David Browne: Stay safe while travelling

This article was written by David Browne:

1. How can you stay safe while out and about in the town while travelling?

Look like you belong in the area, blend in, don’t make it obvious
that you are lost, helpless and desperate, even if you are. Don’t go
round with a map in front of your nose all the time – that marks you
out as a stranger who doesn’t know the way. You will be pestered with
people offering to help you, some with good intentions but some with
not. Be streetwise and suspicious of anyone deliberately slowing you
down, offering you things, or trying to sell you things as you walk
along. Dress appropriately at all times. Not too flashy and bright,
but not too poor looking either. Take care of your back-pack in
towns, they are easy to steal from when they are on your back in a
crowded street. Jewelry, expensive-looking watches, cameras, i-pods,
all attract unwanted attention so keep them discreet nor you risk
becoming the victim of a street crime. Avoid crowds gathering for a
demonstration, they can get passionate and you could get caught up in
scuffles or conflict between groups and the police. Be on your guard
when local people approach you and strike up a conversation. It
sounds harsh to say this, but not all have good intentions and
westerners are presumed to be rich in many countries of the world, so
fair game for robbing or deceit. Be vigilant at all times, but don’t
be paranoid that there is an attacker round every corner. Walk
purposefully with your attention on what’s going on around you and
don’t linger to deal with tricky situations, get out of them.

2. Using public transport – should I?

It’s part of the cultural adventure to travel with locals on buses
and trains. Of course use public transport, but be sensible about
awareness of pick-pockets in close contact situations like local
buses. Keep wallets and purses close by you and not in the back
pockets of trousers or jeans – it’s so easy to steal from back
pockets. Travelling by metro or city bus lines is a great way to get
around cities like Berlin or Paris or Rome, and so much cheaper than
taxis. Crowded places like bus stations and train stations or
airports are favourite places for thieves and conmen to operate.
Beware of being distracted by a stranger while another person could
be robbing you by stealth. Night trains are the worst for incidents
of thieving, so keep you sleeping compartment locked while you are
inside. On the Belgrade to Budapest sleeper they used to give you an
iron bar to put across the inside of the door as extra protection.
The Serbs would say it was only needed as the train crossed Hungary,
and the Hungarians would warn you it was needed only in Serbia. I
never experienced any trouble myself on many journeys along the route.

3. How can I keep my mobile phone and wallet safe?

If you must carry them around, keep them out of sight until you
actually need to use them. Do you really need to carry a mobile phone
everywhere? If you do, keep it switched off while on the streets of
an unfamiliar town or city as you could easily be distracted and
attract thieves by phone going off as someone calls you – it’s better
to check for calls and messages when you get off the streets. Carry
two wallets – the one with your genuine local currency and credit
cards, and another stuffed with useless old foreign banknotes that
look good to a thief. Hand over the decoy wallet if you get mugged.
Don’t keep all your money in one place.

4. What should I do if my passport gets stolen or I lose it?

Report the loss or theft to the local police immediately and ask for
their help to call the nearest Consulate or Embassy for your country.
Of course you always keep a photocopy of your passport in a safe
place like a bag in your hotel or scanned into an email that you can
access from an Internet cafe… don’t you? This simple precaution can
speed up the preparation of a new temporary travel document as you
will be able to give the Consulate or Embassy the details of your
original passport. Don’t delay getting a replacement for a lost
passport, in many countries it is compulsory to carry i/d and for
British people with no national identity card, the passport is the
only form of i/d acceptable to the authorities. Take great care of
your passport, don’t leave it out on a table or desk and don’t hand
it to anyone except legitimate officials like customs, immigration or
police, and then wait until you get it back after inspection before
you go anywhere else. Passports are valuable items on the black
market and highly favoured by thieves as they can be concealed so
easily in a pocket after a theft.

5. What safety precautions should I take before I go?

Do your homework about the places you are visiting. Find out where
the nearest hospitals are along your route and make sure you have
health insurance for your touring. Know where you are going when you
first arrive at each stop-off by planning ahead how to get to your
first location, usually a hotel or guest house. Photocopy and scan
your passport and visas, tickets and travel insurance and send them
by email to yourself, so you can access them from an Internet cafe.
Prepare a detailed travel plan, so people at home know you should be
each day. Pack small and light. Big bags can slow you down and hinder
your progress if you need to move out of a difficult situation
quickly, and big bags mark you out as a tourist, ripe for scams,
sharks and downright thieves. Make sure your mobile phone is topped
up with a reasonable amount of credit before you leave the country,
and arrange to have access to sums of money through credit cards and
bank machines, then you don’t have to carry large amounts of cash
which would increase your chances of being robbed.

6. What should I do when I first arrive in a new place, should I register somewhere?

Get to your hotel or hostel first of all. Spend some time getting
orientated, talk to the hotel staff and get clear directions for your
first venture on to the streets. In most countries you need to
register with the local police, but this is usually done through the
hotel recording details of your passport. They may hold your passport
for a while, but make an excuse that you are going out somewhere and
will need to produce it for identification and don’t leave your
passport with anyone – even hotel staff – overnight. It’s safer in
your own pocket.

7. People keep looking at me weirdly, why is that?

Perhaps because you are weird in the circumstances, such as pink or
white in a tropical country where you look like an albino amongst the
locals. Perhaps because your clothes are so casual and revealing that
to local people it looks like you are going round in just your
underwear. Then again, it may simply be that you are a woman
travelling alone which is very unusual in some countries and
cultures. Sometimes a weird look is a sign of curiosity rather than
anything sinister, so carry on with what you were doing, but alert to
the fact that you have become an attraction, and avoid becoming the
target of unwanted attention. Move on briskly if people start to
interfere with you. In some cultures, a single woman in a public
place is automatically thought to be available as a prostitute. Sad
but true, and best dealt with by a cold reaction rather than a
conversation, no matter how brief.

8. Is there any way to avoid getting ill from eating local food?

Be sensible about food hygiene wherever you go. Keep you own hands
scrupulously clean when eating food with your fingers (carry
alcohol-based hand cleansing gel for this purpose as you may not
always have access to clean water and soap). Beware of uncooked food
like salads in hot countries as the leaves and raw vegetables are not
always washed in the cleanest water. Fruit that you peel yourself is
generally safe, and hot food should be piping hot and freshly cooked,
not left for a long time in a warm bulky serving container. Watch out
when the serving spoon used by the food seller on the street in kept
or dipped in a water pot – the water can harbor a lot of nasty
bacteria that get passed on through contact with the food. And when
it comes to drinking water, it’s best to drink bottled water even if
guidebooks tell you the local tap water is safe. It may be safe but
still contain small amounts of bugs that are unfamiliar to you
digestive system. And best of all, drink fizzy, sparkling, carbonated
water in preference to still bottled water – the gas makes the water
slightly acid and less prone to bacteria contamination. Don’t drink
from public fountains in streets or market squares, even if the
locals do. And in a bar, don’t accept drinks from strangers chatting
you up as the new face in town, unless you see the drink poured by
the barman and delivered directly to you. Some people will do
anything to spike a drink with a drug potion to relax you even
further than the alcohol.

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