With Eyes Wide Open
The world can be a dangerous place. We don’t want to be naive about it. We also don’t want to be paralyzed by the risks. The ideal zone of attentiveness lies somewhere between Pollyanna and Paranoia.
Some of us willingly work in environments where bombs, shootings and kidnappings are a present danger. Those risks can also be managed. If this is your situation, be sure that your agency provides you with training and support. For most of us, though, our missions will just require an elevated level of “street smarts” to help us stay out of trouble. What follows is a collection of tips from experienced travellers.
Preparation begins at home. Leave photocopies of passports, tickets, health cards, the number for reporting lost credit cards and other key documents with family or friends and at your workplace. Losses are more easily managed with such records. Carry a copy of your passport rather than the original when walking about in your destination. Lock the original in a safe place, on arrival.
Pack lightly. Don’t take anything you will be heart-broken to lose or have stolen. Stuff can be replaced, and a fight over Grandma’s ring isn’t worth it. If you are travelling with a computer, be sure it is backed up before you go (and back it up regularly from the field using Dropbox, Google Drive or iCloud). Be very sure that you have good virus and malware protection installed. There are nasty bugs out there.
Talk to people with experience in your destination country about dealing with the airport. Are there porter and taxi scams? Are there special medical or documentation requirements? (Some countries require you to show a current Yellow Fever shot or will charge you for one on the spot. Others may require you to provide photos for an Entry/Exit document … as two examples.) Can you get currency exchanged? Will your hotel pick you up? What is a reasonable taxi fare? Being prepared for this first couple of hours of entry can reduce a lot of stress.
Talk to the same people about security issues. Some cities are relatively safe with little street crime, honest taxi-drivers and trustworthy merchants. Others – often ones in which people are struggling to survive – have evolved cultures in which a naïve stranger presents an opportunity. It helps to be forewarned.
Dress inconspicuously. Watch what local citizens are wearing. Baseball caps are often not a good idea. Frequently shorts are worn in public by boys (or tourists) and not adult men. Pack shoes that are dressy but also good for walking and even running. Running shoes may look inappropriate in public. When in doubt, be conservative. Don’t wear flashy watches, jewelry or sunglasses or carry an expensive camera. Clothes like those made by Tilley (http://www.tilley.com) make the picking of pockets more challenging – and support packing more efficiently.
Be aware of your surroundings on the street. As a foreigner you will probably stand out. Are you being followed or ‘cased’? If so, break your pattern by going into a shop or talking to a policeman or someone who looks trustable. Get advice about areas to avoid, and make conscious and cautious decisions about which streets to explore. Study a map before setting out.
Carry a card from your hotel in your pocket. Even if a taxi driver doesn’t speak English, he may be able to take you ‘home’ with the address written in the local language.
Manage money thoughtfully. Just carry enough on the street for that day’s needs, and if accosted or attacked, let it go. Credit cards and ATM cards may not work locally. If so, leave them locked up someplace safe. If you have more than one (for instance a Visa and a Mastercard, since one or the other may be common in some countries – another thing to check from someone who’s been there) only carry one with you on the street, and be sure you left the number to call if it is stolen, elsewhere.
Hotels themselves may present security issues. Stay above street level, but no higher than a fire-truck ladder can reach. (And avoid getting a room above the disco.) Door locks may not be fully secure. Use the chain or travel with a portable lock (available in many luggage and travel stores). Don’t allow unknown people into the room. Safes provided in the room are sometimes secure and sometimes not. (The hotel may have a master-combination so that the safe can be opened if a traveller leaves it locked on departure, and corrupt hotel staff may know the combination.) This said, many hotels provide a very safe and welcoming environment. Unrelenting fear is exhausting, and naïve carelessness is bound to hurt, sooner or later.
If something does go wrong, know who to call. Have those numbers recorded in several distributed places. Have copies of the health insurance company’s emergency international number. Know how to contact your embassy. The hotel may be able to recommend or even bring in a doctor if needed, or have someone who is living in the city recommend a doctor or hospital in case needed, and have the list of health care facilities approved by your insurance company. In countries where risks are higher, you can register your schedule and addresses with your embassy.
Build a network of relationships. They will help with your work and can be very helpful in finding local solutions to unexpected problems.
Frequent travellers do most of these things almost instinctively. If this is one of your first international forays, work through the list a couple of times to be sure you are prepared and get more advice whenever you are in doubt. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs has a website which offers the most cautious advice for global destinations (http://www.voyage.gc.ca) and Alex Tilley offers not just good hats and trousers, but also an experienced perspective. For travel guides with informed local perspectives, Lonely Planet is a favorite (http://www.lonelyplanet.com).
Enjoy your travel. Don’t worry too much – just enough to be prepared.