I made sure it wasn’t loaded: Reflections on Gun Violence and Traveling Abroad

My friend Jeff and I sat on the thick green carpet in Tim’s bedroom, distractedly considering a baseball card trade. I was trying to stockpile the Oakland A’s base-stealer extraordinaire Rickey Henderson cards; Geoff favored Dwight Evans of the Red Sox.

Downstairs, several of our classmates smoked cigarettes while sitting on the floor of the screened-in porch–if nearby, neighbors might have noticed mysterious plumes of smoke rising above the half wall. Others commandeered shots of vodka from the liquor cabinet; moans emanated from the living room where others watched VHS porn. Things were happening quickly.

Suddenly Tim burst into the room, waving a revolver around and laughing maniacally–all the more terrifying due to his cracking, pubescent voice. He spun the chamber of the revolver, probably like he’d seen on TV. He pointed it at my head and pulled the trigger. Same thing with Jeff.  I was only kidding, he told us, as our eyes filled with tears. I made sure it wasn’t loaded.

That was 1994; I was thirteen years old.

Fast forward to now. With the crazy news cycle and our limited attention spans, our home country may still be collectively grieving/praying/protesting/amassing bump stocks in the aftermath of Las Vegas, and all the while hundreds more Americans have been gunned down. Somehow, it almost feels outdated to be talking about a mass shooting from several weeks back–this is how numb we Americans have become to these massacres.

Nonetheless, after Vegas, I started thinking about all of the exhortations from friends and family for us to stay safe on our journey. The irony is not lost on me.

We’ve been comfortable walking narrow cobblestone streets at night through eclectic Old Town Tbilisi, with its crumbling facades, wrought-iron balconies, and arbors with thick grape vines looking like gnarled limbs. We’re boarding packed public transit–busses, yellow minibuses, the subway–and while we feel claustrophobic, we’re not fearful of mass carnage.  

And this doesn’t mean I’m naive; I know being a traveler can make you a target in many places and shit happens. But in general–and by adhering to a reasonable level of vigilance–we’ve felt just as safe–or safer–in places as far flung as Nicaragua, Thailand, Portugal, and now Georgia.

A little over 10 years later after the incident at Tim’s house, two of my teacher friends and I were walking home from a neighborhood pizza place on a balmy, early autumn evening in Louisville. A man yelled from a bus stop across the road. Hey! Let me borrow a cell phone! We shook our heads and kept walking as the sun sank towards the horizon. Within minutes, we found ourselves under a corner streetlight with a gun pointed at our full bellies, just one block from the refuge of my newly purchased home. We dropped the little cash we had on the pavement–only 14 dollars–and walked away hoping hot metal wouldn’t rip through our spines. He never did need to use our cell phones.

In 2011, I opened the newspaper and learned about one former student’s fate. He was shot to death by Kentucky state police officers after allegedly attacking them after breaking into his own grandmother’s home.

In 2013, I was helping out at a friend’s family farm in central Michigan over Labor Day weekend, picking sweet corn and anticipating some local beers, a cookout, and rocking chairs on the porch later in the evening. Several huge reports thundered; we’re pretty sure we heard–or sensed–the bullets tear through the rustling stalks. Within 50 yards, it seemed. We learned later that the neighbor was shooting at targets with a high-powered rifle, whose bullets certainly were not stopped by whatever his backdrop was.

In 2014, a student at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, where I taught English for seven years, shot a revolver into a crowd near a third floor stairwell, allegedly aiming at a classmate who had duped him on a transaction with counterfeit money. An innocent bystander named Javaughtay ended up with a bullet in the abdomen, but fortunately he survived.

In 2015, another former student at Fern Creek killed his best friend while playing with a handgun. He’s in the midst of serving five years for reckless homicide.

I can’t imagine what this catalog of events might look like if I wasn’t a white male from a privileged background, given the countless trauma-filled stories I’ve heard from my less-advantaged students over the years.

We aren’t about to put our guards down while on the road…But from afar, thinking about my own confrontations with violent crime–and the unwavering repetition of mass shootings–reinforces my belief that it is an absurd position to accept our incredibly lax gun laws and discount how freakin’ violent American society is.  According to the World Economic Forum, here are the safest countries in the world. The US is ranked 84th, far behind places like Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and just about every country in Europe.

A few questions: What is it about travel that triggers calls to stay safe, versus facing the fate/luck/chance/danger of day-to-day living? Do you have any reflections on well-being and travel, either positive or negative?  In what places (domestically or internationally) have you felt most secure or vulnerable? Why?  

3 thoughts on “I made sure it wasn’t loaded: Reflections on Gun Violence and Traveling Abroad

  1. It’s tricky, Paul. The safest and un-safest I’ve ever felt were both in Mozambique. The town where we lived, called Macuse, was extremely rural and had no running water or electricity, which was an incredible experience – one I would recommend to everyone. I would walk through pitch blackness, unable to see my hand in front of my face, and feel completely comfortable and safe. It was a beautiful feeling, one I’ve never felt in the United States.
    On the other hand, I saw a Mozambican friend get stabbed in the head after a soccer game while sitting there people down from me in the back of a crowded pickup truck. The other team was very angry about something that language barriers prohibited me from fully understanding. That lack of understanding and the fact that a group of armed people were trying to get into the back of the truck where I was sitting was scary in a way that I have never felt back here in the U.S.
    I could go on and on about the dichotomy of experiences that I had both in Mozambique and Guatemala, but sometimes, as I’m sure you know even as a writer, it’s difficult to fully describe them as vividly as they happened, so I don’t.
    My point is, I found that when experiences aligned with my own culture (to some extent) and in a way that I could understand, I felt safe in a way that I’ve never felt here. But in my experience, when shit got real in a way that it typically doesn’t get here, I felt unsafe in a way that was at least certainly more visceral than what I have felt in the U.S.
    And those are my honest thoughts, after ten years of being able to reflect and grow after those experiences. I think we would all LOVE to say that we are open and ready for other cultures, but the truth is, we are from a different culture and therefore can handle some things that happen while we are abroad and still feel safe, while others may cause us to feel completely out of our comfort zone, and therefore unsafe. As we should. Because we are. But that’s all part of the beauty of traveling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alisia,

      Thanks for dropping by! Powerful imagery of walking in darkness.

      The idea of a dichotomy of experiences really resonates with me–I’ve already been thinking about the contrasts I’ve experienced here that are less visible in the US (or at least we try to ignore them). Stray dogs running around the parking lot in one of the nicer hotels in the country. Crumbling soviet-era apartment buildings side by side with new developments. Some tap water safe, some not so much. Incredibly hospitable people, never seeming in a rush, except on the roads…repeatedly experience crazy driving has been my unsettling visceral experience so far. And so on and so on.

      Liked by 1 person

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