Controlling the Uncontrollable – Avoidance and Actions
Controlling the uncontrollable – Your dream trip is on the horizon. You pause from your packing to pick up the morning paper. What is it this time – a bombing, hijacking, shooting, hostage taking, or kidnapping? That sinking feeling strikes your stomach. What do you do now? How are you supposed to protect yourself? You decided, on a happier day that you will not be held captive by fear but there it is, rearing its ugly head from around the corner. You are only human and that anxiety is a completely natural reaction. Take a breath. Give your voice of reason a chance to weigh in. Front page, dramatic, headline grabbing world events easily steal our attention. But try to put things into perspective. According to the U.S. State Department, the leading cause of tourist death and injury is motor vehicle accidents? It seems we should worry more about driving and crossing streets, and less about bombs and hijackings. Terrorism deaths fall far down the list of greatest risks after motor vehicle accidents, homicide, drowning, suicide, plane crashes, and drug use.
That probably offers you little comfort. You are seeking ways to exercise control over a world that increasingly seems to be spinning out of control. I empathize. As the owner of a tour company, I carry a responsibility for my guests. My highest priority is their health and safety. They have paid their hard earned money for the knowledge that I am there to serve them. When trouble strikes, they depend on me to be the one with the answers, who can think on her feet, and take charge. It is my voice that will speak for them when they may be unable to speak for themselves.
Over the years I have responded to a plethora of emergencies. They have included an appendectomy on an Antarctic cruise, an arm with multiple breaks in the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, lost passports, and muggings. Those are common types of emergencies that travelers encounter, along with twisted ankles and pickpocketing. But one of my recent group tours really did have a brush with terror that caused us all to re-examine our daily travel practices and to assess our safety protocols.
Each spring I offer a multi-generational trip. It includes various combinations of grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and young girls ranging in age from 6-80. The sense of responsibility for the children weighs heavily on everyone.
Our day called for exploring the canals of Amsterdam and visiting the Museum of Bags and Purses. But my cell phone lit up with messages inquiring about our safety. Upon checking, I found the airport in Brussels had suffered a bombing. That was only a 2-hour drive from us. Initial reports spoke of accomplices being pursued in Amsterdam with shots being fired. The international TV channel claimed that all of Europe was paralyzed with fear. Funny, we had to directly ask locals in order to elicit any reactions from them at all. Things were not at all like what was being reported. But it was definitely time for a grown-up sit-down meeting to assess the situation. Was there any real danger to us? Did we need to adjust our plans? How should we communicate with home? We wanted to stay calm with the children but we also had to be realistic. And most importantly, what steps could we take to remain safe and restore our sense of wellbeing?
What we learned that day was to transfer anxiety into positive actions instead of negative reactions. Proactive steps can protect you. What is needed is a two-pronged approach. The first is to consider the keys to avoiding problems. The second is having a plan in place to deal with situations that could arise. Emergencies come in all sizes and shapes. Yours could be an illness, accident, injury or crime. It could also be a natural disaster such as the tsunami in Sri Lanka, a hurricane in New Orleans, or an earthquake in San Francisco. It could an unlikely mall shooting, airport bombing, or hotel attack.
Even the best-laid plans do not guarantee that you will never encounter an emergency. But taking proper precautions and having a plan, allow you and your loved ones to rest in the knowledge that you have taken good care of yourself and are prepared to handle any eventuality. Put down the newspaper, resume your packing, and get out there putting these points to work for you.
- Maintain a low profile with a calm demeanor. Calling attention to yourself or being overly demanding puts a dangerous focus on you. You have seen those people and you do not want to be one.
- Dress appropriately. Inappropriate or flashy clothing and jewelry set you apart as a foreigner and make you vulnerable. You are a guest in the host country and it benefits you to dress respectfully. Dress and act to blend in. The added bonus is that you will also score better bargains in the market when you appear more modest.
- Do not wear religious symbols or American logos and flags. Most people-to-people interactions are friendly but there are those out there with serious issues about our government or your religion. Those repercussions can be very dangerous for you and anyone with whom you are traveling.
- Carry your passport securely on your body. It should be in a money belt next to your skin, not floating around your pocket, purse, or hotel safe. It identifies you if you are unable to communicate for yourself in an emergency and documents your citizenship in the event you must make a hasty exit. Record your medical information (conditions, allergies and medications) and emergency contacts in your passport. Bonus tip – Wear a medical alert if you travel alone or have a serious medical condition.
- Stay away from demonstrations, political gatherings, or riots. You do not have a stake in the discussion. The mood of a group can change quickly as a mob mentality develops. Even a seemingly calm situation can quickly turn violent. The police or military could intervene at any time, putting you in greater danger.
- Enroll in the U.S. State Department Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This free service allows the U.S. government to contact you with travel advisories, helps your family contact you in case of an emergency, and assists the government in locating you in a natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency.
- Money talks. Carry some cash. U.S. dollars and local currency speak a language that credit cards do not. I refer to it as Big Problem/Big Money; when a $100 bill speaks louder than five twenties. Cash is also the backup you need in the event of an interruption to the banking system due to a power outage or cyber-terrorism.
3. A local map will guide you if you need to evacuate or relocate. Your usual route could be blocked. That map in your pocket will insure that you are able to move with purpose.
4. Have a functional cell phone loaded with pertinent information including your emergency contacts, contacts for the local U.S. Embassy, your air carrier, hotel, travel companions, and the local emergency number. It may not be 911. Duplicate your critical information on paper in the event your cell phone is missing or not operational.
Be aware of the coverage your travel insurance provides. Carry the phone number and policy information.