How safe is the Dominican Republic?

Just how safe is the Dominican Republic? Does the recent news have you rethinking your vacation to the Dominican Republic? Don’t let it. The Dominican Republic is not at all a dangerous destination. Anyone that tells you otherwise is using emotions and not facts.

Here’s the facts:

In 2017 the Dominican Republic received  5.35 million tourists. Over 2.4 million of those tourists were US citizens. That is a staggering number of tourists. This year there have been 9 tourist deaths on the Island.

Sound scary? It shouldn’t. It means that as a US tourist you have a 1/285,000 chance of dying in the DR.
By comparison, you have a 1/79,746 chance of dying by lightning strike.  You have a 1/1134 chance of drowning.

Want more proof?

You have a 1/84 chance of dying from a car wreck vs a 1/285K chance of dying as an American tourist in the Dominican Republic. This means that by far the most dangerous part of your vacation is going to be the drive to the airport.

What about the tourists that are getting mysteriously ill? That’s called food poisoning. It happens to thousands of people a year in developing nations across the globe. It’s been happening in the Dominican for years as well. It only makes the news now because the news agencies know that scared Americans will click on it. It’s food poisoning.

If you want to worry about something, worry about eating too much at the buffet at your resort. You have a 1/5 chance of dying from a heart related disease. So stop worrying about being murdered in Dominican Republic. It isn’t going to happen.

There are many dangerous places in the world. You should be concerned about going to Libya or Somalia. You shouldn’t be concerned about your posh resort in the Dominican. Don’t let fear control your life.

Essential Packing Items – What you should be packing on every trip.

What are the essential packing items you should bring on every trip?

Documents:

Passport and Visas – If your visa is separate from your passport don’t forget it

Proof of Vaccines/Insurance – Some countries require proof of yellow fever, some require proof of insurance or funds

Copies – Bring duplicates of Passports, Visas, Insurance Card

Credit Cards – Make sure to alert your bank before travel

Cash – Hide it in different places. Bring plenty

Clothes:

Shirts – It can get colder than you expect, bring a long sleeved shirt unless it’s going to be very hot. Longsleeved shirts are also important in malarial zones.

Sweaters/Jackets – I wear Mountain Hardwear almost everywhere. Nothing holds up like it. I also wear a Barbour jacket.

Pants – Pockets are good to have, these are excellent

Shorts- If it’s going to be super cold then skip the shorts

Socks – Hiking, Athletic, Cold Weather etc.

Shoes – Plan based on activities, running shoes, heels, boots, etc –

Rain Jacket – This is one you’ll be sorry you don’t have if you really need it

Underwear – You can wear pants a few days in a row, don’t do it with underwear

Sunglasses – Protect your eyes, you won’t be getting another pair

Scarf – If I’m going somewhere with dirt or sand…. scarf….. If I’m going somewhere where it is cold….. scarf.

Swimsuit – You never know when you’ll find a pool or lake

Electronics:

Chargers – Don’t forget the camera charger

Battery Pack – You’ll be very glad you have this

Converter – You’ll need to plug your device into a power source, research converter type beforehand

Camera – My Olympus has been to dozens of countries. It’s been dropped, smashed, thrown, filled with dirt, and passed around by dozens of unwashed children. They are fantastic

Toiletries (I find that it’s useful to simply think of your daily routine and pack accordingly):

Toothbrush – Don’t forget to use bottled water to brush your teeth in developing nations

Toothpaste

Deodorant

Hair products – Dry Shampoo, Regular Shampoo, etc

Other Items:

Toilet Paper – This should be on you at all times, Trust me

First Aid Kit – Band-Aids, etc

Personal Prescriptions – Research what is allowed where you are going, make sure the drugs are in your name

Motion Sickness Meds – Dramamine works wonders and I use it on long rough car rides

Bug Spray – One of the best ways of not getting Malaria is to not get bitten

Laxative/Diarrhea Meds – Yeah you’ll need these at some point

Sunscreen – Don’t get burnt at the start of the trip

Lifestraw – This allows you to essentially drink water from anywhere and not get sick. You need to have this if you’re going to any developing nation. I also would recommend you to give them out as gifts to the locals. For very little money you can provide clean drinking water to someone for over a year. You’ll change someone’s life by doing this. If you have extra room in your bag just throw 10 in there and hand them out. The impact you’ll have is enormous.

If you bring these essential packing items you’ll be set for your next trip!

Iraq Kurdistan – The ideal travel destination? Yes.

I recently spent a week in Kurdistan on vacation. Kurdistan is officially a part of Iraq, although they differ in language and culture. It’s my belief that Kurdistan is one of the best destinations in the world for tourism. Why do I believe that? What makes a destination great? I love destinations that have authentic culture, great food, kind people, lots to see, and very few tourists. It also helps if they are safe.

Let’s examine these one by one to see just why Kurdistan is so great.

Authentic Culture – Kurdistan receives very few visitors compared to the tourist hot spots of the world. Millions each year flock to Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc. The original culture of these places has been changed to cater to tourists. There is very little authentic culture to be found. It’s a sad fact.  Kurdistan is the opposite. The people there go about their daily lives without feeling the need to cater to tourists. You’ll get a glimpse into how these people really live their lives. Or at least you’ll get a good glimpse of this if you have a great guide. I’ll get to that at the end.

 

Great Food- I love food. That’s not a big secret. When I was traveling to Kurdistan I was worried that the food was going to be just acceptable or decent. It ended up being fantastic. The soups were amazing, the shawarma wraps were incredible and the home made dolmas were to die for.  Imagine a giant hunk of lamb on a spit, it’s being expertly cut and then layered into a fresh piece of bread. Now imagine you pay 75 cents to buy this delicious creation. That’s Kurdish food for you. Also, I never got sick. I’ve gotten sick in several countries eating the local food, but never there.

Kind People- I’ve been to 62 countries so far and no one has been as kind as the Kurdish people. They are so incredibly generous, kind, and selfless. I was invited into their homes and treated not as a guest, but as family. I really can’t express in words how kind they were. People on the street acted like we were best friends. I got involved in a snow ball fight and they apologized for throwing the snow balls too hard. I was given free food because I was an American. My guide in particular was an incredible human being.

Lots to see- Their culture dates back thousands of years. Long before Christopher Columbus was born there were people in Kurdistan building monasteries and temples that still exist. These were incredible to explore and read about. Equally as amazing were the giant cliffs and mountains that fill the country. Imagine the highest and most beautiful cliffs you have ever seen. Then imagine them covered in a lush green grass. I’ve never seen such a stunning landscape.

Few Tourists- This is pretty self-explanatory. I saw one other tourist the entire time I was there. Just one. So you’re not going to be fighting with people to see these sights that I’ve mentioned. I suggest you travel there before it gets too crazy. It’s going to be popular.

 

Safe –Erbil was recently ranked as the 5th safest city in the world. It’s incredibly safe. I walked 2 miles down the street at night from my hotel and felt totally safe. I’ve actually rarely been anywhere that I feel that safe. The problems that have plagued the rest of Iraq never reached Kurdistan. It’s the kind of place that my mother could travel to by herself and I wouldn’t be worried about her. You quite simply are extremely safe in Kurdistan. There are no concerns.

Another consideration is that you don’t need a visa at all. You just show up! There are daily flights from Istanbul, Dubai and other cities. It’s easy to get in. I would suggest you get a guide though. I used a guide named Karwan. He was incredibly kind and he ran a great tour. I felt like I got an amazing value for what I paid. I’ve rarely had a trip where I saw that many things, acquired so many funny stories, and made a lifelong friend in my tour guide. If I was to pick a country to travel to again it would be Kurdistan. If I could recommend one country for someone to visit I would recommend Kurdistan. You will love every minute of it.

Afghanistan: A country worth saving

Many of us in developed nations tend to view Afghanistan as a war torn nation, devoid of any value to the West. It’s true that Afghanistan has major problems and is a long way from “contributing” to the world in terms of technology or products. Bombings and terrorism are a part of daily life. Just this week on the Persian New Years a bombing killed over 30 people in Kabul. There are still many areas where it is incredibly dangerous for anyone to travel to. Even my Afghan guides avoid travel to the southern provinces. However, the true value of a country and its people can’t be determined by GDP or exports. The vast majority of people in Afghanistan are good people that are simply caught in the cross fire. The British were a part of the problem in the 1800s, the Russians in the 1900s and the coalition forces certainly played their own role in the 2000s. However, that is in the past and we must look to the future.

ISIS continues to be a growing problem in the region. The Taliban has a stronghold in the south and occasionally forays into the north as well. Luckily sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni is not the issue. The true issue is not an ideological issue between otherwise good people. It is a clash between radicalism and righteousness. I met dozens of Afghans and all of them were very welcoming. They have no tolerance for the Taliban and even less for ISIS. They want to live their lives without the threat of violence that has lingered over their heads for decades. Why should we help, and how?

Despite being a distant nation they still are our neighbors. If someone is breaking into your neighbor’s house and holding them hostage you help. That’s just what we do. Afghanistan is our global neighbor. I’ve never been to a nation with kinder people. Children playing soccer, merchants selling their wares, students going to school…this was the Afghanistan that I was able to see when I visited. That simple daily life is worth protecting and promoting. They deserve better than bombs and beheadings. They have a rich and ancient culture of food, art, music and sport. They would be a world class tourist destination if it was not for the violence. Should thousands of US troops and NATO forces die to protect that? Perhaps, perhaps not. They have in the past, but they won’t have to in the future. The time for mass troops and large scale battles is in the past. The payoff of freeing a society from tyranny and violence is well worth the expense that it would cost the West. We must not abandon our neighbor, especially when we have already started to remove the wolves from their midst. The hardest part is done. How do we help them going forward?

We have the means and the resources to help them. State building has failed in the past in Afghanistan because we have pushed our own system of democracy on nations that have never had a democracy like that. That’s fine, we should let them govern themselves with a decentralized government if they wish to do so. They can’t do that without stability though. We must continue to train the Afghan army and police. Military experts and contractors need to continue to train them to govern and police themselves. They don’t have the expertise to train themselves our reign in their own violence.

One of the problems in Afghanistan is a lack of trust and a dislike of anything associated with outside forces. We saw this in Iraq and Yemen as well. Terrorists are able to recruit and thrive based on ideology. If the population hates the West they will either join radical cells, or at the least they will shield them from being found. We can combat that by causing minimal loss of life to civilians. In Yemen we were losing the war on terror because our drone strikes were killing civilians, while the radical cells were opening schools and hospitals. Then we switched strategies and started targeted drone strikes only when we knew there would be no civilian damage. We also allocated funding to building schools, hospitals etc. As a result, the terror cells were largely pushed back, especially after some of their own bombings killed civilians. The population begin turning over the radical cells instead of shielding them. We should follow a similar strategy in Afghanistan. Targeted strikes on terrorists only when we know there will be a very minimal damage to the civilian population, increased funding for schools and hospitals. Simply put, we must become the good guys, and allow the Afghan police/army to be the good guys as well. The Taliban was able to take over because they offered some positive benefits to society. We must show them that they have more to gain by pushing them out of power in the south.

This strategy is an over simplification of many complex issues. It is going to take a long time, but as younger Afghans have a more positive view of the West they will slowly disallow the radical sects of Islam to thrive. My hope is that one day they will be pushed back to a degree that bombings and murders are an anomaly and not a daily event. If we pull out experts, contractors and troops that day may never come. Afghanistan is a country worth saving, and we can lead the way in helping them.

The Zanzibar Assassain

Zanzibar is a beautiful spice island off the coast of Tanzania. I was lucky enough to spend a few days there after a safari through Botswana. The hotel that I was at was on the far end of the island, almost a two hour ride down back roads and through jungles. The nearest hotel was miles down the beach and far out of site. It also turned out that I was the only guest the entire time I was there. Zanzibar is an incredible place, the beach is beautiful, the people are kind, and the scuba diving is world class. It is made even better by the unbelievable tide that they have. At high tide the ocean was right up next to my hut, only 50 feet away from my front door. At low tide the water went out over a mile. A boat that was sitting in 20 feet deep water during breakfast was beached and sitting a half mile from the ocean around lunch time. I spent my first day scuba diving and intended to spend my second day relaxing. Relaxing to me means a combination of three things: cigars, books and booze. I had stocked up on Cuban cigars in Kenya and was being supplied with mojitos from the bar. You’ll recall that I was the only person at this hotel so it was very easy for him to keep them coming. I positioned myself in a hammock strung between two palm trees. It was paradise, drinking cocktails with an African beach all to myself. That was when the assassin struck. Wikipedia will tell you many facts about the red colobus monkey. It omits the fact that these monkeys hate cigar smoke. They don’t just dislike it, they hate it. It also omits the fact that these monkeys are quiet, devious and have a good arm with a coconut. I was laying back in my hammock, cigar in mouth, drink in hand when I heard a thud in the sand next to me. I looked over and saw a green coconut in the sand next to my hammock, about 10 inches from where my head was casting a shadow. These green coconuts are about 3x larger than the hard brown ones we get at US grocery stores. One hit to the head with one of those and you are never getting out of your hammock. I looked up to see the devil monkey staring at me and attempting to wrench another coconut off the branch with one hand while pushed away my smoke with another hand. Apparently the monkey had been sleeping in the tree and been awoken by the smoke. I rolled out of the hammock and ran right as the cheeky fellow pulled off his second coconut and took aim. He never released his second weapon, and I managed to relocate to another hammock. It just goes to show that you can’t ever let your guard down!

Life Lessons in Cambodia

I had only traveled to a handful of third world countries before I came to an inescapable conclusion: These people seem happier than we do. I’ve seen this in Morocco, Vietnam, Peru and a dozen other countries. It was perhaps the most obvious in the village of Tonle Sap in the lower Mekong Basin. A large portion of the village is built on giant stilts to accommodate the rise and fall of the river. An even larger portion of the village is floating. In the dry season the total area of the river is around 1000 square miles, but during the wet season the river swells to over 6000 square miles. The houses that were on 20 foot stilts earlier in the year now sit at water level. The rise and flow of the river brings many challenges to the villages of Tonle Sap. An absence of roads during the majority of the year means that almost everything they have much come from the river. Luckily the river is full of fish, but material possessions are scarce. By any Western standard these people are extremely poor. However, it seems that someone has forgotten to inform them of this fact. When entering the village we were greeted with smiling children running up to play with us. During the boat ride we rode through villages that got increasingly poorer and even more remote. The floating houses got smaller but the smiles on the children’s faces did not. I witnessed children that don’t own a thing in the world jumping into the dirty river while smiling and waving at us. My wonderful guide explained that although they don’t have any material possessions they get to spend all day playing with their friends and spending time with their family. They don’t realize that they are missing out on “things” because they simply have no concept that there is anything else other than the simple life they are living. Therein lies the valuable lesson….a desire for material possessions will rob you of your happiness and wreck your life. Many of us have food security, big houses, fancy cars and yet it has been years since we have experienced as much joy and happiness as those children swimming in the dirty river. Remember to live life in the moment and not focus on what you don’t have. Focus on what you do have.

 

Terrorism in Tunisia – The Near Miss

Tunisia is situated between Algeria and Libya. Both of those countries have suffered greatly since the Arab Spring in 2011. The revolution in Libya resulted in a violent over throw of the government and the execution of long time leader Muammar Gaddafi. There is some dispute as to the exact manner of the Coup de grâce, but it is hard fact that he was dragged down the street behind a truck shortly after being shot.         Tunisia overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a much more efficient and humane fashion than was used in the removal of the Libyan strongman. I went to Tunisia in March of 2015. At the time the country was recovering and considered to be a relatively safe place. It wasn’t a Switzerland nor was it an Afghanistan. I arrived in Tunis and for several days traveled through the country. I went to the ancient ruins of Carthage and the city of Dougga in the far north. I urged my driver to stay away from the Libyan border and at no point did I ever feel unsafe. During the first week of March I went to the Bardo Museum in Tunisia. It is an incredible museum and is second only to the museum in Cairo in terms of its collection.  The museum is modern, well lit, well heated/cooled and with a courteous and kind staff. I spent several hours there and left with a happy heart and a few more useless facts in my head. I will repeat again that I never felt unsafe, especially in the Bardo. On March 18 the Bardo was attacked by ISIS. A total of 24 people were killed and dozens more wounded. As of 2018 it is the deadliest attack in Tunisian history. The day I was in the museum there were not even 24 guests there; I was one of only 3 people. If the terrorists had decided to attack a little over a week earlier I would have been in the middle of the gunfire. You can prepare, you can train, you can research and you can go to places that have had few attacks, but at the end of the day sometimes it just pays to be lucky.

Tunisia has since had an increase of terrorism attacks. The country remains listed as low risk according to the US State Department.