Travel is far less risky than it once was. Thanks to guidebooks, magazines and the internet, no matter where we go we’re likely to have a reasonably clear idea of what to do when we get there.
This meticulous research has completely transformed independent travel. It doesn’t matter if you’re bound for Lagos or Laos, Madrid or Manila — if you’ve got your guidebook or smartphone app you can work out where to sleep, what to eat and how to avoid annoying the locals.
But for all of this impressive thoroughness, there’s one subject seemingly always neglected. When I go somewhere exotic, I want to know one thing: are there any spiders? And exactly how big are they?
Don’t skirt around the subject by talking about a destination’s animal and bird life. Just tell me straight: are there spiders, and, if so, will they be content to stay outside or am I likely to see one making a little home for itself in the corner of my beach hut?
It amazes me that guidebooks, in particular, still treat this as an issue of little importance. To those of us who dislike the things, it’s a major consideration when planning a trip. And there are millions of us who feel this way. Arachnophobia isn’t a niche condition. It’s not like I’m giving voice to the handful of people who are scared of polystyrene or cotton wool.
Perhaps it just isn’t fashionable these days to pander to a fear like this. After all, this is the era of the celebrity survival specialist: men like Ray Mears or Bear Grylls, who probably see the spider as a handy source of protein rather than the stuff of recurring nightmares. Furthermore, travel memoirs recounting heroic feats of endurance and courage are a staple of today’s bestseller lists. Now that every traveller is a budding adventure-seeker, maybe we’re just not supposed to be scared of spiders any more.
Or maybe travel publishers simply prefer to keep things as positive as possible. Perhaps they see it as their responsibility to make us feel good about travel, to help us get enthused about the prospect of seeing the world. I suppose spider warnings don’t really fit this agenda. But if they’re worried they might put us off, they needn’t be. We aren’t looking for reasons to stay at home. We still want to see the world. We’d just like a heads-up if there are tarantulas in our hotel, that’s all.
When guidebooks do allude to the presence of a destination’s spider population, they rarely give the subject more than a paragraph. But what really irks me is they tend to focus solely on the dangerous varieties. As important as this is, for me it’s not the most crucial issue. The key for me is size — I’m a lot more fearful of seeing a large spider than I am of being bitten by a small one. After all, the Goliath bird-eating spider is about as poisonous as a wasp, but I don’t know many people who’d take a slipper to one of them.
And yes, you did read that correctly. The Goliath bird-eating spider. An arachnid so large it can consume a bird, and administer a bite comparable to that of a cat. It may not be deadly, but if there’s even a 1% chance I might bump into one of these things, I want as much warning as possible.
So, let’s get practical. To all travel publishers, here are the points I (and millions of others) want addressed in future titles. One: Is the destination riddled with the type of spider that will make me want to sob like a child? Two: Are they hairy? Three: Can I avoid them if I stay somewhere fancy? Four: How big are they? (Here’s a tip: a spider is too big if you can make out any of its facial features.) And five: What other disgusting members of the creepy-crawly community am I likely to encounter on my three-day trek through the hills?
So please, furnish me with these details; let me give the information some consideration; and allow me a few nightmares before I decide the benefits of seeing paradise on earth just about outweigh the sheer horror of seeing a spider the size of a dinner plate.
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)