Carola with the Timbuktu sign, Mali (2011-11-24)

Five years — Traveling in times of fear


Today five years ago I was sitting in a restaurant in Timbuktu waiting for lunch while across the city in our hotel Martin was shot dead and Steve, Johan, and Sjaak were kidnapped by a gang associated with the aQIM terror group.

Three and a half years later, Sjaak was freed and has since been able to return to his life in the Netherlands. But it has been almost a year since we have had news about Steve and Johan. 

All other members of our group that was 6 weeks into a 5- and in some cases 11-months long journey around Africa decided to keep on going after that afternoon of 25 November 2011.

Why? How do I travel with the fear of terror?  

First off, remember that when life continues despite an experience it is continuing with it. I can’t un-invite the boys. I can neither un-know the existence of people that will shoot another man for money nor can I un-know that you can wake up to the most wonderful day and go to bed in anguish. I have learned the hard way that safe is relative, and that that relation shifts from one minute to the other.

Human has not been equipped with the ability to go back in time and pick up before life took the wrong turn.

But human possesses the unique ability to reason.

I am scared. Of so many things — from spiders to heights to running out of money to dying lonely to being blown up… The list is shockingly long.

How do I overcome the fears?

I don’t. They are always there. If you don’t see me freak out it’s not because I don’t see risks and it’s certainly not because I’m not scared.

Positive mindset

I acknowledge that there is no such thing as absolute safety. Bad and horrible things happen. All the time. It is about learning to deal with that knowledge and putting the risk I am exposed to into perspective.

Therefore, I always expect the best in any situation but I prepare for the worst-case scenario*.

I do think a calm, positive head (or at least one of the two) is more beneficial to a positive outcome. The idea is that focussing on the negative carries the risk of not seeing the positive as it happens or, even worse, subconsciously fostering negatives. Focussing on the positive outcome, on the other hand — while still keeping the worst-case scenario in mind — means I’ll give the positive a chance to surface but I won’t be completely knocked off my feet if the negative occurs after all.

I also exercise compassion. Be kind to yourself and to everyone else.

Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Believe me, no matter how terrible your life is at the moment there is always somebody who is having a worse time. That’s guaranteed. If you don’t see that you’re not looking hard enough.

Knowing this doesn’t lessen your suffering but it gives you a reason to go on: If there is just one person that is doing worse than me how can I possibly not appreciate the life that I have?

Knowing this also doesn’t mean you can’t strive to improve the situation. It is merely allowing you to focus on the positives and build on them.

If that’s too esoteric let’s look at it from a tangible angle. Let’s just look at the terrorists.

Know the enemy & don’t let the enemy win

I want you to ask yourself: What do terrorists want?

Terrorism : the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.

Definition from Merriam-Webster

In other words, terrorists want to control others — their thoughts, their beliefs, and eventually their actions.

So what good would it be if I escape being killed and kidnapped just to hand over control over my life to terrorists by letting them decide who I trust and why I distrust a person or whether and where I travel?

Again, it is not about ignoring risks or seeking them out. It’s about gaining perspective on them.

I would not go to a designated war zone. But there is as little reason for me to strike all predominantly Muslim countries with terrorist activities or all poor countries from my travel list as there is to strike Paris, Brussels or New 5 years -- Traveling In Times of fearYork.

Life is for the living.

Pass it on

Honor the memory.

At that moment on 25 November 2011 in Timbuktu, four people had their lives taken from them. I cannot take that back. But I can honor the dream we shared — travel & discover roads less traveled.

If I could do more I would. But for the moment, living, traveling, and carrying Martin, Johan, and Steve with me wherever I go is the only thing I know.


*To learn more about dealing with traumatic life events please read up on resilience and how to strengthen it; for example here: I have also found stoic philosophy a valuable source; for example here: and

Do you have anything to add? Thoughts? Opinions? Let me know!

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