Simone with artist Jorge Seleron, the creator of the famous Escadaria Selaron, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Recently, I received a phone call from a friend asking me whether she should be worried about traveling to Guatemala. Although she's an experienced traveler, it would be her first trip to a developing country and she had some reservations about going. It is a humanitarian trip, one that will give her the opportunity to significantly improve the lives of many poor families by installing clean water systems, so she is understandably torn between concern for her own safety and the desire to help others. My first instinct was to downplay her concerns since so many potential travelers tend to overestimate the dangers of traveling abroad, through, in fairness, very little fault of their own. For various self-serving reasons, alarmist media outlets (you know who you are), bombard their viewers with terrifying messages of greatly exaggerated threats of terrorists, flesh-eating diseases, violent crime and rude, non-English speaking, unhelpful foreigners. After watching these shows, it's amazing that anyone ever leaves the house, much less the country, but since I love my friend like a sister and would never want any harm to come to her, I decided to provide her with some real information. After all, knowledge is power, which hopefully leads to peace of mind and the freedom to go out into the world.
1) Gather as Much Pre-Trip Information as Possible: before you go, visit several advisory sites for the current political and economic status as well as any weather or health-related issues of the country you intend to visit. Check back often, especially when you are getting closer to your departure date, since developing countries tend to have swiftly changing social and political environments and unstable infrastructures. Do not rely on one site as your sole source of advice since you are looking for a balanced, wide-reaching view. The U. S. State Department Travel Advisory, for example, tends to overstate danger since the government's aim is to mitigate the risk of lawsuits brought by US citizens. Australian, Canadian and British governmental advisory sites are generally less alarmist and so should also be included in your review. Visit the official website of the country as well as reliable news and non-governmental sites such as the New York Times Travel Blogs, Lonely Planet Thorntree Forums and Trip Advisor for up-to-date comments from recent travelers. Talk to friends and family who have visited the country. The idea is to arrive at a broad spectrum view: if only one source mentions a high violent crime rate or violence directed specifically at foreigners, you will probably not have to worry too much, but if the information appears repeatedly, you may want to rethink the timing of your trip.
Our 4 x 4 Jeep and fellow passengers, Salar de Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia (photo by Simone Cannon)
2) Take all precautions: visit a doctor near your home that specializes in foreign travel to get all necessary immunizations and medicines before you leave. You should be able to find someone online or ask your own doctor for recommendations. Always keep emergency remedies and supplies such as anti-diarrhea pills, an all-purpose quick-acting antibiotic like Ciproflaxin, rehydration packets, toilet paper and a few bills and coins of local currency in your money belt or backpack; you never know when you will need them in a hurry. Make sure that your passport is up to date, you have all visas and you are fully aware of customs regulations so that your entry will be smooth. Make a copy of your passport, credit cards and other documents and keep it in a separate place than the originals; while you're at it, Google the international access phone numbers for your credit cards in case you have to call from a foreign country to report them stolen.
3) Do whatever you need to do to put your mind at rest: ask yourself (be brutally honest) what your greatest fears are and write them down, no matter how crazy they might seem. Air them out by talking about them with your spouse, partner, kids, friends. If fears aren't vented and sanity-checked, they tend to take on a life of their own out of all proportion to reality, creating fear and insecurity. Do practical things like buying life insurance, putting your will in order, paying off bills. Knowing that your ducks are in a row will give you greater peace of mind before you leave and also in the highly unlikely event that you do find yourself in a threatening situation later.
Young girls celebrating a quinceañera party, Mexico City, Mexico (photo by Luis Bastardo)
4) Learn Customs, Etiquette and Some Basic Language: the vast majority of difficult situations abroad (and at home) are due to miscommunication or misunderstood signals. Read up on the rules of society and culture of a place, including the meaning of gestures, which often have very different, often offensive, meanings in other countries. Learning what is considered to be polite and impolite behavior will often avoid landing you in trouble. Also take the time to learn a few basic words and phrases in the language of the country that you will be visiting. Knowing how to say hello, thank you, I'm sorry and excuse me can go a very long way in fostering good relations. Even if your pronunciation is not very good, most people will appreciate you for making the effort to learn. Check websites such as Kwintessential and Culture Crossing for global etiquette guides and Fodor's Language for Travelers site for a few basics.
5) Keep your faith in humanity, but trust your instincts: it's good to be prepared, but also maintain a balanced perspective. The criminal element in any society is generally a minuscule percentage of the population. Most people that you will encounter when traveling are hardworking family types who want the same things that you do: happiness, health, moderate success, to raise their family well, to keep their kids safe. In all my years of traveling, I have never found myself in a truly dangerous situation and have, in fact, been humbled by the incredible kindness of complete strangers who wanted nothing more than to show off their country and help me in any way that they could. I've been invited by complete strangers to stay in their homes, have been bought presents, had people cancel appointments to walk me 40 blocks to an internet cafe, have been invited to join others at their tables in restaurants and many other kindnesses too numerous to mention. People are basically good, but trust your instincts of course; if you feel that someone is acting suspiciously (not making eye contact, seeming distracted, making you feel generally uncomfortable), get out. Don't be polite, don't make excuses, just leave, quickly.
Lone monk meditating, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (photo by Simone Cannon)
6) Keep a lowish profile: forget about not looking like a tourist; it is nearly impossible to blend into a place completely, even if you're actually a citizen of the country (think Nebraska natives in New York City). Everything about you, your mode of dress, your mannerisms, the way you walk, your language screams tourist, so people will immediately peg you as foreign, but you can minimize being targeted in several ways. Being cognizant of local customs and manners and using them appropriately, dressing in low-key clothing similar to what locals wear, not talking too loudly, but also not acting in a way that makes you appear too timid or tentative. In other words, act respectfully and confidently and try to get into the flow of daily life. Think of it as learning to drive in a place where the traffic has a different flow & rhythm than you are used to at home; you will have plenty of missteps initially, but will soon get the feel of the current.
7) Remember why you're going: don't let fear rule your decision to travel. There is an element of danger in everything that you endeavor to do in life, even close to home. You have to weigh the risk against the rewards. Once you have made the decision to go and have prepared as well as you can, let it go. Sometimes you just have to take that leap: be courageous, trust yourself to handle sticky situations if they should arise and know that the universe will provide. Have faith.