Thomas Sutcliffe: Better to travel fearfully than not to arrive

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The Independent Online

A certain amount of risk is essential in all travel – and I don't just mean that it's unavoidable, but that at some level it's desirable too. If nothing is at stake, then what return can you possible expect? There are times, though, when it strikes you that you can have too much of good thing.

It struck me at exactly 7am yesterday, when the radio alarm clock jerked into life with the announcement that terrorists had launched a full-scale assault on Sri Lanka's only international airport. Since this is precisely where my family and I had planned to be next Sunday afternoon, I woke up rather more sharply than is usually the case. We had been looking forward to elephants and beaches – not mortar-bombs and curfews.

It was briefly possible that this unwelcome news was simply an anxiety dream, since I'm discovering that cowardice is a symptom of ageing, just as much as a thickening at the waist and the slow extension of my focal length to somewhere just beyond arm's reach. As a child I racked up over quarter of a million miles of air travel without a thought of body bags, but the older I get the more probabilities weigh on the mind.

Already I had logged onto AirSafe.com, a deliciously ghoulish compilation of accident statistics, to discover the current standing of the Airbus A340 on which we would be flying, only to encounter one of those vicious whirlpools of unreason which afflict the paranoid. Was its unblemished record comforting or simply evidence an incident was overdue?

The Foreign Office advice to travellers wasn't much more help – with its suggestion that visitors to the island should "remain alert" and avoid "large gatherings". Staying alert wasn't actually high on my wish-list of holiday activities, and besides, how exactly do you go about it in a culture you don't understand?

The nice lady from the travel agent was professionally reassuring about such matters. The Tamil Tigers don't attack tourists, she said confidently, because they have no interest in damaging the island's economy. I have to say I was a bit dubious about this notional strategic nicety even before yesterday's attack. The Tigers aren't famous for their hotel management branch, and might understandably feel that they don't get a big enough share of the tourist dollar to worry about frightening it off. In any case, it wasn't just politics we had to worry about, but biology too.

The slight but measurable prospect of medical catastrophe was also doing its bit to keep doubts at a simmer. As a result, the children's bloodstreams have already been reinforced with typhoid antibodies and anti-malarial drugs (and getting the latter into a four-year-old should count as a travel hazard in its own right).

The only thing steadying my nerves, in truth, was the fact that my wife is even more nervous than I am. This allowed me to feel that I possessed a certain sang-froid, a relativistic delusion that still holds good. Right now I'm weighing up the merits of a holiday accompanied by a thin filament of worry. She's already imagining Tiger High Command convening the suicide bombers in a northern coconut grove to show them grainy surveillance photographs of the Sutcliffe family. "We don't want any mistakes," barks the commander. "Commit these faces to memory."

The FO updated its travel advice yesterday morning – suggesting that travellers should "consider postponing their visit until the situation returns to normal". I'm not sure what normal is any more, though – a feeling of mild anxiety as compared to outright, sweaty-palmed dread? I have a feeling that the sensation I dismissed a day ago as cowardice is going to reappear quite soon under the more flattering description of caution – and that I will welcome it when it arrives.

T.Sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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