Stay or go? Japan plans remain in place

One of my toughest deadlines lately had nothing to do with writing.

Less than two days into the war with Iraq, 12 women in Wisconsin each had to decide how much we wanted to participate in a sister-state cultural exchange to Chiba, Japan. The 10-day trip will happen in May. Until last week, we could get all but $100 of our $2,000 trip payment refunded – no questions asked.

So would you go, given what you knew about the world then, not now? Would you travel anywhere abroad? Do you feel safe traveling inside the United States? Inside of Wisconsin?

The boundaries are different for each of us; they will be pushed and adjusted as world events change. For me, the past week was a great exercise in over-analysis that involved selfish vs. selfless goals, real vs. imagined obstacles, heart vs. head, fear vs. faith.

Each of the Chiba delegates is somehow involved in the arts, and this is the third bi-annual Women of Wings exchange. It is an introduction to culture, and a professional meeting of women, that also has the potential to be a peace mission.

We have an opportunity to bust the stereotype of the arrogant American, which presently distances and disenchants many nations. It also will be particularly humbling to face a nation that has experienced how deeply warfare can devastate a homeland and its people.

“This is a personal decision, and you must act in accord with your own situation and convictions,” Charlene Sexton of Madison told us. She led the 2001 Wisconsin Women of Wings delegation to Chiba, the perfecture that is next to Tokyo and has ocean on three of its sides.

As it turns out, only one of the invited delegates has decided to not participate. My own decision was made at the 11th hour, and it was not easy. Besides a worldwide wariness of Americans, I am skittish about the language barrier and the volatility of nearby North Korea, plus the recent spread of a mysterious and deadly respiratory virus in Southeast Asia.

What heartens me is the upbeat attitudes of the women who soon will become my sisters in travel. For example:

“I think that trips like ours will broaden our understanding of another culture, and I believe that the more people understand other cultures, the more peace becomes a reality,” writes Jeanette Hurt, a free-lance writer in Milwaukee.

“The current political situation certainly makes me nervous about traveling abroad, but I still plan to go,” writes Tina Frailey, publicist at the Madison Civic Center. “I’m glad we will be traveling as a group. I assume security will be tightened.”

“I leave for Nottingham, England, on Wednesday for a quick trip,” writes Ruthanne Bessman, who hosts a weekly classical music program on Wisconsin Public Radio. “It’s the British Origami Society Convention, and I’ll be folding, teaching and singing in an origami opera.”

“I never really thought about NOT going,” writes Marie Dries, communications specialist at Beloit College, who was in the 2001 Chiba delegation. “It’s not that I am unaware of the potential for risk. I am, and I’ve thought about it, and sometimes I feel a little apprehensive. But the potential for benefits resulting from this exchange is equally compelling.

“At a time like this – when nations and people are so focused on what divides us – I think it is very important to reinforce commitments to building positive international relationships.”

“I realize that taking an airplane halfway across the country may be intimidating, but frankly, I don’t know when my time is up,” writes Sharon Rook of Appleton. “I’d prefer to be on the move when it happens.

“Assuming safe passage in the air, I believe the sister-state connection is an important one to encourage and support, particularly at this time. Not many people around the country support the idea of war; however, I think we all would support the idea of peacemaking.”

Sharon notes that the Appleton Area School District board recently approved of student travel to Spain and Italy. Those uncomfortable about making the trip, which is this month, don’t have to go.
“I think we’re becoming more acclimated to terrorism and its havoc,” she says.
I am interested in hearing about how other school-sponsored trips for students in Wisconsin are proceeding as scheduled, have changed or been canceled. Send your comments by e-mail or snail mail; they will be shared as space permits.

It is customary for the Women of Wings contingent to present gifts to their Japanese hosts – from tour bus drivers to reception organizers – as a symbol of friendship and gratitude.
Many of these sentiments are not expensive – lapel pins and refrigerator magnets have been distributed in the past – although gifts to the Chiba governor and families who share their homes with us will be more elaborate.
If your organization or business would like to be represented in this manner, please contact me by April 10. I would be glad to let others know of your generosity. Symbols of peace and unity, or Wisconsin’s uniqueness, would be especially appropriate – particularly during a thank-you party that the delegates will host at the end of their stay.

Last, Chiba delegates have been advised to buy trip cancellation insurance, as well as travel insurance. So I’ve been doing research online and with a couple of travel agencies.

No policy will reimburse the cost of canceling a trip because of a fear of traveling, but some include clauses about terrorism and traveler assistance outlets when away from home.
It’s important to read the fine print. Although it’s common for these insurance policies to include a 24-hour hotline to help travelers whose trips home are delayed, that’s not the same as reimbursing travelers for their added expense in this situation.
Some policies provide coverage only if an act of terrorism occurs in your destination city, as opposed to another city in the same country.
Other types of coverage may duplicate what already is available through health or homeowner’s insurance, or not kick in until after these reimbursement avenues are exhausted.
Consumer Reports notes that airlines are required to compensate travelers for checked luggage that is lost, so additional coverage here may be unnecessary.
Last, basic travel insurance plans may not include compensation for trips that are canceled or interrupted.
To compare types of coverage and their costs, go to That’s another recommendation from Consumer Reports; the basic cost to insure my trip ranges from $70 to $138.

A news release from Orbitz, an online travel company, notes that air travel bookings are down about 10-15 percent from the first half of March. The company has decided to waive its own cancellation penalties and change fees, but also will follow the reservation change policies of individual airlines.
“Most major airlines have announced flexibility in their change fees,” Orbitz said in a press release, especially during military conflict between the United States and Iraq, or in the event that our country’s security alert is changed to red, the highest level.
For a couple of domestic trips this year, I have purchased an Airline Ticket Protector from Orbitz. It was $12 for a $208 ticket to Orlando, $21 for a $526 ticket to Fairbanks (and back to Madison via Vancouver).
This is basic trip cancellation/insurance coverage, something not automatically offered through Orbitz until recently.