Safe Travelling in Developing Markets
Declan Power offers some personal security tips to equip you effectively for safe, efficient travel in the developing world, particularly through airports and on the street.
“You must come with me, sir.” You’re just off the plane, you’re jetlagged, it’s dark and the humidity is stifling. As you entered the airport terminal you were assailed with a cacophony of noise and a wall of wet heat. There’s a slew of your fellow travellers milling around and a plethora of officials in different uniforms. You’ve just arrived for a business meeting the next morning and all you want is your bed. Your company has supposedly booked you a room at a nearby hotel and a taxi.
You just want to get processed and get the hell out of there, but where’s that guy gone with your bag? Who’s in bloody charge here? What on earth is happening?
Welcome to Africa…or, indeed, any other part of the developing world and many of the less well-known parts of the Middle East or former Soviet Republics.
For today’s business traveller, like any other traveller, the world has become a much smaller place. Modern transport and communications have opened up the world in a way never seen before. This has also led to new and exciting market opportunities to be explored and developed. But with these new markets there comes a caveat: do not assume familiarity because the world has shrunk in terms of travel and the Internet. If you are well travelled in the western world, do not assume that this will equip you effectively for safe, efficient travel in the developing world. The scenario outlined above is a typical experience when arriving into any of the main airports in West Africa, or indeed most other African states, where apparent confusion, inordinate queue lengths and bungling officialdom are the first obstacles you will encounter.
So, how to prepare? First off, be aware that a lot of international flights into and out of Africa are at night. Try to be as rested as possible so you will have your wits about you.
A little preparation about the language and culture is in order. Do they speak English as their official language? Even if they do, do not assume all will be plain sailing.
For example, flying into Accra in Ghana will be quite different in terms of communication than Conakry in Guinea. Even if English is spoken, remember the dialects can be hard to follow depending on the country. Even though Sierra Leone and Liberia are right beside one another and both countries speak English, there is quite a difference in accent, dialogue and culture.
Even if you have a ‘fixer’ (about which more later) you will probably not have them available until you pass through Immigration and Customs checks. Here you must be careful. Accept that officialdom in Africa is unwieldy and tiresome and sit tight as officials pore over your passport and visa. To try and speed things up have (preferably colour) photocopies with you of your passport and visa and other relevant documentation, such as your hotel bookings and details of the company you are doing business with. While it’s also good to have these things on a memory stick, have hard copies. Don’t expect to see too many working computers, printers or photocopiers about.
Do not express annoyance or impatience with your new hosts. You’re on their territory now and a snappy white European trying to tell them how to do things will definitely lead to you being left sitting for a lengthy period.
It may be tempting when travelling in developing countries to try and speed up officialdom by throwing a few dollars or euro at the problem. Many people who have been to Middle Eastern countries will testify to the efficacy of this. However, again depending on the country’s culture, such an offer may have the opposite effect. Some African officials may be highly insulted and further bog you down with officialdom, or may see you as an easy mark and continue to prey on you for your entire time in the country.
If your paperwork is in order, and you have a liaison or ‘fixer’ waiting for you, then you are better to remain firm and mannerly when dealing with officials, even if you suspect they are waiting for you to grease their palm to speed up the process.
Be very wary of uniformed personnel and establish quickly who are actually police officers or state officials. It is not unknown for weary travellers who’ve arrived at night and have finally exited Customs to be beckoned over by a uniformed official who tells them: “You must come with me now.” It frequently turns out that the ‘official’ is a porter on the make for a local taxi firm or hotel chain and before you know it you’re travelling at an exorbitant rate to a hotel you’re not booked into.
Prior preparation is the key to getting through airports swiftly and efficiently. In summary: • Research the local culture • Have a ‘fixer’ appointed for you by your point of contact in-country • Have your documents photocopied and to hand • Be prepared for queues and be patient
Your ‘fixer’ should be someone who speaks English, to a standard you can comprehend, be recommended by a trustworthy source, and be of a standing in their home community to command a degree of respect from officials and service workers.
When travelling in the city of a developing country you need to be aware that the main threat to you will be due to your western appearance and skin colour.
There’s no point in trying to change that and blend in by dressing like locals as soon as you arrive. Nothing is as likely to pinpoint you as being a ‘gawaja’ or ‘mizungu’ (i.e. foreigner, depending on which part of Africa or the Middle East you’re in) as trying too hard to blend in. Dressing in local garb, before you have earned the right, can at best make you an object of derision or at worst attract open hostility.
Dress for anonymity and comfort when in transit and save your business attire for the actual meeting. Women should go for more conservative options in attire, regardless of whether it’s an Islamic country or not.
When travelling, especially on foot, it’s a good idea to have a ‘throw-down’ wallet – or, indeed, a full ‘throw-down’ packet of documents and wallet – with some local currency in it, maybe also a few dollars and some out-of-date credit cards. (Dollars are still the most respected hard currency, always accepted, and easily changed for local currency.)
If someone attempts to mug or rob you, produce the fake wallet and throw it down on the ground. Most assailants are focused on getting valuables or money, rather than wanting to harm you, although some may not want to leave a witness to a crime. As soon as you throw the wallet, and attention is diverted, exit as fast as you can and keep distance between you and the assailant.
While most people assume your typical mugger in the developing world will be down at heel in appearance, don’t be too surprised if he or she happens to be wearing a police or military uniform. Personnel in the security forces are usually notoriously under-paid and also not very well trained or led. It is not unusual for them to supplement their income by shaking down unsuspecting tourists. Often this is done by claiming a ‘tax’ must be paid to drive in a certain area or to visit a certain location. Sometimes it is as well to pay what is normally a small amount and continue on your way.
But in some cases there will be outright attempts by police to rob at gunpoint. Again the ‘throw-down’ wallet may come in handy here. However, the best advice is not to engage with police unless you are dealing with an officer other than that of the rank-and-file.
Remember that when dealing with armed assailants the type of weapon they are using makes a difference.
If it is a mob and some are wielding side-arms (pistols and revolvers) and you are in a vehicle, you are in a strong position to get away. Pistols have a very short range of accuracy and, even then, only when used by people with proper training.
However, assailants with long-arms (rifles of either a military or sporting nature) will have a much longer range and are more likely to allow the assailant to harm you from a distance, whether you are on foot or in a car.
The weapon of choice of either security forces or guerrillas and criminals in Africa is the ubiquitous AK47 Assault Rifle or Kalashnikov. As the name suggests, its origin is Russian. It is durable, so even if it looks rusted over, it can still kill efficiently. It is easily recognisable by its banana-shaped magazine, which is under the weapon, in front of the trigger-guard.
Trust Your Instincts
On a general basis, the most effective tool to keeping safe is one’s situational awareness. Be alert, trust your instincts. If you’re in a tight spot and things start to feel edgy, quietly withdraw.
However, in the main, carry yourself with a quiet confidence and people will respond accordingly. Prior preparation in terms of routes, culture and points of contact will never be time wasted.
When travelling in the developing world, always give it the respect it deserves.