Posted June 5, 2012 by in Adventure

Steve McDonald’s Guide to Not Dying in Scary Countries

In my life, I’ve had the fortune of visiting forty-four countries, and if I were forced to write down my favorites, you might mistake it for a list of Government Travel Warnings.

I was in Japan when the tsunami turned Sendai into a water park. I was drinking tea with Hezbollah militants when the UN tanks rolled south through Lebanon. I’ve jumped over bottomless crevasses on Mt. Everest, and I’ve been attacked by a very ferocious kangaroo in the Outback (peaceful creatures, until you try to put glasses on their heads for a picture).

The fact that I’m still alive might speak two things about me:

1)   That I’m a fucking moron—a very lucky fucking moron—with no regard for my poor mother’s heart rate or emotional well-being.

2)   When it comes to traveling in unstable or dangerous places, I might know how to avoid getting machete’d in the face.

For this week’s bit of Backpackology, I’d like stress that the world isn’t as dangerous as the media portrays, and if someone tries to tell you it is—well, I’m sorry for them. The closest they’ll ever get to the Eiffel Tower is probably Epcot, and the only Sphinx they’ll likely ever see is outside a casino in Las Vegas. So for the intrepid wanderers among you, for those with a sense of adventure, I’ve stitched together my five best tips to ‘not dying in scary countries’…

STEP #1: Don’t Go to (Very) Scary Countries

Before setting out on your adventure, there’s careful research to be done: who knows, maybe going to Iraqi Kurdistan is the travel equivalent of sticking a fork in the toaster. To find out, start by skimming your Government Travel Warnings. These lists tend to be pretty agoraphobic, and unless you’re heading to Western Europe or the white half of the Caribbean, you’ll probably find a few alarmist paragraphs bidding you to stay home. The Travel Advisories of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK tend to be more illuminating than America’s, and will tell you if there’s only a small area to avoid, instead of damning an entire country outright. They’re still quite paranoid, however, and some perfectly safe countries make the list for political reasons.

If your destination has a warning, this only means that further investigation is required. Head to your local bookshop and peruse the latest travel guides, or be techno-savvy and visit the guidebook’s newfangled internet computer website.  This will provide a more honest depiction of the safety situation. However, the best way to find the most current and accurate security information is to directly ask locals and fellow travelers in that area. Internet forums, like Lonely Planet’s ‘Thorn Tree,’ make this easy and convenient. If they say it’s safe, it probably is. If they say it’s not, maybe your dream vacation to Iraqi Kurdistan can wait till next year.

STEP #2: Hide!

Screw them, you’re going to Iraqi Kurdistan anyway! (YOLO). Despite your disregard for Government Travel Warnings, you know Iraq isn’t all tickles and sunshine. Two weeks ago, a Japanese tourist got shot in the face while haggling for a carpet, and even though it was an isolated incident, you’re not ready to take chances. You need to avoid extra attention by hiding in plain sight.

Disguise yourself as a local. Don a baggy, amorphous robe; wear what everyone else is wearing. Remember to always walk with purpose; act like you’re late for your friend’s arranged marriage. Pretend to know where you’re going, especially when you don’t. In my travels, I’ve learned that locals rarely stand around staring helplessly at maps, so if you’re lost, duck into a coffee shop or alleyway to get your bearings.

Other things that might blow your cover include: a camera bag, a daypack, and your complexion. If you’re a pasty Irishman visiting the Congo, it might be difficult to convince locals you’re from the nearby village, Umbootokembe. In such cases, attempting the local clothes might only inspire laughter, but you should still dress conservatively, keep your head down, and maintain a low profile.

Oh, and don’t you dare wear a fannypack, or I swear to god I’ll fly all the way to Erbil and martyr you myself. This is tough love right here.

STEP #3: Call Your Embassy

The prevailing wisdom is that, when you arrive in a risky country, you immediately notify your embassy. Don’t expect them to do too much. They’re mostly there to process diplomatic paperwork, so in the event of an actual emergency, they won’t be sending Keifer Sutherland to find you.

It doesn’t hurt to check yourself in though. Just when you leave, remember to check back out, to avoid causing an unnecessary manhunt.

STEP #4: Run Away!

When the crowds start screaming for Obama’s heart on a spear, avoid all urges to linger and watch what happens. In the event of riots or protest, seek shelter in your Embassy. Unless you’re American, in which case your Embassy is already on fire. For us Yankees, I recommend heading to the Embassy of a more innocuous country, like Canada or New Zealand.

Fun Fact: You’ll never see a crowd shouting for the Prime Minister of New Zealand’s severed head, because unless you’re in New Zealand, no one will know who that is.

STEP #5: (Un)Common Sense

Surprisingly, all those things your mother taught you about walking alone at night and never getting into cars with strangers still apply in third-world combat zones. Don’t walk around at night. Don’t go into bad neighborhoods (ask your hotel receptionist if you need to be informed). Avoid getting into cars with strangers, or following them into isolated areas. Avoid large public gatherings. If you follow these rules, you should be fine.

If you’re constantly worrying about the violence you see in media images, it will only hamper your trip. Relax. Humanity is more peaceful than Fox News likes to tell you. They’ll never do a breaking report on how everything is going fine and great again in Ethiopia.

Just trust your judgment. And if you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, don’t ever be afraid to assert yourself.

Remember: A good eye-poking or kick to the knee transcends all language barriers.


For more tips and tricks to living on the road, click the Backpackology 101 tab at the top of this page.

To learn the Top Five Countries You Thought Were Dangerous but Really Aren’t, click here.

To watch me run away from Taliban troops, click here.


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For more dangerous and gloriously irresponsible travel advice, check out “Top Five List of Countries You Thought Were Dangerous But Really Aren’t

Or click the “Danger = Fun” tab at the top of the page.

This adventure was too dangerous: “Flirting with Afghanistan: The Smuggler’s Bazaar”

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