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Safe Travels: Perceiving and Reducing Risk

Let’s start with a story.......

So there we were! Lux­or, Egypt, 1993. Look­ing back, the whole thing was prob­a­bly not a great idea. (From Wikipedia: 1993 was a par­tic­u­lar­ly severe year for ter­ror­ist attacks in Egypt. 1106 per­sons were killed or wound­ed”.) But I digress. There I was with my wife at a café in Lux­or. After hand­ing us our check, the wait­er told us that he was study­ing Eng­lish and that he would love for us to vis­it his house that night. That seemed like a great idea. We could go into a very sketchy neigh­bor­hood in a then-trou­bled coun­try with a per­son we did not know. So of course, we accepted. 

We met our new friend after his shift end­ed and walked with him to his house in the out­skirts of the city. The ground floor of his hum­ble mud-brick home was immac­u­late­ly clean with a car­pet over a dirt floor. After intro­duc­ing his fam­i­ly, we were served tea fol­lowed, as you can imag­ine, by remark­able offer­ings of food. Then of course, came the hookah pipe with music, and social­iz­ing that went on well past mid­night. As we were to dis­cov­er that night (and re-learn lat­er in life) Arab-Islam­ic cul­ture fea­tures a lev­el of hos­pi­tal­i­ty that we are unac­cus­tomed to in the West. We even­tu­al­ly explained to our hosts that we had to leave and said our good­byes. Upon open­ing the door to the street how­ev­er, there was quite a sur­prise. At least a dozen well-armed Egypt­ian sol­diers had sur­round­ed the house, and a heat­ed con­ver­sa­tion ensued between their leader and our host. Appar­ent­ly, they had been tipped off that two tourists had entered a less-vis­it­ed part of the city and they feared for the worst. We were gen­tly rep­ri­mand­ed and escort­ed back to out hotel. What a remark­able evening that was. Beyond any­thing else we did or saw in Egypt, I remem­ber that evening and the con­nec­tion we made. 

I share this sto­ry in a some­what flip­pant way, not because it is fun­ny, but because it is iron­ic. First of all, it reminds us that for some rea­son, the com­mon­sense deci­sion mak­ing we learned as chil­dren (don’t go off with strangers, etc.) can some­times be lost upon us as we grow old­er. The sec­ond irony, and one that I want to stress here, is that if it had not been for our very poor deci­sion, we would have missed out on a remark­able expe­ri­ence, and the priv­i­lege of real­ly con­nect­ing per­son­al­ly with peo­ple from anoth­er cul­ture. After all, its this kind of con­nec­tion that inspired me to enter the trav­el indus­try. Lux­u­ry cruis­es and beach­front resorts have their place, but going out and tru­ly con­nect­ing with the world is real­ly what trav­el is about. In a Face­book post last week, I shared an applic­a­ble quote by Mark Twain:

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I think that for bet­ter or worse, most peo­ple con­flate safe­ty with avoid­ance of crime. I am head­ed to x des­ti­na­tion”. Will there be pick­pock­et­ing? Will I be assault­ed? What will I do to pro­tect myself against these things? And while know­ing the facts and prepar­ing your­self is impor­tant, please con­sid­er the most impor­tant les­son that I have expe­ri­enced in four decades of trav­el: Peo­ple are essen­tial­ly decent and hon­est. This is not sim­ply a gut feel­ing that I have. This has been proven empir­i­cal­ly over and over. Civic Hon­esty Around the Globe” is a fas­ci­nat­ing study pub­lished in 2019 in Sci­ence Mag­a­zine. You can read the study your­self here. While there was some dis­par­i­ty in out­comes on a coun­try-by-coun­try basis, the results of the study showed that across the globe, a major­i­ty of peo­ple that find a wal­let with cash in it, will go out of their way to return it to the own­er. As our world seems to become more and more divid­ed and our trust of the oth­er” dimin­ish­es, it’s often impor­tant to stop and con­sid­er facts. 

Speak­ing of facts, let’s delve fur­ther into some inter­est­ing num­bers. While trav­el­ers are fre­quent­ly con­cerned about crime (which is pret­ty rare), we should con­sid­er what real­ly threat­ens us over­seas. How do Amer­i­cans die over­seas? And by the way, it’s unlike­ly that you are going to die trav­el­ing. Pri­or to Covid, there were about 3,000,000 Amer­i­cans trav­el­ing abroad on any giv­en day. In all of 2018, the US State Depart­ment records a total of 724 US deaths. I haven’t done the math, but I’m guess­ing you have a bet­ter chance of win­ning a major lot­tery pay­out than dying over­seas on your next vaca­tion. But let’s say that you are not sat­is­fied with that, and real­ly want to play it safe. How do you do that? Sim­ple. DO NOT DRI­VE. Let the locals do the dri­ving for you. The vast major­i­ty of record­ed deaths for Amer­i­cans over­seas are traf­fic-relat­ed. Start think­ing about the things that you can con­trol. How about drown­ings? Yup. That’s a high num­ber too. This is not to say that there are not crime-relat­ed deaths and injuries, and we will talk about those below. I am sim­ply encour­ag­ing you to think ratio­nal­ly about what the real threats are to your safety.

Staying Ahead of Risk

Before writ­ing this post, I inter­viewed a close friend. Rob Fagan is a retired US Army Colonel and for­mer Defense Attaché. He con­tin­ues to work and trav­el all over the world and is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Cri­sis Response Jour­nal. His cur­rent employ­ment keeps him close­ly tied to the mis­sion of keep­ing Amer­i­cans safe over­seas. Rob and I talked about some com­mon­sense things that we can do while trav­el­ing to reduce risk. While I don’t quote him direct­ly here, I cred­it him with the key points. 

  • If you are plan­ning an over­seas trip, you should absolute­ly enroll in the State Department’s Smart Trav­el­er Enroll­ment Pro­gram (STEP). Learn more here. It costs you noth­ing and car­ries a vari­ety of ben­e­fits includ­ing noti­fi­ca­tions to you of any change in risk pro­files for your des­ti­na­tion, as well allow­ing the US Embassy at your des­ti­na­tion to con­tact you dur­ing your trip in the event of an emer­gency. Of course, in addi­tion to enrolling in STEP, you should cer­tain­ly review the State Department’s con­stant­ly updat­ed Coun­try Infor­ma­tion Page for your destination(s). It is your respon­si­bil­i­ty as a trav­el­er to ensure that you are com­fort­able with the risk pro­file for your des­ti­na­tion. Don’t count on some­one else to make that deci­sion on your behalf. In sum­ma­ry, the first step to being safe, is being informed.
  • Let’s talk about your pass­port. Its not direct­ly relat­ed to safe­ty but keep­ing your pass­port safe is impor­tant for sev­er­al rea­sons. Obvi­ous­ly, you will need it to leave the coun­try. Fur­ther­more, many coun­tries require you to present your pass­port for rou­tine trans­ac­tions such as check­ing into a hotel. Its smart to car­ry a pho­to­copy of your passport’s first page with you, espe­cial­ly when you are leav­ing your actu­al pass­port in your hotel safe. This pho­to­copy will be extreme­ly help­ful if you need to be issued a replace­ment pass­port by your near­est US Embassy or Con­sulate, or if you have any inter­ac­tion with local author­i­ties. (BTW, Rob tells me that he often keeps an addi­tion­al pho­to­copy in a suit­case pocket.)
  • If you are con­cerned about crime, then your biggest wor­ry (as a mat­ter of high­est prob­a­bil­i­ty) is prob­a­bly going to be pet­ty theft, such as pick­pock­et­ing. Here are four com­mon sense suggestions:
    • Car­ry as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, per­haps a form of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and a sin­gle cred­it card. Assum­ing your hotel offers some form of secure stor­age, there is no rea­son to car­ry the entire con­tents of your wallet/​purse. But you know that.
    • Both men and women should con­sid­er wear­ing a waist pack” rather than a purse or bulky back­pack. (I know, its not exact­ly haute cou­ture.) A waist pack can be reversed so that it is in front of you rather than behind you. Hav­ing your belong­ings in your field of view can sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce a thief’s options. 
    • Don’t be a vic­tim of com­mon street scams. I won’t go into detail here, but there are plen­ty of infor­ma­tive videos such as this one that you can watch pri­or to your trip. 
    • Be knowl­edge­able about areas that car­ry a high­er risk for pet­ty crime. These tend to be areas with a high con­cen­tra­tion of tourist activ­i­ty like train sta­tions or his­toric city centers. 
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Look out for strange haircuts.

  • The most impor­tant thing that stuck out dur­ing my con­ver­sa­tion with Rob, was his sim­plest advice. Be sit­u­a­tion­al­ly aware”. This is so pro­found. Few of us real­ly pay atten­tion to our envi­ron­ments as we go about our dai­ly busi­ness here in the Unit­ed States. We have things on our mind. We are famil­iar with our envi­ron­ments. We don’t feel at risk. It’s hard to break that habit of rel­a­tive com­pla­cen­cy and pay atten­tion. I am not sug­gest­ing that you spend your vaca­tion in a height­ened state of alert”. That sounds stress­ful. What I am sug­gest­ing is that you accept that the pat­terns of life that you are accus­tomed to are dif­fer­ent in your new envi­ron­ment and that you can­not con­sis­tent­ly pre­dict the behav­ior of peo­ple, traf­fic, ani­mals, etc. the way you would be able to at home. It just means, pay atten­tion. Remem­ber that most threats are only mar­gin­al­ly relat­ed to oth­er peo­ple on the street. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly, it is much more like­ly to be relat­ed to a speed­ing car, or the clos­ing door of a train, or the glass door that has been cleaned so well that you walk right into it and knock your­self out. (I did that.) Relat­ed to this, Rob said, Don’t be in a hur­ry”. That’s part of sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness; a com­mit­ment to be present, rec­og­niz­ing that things are dif­fer­ent here. Take your time. Don’t be a smart­phone zom­bie. You’re on vaca­tion after all!

There is much more to be said on this top­ic. Hon­est­ly though, I think a lot of it is com­mon sense, or a lack there­of. If you take the time to review the rare cas­es in which Amer­i­cans are actu­al­ly injured or killed, there is often a pre­dictable twist. John Doe from Akron, Ohio was assault­ed and punched in the face”. Real­ly? Where did this hap­pen? In a dark alley at 2am.” I think you see where I am going with this. 

If I could sum­ma­rize the key points from this post that I hope you will take with you, they are the following:

  • Use com­mon sense, but do not be afraid. Trav­el­ing is about con­nect­ing with peo­ple, and peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly good. 
  • Know what the real threats to your health and safe­ty are. Don’t make them up in your head. Enroll in STEP and inform your­self regard­ing poten­tial threats at your destination. 
  • Pay atten­tion. In the infor­ma­tion age, it’s an increas­ing­ly lost art. 

Thanks again for reading!