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While You're Away: Personal Safety

While we spend a lot of time talking about exotic and not so exotic tropical diseases, in fact, they account for only a small fraction of the serious morbidity and mortality in travellers. Personal injuries, on the other hand, play a significant role.

RoadsMotor vehicle accidents are particularly high on the list of causes of death amongst travellers. This is not surprising! Cars and buses are often poorly maintained. Roads are poorly lit, and lacking the white line that Kramer tried to paint on an episode of Seinfeld! Potholes abound. Seatbelts are rarely seen. And maybe the drivers are not as careful as we are here. Motorcycles are an excellent way to experience a brush with the pavement, if not death.

So there are a few rules of the road that are worth following:

  • avoid nighttime driving if possible
  • stay out of overcrowded buses (they are all overcrowded)
  • don’t drink and drive
  • stay off of motorbikes
  • choose your taxi, and taxi driver, with care
  • at least look for a seatbelt or a helmet
  • carry out-of-country medical insurance

BusI vividly remember taking numerous buses through The Andes back in the 70s. Every few hundred yards was another cross on the roadside commemorating where a bus had tumbled over the edge. It was the best part of the trip! You can’t always avoid the local form of transportation. Usually there is no choice. But if you can be somewhat careful, it is worthwhile. I vividly recall the roads, trucks and potholes in Ghana from my recent trip with my son Michael. The food, the bugs, the sun... nothing comes as close to causing bodily harm as does the local transportation. The small buses in Ghana, affectionately known as trotros, were invariably overcrowded, missing a dashboard and in need of a new windshield!

Personal injury due to violence is unfortunately common, particularly in certain countries. As the Canadian government stated in one of their travel advisories, "There remains the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Exercise vigilance and caution." Since 9/11, these warnings have become increasingly prevalent, and it can be difficult to find a “safe” destination. Here are some suggestions for “safe” travel:

  • Leave your nice jewelry at home. Don’t even bring your costume jewelry.
  • Leave any valuables in the hotel safe, if there is one.
  • Make copies of your passport and other important documents. Keep one copy with you and leave one at home.
  • Carry a few extra passport photos. They might come in handy.
  • Do not carry a purse. If you must, keep it close to your body, not dangling by a long strap.
  • Change your travellers cheques and money only at “licensed” establishments. Count your money inside, not as you walk out the front door. Be aware at ATMs.
  • Do not carry large amounts of money.
  • If you are wearing a money belt, it is preferable to have it concealed under your clothing around your waist. Do not keep one around your ankle or neck.
  • Sew zipper pockets in to your jacket.
  • Consider dividing your money and valuables amongst different pockets. Some of those new pants with thirty Velcro and zipper pockets make it tough for even me to remember where my money is!
  • If you value your possessions, do not let them out of your site. What gets stored on the top of the bus may not be there at the end of your twelve-hour ride. When on a train, or anywhere else, do not leave your bags unattended.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Be especially vigilant around markets, airports, train and bus stations. If all of a sudden there are eight people surrounding you, there may be something going on. Get yourself out of there as quickly as possible. If you don’t feel comfortable “in your gut”, then you should probably get out of there.
  • Be sensitive to the local culture. Dress appropriately, and perhaps somewhat conservatively. You already look like a wealthy tourist without making it more obvious.
  • Do not try to photograph sensitive buildings. They can usually be identified by the armed guards out in front.
  • Be tactful when it comes to taking pictures of local people. Some cultures consider it “stealing their soul”. Others just don’t like it. Be sure you have “implied consent” before snapping away.
  • Be alert to scams. (e.g. “Oh, I’m sorry. I seem to have dropped my baby on his head. Would you mind picking him up while my accomplice checks out your back pocket!” or “Pardon me for pouring that ketchup on your lovely sweater. Let me look in your purse for a hankie!”) Scams can in fact be much more elaborate than this. In Nairobi, people allegedly throw themselves into your car, feigning injury. You, being a good person and feeling a bit guilty, get out to see if they are OK. Next thing you know, your car has been stolen. If someone seems too accommodating or friendly, think about it for a second.
  • Consider taking along your own padlock for your hotel room door.
  • Do not open your room door unless you are absolutely sure who is on the other side.
  • Learn the location of hotel exits and stairways in case you need to make a quick departure.
  • Take along a flashlight and extra batteries.
  • Don’t walk alone in dark, isolated areas, or even in some of them if you have company. Romantic strolls on the beach are not always a good idea. Think twice in some well-lit areas as well.
  • If you will be in a country for some time, or if there is significant unrest in that country, register with your local embassy or consulate. Make sure that someone you trust knows of your whereabouts at all times.
  • Walk with some purpose in your step. That is, at least try to look like you know where you are going. As Yogi Berra once said, "If you come to a fork in the road, take it."
  • Don’t abuse alcohol. It may lead you into unsafe vehicles, sex and back alleys. An intoxicated tourist makes a much better target. The potency of local Russian vodka and Peruvian chicha may be greater than you think!
  • Don’t accept a drink from someone you don’t know unless you saw it being poured.
  • Avoid political demonstrations and riots, and other unruly crowds.
  • Do not carry “mystery” packages across borders for people you do not know, and even for some you do.
    Remember, if you break the law in foreign land, you will be subject to the laws of that land. Even Perry Mason (an old TV lawyer) can’t always help you then.
For the latest travel advisories, go to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAIT).
Content (c) Mark Wise
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