Travel While You Can
As someone who is almost constantly preoccupied by the thought of my next wanderings, I maintain a mental bucket list of places I want to see...and most preferably before I die!
At the moment my list includes countries like Angola, Grenada, Guyana, Nicaragua, Oman and the Philippines as well as cities, natural spots and landmarks.
The list changes from time to time. For the longest period there was nowhere I wanted to visit more than Mozambique, and although I still do want to see the southern African nation's pristine coast and to witness first-hand its admirable efforts to restore the wildlife lost during decades of war, it's not currently in my Top Five. Conversely, Albania is a fairly new addition. I was always intrigued by the politically-isolated country when it was off-limits to the world, but only recently has my old interest grown into a strong desire to actually see it.
Wish lists are by their very nature dynamic things influenced not just by one's own tastes and moods but by outside elements as well.
Although your desire may remain intact, all too often circumstances may deprive you of the ability to reach somewhere, or in extreme cases they may remove the very thing that was the object of that desire in the first place. If your destination does at least still exist but has been tagged with a red "Avoid All Travel" government travel advisory, it may well still feature on your mental list but likely with an asterisk beside it to designate *One day...maybe*.
I have been fortunate enough to have dodged the closing door on a few occasions. When I trekked into the former-Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to see the mountain gorillas, I was in just about the last group to get across the border from Uganda before civil war shut down Zaire to tourists for years. It was sad—and most humbling—to think the place I had visited and had such fond—if wild west—memories of was now tormented, tortured, war-stricken and off-limits. But I was fortunate to have not only seen the gorillas there but also to have visited the country that had inspired Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Not all changes are as dramatic as war, however. Some are caused by environment, policy change or just the passage of time.
I count myself equally lucky to have seen Mount Kilimanjaro when its snows were more than a mere frosting, and to have watched one of Fidel Castro's epic multi-hour orations to the nation even if only on the television of a Cuban hotel. I shared the excitement of Fort Portal, Uganda when the city prepared for a visit by then-South African President Nelson Mandela and I bathed in a wild jungle hot spring in Costa Rica before it was paved over and commercially developed.
While I have visited places that have either temporarily or permanently been deemed off-limits since, there are significantly more that I myself have missed and fear I may never have the chance to see, largely due to conflict. Yemen is one such country.
Captivated by the unique and ancient culture, Yemen perched near the top of my bucket list for years. With tourist kidnappings popping up from time to time it was never the safest of places, but it was safe enough to attract thousands of intrepid travellers every year, including many friends and colleagues. All had incredible experiences and returned with amazing photographs which only further fuelled my longing. Sadly, I headed for other spots and given recent developments, I fear I may never again have the opportunity to visit that country.
Libya is in a similar situation. Offering some of the world's greatest Roman ruins and endless desert, for years it enticed me with so many of the things I love: history, wilderness, culture and a country that few outsiders ever saw. Again, things are so unsettled there now that I worry I may have missed my chance forever.
Right now, the chances of ever visiting Yemen, Libya and Syria seem extremely remote, but not so long ago all three were admittedly difficult but eminently do-able. It's no fun spending your life playing woulda/shoulda/coulda even when it's just with your travel experiences, but it's also hard not to at times. I can't regret the choices I made because the travels I did take when I could have been heading to those countries ended up being pretty amazing themselves.
But if there's anything I have learned as a result of those missed opportunities it's to always consider what might happen and to travel while you can.
Simon Vaughan is a Senior Writer/Editor & Special Travel Advisor for Outpost. Alongside special reports and travel features you can find Simon’s voice in his super-mega-funny Local Knowledge travel stories in Outpost Magazine every issue. Don't miss each of Simon's articles over at Simon Says Travel.