Staying safe on the road

I have travelled to 159 countries and only been properly robbed once (held up at gunpoint near Popayan in Colombia).  However, I have had numerous occasions when I have avoided trouble by just recognising that it was coming….. So I have a few simple rules I live by to keep myself more or less safe
1. When arriving in a new country late at night, always prebook a hotel and an airport pick up!
  • Book the first night and an airport pick up! – You don’t want to be walking around a new city at night, even with your small pack, looking for somewhere to stay.  Do some homework, pick somewhere reasonable, and book the first night…. and then get them to arrange an airport pick up!   There is no category of human being more dodgy than the third world airport taxi driver (and honestly some of the Heathrow cabbies are no better, and the Barcelona ones are probably worse).   If you get in a taxi late at night and you don’t know where you are going or how much it will cost (and probably you are not fluent in the language), at best you will be overcharged!  at worse you might end up kidnapped.
  • Make sure the airport car is actually yours!  Even if you have booked a car and there is a man there with a sign with your name on it, don’t assume he is legit.  There have been numerous instances in South America (particularly Venezuela), where dodgy drivers have copied names from others outside the terminal, bribed the guards to get into the terminal, and then picked up the passenger before they could find their legitimate driver.  This happened to a good friend of mine in Caracas and fortunately he was only held for 10 hours while they cleaned out his ATM card.  And it happened to another colleague in Russia, and he realised he was being driven out of Moscow to the country side (the wrong direction).  He ended up opening the door and rolling out and running into the woods.  He lost his luggage but did have his passport on him.    To be sure the car is yours, make sure they can tell you your name, your flight number, their name and the hotel that you are going to.  If in any doubt call the hotel and ask for the drivers name and cross check it is what the driver said)
2. Don’t go wandering around by yourself after the sun goes down

I will happily walk pretty much anywhere and everywhere during the day.  I don’t mind if the neighbourhoods look a bit sketchy provided I can see women and kids, then I generally feel safe – most people won’t let their kids play in the street if it is a danger zone.    However, when the sun goes down, I make sure I take precautions.  If I want to leave the hotel for dinner, then I  make sure the restaurant is close by, I know the way, it is on a main road and the streets are lit, and then I will walk.  If in any doubt, take a cab.  Multiple times in capetown I wanted to walk the 500 metres back to our hotel, but when the maitre de is blocking the door and telling you he would rather pay for your cab then let you walk back, then that is advice you should probably take.

3. Be physically fit and walk everywhere

Generally to enjoy travelling I have to be reasonably fit, as my favourite way to get around anywhere is to walk.  And this typically means walking 15-40km a day.   While this may seem like an odd security tip – a couple of thoughts –

  • If you have walked somewhere, it is quite likely you a) know how to get back to where you came from and are b) fit enough to do so.  This means you know where you are and are not reliant on anyone else (taxi, dodgy tuktuk etc) to get you there.
  • If you run into any problems, you are more likely to be able to get yourself out of them in a hurry.   Without wishing to be overly negative the advice in terms of terrorist attacks has changed in the past few years.  In the old days we were told to lie down and play dead.  Now we are told to run.  I would like to be able to outrun trouble and while this isn’t the reason I run (I must confess to an endorphin addiction), it is a positive side effect.
  • If you look strong and capable, (flex biceps now), then people are much less likely to bother you.   While I don’t have huge biceps, i have strong legs (and calf muscles so gnarly that a group of chinese tourists once photographed them), and think that this helps convey the sense that I can take care of myself.     Even better if you are actually able to take care of yourself, and know some self defence (learning some self defence is on my to do list!!)
4. Dress appropriately (more or less)
  • Ok, so I am not the morality police, and frankly ladies you can wear whatever you damn well like!!!!   And when I am at home in London, or Toulouse, or NZ, I do just that!.  However, i have figured out that it is easier to more or less blend in when you are travelling.  If the local women all have shorts down to their knees (as they do in most of the pacific) then perhaps it isn’t a bad idea to leave the short shorts in the backpack.  If all the other women you see have their shoulders covered – ditto – it makes sense to think about doing the same.   I am not suggesting you adopt the strictest interpretation that you see on the streets, but don’t be surprised if people hassle you if you have everything hanging out :-).
  • Note to self –  I don’t always follow my own advice, especially when I am running, as I hate running in too many clothes.  One fun day in Tajikistan I went for a 10k run in shorts and a tank top, and while I had seen a couple of russian women in short skirts, more or less everyone else was in full length multicoloured abbayas. It was full daylight and I was running through a park, and I accidentally ran through a group of men who had clearly had a few drinks.  They surrounded me and one of them tried to grab me.  There were plenty of people around, so I wasn’t that worried, so I just pushed him out of the way with a hefty shove and kept running, albeit at a faster pace (reinforcing rule 3 for those of you who weren’t paying attention).
5. Avoid talking to anyone who wants to talk to you, but do go find locals to talk to – typically women with kids
  • Rule no.1 in tourist spots is to ignore (politely) anyone who wants to talk to you.  Anyone who approaches you in the street with an offer of a free guided tour, or a taxi, or a request to practice their english, or to warn you the temple is closed today, or to ask if you lost to wad of cash which just fell in the street in front of you,  is not typically someone who has your best interests at heart.  I adopt an ‘in the zone’ policy where I just don’t respond to anyone who talks to me.  Given I live in London, I am already an expert at this pose as we get plenty of practice with the chuggers (a.k.a. charity muggers – those irritatingly over friendly people who try to aggressively stop you on the street and part you with your money.  While normally for a good cause, chuggers work on commission, so if I want to give to a charity, I will do so direct.   I am not going to pay the guy on the street for harassing me.)   If I am feeling lazy  then I pop in my headphones, even if I don’t have music on, I can pretend I do.    Let me repeat, I have never ever had a good outcome by responding to someone who was trying to aggressively offer, sell or help me with anything!
  • However, meeting locals is one of the great highlights of travelling, so while I absolutely ignore touts, I do make an effort to chat to new people, especially on long voyages when I feel like some company.   My top tip, especially for India is to ignore your designated train seat and go and find a big family group with an elderly and much revered matriarch.  Plonk yourself down in a seat as close as possible to grandmama, smile at her and offer her whatever food you are carrying with you.  Without fail this will generate a reciprocal snack offer and some type of conversation, albeit perhaps in sign language.  Then all the grand kids will practice their english on you and before you know it you will be staying at their house in Lucknow (yes this happened).    Cafes, Bars, Restaurants, Museums, Planes, Ferry, Airports, Trains, Stations and Terminals are all places I have struck up conversations with interesting people and where i have learnt a lot about the country I was in.
Note, to put it in context, I am pretty sure I am in  a lot more danger taking my weekly bike ride from central london to richmond park, than I am wandering around Douala at midnight……, so it is always good to keep these things in perspective.
Travel Safe!

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