Friday, October 11, 2013

Frequently Asked Friday: Safety

There are a range of questions that can be summed up as: “Did you feel safe?”
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Yes and no.  Actually, it was: no, and then yes. 
Our first stop outside the US was Quito, Ecuador.  We had heard and read some alarming cautionary tales from acquaintances, blogs, and guide books.  Taxi drivers that force you to withdraw all your cash from multiple ATMs, at gunpoint; strangle rape; muggings; doom and despair.  We had chosen to stay at a hotel in the old town area of Quito, rather than the suburban enclave of foreign tourist hotels, and even our hotel staff was very concerned about our safety after dark, insisting that we take a taxi back from a restaurant only six blocks away if we would be returning after 7 PM.  Initially, we didn’t have any perspective to distrust such warnings, so we were a lot more cautious than we usually are when traveling.  Gradually, we started trusting our own instincts; for example, the streets seemed perfectly safe when we walked to dinner, and we didn’t think there was a specific hour when suddenly the monsters came out, so we walked back around 8 PM with no issues.  At some point on the third day, we realized that we were completely disregarding the recommended red alert state. It was a Sunday, and everyone was out walking with their entire family; kids were everywhere, and some of the streets were cordoned off for families to ride their bikes in a large circle around the town center. 

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It felt as safe as the small towns we’d each grown up in.  We’re sure there are dodgy areas of Quito, just like there are in any big city.  However, we clearly were not staying in or near one.  We didn’t abandon simple precautions; we kept a close eye on our cameras and wallets, carried only small amounts of cash, and paid attention to what the neighborhoods and pedestrians looked like as we walked around.  But we weren’t interested in assuming the worst about everyone, and missing seeing things out of fear.  For the most part, we were able to keep that attitude for the rest of the trip, with a few exceptions.

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In Vietnam the books warned of guys on scooters zipping through crowds and yanking purses from unsuspecting tourists.  At one point we were at the post office in Saigon, which is this beautiful old building you see below, and Lana decided to buy some of the intricate 3D papercut cards being sold outside the post office while David took photos inside. After successfully negotiating her purchase, Lana was immersed in finding a place for the cards in her bag that wouldn’t crush them when someone zipped up next to her on a scooter and pointed out to her that money was spilling out of her pocket. Instead of being ripped off by a scooter, I was cautioned about it instead. We had a similar experience earlier in our trip in Santiago, Chile, where a woman on a bicycle rode up next to David on the sidewalk and pointed to his camera, indicating he should put it away.  We’re here to tell you for every person who wants to rip you off, there are probably 3 or 4 who want you safe. We’ll have another post about this kindness later, but rest assured, not everyone is out to get you.

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In Madagascar, we got strong warnings from two of our guides about safety in Antananarivo, the capitol, which we took more seriously because we’d developed a pretty good feeling of trust for the opinions of local guides by that point.  Unlike Ecuador, we did not see a strong police presence in the streets, and no families strolling.  The closest thing to a police presence was a pair of private security guards watching over the ATM a few blocks from our hotel.  As we stepped up to use the ATM, one of the pair moved into position between us and the sidewalk, with his back to us, a wide stance, and his eyes scanning the street.  That didn’t give us a warm and fuzzy feeling about walking anywhere after dark.  That was probably the closest we were to feeling unsafe—due to crime--on the whole trip.

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Not long after that, we felt even less safe, but not with respect to crime.  We took a ‘ferry’ to Nosy Be, a small island off the northwest coast.  The ferry terminal was a large dirt lot filled with boisterous young men competing to sell tickets for passage.  If you crossed a stock exchange with a rugby match, you’d get something similar.  Lots of shouting, pushing, and wrestling, including reaching into others’ front jeans pockets to try to get contested fare cash.  Fortunately, our guide purchased our tickets for us.  However the ferry was a moderately small outboard motorboat (a little smaller than the one pictured above), which was packed with 22 passengers and their luggage, as well as a heavy, industrial boiler tank about the size of a 50 gallon barrel.  The rear of the boat, where we squeezed in, had taken on several inches of water.  We all got lifejackets, which was some comfort, but that dwindled when the motor sputtered to a stop when we were out of sight of land.  The pilot managed to coax it back to a very slow speed, but it died two more times before we finally got into port at Nosy Be.  We were quite lucky that the seas were very calm, as we wouldn’t have been able to keep the nose into the waves.

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In Madagascar, the town of Antsirabe was the only town where we were encouraged to walk around on our own. It felt very safe, but we were followed throughout our circuit of the town by these two gentlemen, who felt certain we would eventually get fatigued enough to retain their services.  Unfortunately for them, we didn’t.  But they were friendly rather than menacing, despite the fact that they didn’t take any of our head shakings or “Non, mercis” for an answer.  There was a big party going on in town which actually caused our guide/driver to change our hotel as the parade route ran in front of our original hotel, but it didn’t bother us much.  It often seemed like there was more parade than spectator, but we’re guessing that the parade picked up after we went to bed.  It should be said that we’re not big partiers, and were generally in bed before most people would be getting drunk and in trouble.  That probably helped our average when it came to staying safe.

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We spent a few different days on our tour through Madagascar driving all day from one destination to another.  Often we would see people walking along the road , miles away from the nearest town, heading in for market day (there is generally a market in any given small village just one day a week). On one of those travel days, after seeing the people headed to the market for several miles, our guide suggested we see what it looked like. So when we reached Ilaka, he dropped us off at one end of town and said he would meet us at the other end of the same road, which would be on the other end of both the town and the market (the highway bypassed the village in a large loop).  We were very, very conspicuous, but the stares were more curious than unfriendly. Children would wave and smile, and generally you could then get a smile or “Salama” (Malagasy for hello) from the adult with them. But people really wanted to look at us more than engage with us. Actually, we were probably safer there than anywhere given the fact that there were so many pairs of eyes on us at all times. We liken it to being robbed while you were either on the red carpet or, more likely, a member of a traveling freak show. We didn’t feel unsafe at all, but being stared at that much does make you swallow hard anyway.

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Egypt was quite safe at the time we visited, and we had an excellent, protective guide, named Mudi, with us at all times.  Generally his safety advice was pretty relaxed, but when he took us to the Aswan market at night, he had some pretty strict guidelines: No expensive cameras, no passports, wallets or purses, and no more than the equivalent of $15 to $20 in Egyptian pounds, divided into different pockets.  Some of this was for personal safety, and some of it was just to have negotiating power with the vendors, whereby you indicate that whatever was in your pocket was all you had. This was a startling change, and at first, we were a little alarmed.  However, as we walked through the market, we relaxed, as it seemed very low key.  There were plenty of local families browsing, and even the vendors’ hawking wasn’t very aggressive, by Egyptian standards. After everyone in our group successfully negotiated their purchases we headed out of the market toward the end of the night. The crowd was a bit bigger at the exit of the market, and as we slowed down Lana noticed a man whose eyes were not on the direction he was walking, but rather focused about pocket height, specifically looking at David’s pockets.  Lana moved up next to David to block the man’s view and break his focus, while letting David know about the pickpocket was scoping him out. As Lana pointed him out, David could see what she was referring to, as he continued to scan the crowd for potential victims. We had thought Mudi was exaggerating the cautions, but after watching the pickpocket roaming amid the tourists, we changed our minds. He was definitely right to caution us into paying attention to our surroundings and removing tempting items from our person to at least limit the amount that could be lost.

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When we got to Cairo, our walk through the market was taken up another notch. Once there (and without much fanfare) our guide Mudi retained the services of an armed plain clothes police guard to sit with us for lunch outside the market and then accompany us through it. Nothing happened in the market to set our antennae quivering, but he was successful in warding off many of the hawkers who came to our outdoor table selling their wares.  I think this experience made us more aware of how serious things can get, very quickly, rather than making us fearful of the experience.  Lana actually found running the gauntlet of the stall owners in the market kind of fun, but we were coming to the experience knowing we weren’t going to buy anything, so we weren’t going to yield to pressure from anyone. But given the vehemence of some of the hawkers we saw elsewhere, we could easily see things turning ugly and an armed escort being a good thing to have.

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The culmination of our safety concerns in Egypt, and in fact on the whole trip, were during our crossing of the Sinai peninsula as we headed toward a resort area on the Red Sea and our ultimate trip across it to Jordan.  Our scheduled itinerary included an excursion to Mt. Sinai and the St. Catherine Monastery. However, due to the isolation of the road our trip to Mt. Sinai was cancelled for safety concerns due to a rise in kidnappings.  There have been cases of tourists and their guides being kidnapped by Bedouins on that stretch of road.  Instead, our crossing of the Sinai was in a caravan of tour buses escorted by the Egyptian military.  Seeing how deserted the road that we traveled on, and how heavily armed the escort trucks were, we were fairly unsettled during the crossing. However, the trip ended up being very long, and very boring (mid-crossing bus dance party aside), with a couple of bathroom breaks in the middle, and we soon settled into the trip without incident.

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All that being said, we got lucky in our time in Egypt. Six weeks later the country was in chaos again as protest marches turned deadly and the military was mired in internal conflict.  The protest had been scheduled and well advertised in advance, and therefore avoidable if you were paying attention to news reports.  Even now would not be a good time to go to Egypt. We were fortunate to go when we did, as it looks like the area is still not the safest place to be. Which is sad, really, because tourism is their 2nd largest source of income (Suez Canal being the largest) and tourism there is currently at 5% of normal. Five percent. Despite the safety concerns we had and the issues we faced while there, we really enjoyed our time in Egypt, and would recommend it to anyone who has their heart set on seeing the Great Pyramids and the tombs of the Valley of the Kings.

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After leaving Egypt, we thought we had avoided any potential for violent protests. However, we flew from Jordan to Istanbul, and landed amidst protests and rioting that were happening there in June—though we were oblivious to them.  We got emails and Facebook messages from people asking if we were ok, and at the time we had to hit Google News to figure out what was supposedly happening that would be a threat.  The protests seemed to be limited to an area on the other side of the river from where we were staying, which was by the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia.  We were there mostly to see the sights on this side of the river, and didn’t plan on exploring the more contemporary side of the city, so we were never any danger, or even aware there was one.  We rode public transportation that was packed with people, but we didn’t feel any more unsafe than we would have in any big city. But this is probably a lesson to check the local news in the city/country you are planning to visit before you head there (or while you are there). 

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Whether is was a limited amount of malice in the world, simple luck, our own precautions, or some combination of the three, we didn’t have a single safety problem in the whole year.  The only thing that might have been stolen was the razor out of David’s bag when our baggage didn’t make it from Nairobi to Madagascar. But it could have just as easily been misplaced and not returned to his bag after the bag was opened at customs in Antananarivo.  Pay attention to your surroundings, and don’t ignore your guide’s advice. Take the cautions you get from guidebooks with a grain of salt, but don’t make yourself a temptation by carrying more money, cards, or cameras with you than you need for any particular jaunt. If your hotel has a safe, use it. But it’s also important to do some research on which countries you need to carry your passport with you. Some countries require ID to be produced for police, others need to be kept at your hotel for the duration of your stay.  Aside from the market in Aswan, when we were specifically told to leave them in our hotel room, we generally kept them with us (albeit stashed securely), using the logic that it’s a bolder crime to take it from you than to take it from your hotel when you’re out.  Basically our rule of thumb is “Don’t be an idiot,” balanced with a reasonable measure of trust in people’s good nature. We hope these stories help you to not be an idiot either, and safely enjoy your future travels.