I have been lucky enough to have had the privilege to travel to many different countries in the world, including some of the not so-safe places, like South Sudan and Nigeria. I’ve sat in an open air restaurant listening to gunfire echoing around the city in Uganda, I’ve watched cars float by down the road in a flash flood in Mozambique, I’ve been in a land rover surrounded by an angry mob in Nepal, I even nearly lit a cigarette during Ramadan in Kuwait, but only very rarely in all my travels did I ever feel that I was really in any danger.
Whenever you step outside of your front door, there is some element of risk, but when you travel abroad, you do have to have your wits about you. We all know about things like not keeping your wallet in your back pocket (yawn) and keeping your passport safe, so here are my own ten tips on how to stay safe when you are travelling in another country.
I find it quite unbelievable that people raise such a fuss when they fall foul of local customs and beliefs and they then end up in trouble abroad. If you are visiting a foreign country, look up the travel advice on the web before you go, it’s not difficult to do. Show your hosts the same respect that you would expect of someone where visiting your home and abide by their customs and rules. I have no sympathy for people who get caught drinking alcohol or doing other inappropriate things in Muslim countries, for example. If you want to indulge in a drunken orgy; don’t do it on a Dubai beach!
2. Don’t flaunt your wealth
There are many countries in the world where the majority of people are far less wealthy than you are, so, if you walk around in in designer clothes, three expensive cameras dangling from your neck, and wads of notes spilling out your back pocket, you will attract the wrong kind of attention. Try to blend in the best you can and try not to look too much like the wealthy tourist. If you flaunt your wealth, at the very least, you will be accosted by beggars and street sellers and at the worst; you will be making yourself a target for crime.
There were several occasions during my travels that I had minor run-ins with officials. Once, in Uganda, a solder waved at me with the pointy end of his rifle because I was standing in the wrong place and, in Nigeria, I was escorted away from the airplane I was boarding, because an armed security guard found that I had a lighter in my pocket. In both cases, I did exactly as I was told, I didn’t make a fuss, and I apologised. I came away unscathed from both encounters and I even got a smile from the officials. It can be intimidating when you are confronted by an armed soldier over a minor infringement of the rules, but stay calm, be polite, and don’t argue with them.
4. Heed the advice from locals
Many of my trips to less developed countries were business trips, so I had the benefit of being able to get advice from the local staff of the company I was working for, but if you are travelling on a vacation, my travel tip to you would be to get to know the hotel staff and ask them for advice. Just like anywhere in the world, there will be safe parts of town and the not so safe areas, so always ask before you go wandering off on your own. If they say don’t go to a certain part of town, don’t go that part of the town. It’s as simple as that.
I always tell my children that 99% of people in the world are perfectly nice and decent. I truly believe that. Just because someone is poorer than you are, that doesn’t mean that they are out to fleece you so, while you do need to be alert, don’t assume that everyone that talks to you to you is about to rob you, fleece you, or kill you. Very often, people are just curious about you and they are pleased that you are visiting your country. I was, however, once caught out by a seemingly friendly local in Nepal who was keen to tell me all about a burial site I was visiting and then asked for payment for his services, but it only cost me $5, so it wasn’t exactly the end of the world.
6. Don’t pack what you can’t afford to lose
I have already written a travel tip post about how to travel light, and I believe that is even more important of you are travelling to the, so called, developing world. I always did travel light, mainly because I’m just too lazy to carry heavy bags, but that really did pay off for me on a visit to Mozambique. When I arrived it Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique, my bag hadn’t arrived from South Africa where I had had a short stopover. When the bag did turn up several days later, most of the contents of the bag were missing. Fortunately, that was no big deal though, as it was just toiletries and some not very expensive clothes. Rather oddly, the most valuable thing in the bag, a box of 200 cigarettes, hadn’t been touched. No number of locks, and no amount of sealing your bags in cellophane, will stop the determined thief, so don’t pack valuables in your luggage, if you are not prepared to lose them.
Whenever you are in a strange town, you need to be extra vigilant and on the look out for possible trouble. Let’s be honest, if someone approached you in any town and tried to cajole to go with them, you’d be wary, wouldn’t you? Thieving is more prevalent in some countries than others, and that’s why sensible precautions, like not carrying bundles of cash are always sensible. Also, be wary of a large group of people surround you, because, while you are politely fending off one person; another person is probably dipping your pockets. Keep your eyes open, your wits about you, and use your common sense.
8. Don’t accept gifts from strangers
When I visited Egypt, with my wife and very young daughter, my wife fell for of one of the oldest tricks in the book. As I stood admiring the pyramids, someone came up and put a hat on my daughter’s head and said it was a gift. Of course, as fast as my wife could say thanks, the man was insisting on a payment for the “gift” and saying things to the effect of; you took it, now you’ve got to pay for it. With a crowd of the man’s friends gathering, my wife panicking, and my daughter starting to cry, I had little choice to hand over some cash. The moral of the tale is; there is no such thing as a free gift in a tourist trap!
Don’t get drunk should be in every travel tip article! Unless you are in your hotel or staying with a friend, getting drunk in an unfamiliar country is probably the daftest thing you could possibly do. I was drunk as a skunk once in Hong Kong when I hailed a cab to go back to my hotel. The problem was, I was so drunk that, when we did get to my hotel, I didn’t recognise it, so I complained to the taxi driver, who promptly took me on a two hour tour of Hong Kong and then returned me to the same hotel and charged me for the pleasure! Had I been in a more dangerous country, being drunk like that could have cost me more than just my money.
10. Stay with the crowd and make like a sheep
My final travel tip for travelling in unusual countries is to, quite simply, to watch what other people are doing. That will avoid you doing foolish things, like jaywalking in countries where jaywalking is a serious offence, or not taking off your shoes when you enter a temple or a mosque. Stick with the crowds too, because you are far more at risk if you are walking down a deserted road than you in a crowded street. One of the very few times that I did feel very ill at ease was not in an African country or in Asia, but in New Orleans, USA. Having been told by my hotel not to go outside of a certain area, I took a wrong turn and, briefly was lost and on my own. I was only a minutes’ walk, at the most, from Bourbon Street, but the looks I got told me I had strayed into the wrong part of town. I should have been more vigilant and stayed with the crowds.
Sadly, there is even more reason to be careful where you travel in the world than there used to be and even parts of Turkey are now considered to be unsafe. If you are thinking of travelling off the beaten track, you can find up to date travel warnings and travel advice on the UK government Foreign Travel Advice website.
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