the villa, I reached for the laptop and looked him up. Turns out he is a Russell’s Viper – one of the four Sri Lankan snakes that account for 98% of bite deaths in the country. And that got me thinking of risks that we take when we travel.
As anyone who knows me will testify, I have a bit of a mathematical brain. And to me, risk is all about probability. In fact, sometimes we use those words interchangeably. When Jane flies, she won’t mind me saying that she’s a little anxious. In her head, it’s just a long, long way down from 35,000ft. I’m completely comfortable about flying because my brain is simply telling me that statistically, anything going wrong is very, very unlikely. Indeed in 2013, you had a one in three million chance of being on a flight that had a fatality. I’ve done about 400 flights in my lifetime, so feel I’ve got a bit of a way to go.
But there is no doubt that if you are interested, as we are, to do independent travel to slightly off-the-beaten-track places, your perception of risk changes for the period you’re away. In China last year, we were hurtling along the motorway at 70mph+ in a car with no working seatbelts. Just two days ago, we exited an ancient Tata taxi in bustling Colombo and realised that the driver’s eyes were pointed in completely different directions. I joked at the time that he was safer as he could see the road ahead AND what was in the rear view mirror at the same time, but … seriously — this chap would never be allowed to drive in the UK – let alone as a taxi driver. We had got to our destination safely and so we shrugged it off.
So what’s the key point here?
Well, there are two really. Firstly, we humans actually have an incredibly good sense of what’s risky. It’s the fight or flight reflex that kept us alive when the sabre-toothed tiger was feeling peckish. It’s what makes us recoil when there is a rancid smell to food that might make us sick. It’s what makes us metaphorically, and sometimes literally, look before we leap. It, paradoxically, is what gives Jane butterflies as we feel some turbulence in a plane.
If we have our wits about us, we can sum situations up quickly and generally accurately. We need to make sure we do have our wits about us, though. And that’s where being careful with alcohol and other drugs is so important. We love a GnT or a few glasses of wine at home. We rarely drink while we’re travelling.
The second point is that we should only override the instinct when sound evidence says it’s ok. So when Jane flies, she reminds herself of aviation safety records, and to be fair, she was happily taking pictures out of the window on the flight here.
It’s good to take a few calculated risks from time to time. In the Western world, we wrap ourselves and our loved ones up in cotton wool. I believe that approach also inhibits our instincts. So the 2emptynesters walk enthusiastically across a rope bridge in New Zealand. We jump into the water with 40 ton humpback whales in Tonga. And we don’t run away from (what turns out to be) a deadly snake close to the breathtaking Indian Ocean.
In a limited way, you CAN be too careful.
How do you manage risk when you’re travelling?
What lines do you draw for yourself?
Ever had an experience when your instincts proved absolutely right whilst travelling?