Polo’s Bastards Dirty Dozen – Worst Destinations 2009

The New Year dawns, as we wave goodbye to another decade. But that wasn’t just any old decade… no, there goes the new millennium, gone in the blink of an eye, as if to really trivialize all those now seemingly ridiculous fears we harboured during the approach to the year 2000. Remember all those airliners dropping out of the sky? Me neither. Ten years on, and we’re still here: Still trudging our way through life, fighting against the rat-race, monitoring our carbon footprints with growing concern, and counting the ever-increasing number of gray hairs that peer back at us from the bathroom mirror each morning.

Further afield than the bathroom, the dreams we may have held of an improvement in the situation of many areas look to yet again have been dashed. It seems, as ever, that a small improvement in one area is met with significant deterioration in another. This once again ushers into the New Year Polo’s Bastards fifth annual World’s Worst Destinations list! Because, of course, Polo’s Bastards is always a step ahead of the boring and mundane masses, it seems as though nowadays everyone from Forbes magazine to Travel and Leisure or Maxim, and quite possibly even Cosmopolitan, puts out some lightweight version of our very own ground-breaking “Awful places to visit” list and it’s not even as if so much as a small percentage of their writers even know of somebody who has visited some of these destinations, let alone they themselves set foot there!

Of course, being the forward thinkers our people are, and as such we are wont to do, we have of course included some of the perennial spots that show up in what now has become a yearly mainstay. So there comes the delineation of what constitutes the “Worst”. While “war is hell” and this is something no one will deny, an insurgency and warzone alone does not necessarily a “Worst destination” make. Face it; for some cheap-ass Lonely Planeteer, a destination like Monaco or Iceland may seem like hell on earth compared to India or Moldova. It’s a fact the vast majority of us hate the notion of being shot by a sniper or stepping on a land mine and being reduced to a bloody torso. This year, though, we’ve included some destinations that quite simply suck for a wide variety of reasons, and some that perhaps could sort of be considered “borderline” by some, or are simply less publicized and tend to sneak in under the radar of the mainstream media.

So without any further ado please enjoy this year’s list and, as always, please feel free to join in the predictable, ensuing fracas that always results when folks don’t necessarily agree with our view of the world.

Afghanistan – Now, repeat after me… “QUAGMIRE”… That’s good, not bad at all! This place was once called, “The Graveyard of Empires” – but for today’s exercise we’ll just call it a fucked up mess. We’re now seeing our strategy was not well considered, in supporting a leader that is rapidly becoming an embarrassment to the international leaders, who send their fine men and women to help build “democracy”. That’s a joke! Combined with that, there appears to be some ad hoc military strategy that pays no heed to history, meaning we will be seeing this on the list for yet another year and probably into the foreseeable future. Until our leaders realize that the only, albeit unpalatable, strategy towards peace in Afghanistan involves far more engagement with, and empowerment of tribal leaders, we can expect this pick to stay firmly in the top ten. It’s almost boring.

Photo Courtesy US Army

Iraq – Did I say boring? While things are vastly improved and 2009 saw the first package tourists in Iraq for some time (watch that Iranian border!!), it is a long way from Club Med there just yet. While the surge went some way towards improving security, internecine hatreds thrive on. Thus the bombings and slaughter look to endure for some time to come. If you are Baghdad bound, watch out for the bomb holes in the sidewalk; you could turn your ankle.

Pakistan – While we like to pretend there is a border between Afghanistan and Pakistan the local tribes consider these areas theirs, not the foreign and domestic governments’ lands. It’s been that way for centuries and as far as they are concerned that isn’t changing anytime soon, no matter what ISAF, Obama, Karzai or Zardari insist. Fighters melting back and forth across the border are commonplace, and until the mixed motivations of the Pakistani government regarding the Taliban and the tribal areas are addressed, the fun here is just going to continue. With India again moving to their historical power play of controlling Pakistan’s water (Over $300 million dollars of Indian money has so far gone into water investment in Afghanistan which feeds much of Pakistan’s supply), the Pakistani’s are understandably concerned about killing the only people who stand to throw a spanner into the works of India’s plans – the Taliban. So with lack of support on that side of the frontier, impunity rules for the holy fighters, and folks with fair skin and smooth chins should proceed with utmost caution. Allah Akhbah!

Nanga Parbat (Killer Mountain)
Photo by Faisal Saeed

Mexico –Think a visit to Cancun during American college spring break, with severe sunburn, a throbbing Tequila hangover and a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge is as bad as it gets in Mexico? Ok, admittedly that is a pretty damn bad scenario… But think again. How about a surplus of weapons coupled with a nation awash in illicit drugs because of your Northern neighbor’s insatiable appetite for this product and the oodles of cold hard cash that can be made from selling this contraband. While it’s easy to simply blame America for the weapons and its reactionary drug policies causing this spasm of violence, it’s more complex than that. Yes, it’s true the immediate victims and beneficiaries of this vicious cycle tend to be the Mexican people themselves, but there are enough Colombian, Venezuelan and Mexican citizens in places of power within the government and military, playing their part to assist the nation’s inexorable lurch closer and closer to becoming the world’s first ‘Narcocracy’. Chances are you, the casual visitor, could get from one end of this country to the other without getting entangled in some gun-runner’s or drug-lord’s mojo, but there are better than fair odds that Mexico’s latest export, Swine Flu, will have had a cursory tour of your respiratory system. Almost as bad as man-flu, and trust me, that’s hell!

Mexico Flag / Bandera de Mexico
Photo by Esparta

Sri Lanka – 2009 saw the ‘defeat’ of the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country, who had been mounting an armed rebellion, calling for a homeland for the Tamil minority and who were widely credited with inventing the “Suicide bomb” along with many other modern terror techniques. The by-product was hundreds of thousands of displaced Tamils, many of whom still reside in refugee camps, and more than one human rights organization continuing their wide and unified condemnations of the Sri Lankan government for their inexcusable methods. The problem now is that the Tamil Diaspora (the main financier of the insurgency) still exists. Meanwhile the Tamil minority still bears some very genuine longstanding grievances, much of which hasn’t improved one iota. The Tamils are down, but not out. Look for the very same Tamil Diaspora financing a move towards the Indian Naxalite insurgency in return for weapons and for training to continue, assisting Tamils in the next few years. We will be hearing from these guys again.

Yemen – This small nation is plagued with lots of large issues and is full of big problems, all of which may impact any visit a traveler may pay to the region. Between rebel insurgencies; tribal and Sharia law; a gun-toting populace and daggers as fashion statements, the peril is just waiting for you to make your first wrong turn. Plus you can mix in plenty of local superstition and an edgy khat-chewing police force, which can make it remarkably easy for the notion of a “stranger in a strange” land to blossom to its full and most negative manifestation. Obviously the term “inhospitable environment” relates not only to the weather and has a whole different implication, since kidnapping is a fairly regular occurrence, affecting locals and foreigners alike. Whether you’re part of Saudi security forces (73 killed by rebels since November ’09) or a member of Al-Qaeda (several killed recently in Predator airstrikes) it seems at times no one can ever really be assured they’re safe in this part of the Arabian peninsula. If you’d been in Yemen anytime since last August, you may well have sat in the same café as Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as he prepared his attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas day. Fortunately for the 290 souls on board, both he and his Al-Qaeda instructors proved incapable of even blowing their own noses.

Kindly man & lad
Photo by Enthogenesis

The Philippines – While this country is comprised of several thousand islands, which can vary wildly in degree of safety and danger; and although a large population of good Christians would beg to differ with the opinion that this nation is unwelcoming to visitors, there is a small minority of bad Moslems. Between Abu-Sayaaf and the MILF (Moro Liberation Front) there is no lack of folks who are all too happy to give you an off the beaten path tour of their beloved homeland, and who won’t even expect a gratuity… A ransom, perhaps, but no tip! Just for a change of pace let’s now mention that one of their 18 active volcanoes, Mount Mayo, has everyone’s attention and is predicted to fully erupt any day now, and while you might think to yourself hypothetically, “what are the odds that would affect me during my visit?” the only real answer is also hypothetical insofar as, you won’t know until you’re there and it happens. But do fill us in on the details if and when it does, if you’d be so kind.

Personal accounts of natural disasters never get old, and are warmly and gratefully received by Polo’s Bastards’ editor!

Nigeria – Just writing this post ended up costing me $100USD in bribes, not to mention my soon to be bride, who wrote me asking for help via a letter (she is a Nigerian princess!) Cost me $10,000USD because her uncle just died suddenly. What’s a 419 anyway? After paying another $150USD just to leave the airport, I got into a Taxi that was supposed to take me to her home town somewhere in the Niger delta, but the driver, after making a wrong turn, drove up to a check point manned by police (they seemed drunk and high on something!) and they wanted another $200USD just to give us directions. They weren’t very helpful since they threatened to kill us both if I didn’t pay! After that the driver reneged on our agreed price because this delay took longer than he expected AND took him out of his way! This, he said, would cost me extra! When I said I wasn’t going to pay his price he dropped me off in an area called Akwa Ibom, where some nice people offered to give me a boat ride to their home (why do they need all these guns?) right on the river!

It’s been two months and I’m still here! They told they can get me a ride back to the airport if I can get them $50,000USD (the going rate for a ride back, they told me, so maybe the earlier ride was a better bargain than I first thought!) but where am I going to get that much money?? What a crazy country!

Want Something to Feel Grateful About?
Photo by Pieter Hugo

Haiti – Like a veritable canker sore on a supermodel’s face, the nation of Haiti shares half of the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic and the rest of the Caribbean with countless emerald islands in turquoise waters. Unfortunately for the residents of the nation of Haiti, history hasn’t been kind to them or their beloved homeland. The cumulative effects of slavery and colonialism have created a dysfunctional mélange of abject poverty; the worst forms of government and leadership, politically creating a tragically overt desperation in its citizens. The starvation, rampant violence, disease, governmental corruption and deforestation of the once lush flora have created a hellacious type of existence for the populace and visitors alike. The slum of Cite Soleil in the capital of Port au prince is so bad that even the UN peacekeepers deployed there have great difficulty accomplishing their task and intentionally minimize the time they spend in this slum. With a high rate of HIV/AIDS and a predisposition for being in the path of tropical storms, which commonly initiate flooding and mudslides; coupled with a severe lack of infrastructure, there seems to be a plethora of ways to have your day, week, month or the rest of your life affected in the most negative of degrees. Maybe the only really safe place in Haiti is a place that most Haitians don’t know exists – Most of those that visit it don’t even realize they’re still in Haiti. It’s the cruise industries’ artificial construct port-of-call, named Labadie and your Haitian safe area… Until the next category 5 hurricane dumps a cruise liner on your head, that is.

Photo by Billtacular

Guinea – Unlike its neighbours of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea doesn’t have a history of war, although it seems as though the war-like violent behaviour it’s suffering via osmosis from these countries, or something similar, has rubbed off on its military and police forces, because they act as though they are at war against their very own citizens. The major MO is shooting to kill anyone that is unarmed, regardless of age or gender. The mandate looks to be the total opposite than that of most armed forces’ missions – to protect the citizens from the hostile actions of others and to protect the nation’s sovereignty. Just last month, the head of the ruling junta, Moussa Dadis Camara, was shot by one of his own aides and had to head up to Morocco for treatment. No one has heard anything from the hapless aide since. Needless to say, if for some strange reason you should decide to travel to Guinea, don’t think that the military and police will keep you safe. In fact the military and police look to citizens for what they want and need; primarily cold hard cash in the way of bribes and outright confiscation of property through impromptu check points or the simple stop and search tactic. What the plain folks need is an insurgency looking out for their wellbeing. In other words the only good (questionable at best!) that the authorities provide is an incentive to initiate a coup d’état occasionally, as they embody all that could possibly be wrong with a military/police force. Now they are starting to mimic their other local neighbour –Nigeria, in that they are fostering a thriving industry in financial fraud, involving groups that are becoming increasingly refined in their creativity in developing and propagating a variety of internal and international financial scams. Guinea is also becoming a major player and transit point for drug smuggling, insofar as providing a safe haven for storage and recruiting mules that help supply Europe’s appetite, most notably for cocaine from South America. The shame is even if the tourism industry was to be promoted, no one seems to really know what there is to go and see. It really is a place that has only recently prompted people to ask themselves “Where the heck is that?”

de Conakry a Katon
Photo by Martapigs

Djibouti – Djibouti, you may ask? Yes it’s a country of superlatives and we know of folks that have been there and described it, saying, “It sucks”. It’s incredibly hot. It’s incredibly expensive (though extremely poor). It’s incredibly small. It has incredibly bad neighbours (Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea). It’s incredibly beautiful (In an otherworldly kind of way). And the only people that ever really seem to go there that aren’t Djibouti citizens, are foreign military, all of whom want to leave as soon as they are able. And, as it’s only about 13 miles across to Yemen, you can sit on the beach, watching yachts and ships being hijacked by the Somali pirates. Incredible.

resting fishermen
Photo by Guuleed

Honduras – Just when destinations in Central America started to get a peaceful reputation, considering most had at one time or another been at civil war or under the authoritarian regime of some despot or rebel group, along comes Honduras to jog everyone’s memory of the Central America of the bad old days. Along with the veritable coup d’état last year, where the then elected government was tossed from power, leading to plenty of demonstrations, roadblocks and closed airports; there’s also more than enough petty crime, from pick pocketing to murder, robbery, carjacking and kidnapping to go around for all. Roads are terrible, so the inherent danger related to automobiles is only magnified and there’s plenty of gang related murder meaning that it really isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine getting caught somewhere in the crossfire. Also, with the advent of adventure tourism comes the very real possibility that one’s safety may not be in the best hands, because apart from the dangers that come from participation in these sorts of activities, the reality is there is little to no safety oversight from many adventure sport operators. So if the day-flying mosquitoes, with their Dengue Fever don’t get you, the frayed bunjee chord, or threadbare whitewater raft might. So do your research carefully. Oh and don’t drink the water!

A New Honduras
Photo by Giggey

So, mind your six as you tread these intriguing, but hostile lands. Make friends, lots of them. Hopefully that guy you just had Ramadan breakfast with will turn out to be your future kidnapper’s brother. You think I’m joking?!

Happy New Year. Go well.

All at Polo’s Bastards.

By Steve Strommer with help from Rob Wood and Lee Ridley.

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