The world is not a safe place, is the bottom line of what our State Dept. wants you to know. But if you insist—heaven knows why—on leaving your safe bedroom and risk setting foot in one of those awful places you hear about in the news, there’s a lot you need to know.
Travelers can become victims of crime and violence, or experience unexpected difficulties, says the special page titled “A Safe Trip Abroad” on the DOS website.
“Happily, most problems can be solved over the phone or with a visit to the Consular Section of the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. There are other occasions, however, when U.S. consular officers are called upon to help U.S. citizens who are in foreign hospitals or prisons, or to assist the families of U.S. citizens who have passed away overseas.”
I’ll bet this paragraph alone could convince at least 5 percent of potential U.S. travelers to forget the whole deal, order a pizza and stay indoors with reruns of Battlestar Galactica (first or second version is already up to you). What a fun thing to do on my summer vacation – get a visit from a U.S. consular officer in my prison cell!
But DOS doesn’t want you stuck the whole summer in your mom’s basement, which is why they tell you: “We have prepared the following travel tips to help you avoid serious difficulties during your time abroad. We wish you a safe and wonderful journey!”
Here’s a particularly cheerful tip:
“Have your affairs in order at home. If you leave a current will, insurance documents, and power of attorney with your family or a friend, you can feel secure about traveling and will be prepared for any emergency that may arise while you are away. If you have minor children, consider making guardianship arrangements for them.”
So, like, have a wonderful time on this trip, and also, you’re going to die over there and never come back and your body parts will be divided among the needy and your kids will be raised by your cousin George who used to be a man!
But you haven’t seen scary until you’ve read the section titled “Safety on the Street”:
Don’t use short cuts, narrow alleys or poorly lit streets.
Try not to travel alone at night.
Avoid public demonstrations and other civil disturbances.
Keep a low profile and avoid loud conversations or arguments.
Do not discuss travel plans or other personal matters with strangers.
Avoid scam artists by being wary of strangers who approach you and offer to be your guide or sell you something at bargain prices.
Beware of pickpockets. They often have an accomplice who will: jostle you, ask you for directions or the time, point to something spilled on your clothing, or distract you by creating a disturbance.
Beware of groups of vagrant children who could create a distraction to pick your pocket.
Wear the shoulder strap of your bag across your chest and walk with the bag away from the curb to avoid drive-by purse-snatchers.
Try to seem purposeful when you move about. Even if you are lost, act as if you know where you are going. Try to ask for directions only from individuals in authority.
Know how to use a pay telephone and have the proper change or token on hand.
Learn a few phrases in the local language or have them handy in written form so that you can signal your need for police or medical help.
Make a note of emergency telephone numbers you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
If you are confronted, don’t fight back – give up your valuables.
By the way, that last tip is kind of the foundation of American foreign policy everywhere…
Yes, I understand that all these tips actually make sense, and they’re just as useful in downtown Manhattan as they are in Calcutta. Still, I don’t know of any other government that goes into such amazing lengths to school its potential world travelers about the all the dangers lurking out there.
“As much as possible, plan to stay in larger hotels that have more elaborate security.”
Really? Do they realize how much those hotels cost?
Then there’s this one:
“Safety experts recommend booking a room from the second to seventh floors above ground level – high enough to deter easy entry from outside, but low enough for fire equipment to reach.”
And practice jumping to the street from the seventh floor at home, just to be prepared…
Is there really anyone out there who will follow this tip? “When there is a choice of airport or airline, ask your travel agent about comparative safety records.”
I have a really cheap flight for you, but in the airport you’ll be using only every other flight actually reaches its destination. You want the kosher meal?
The part about traveling on trains is pure Hitchcock:
“Well-organized, systematic robbery of passengers on trains along popular tourist routes is a problem. It is more common at night and especially on overnight trains.
“If you see your way being blocked by a stranger and another person is very close to you from behind, move away. This can happen in the corridor of the train or on the platform or station.
“Do not accept food or drink from strangers. Criminals have been known to drug food or drink offered to passengers. Criminals may also spray sleeping gas in train compartments. Where possible, lock your compartment. If it cannot be locked securely, take turns sleeping in shifts with your traveling companions. If that is not possible, stay awake. If you must sleep unprotected, tie down your luggage and secure your valuables to the extent possible.”
Stay awake, for heaven’s sake, stay awake! You’re on vacation! Stay up and make sure no stranger stabs you for your valuables – which, by the way, the advisory suggests you should have left at home in the first place.
I’ll tell you, after reading some of these sections I feel like I’ve already been to Europe, got smacked around by all the crafty robbers over there and now I’m back, a little out of breath and worse for wear:
“Carjackers and thieves operate at gas stations, parking lots, in city traffic and along the highway. Be suspicious of anyone who hails you or tries to get your attention when you are in or near your car.
“Criminals use ingenious ploys. They may pose as good Samaritans, offering help for tires that they claim are flat or that they have made flat. Or they may flag down a motorist, ask for assistance, and then steal the rescuer’s luggage or car. Usually they work in groups, one person carrying on the pretense while the others rob you.
“Other criminals get your attention with abuse, either trying to drive you off the road, or causing an “accident” by rear-ending you.
“In some urban areas, thieves don’t waste time on ploys, they simply smash car windows at traffic lights, grab your valuables or your car and get away. In cities around the world, “defensive driving” has come to mean more than avoiding auto accidents; it means keeping an eye out for potentially criminal pedestrians, cyclists and scooter riders.”
And don’t even get me started on the special travel warnings DOS issues now and then, telling U.S. citizens half the world is full of people itching to kidnap them for ransom—and those are the nice ones.
Maybe the world has changed radically since the time I was 17. When I was 17 the year was 1972, and my girlfriend and I hitchhiked across Europe from early May to late September. We slept in parks, we roamed, we worked here and there when we had to (my hair was down to my belt). We came home unscathed, two white, Jewish, middle class kids. Is it really that much worse out there, or have our DOS officials just figured out an ingenious—though truly elaborate—way of being able to say “I told you so” no matter how crazy your experience abroad should be.
Tell you what, if you’re reading this in your prison cell in Rwanda, then, first, I’m sorry, then, of course, didn’t we tell you not to go? Also, nice to see they give you Internet, and, finally, please, contact your nearest U.S. consulate…