Travel Safety 101: Tips on Steering Clear of Trouble
BY DAVID L. WHEELER
JACK C. STRADLEY. a former Marine Corps officer has worked on special operations in high- risk countries and has extensive training in martial arts combat, and firearms. He has helped train the security detail for Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, and worked on security teams in other high-risk locations. The average college student would be better off not picking a fight with Mr. Stradley.
But his advice for anyone in a situation, in which they are physically threatened whether it is in Karachi or Kansas City, may be liberating to those who feel that they are remiss in not having a black belt.
“Run away and scream like a little girl,” he says. “It’s my favorite defense. Try it. It works.”
When Mr. Stradley advises people on how to conduct themselves abroad—he has given a travel-safety seminar to the Institute of International Education’s Fulbright Program—he focuses on one key principle: Be aware of your surroundings and avoid any situations that feel even remotely dangerous on the street, take off the stereo headset and holster the cell phone.
Most important, don’t feel foolish about practicing avoidance. If you head down an alley and see 20 young men hanging out with no apparent mission in life, and you get an uneasy feeling in your gut, it is perfectly OK to turn around and find another way to get where you want to go. “If you wait until final confirmation that you are in danger,” he says, “that confirmation often comes as injury to you.”
Mr. Stradley, who runs a security-training facility the Crucible, in northern Virginia, uses portrayals of real violence to get his point across. He has security-camera footage of a sandwich-store robbery and a bar fight, and video tape of an attempted carjacking and a random gang attack, in which the thugs shot, punched, kicked, and urinated on their victim. Audiences soon learn that real violence happens much more quickly than movie violence, and that once a gun or knife is pulled, it is usually too late to escape. Criminals and terrorists are not interested in fair fights or in choreographed fisticuffs.
THE CAMOUFLAGED TRAVELER
To travelers, Mr. Stradley emphasizes blending in, keeping a low profile in dress and behavior. Leave the clothing with designer logos at home. Take off the jewelry Take the tag specifying membership in “executive platinum class” off the suitcase. Skip the T shirts advertising enrollment at Rich Kid’s University
Travelers who declare them selves as worthy of special treatment, he warns may wind up getting special treatment that they don’t want: Kidnapping for ransom is a cottage industry in a lot of developing countries.
In airports, hotel lobbies, and other public places, travelers shouldn’t call attention to themselves with their behavior. Don’t be the “better-idea guy” who tells the locals how they should run their passport-control checkpoints, Mr. Stradley says.
He urges people who will meet a driver at an airport to use a symbol, like a yellow triangle, rather than a name and affiliation, to make the connection. (He recalls being greeted by a sign at the Bogotá, Colombia, airport that said “Major Stradley, United States Marine Corps, Counter Drug,” and walking past the driver to go out side and get a cab.)
For hotel guests, he advises taking some time to do a survey of hotel security checking door locks, exterior windows, and the location of the emergency exit, which he walks through just to make sure that the stairways leading to safety aren’t filled with stored junk.
Some of Mr. Stradley’s advice may make a scholar or a student feel a bit like an international spy. He recommends carrying a portable motion detector, for instance, which can be purchased at electronics stores like Radio Shack, and setting it up to keep an eye on the balcony or another part of a hotel room that might need surveillance.
He also recommends buying an inexpensive lock designed to secure sliding exterior doors and windows. For the hallway door, he suggests a portable lock; to find one, search the Internet using the key words “travel door lock.’
He also suggests calling the front desk to verify the identity of anyone who comes to your door. He leaves the “Do not disturb” sign on his door, even when he isn’t in his room and the television on and tuned to a local-language station.
People traveling in high-risk countries should consider changing their hotel every three days, so they can’t be staked out by kidnappers or terrorists who want to kill Americans. He tells of some American businessmen who were ambushed and killed in Pakistan, apparently by terrorists expressing their dislike of American foreign policy. “If you become time- and-place predictable, that’s how they get you,” he says.
THE ‘BUMP AND ROB’ SCAM
Ordinary traffic accidents, Mr. Stradley and other travel experts advise, are one of the greatest risks that travelers face, particularly in countries like India, with dense, high-speed, sometimes chaotic traffic. If he drives himself he carries a fisheye mirror that he sticks on a rearview mirror to help him stay alert to what is going on around him. He recommends carrying medical-evacuation insurance that pays for a speedy trip to a good hospital, since medical care in many developing countries is not up to the standards of industrialized countries
Tourists in cars can be targets, he says In Mexico, criminals walk up to cars and pretend to be interested in washing the windows, then mark the cars that have expensive luggage or cameras for robbery in a block or two, Mr. Stradley says.
“Bump and rob” scams have spread around the world: Criminals rear-end a car, and then wait for it to pull over so they can rob the occupants. Mr. Stradley’s advice:
“If you look back and you see three rednecks with ax handles coming toward you, you might not want to stick around and take their driver’s-license numbers.”
Instead, drive to the nearest police station to report an accident, he says, and tell the police that you left the scene because you felt threatened.
While students going on study-abroad trips are doing so in part to learn about local cultures, they should be aware that people walking up to talk with them on the street may not have cultural exchange in mind. Would-be tour guides, con artists even muggers are fond of checking out a victim or stopping them with starter questions like, “Do you speak English?”
Criminals may also try to rattle their victim; Mr. Stradley says, by shouting an anti-American phrase or an insult: “Your mother’s a whore!”
Calmly walk away, he says. “Why do I want to defend my mother’s honor to someone I have never met before?”
If all of the avoidance tactics fail, a traveler may find himself with a knife to his throat and a demand for cash or car keys. “What’s the right answer?” asks Mr. Stradley, who then provides it: “Whatever you want, sir. Please don’t hurt me, I’ll do whatever you want.”
It’s just stuff” says Mr. Stradley, “and it’s not worth dying for.”
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