Security Precautions When Traveling Abroad
By Allan C. Stover
The U.S. occasionally takes unpopular actions to "protect its national interests," and you may be, as I have been, caught in the middle. While you cannot eliminate all anti-American reactions, you can reduce their intensity. The easiest method is to lie about your nationality and claim citizenship in a country that no one dislikes, like Canada. To hide your identity and nationality, put your suitcase identification under a strap, wear clothes that don't identify you as an American or a wealthy tourist, and memorize your passport information so you can fill out forms without showing your passport.
Here are other ways to increase your travel security:
1. Become publicly apolitical. When someone confronts you about something your country did, simply acknowledge in as few words as possible that they might have a point, then change the subject.
2. Avoid attracting attention. Be respectful and courteous to others. Learn the cultural taboos. (In some countries showing the sole of your shoe is a stronger insult than giving someone the finger.)
3. Live defensively. Stay alert for unusual occurrences. If someone paints threatening graffiti on your house or makes a threatening phone call, take it seriously. Inform the embassy and the police and vary your routine, route, and times. After U.S. military facilities were bombed in a country where I worked, I varied my schedule and route as much as possible.
4. Keep in touch with your embassy for warnings and guidance. Some embassies have a warden who passes along warnings and information and even coordinates an evacuation when things get dangerous. Don't rely on the embassy for everything, however. Gather as much information you can on your own, then follow your instincts. The State Department publishes a number of security guides for travelers available from the Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20420. Check out the Travel Warnings, Consular Information Sheets, and other information at travel.state.gov before you leave.
5. Turn to your embassy when you're in trouble. In Sri Lanka, guerrillas and government troops fought for hours around our hotel. When the fighting slowed, we went to the lobby. A U.S. Marine arrived and told me, "Sir, this is a dangerous place. You have to come to the embassy with me." We boarded an embassy truck while a suicide squad of guerrillas fought the military 300 yards away. The embassy fed us, offered to arrange our evacuation, and sent our names to the State Department to advise those who called the hot line that we'd been "confirmed safe."
6. In the unlikely event of a terrorist attack, your worst enemy is panic. Try to stay calm enough to understand the logic of what you are doing. Your usual choices are to hide, fight, or flee, depending on the circumstances. In the Sri Lankan attack, our best choice was to stay and hide. We crouched behind the bed and hoped the mattress would provide some protection from stray bullets. When we had a chance later, we fled to the embassy.
No matter what you do, you may still experience hostility. My family and I experienced a number of incidents when I worked in Maracay, Venezuela. Our property was stolen repeatedly, our windows broken, our car damaged, our house burglarized and stoned for hours at a time-but the local police did nothing. The attacks stopped only when I complained to my landlord, a military officer.
ALLAN C. STOVER'S works have appeared in Popular Electronics, International Living, and International American. He has worked abroad for 20 years in Asia, Europe, South America, adn the Middle East.