Traveling to a foreign country, whether with a tour, a local, a friend, a group, or by yourself, introduces some measure of danger or risk to your safety. While all danger can’t be completely avoided, it can be mitigated to some degree by learning ways to avoid it and by being prepared for it.
In self-defense, there is a term called, “Get off the X,” which basically means, don’t be the target, get out of the line of fire, or move to somewhere safe. Unfortunately, traveling to another country already puts us at a disadvantage, and puts us on the “X”. Usually you have limited knowledge of the language, the city layout, and the customs and culture, all of which make you vulnerable. The more foreign you look, the more of a target you are.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do, to travel off the “X”. This is Part 4 of a 5 part series dedicated to traveling off the X.
*Disclaimer, I am in no way guaranteeing safety or validity to the following suggestions. They are just things I have found through research, classes, and experience that could potentially be useful.
KNOW THE COUNTRY
I heavily research countries before I go to them. You want to know the political and economic environment, you want to know the social state and of any violent upheaval, you want to know about the scams and other threats to safety and security, and you want to know the laws.
One of the best resources for learning about the political and economic environment, social state, scams, and threats to safety and security is your local government travel website. For information specific to United States of America citizens check out The Bureau of Consular Affairs, to British citizens check out United Kingdom Government Foreign Travel, to Australian citizens check out Smartraveller, and to Canada citizens check out Canada Government Foreign Travel. That being said, please realize that to insure safety, these sites are exhaustive in nature, and are there to help you minimize your safety risks, not necessarily scare you from going.
You can also read well known guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Fodors, and, check BBC or other reputable news sites regularly. Before I went to South Korea, I followed the news, and knew I was going right when tensions were escalating and getting high with North Korea. I checked to see if the protests were finished in Thailand before I went, I checked to make sure there wasn’t increased terrorist activity or travel notices before going to Kenya, and I checked to see if union activity and labor uprisings were quiet before going to Bolivia. In many cases, you can still go somewhere, but it is good to know what is going on so you can be prepared and avoid danger.
Being aware of the common scams is also helpful, and you can also find these in the above resources. Usually pickpocketing happens in groups, one person will distract you while another person steals from you, and then that person hands it off to another. Distracts could be asking for directions, offering help, bumping into you, spilling a drink on you, etc. Learning about these kinds of things can save you a day at the embassy trying to replace your passport, or worse.
Natural disasters are also things you need to be aware about. You should know what natural disasters in the area you are traveling to are possible, what the warning signs are if a disaster is happening, and what you should do if caught in one. The 2004 tsunami in Thailand decimated the land and claimed over 100,000 lives. One sign of a tsunami is the ocean will quickly recede from the shoreline exposing the ocean floor. Beach goers who don’t know this, will stand there watching it in awe, when they should be running as fast as they can in the opposite direction. When I was in Indonesia, I hiked up to the rim of an active volcano that erupted just 12 weeks prior, and has claimed thousands of lives in the past. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I at least knew the risk, and knew to check for warnings before ascending it.
KNOW THE ANIMALS
I have a crippling fear of snakes and I love the outdoors, so I tend to research what snakes I may contend with and what animals I may encounter. When I was on safari in Africa, we had to have an armed guard at night, and were strongly encouraged to not leave our tents because of the potential for animal attacks. We also had a hyena stocking us at night, and lions roaring and walking by our tents while we slept.
It is generally good to know what to do when you encounter certain animals, and how you can avoid encountering them. If you have never been to bear country, you may want to know that for a grizzly bear, playing dead may help you, but, that is a bad thing to do for a black bear. For a black bear, you want to fight back, kicking and punching.
If you are going diving or snorkeling, it’s good to know about the marine life. If they have box jellyfish, then maybe you will want to put on jellyfish creme or wear a protective layer, or simply avoid swimming in those areas or times they are prevalent.
And in the jungle, just be prepared for massive amounts of bugs that look like they’re on steroids. And speaking of bugs, some mosquitoes carry deadly diseases, and so packing the necessary bug repellents and wearing the right colors and layers may help decrease bites.
Read up on the infectious diseases prevalent in the areas you will be traveling, and do what you can to avoid them. This may mean getting some vaccinations, taking anti-malaria pills, washing your hands, not eating certain foods, not drinking tap water, avoiding certain areas, avoiding certain animals, not doing drugs, and not having sexual intercourse. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization are great resources for this research.
When I went to Malawi, I knew that Lake Malawi had a parasite that could cause schistosomiasis. I still swam in the lake, but I wore water shoes and went to the local chemist for some pills just in case. In many countries, rabies is prevalent and it is important to keep away from certain animals and restrain yourself from petting them. I am also careful in what foods I eat, and what I drink.
Staying healthy also means eating well, and sleeping well. Traveling can be hard on the body, and it is important to take care of it, if nothing but to just avoid being sick on your trip.
Now that you have completed Part 4 of the “Traveling Off the X” series, please go on to Traveling Off the X – Part 5, where you will find a list of helpful gear that can help make you more safe and be prepared.
“An astronaut that doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut.”- Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth