The week of May 24, 2015

The secret to vacationing in the world’s ‘most dangerous’ places

By Aaron Sankin

On March 26, 2014, Paul Luning packed up his desk at management consulting firm Bain & Company’s downtown San Francisco office and promptly went on vacation. Two days later, he was in Lahore, Pakistan, chatting with a teenager he met on the street.

“Where are you from?” asked the teen.

“America,” Luning replied.

“You’re going to get blown up!” the teen said.

This was obviously not what Luning wanted to hear. He had only been in Pakistan a few hours. Warnings of imminent death made him very uncomfortable. It showed on his face.

His new friend waited a beat before breaking into a mischievous grin. “Just kidding, man. You’re going to love it here,” he said with a chuckle. “You Americans have totally the wrong image of Pakistan. Lahore is the party capital of Pakistan; let me know if you want to go out tonight.”

Clubbing wasn’t on Luning’s itinerary when he set off on a solo trip to Pakistan. But it was also exactly the experience what he was looking for.


Lahore, Pakistan

After six years at Bain & Co., the 29-year-old had decided to take some time off and figure out what he wanted to do next. Call it a quarter-life crisis.

He’d always been someone who thrived on making himself actively uncomfortable, making a conscious effort to push himself out his safe zone. “I realized in life that the things that made me uncomfortable at the time are often the ones that I look upon the most fondly afterward,” he said. “They’re the ones I’ve learned the most from and grown the most from.”

He wanted to reconsider his options somewhere that felt different and challenging. Sitting down at his desk with a pen and paper, Luning listed every country he could remember reading something scary about in the newspaper. He came up with 20.

Four were eliminated due to legitimate safety concerns after chatting with people who lived there or, at the very least, were familiar with the climate—Syria, Libya, Yemen, and North Korea. A couple others, like Sudan, were crossed off the list due to logistics, namely not being able to secure a visa or a place to stay. What remained was a nine-month itinerary that would make many American travelers profoundly uncomfortable: Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Burundi, Mali, Somalia, Cuba, the Ukraine, Eritrea, and both the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Luning didn’t travel much as a kid outside of the occasional trip to Disney World or a drive up the East Coast from his home in Florida to visit his grandparents in Toronto. His wanderlust was sparked by the stories he’d heard from his parents about the five years they spent traveling the world in the late 1970s. They took the Trans-Siberian Railroad through the Soviet Union, spent time in China right after the death of Chairman Mao, visited Iran right before the hostage crisis, hung out with communist rebels in the Philippines, and bunked with an anthropologist studying the isolated tribes of Papua New Guinea. Eventually, they ran out of money and settled down for a few years in Australia before returning to the United States to start a family.

“A lot of these stories I heard as a kid growing up. I think they had a more profound impact on me than I acknowledged when I was younger,” Luning recalled, noting that it was only after he returned from his trip that he was able to appreciate that he was following in his parents’ footsteps. “When you’re young you always think you’re an entirely different person from your parents and they don’t have much influence on you, but I think that was probably not entirely the case.”

“I realized in life that the things that made me uncomfortable at the time are often the ones that I look upon the most fondly afterward.”

Luning believed the image most Americans held of the countries on his list as too dangerous for leisure travel was undeserved. He wanted to visit all of them himself. He wanted to see the sights, eat the food, meet the people.

“Humans are humans, everywhere,” Luning wrote in a blog post on a website he created to document his travels, called Beyond the Headlines. “They range from saints to sinners. The headlines primarily devote their attention to the bad actors, while ignoring the decent ones who comprise the majority of day-to-day existence almost everywhere.”

The idea that Somalia, for example, is more than the danger posed by al-Shabaab isn’t particularly revolutionary. Acting as if it is can read as condescending to both the country’s residents and the Americans willing to at least make it to the second page of their Google search results. Yet, that understanding rarely translates to Western travelers realizing a city like Hargeisa—the capital of Somalia’s autonomous northern region, Somaliland—has arguably just as much to offer American visitors as well-trodden tourist hubs like London or Paris.

The extraordinary is news; the ordinary isn’t. Yet, in the quotidian motion of a city’s everyday rhythms lies its essence. The media may tend toward bad news, but true understanding of another culture doesn’t come from news at all, rather something simultaneously more mundane and profound.

The blog went viral. Luning, who leveraged his unique travel experience for a job at Airbnb after returning to San Francisco, discovered there’s a thirst among readers to broaden their horizons. He also saw firsthand how the Internet is opening new doors to world travelers.

Sunset in Somalia

Like many a Bain & Co. consultant before him, Luning got his MBA from Harvard Business School. While there, he spent most of January 2010 in Rwanda working with a nonprofit to develop a marketing strategy for the country’s coffee industry, whose beans are of high quality but sell for lower prices than those grown in Kenya or Ethiopia. He considered doing international development working after graduation, and this project seemed like a good way to test it out. The school organized the trip, and, for Luning, it was a lot like the traveling he would do half a decade later—only with the training wheels of someone else handling the logistics.

Before getting off the plane in Rwanda, Luning was nervous. Most of what he had heard about the country related to the genocide of 20 years ago. As he spent time in Kigali, the image faded. Instead, the city seemed to him cleaner and safer than San Francisco or Boston, two U.S. cities in which he’d lived.

Rwanda changed Luning’s thinking. Twenty years ago, the country nearly drowned in ethnic violence. In the years since, Kigali has worked hard to develop a thriving arts scene and emerged as an East African hub for tech entrepreneurship. He came in with the Hotel Rwanda version of the country stuck in his head and left with a vastly different picture.

If Luning was wrong about Rwanda, what else was he missing?

In 2013, Luning tried again—enlisting a friend from college on a trip to Erbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. Until the recent rise of the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) the following year, the region was free from the spasms of violence plaguing the rest of Iraq. The New York Times called Erbil a “tourism boom town,” attracting scores of visitors from the Arab world. But the U.S. State Department recommended against Americans traveling anywhere in the country. What was Erbil for an American tourist? Intrigued, he wanted to find out firsthand. The area’s reputation as the safest place in Iraq and his ability to secure a traveling buddy made the trip seem less daunting.

As he walked the streets of one planet’s oldest cities, Luning sided with the New York Times. While he and his traveling companion were the only recognizably Western visitors he encountered, Erbil was a tourist’s delight. They saw ancient castles, ate delicious ice cream, rode the ferris wheel at a local amusement park, and hitched an unforgettable ride with a truck full of Iraqi soldiers. It was the vacation of a lifetime. Millions of travelers were missing out because, in their minds, Iraq meant little beyond America’s latest military quagmire. When people learn geography largely through their government’s military adventurism, it has a tendency to paint whole swaths of the world as dangerous. In fact, an analysis by the New York Times found not only that Americans take less vacation time now than any time in the past four decades, but that most of the places Americans do vacation are comfortably within the confines of North America or Western Europe.

If Luning was wrong about Rwanda, what else was he missing?

Luning’s experience in Erbil proved he didn’t need someone else planning a trip to somewhere off the beaten path. He could chart a path of uncomfortable, deeply rewarding travel all by himself.

It was a path that, in the middle of his extended trip last year, led him into the heart of Kabul, Afghanistan.

There’s something about flying alone into the middle of an active war zone that Luning found unnerving. Maybe it was the machine gun turrets casting ominous shadows over every intersection. It put him on edge. On one of his first nights in the country, he was jolted upright by the sound of an explosion. Moments later, the lights went dark. He bolted out of bed. Banging on his host’s door, he nervously asked about a Taliban attack. It turned out to was nothing more than a car backfiring perfectly coincidentally with one of the Kabul’s intermittent power outages.

The war loomed large in Luning’s mind, but his conversations with everyday Afghans challenged his preconceived notions about the country’s attitude toward Americans. “Every single person I spoke with wanted Americans to stay in Afghanistan,” Luning wrote in his blog. “While the media often make it seem as if the Afghans are angry and Anti-Western, many … desire continued outside involvement.”

The war was a backdrop to Luning’s time in Kabul, but it faded as soon as he left the city for the countryside’s flower-lined river valleys. During a drive along a scenic road, Luning’s host said it was a shame that it was so difficult for Afghanistan to attract foreign tourists.

“We have one of the most beautiful countries in the world. There are mountains, forests, history, and culture … everything a tourist could want,” Luning’s host said. “But I understand why people are afraid. I hope one day everyone will feel comfortable experiencing our country.”

Paul Luning in Afghanistan

Again and again, Luning heard the frustration about a lack of tourists. Jereon, his host during a stay at a hostel in Mali, lamented how tourism used to account for 5 percent of the country’s GDP but has since almost entirely dried up after a 2012 military coup and years of an Islamist insurgency in the country’s north. “Tourism has completely evaporated in Mali,” Jereon told Luning.

He was the first tourist many Malians he spoke with had seen in months. He noted that rarity does come with some benefits. People were much more likely to treat him as a guest than as a tourist, if only because tourists were otherwise rare.

“In Paris, they try to sell you something,” he said. “In a place like Rwanda [or Mali], they try to tell you something. They want to actually invite you in and tell you their story. Because they actually really care about having you there. They don’t see you as a means to an end; they see you as a welcome guest.”

The difference—even in places like Mali, which does have a tourism industry—is one of scale. Places like Costa Rica get millions of tourists every year. The number in most of the places Luning visited is far lower, especially from the U.S. That allowed Luning to simultaneously serve as economic stimulus and a relatively rare venue for cultural exchange.

“The people I’d stay with were often just parading me me around,” he recalled. “They’d take me to meet their friends and family and I’d be the sort of entertainment for the night. It’s kind of a two-way cultural exchange. In a lot of ways, they were as excited as I was to do something unique and interesting.”

Luning’s surprisingly easy time navigating locales without much infrastructure for Western tourists was undoubtedly made easier by who he is—an affluent white guy with the right type of passport. Navigating many of Luning’s vacation spots would likely be considerably more difficult for someone without the same resources or background.

There’s something about flying alone into the middle of an active war zone that Luning found unnerving.

The most notable instance of being singled out was in Iran. On a flight from Kish to Tehran, a flight attendant approached him, inviting him into the cockpit. He said he’d come up when the plane landed, but the fight attendant was insistent—the pilot wanted to see him now. Luning got up from his seat, wondering if he was about to be arrested (or, at the very least, yelled at), once he got to the cockpit. Instead, the pilot wanted to chat with about how much he loved his previous visit to America and hoped to return one day soon.

The hospitality took Luning aback. “Can you imagine an American pilot inviting an Iranian into the cockpit of a Delta flight?” he wrote in a blog post.

After 9/11, of course, only fight crew are allowed into the cockpit on U.S. flights. But one could imagine an American pilot extending similar courtesy to an Iranian; perhaps the pilot had visited Iran and, like Luning, had a wonderful experience he or she wanted to share. Luning found his own stereotypes challenged by experience; it’s not unreasonable to imagine his fellow citizens making similar human connections, despite the animosity between the Iranian and U.S. governments.

The view from the cockpit

The other thing that made Luning’s trip possible was the Internet. When he published his first blog post detailing his intentions for the trip’s first stop in Pakistan, he sent it to about 50 friends and family members. Within a few weeks, he received hundreds of emails from people across Pakistan offering him places to stay.

Luning insisted the key to vacationing in a place like Pakistan was making connections with people ahead of time. His hosts showed him around, told him what to do, and what he should avoid. He didn’t go anywhere without, at the very least, someone to meet him at the airport.

His main method for doing that was using the website In Lahore, Pakistan, alone, there are over 5,000 active CouchSurfing hosts. The only place without many Couchsurfing options was in Eritrea, due to the country’s severely limited Internet access. His other strategy was Facebook. He’d search for “friends of friends who live in Eritrea” and ask for introductions.

He credited these more informal arrangements as leveling the awkward power dynamics that often arise when someone from an affluent country goes on vacation to a poorer one. “I have, many times in my life gone through the experience of going out to a cultural tour, going to some village and seeing people making handicrafts or doing traditional dances, and it definitely feels exploitative,” he said.

That never happened on this trip. Using online social platforms to find hosts willing to house him for free connected Luning with people interested in showing him their hometown just as they would any other guest. It was worlds away from going on paid tours and seeing people paraded around because they were either being paid or doing so on behalf of a larger organization controlling them.

“I definitely know the feeling very well. I’ve felt it many times before in my life,” he said. “Even though, as a Westerner I come from a more affluent background than a lot of the people I stayed with, they all felt like peers.”

Staying with individuals whenever possible also helped keep costs down. Even guest houses or hostels rarely cost more than $20 a night. The total cost for Luning’s nine-month adventure was only about $12,000, which isn’t pocket change but hardly a fortune, especially spread out over the better part of a year. It helped that Luning was able to pay for a lot of his plane tickets using the frequent flier miles he had accumulated during his time at Bain.

Time after time, his hosts were friendly and welcoming; the bustling cities and natural wonders they had to share one-of-a-kind. Luning’s work at Airbnb, a job he started earlier this year, centers around recruiting hosts in cities across the globe. The company currently has listings in every country on Earth except three: North Korea, Syria, and Iran.

When Luning sat down to make his list of countries, he did it for himself. The blog he maintained throughout out his travels was initially an afterthought—at least as he sat down to compose his first post. “I don’t like writing at all. Writing actually terrifies me,” he said.

The moment he hit the button to publish his first entry, he felt sick to his stomach. It was the same feeling he had on the tarmac in Kigali or banging on his host’s door after the blackout in Kabul or walking up to the cockpit on the Iranian airliner. It was the feeling of being on the edge of something uncomfortable, something worthwhile.

Yet, the discomfort passed. As Luning’s blog entries attracted hundreds of enthusiastic comments and offers for him to come visit other places across the globe, he realized there was an appetite for the type of writing he was doing. It pushed him forward, to give up a couple hours sleep after a long day on the road to have coffee with another person in the hope they could shed light on another corner of their culture.

“I knew every place I went I was holding myself accountable for sharing a story that, at least for me, was pretty meaningful. It helped me push through,” he said. “It really gave me a sense of a mission that motivates me to keep pushing myself, learning more, doing more, seeing more.”

Illustration by J. Longo | All photos by Paul Luning