I’d never seen anything like it: I’d just landed in Buenos Aires in the summer of 2005 and angry mobs ruled the streets. Every week, huge throngs of protestors marched down major avenues, waving signs and protesting the government. Many carried wooden clubs. You did your best to stay out of their way but sometimes that was impossible.
George Bush was in his second term and was extremely unpopular. I was scared when he paid a visit. Pandemonium broke out. I heard the explosions outside as I stayed indoors and watched the protests on CNN.
Molotov cocktails were hurled at a McDonalds I sometimes frequented. A local Burger King was trashed. It was crazy. I didn’t leave my friend’s apartment where I was hiding until late. When I finally left late at night it looked like Buenos Aires had been attacked. The streets were completely trashed.
This experience and other close calls I’ve had in other countries have left me with some rules of engagement to avoid getting clubbed or otherwise attacked while abroad:
Do whatever you can to not look American
Whether or not you actually are American is beside the point here: try never to look American abroad. This is often a challenge for me because I sound American. But I always stress that I am Swedish. Too many people feel the need to settle scores with Americans. I have had people angrily blurt out out Anti-American sentiment at me. The United States is too involved in global affairs for its citizens to not be affected. It’s not fair but it is also reality. BE CAREFUL.
Listen but do not speak
It’s good advice when starting a new job and it is good news when traveling: shut up. Hear people out but resist the temptation to chip in with your two cents. Nobody needs to know your political or other views. At least not when you are brand new. Your motivation in travel should be to learn, not proselytize. So do not pack a soap box.
Seek out a a strong source of local intel
Taxi drivers are great intel sources if you want to get the common view on the street. As soon as I step out of a foreign airport and into a cab I start quizzing the drivers on everything from local politics to entertainment and bad parts of town to avoid. (Incidentally, if I am catching a cab late at night, I always also ask them about family because this puts them in a positive mood for the most part and I minimize the risk of kidnapping or being over-charged.). In addition to cab drivers I
seek out guidance from friends and from others, like business owners, that have a pulse on common sentiment. That way I know how to conduct myself respectfully.
In December 1989 my family and I were living in the Philippines during a violent attempted military coup. Rebels swarmed into Manila, shutting down the airport and taking over key parts of the commercial center. Several military bases were captured and rebel airplanes shelled the presidential palace. I heard the bombs exploding on radio broadcasts. Our Swedish relatives were horrified. We, on the other hand, were perfectly fine. Why? Simple – we lived in a tiny town surrounded by jungle and sugar cane an hour and a half away from the action and nothing even remotely dangerous happened to us.
So if you are in a dangerous country, stay out of the hot spots. Rural areas give you an authentic, less commercial experience of a country and have the added side benefit of being peaceful. Be smart.
The better you attitude and ability to learn from locals, the safer you are. So travel with the right attitude. Live to learn and discover and experience new things. If you are willing to grow from exposure to new cultures and different ways of living, people will recognize that and look out for you. You will be far better equipped for savvy, global do-gooding…