The Traveler as Ambassador: Around the World in 32 Teeth

My new dentist, Dr. Patel, took a trip to several of the world’s countries last week while examining my teeth. It went like this:

Dentist: Hmmm. (Tapping a tooth.)

Me: Cartagena, Colombia.

Dentist: Excuse me?

Me: That tooth. I had it filled in Cartagena.

Dentist: Ah yes. Perilous country. And this surgery through the bone here? (Gently taps the bone above a tooth on the right.)

Me: Trinidad.

Dentist: Interesting. And these two teeth? (More tapping.)

Me: Istanbul. I cracked those two and the dentist rebuilt them. I think she did a great job.

Dentist: I see. A world traveler, according to your teeth. But tell me, isn’t Turkey a dangerous place? I made a plan to visit Istanbul last year with a friend, but I decided to stay home. Why choose such high-risk trips?

There it was. “Isn’t [insert name of country here] a dangerous place?” is a question every traveler is asked eventually. My first response is “What makes you think it might be dangerous?”, and the answer is often, (like the one from my dentist,) “Well, you read things.” Or, “I heard it on the news/the internet/from my cousin.”

Earth isolated

Newsflash: The world just isn’t as dangerous as the media (and your cousin) think. Yes, there are crimes of economics (pickpocketing, mugging) and crimes of politics (kidnapping) but both are rare if you behave like the smart, savvy, confident person you are.

There are places in the world that beg to be visited. Locales that hover on your travel horizon, ready to be part of your next itinerary. Chances are, if you listen to news or spend time online (and who doesn’t) you’ll hear some bad stuff that gives you pause.

Case in point:

In the weeks leading up to the shock and awe of the US military advance into Iraq in March 2003, there was little doubt about whether it would happen, but more a question of when. At the time, we were working as chef and captain of a motor yacht in Istanbul, Turkey, close enough to Baghdad for the upcoming invasion to be a daily topic of conversation. Our Turkish friends peppered us with questions: What is this about? Oil? President Bush’s ego? Power? We didn’t have great answers for them; we were still gathering information ourselves, from English-language news sources as well as family and friends in the States.

It can be tough to discuss your own nation in rational terms with the people you meet in other countries when, in that moment at least, pretty much the entire world’s population thinks your homeland is populated by a bunch of bullies. So, we did what a lot of people would do: we hightailed it out of town. We took a short break from Istanbul’s gray winter days and flew to Cairo, a place we’d been longing to see.

Egyptian pyramids, ©Iker Ozmen

Egyptian pyramids, ©Iker Ozmen

We landed at Cairo International airport on a sunny day a couple of weeks after worldwide peace protests, including the march of a million Egyptians protesting US involvement in Iraq. If we’d really wanted to escape scrutiny about the USA’s actions and motives in Iraq, clearly we should not have chosen Cairo as a destination. The entire Middle East was swirling with anti-American sentiment at the time.

Because of that, we had some trepidation at visiting Cairo. While still airborne, we debated whether to hide in plain site as Canadians rather than admit to being American. Minnesota-born, we know about hockey, hard winters and the kind of fishing that involves drilling down through 6 feet of ice, so we can usually pull off the “Nope, not us, we’re Canadians, eh!” lie. We tried it out on the taxi driver enroute to our hotel.

“My cousin lives in Toronto!” he exclaimed, “Maybe you know him?

Oh yikes. Lying about your nationality is fraught with stupidity and takes up too much mental energy that is better focused on the trip itself. So, a few hours later, we ditched the subterfuge and reinstated our citizenship. What better way to show people what Americans are really like, we reasoned, than to actually be one? To be compassionate and respectful to the locals you meet; to show interest in their culture and customs; reveal a side of the USA that is seldom portrayed in the media.

Our approach paid off. First, we had a mostly pantomimed conversation with three young girls and their mother over lunch at a café, about the joy of reading books. When the meal ended, the youngest child, about 4 years old, came up to me and solemnly shook my hand.

That simple exchange gave us the confidence to reach out to other Egyptians. While touring the Great Pyramids for several hours, we spent time chatting with the heavily armed soldiers on patrol there about the upcoming war in Iraq. Their consensus: Saddam was bad, Iraqis were good people;  Bush was bad, Americans were good people. Fair enough. They wanted to know our thoughts about Egypt: Warm, generous people, Cairo a beautiful city. Before we went on our way, they considerately pointed out a pickpocket and warned him to leave us be. The man gave us a wide berth.

©BGabriel, 2003

Chatting with Egyptian Soldiers, in the Valley of the Kings

Throughout our journey, we found Egyptians willing to separate their opinions of the American government from their views of Americans as people. Barriers broke down when we tried to engage, whether through shopping at the bazaar or a simple smile across the lane. We have experienced this attitude around the world, and are abundantly appreciative.

We’ve also seen the consequences of the flip side of being a respectful traveler: the arrogant, self-important one. Working on a tall ship in the Caribbean many years ago, we anchored one morning in Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica, a quintessential Caribbean beach: palm-fringed, white sand, with a bar. Our cruise guests had their choice of activities for the day. A canoe trip up Indian River, tour Fort Shirley, visit the town of Portsmouth, or just hang out at the beach. After lunch that day, we sat talking awhile to the beach bar’s owner, when a couple of our guests rushed up to us, erupting in anger. Their camera had been stolen! That was actually pretty shocking; we’d been bringing the ship into Dominica for a long while and never had a single troublesome incident. We asked a few questions and discovered that the guy had whipped out his camera to take photographs of some locals having a private moment. One of the local folks took exception to that, walked over, grabbed the camera from our guest, then ran into the banana trees.

The bar owner took us aside and said he’d do what he could to get the camera back quietly, and he was as good as his word. A couple of hours later, the camera was back in its owner’s hands, minus the film. He was still infuriated and insisted that he would do whatever it took to make sure the ship NEVER came to the island of Dominica again.

Really? we asked him. Do tour buses bypass New York City because someone’s camera gets nicked? Should my parents have sold our home and left Minnesota after some kids broke in while we were out watching July fourth fireworks?

©BGabriel, 2015

Heading up Indian River, Dominica

The truth is, bad stuff can happen anywhere, even if you never travel. By all means, go to those places where you’ll feel safe. I’d never want to see you uncomfortable because you are frightened. But safe doesn’t mean that you never explore the previously unexplored or you avoid traveling somewhere you’ve dreamed of going. My advice is this: understand your fears; find out whether they are well-founded or a product of media hype and myth. Do your homework in advance about the locale, the possible scams, the culture. As a traveler, you are an ambassador. Be yourself, be respectful, and represent the best of your own country.

After my dental exam, I asked Dr. Patel if his friend had traveled to Turkey without him.

“Oh yes,” he said, “and lived to tell the tale.

Did the dentist regret his decision to stay home? He did.

I’m still not sure if I should have visited Turkey,” he told me, “but now I know their dental work is excellent!”

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.


  1. Funny – Dr Patel just told me my teeth need whitening.

  2. See, I’m more afraid to go to the dentist than to Turkey.

  3. I agree with you, Barb, the way to being safe and making friends with people in another country is to show them compassion and respect. People might not remember what you say or do, but they will always remember how you make them feel.

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