Tips for Traveling to a Dangerous Country

July 12, 2011

There are many, many places in the world that have wonderful charm, but, due to the current political climate, may not be consistently safe for Westerners. It is up to each individual traveler as to whether the risk is worth it. I would be willing to travel to almost all places today, but not all. For example, I would not be too keen on visiting Mogadishu, even though it is a beautiful, ancient city. But if you are going to seize life by the horns, and take a risk on a great adventure in a place that is not as friendly to the West as, say, London, then there are a few basic things that the traveler can do to make the trip much safer.

First, spend a month or so studying the country. And go beyond Wikipedia. Go to a university library, and find some current newspapers. Get a real grasp on the political situation. I recommend the US State Department’s website: http://www.state.gov/travel. It has very good, official, current information. Be familiar with the system of government, the names of the leaders, the reputation of the government, the history, and things like that.

Second, see if there is an embassy there from your country. If there is, register with it online, before you go. Embassies have registration programs that will let them know that you are there, where you will be, and why you are there. If some sort of problem breaks out, they will contact you and advise you of what to do. Also, when you arrive there, take an afternoon to go in person to the embassy and let them know who you are.

Third, make an information sheet. This is a single sheet of paper on which is all of your contact information, including your country of origin, your contacts at home, the location of the embassy, and any other information that you might need during an emergency. Take two copies, and laminate it. That way, if something happens, you can show it to the local authorities. Also, you will always have the contact information on you of people back home who will need to know what is happening.

Next, have a plan. If the place you are visiting is very politically-volatile, make a contingency plan. Decide exactly what you will do if a problem occurs. Have an escape route. Also consider disaster evacuation insurance, which is available through private agencies. They will, theoretically, cover expenses if, for example, you have to be lifted out by helicopter in the middle of the night. Another good idea, if you will be staying there for an extended period of time, and depending on the geography, is to buy a cheap motorcycle, in case you need to evacuate quickly, and have no one to help. I personally know a man who was in Liberia and somehow ended up on Charles Taylor’s wanted list. He had to escape in the middle of the night. Luckily for him, a friend lent him a motorcycle, but if he had not had that friend, it would have been very bad. Why a motorcycle? Well, most places in the world with volatile political situations, are not extremely developed in terms of infrastructure, and a motorcycle can usually handle most types of terrain, and can move quickly.

Finally, it is not a bad idea to become familiar with local hospitals and health services. Remember, no matter what happens politically, most doctors and nurses will help the wounded no matter what. It is their solemn duty. If there is a Red Cross presence in the area, go and introduce yourself so that, in the event of a problem, you will know where to go, and they will know you.

All of these suggestions are, of course, mostly overkill. But, they will offer source of help and insurance in the event of a problem. It is very unfortunate that some of the most troubled countries, are also the most beautiful, with the most fascinating history, and the warmest people. I have personally known people who have traveled to North Korea, and to Somalia — two places that are supposed to be the most dangerous for Westerners. Both of them had good experiences. Remember that Western media will often make a situation seem much worse than it really is. In any case, if you are considering a trip to an extremely adventurous place, a few basic precautions will save you a world of potential trouble.

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