Last night I talked about my recent travels. I met a bunch of people who had heard stories about me, and the places I’ve gone, and things that I’d done, but they’d never met me. Early on, one woman commented: “The world today seems, so dangerous, so unsafe.”
I’ve heard this a lot. More than I might like to admit, and from different groups of people. And yes, there are some scary situations that can happen when traveling, but I’ve learned, partially from Peace Corps training and papa Serghiy, my greatest travel safety tool.
Making friends with locals.
No joke, thats it. Whether I’ve been in Tajikistan, Ukraine, Egypt or India (though to be honest, the Indian friendships were almost all started by my lovely girlfriend), I’ve tried to make local friends. This is three-fold.
First: If you make local friends, they are going to invite you to cool places, like a Diwali festival in their village, or to a melon patch at 9 at night to eat melons under a full moon in 34 degree Cent. weather. These are amazing stories and memories that no tour book, no tour group, and more importantly no one else can give me or take away from me, and are therefore far more valuable than any thing else I buy on the trip.
Two: They will teach you some of the local customs. Some of the “problems” that traveller’s face when they are over seas is because they break some fairly sacrosanct rule for locals, that they think is not a big deal, or didn’t even know was a rule. In certain places in India, don’t kiss in the street, hold hands, or be overly affectionate. In Tajikistan, hand over heart to say thank you, no touching unless they come to hug/kiss cheek first, and always drink at least one cup of tea (its a fairly big insult not to drink any tea or coffee). Ukraine NEVER SHAKE HANDS OVER A DOOR! and put empty bottles on the ground. Also, hard for me, never whistle in the house. These are things that you might be able to learn in books, but its those local friends that you will always explain to you some of the local customs that you might not get. Or at least tell you politely not to do it, instead of freaking out.
and Third: They are your friend. If trouble is coming, they will help you, warn you, or at the very least help you react to the problem. My best example of this is Tajikistan. The country has problems, the economy is… well, poor, but the people are exceedingly nice and hospitable.
One friday morning a bomb went off in the city I lived in, as you may know. By noon my two Tajik friends had already decided that a) I was going to leave the city for the weekend to keep me safe, and b) all the logisitcs. I literally got a phone call that said, you will spend the weekend with me, go here and meet my father. One of their fathers was in town already and picked me up, we went through tons of police check points. At each one the father explained who I was and that, even though he never met me, his son trusted me 100% so therefore he did too. The police waved us through, and I soon found myself in a small village, that I had been to once before. Not until a wedding a few months later had I found out that these guys made sure I was safe. I was constantly with one of three people at all times who were greatly connected to power structures in the community and could get help in a pinch, that one of them always had a way to protect me (soviet union army handgun I saw in the glove compartment of one car), and as one of them put it, “we would rather die, than see you die or hurt in our land.”
People I worked with in Tajikistan were also concerned without a doubt, but friendships create something more than concern.
When people back home said, aren’t you afraid? I answered honestly that no, I felt really safe, because I had my back covered.
Think about how you try to help your friends on a day to day basis if you see they have a bad mood. Now think of how you try to help them out if there are bigger problems.
So for anyone who is planning on traveling far and wide, I say this. The world is not as safe as if you stayed at home all day, that is true, but the way you get through the problems at home, is the same way you get through problems abroad. You create a network of friends. So if you are going to travel, its safe…ish. It just depends on how you travel.
*I’d like to say this isn’t the only tool I use to stay safe, its just the most important, and the most fun.