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Erstwhile Dangerous Places

tallinn estonia cathedralEastern Bloc
The Eastern bloc may be among the most visitor-friendly and tourist-ready regions of the world, and quite a bit of the region is breathtakingly beautiful, with a mix of period architecture that escaped, and thereby defied, the march of franchising, globalization and many of the more commercial historical currents of the 20th century. Your choices here are almost limitless, but do your homework. A city like Tallinn, Estonia, for example, maintains much more Old World charm than does, say, Plovdiv in Bulgaria, which is dominated by Soviet-style cement edifices.

As mentioned above, the recently rather sullied perception of Westerners and Americans has recovered a bit, but caution is still recommended in this Muslim-dominated region. Note that Bali is predominantly Hindu, and is an extremely (sometimes too much so) popular exception to this rule.

Kenya has experienced a surge of tourist interest; safaris there can be sold out months in advance. Terror attacks in 1998 and 2002 may have actually made the country more safe, at least on a day-to-day basis, as Kenyan officials have stepped up security efforts. More recently, the country saw election-related violence and demonstrations in 2007 and 2008, and some political tension remains in certain regions. However, tourist areas such as game reserves and national parks are generally safe. The U.S. State Department and other governments currently warn against travel to certain regions (including the area near the Somali border).

1. Check the travel advisories of other countries
The travel advisories of the U.S. State Department are sometimes considered slightly myopic of the big picture. For a more global view, check the corresponding advisories of other Western, English-speaking countries such as Canada and the U.K. For links to these countries' advisories as well as tips on how to interpret them, see Travel Warnings and Advisories.

2. Hire a guide
Guides can do much better than get you out of jams -- they can assure that you don't get into any. Their knowledge of the local language, current events and safety issues can literally be a lifesaver when you're traveling in an unfamiliar place. Guides are motivated by self-interest; if you get hassled, they get no more tourist business.

3. Use a tour company
Most tour operators working in once-dangerous locations are no shrinking violets; these folks know that your package must come with safety provisions included. The surf guide we hired in El Salvador, Edgard Schleusz of K59 Surf Tours, put us up in a nearly empty country club right on the point at Zunsal Beach, a perfect setup. Edgard seemed to be known equally well by both reputable and less savory sorts, so he could move around comfortably. We sometimes felt like the safest people in the country.

4. Know how to contact your embassy
While traveling in Guatemala, an El Salvadoran friend of mine was assaulted, bound and abandoned in an episode that directly caused a Travel Warning to be issued and ultimately ended a ring of official corruption at many levels of law enforcement. He has dual citizenship, and despite protests from the Guatemalan police, invoked his U.S. citizenship when reporting the incident (after an escape that plays like a James Bond scene); FBI agents showed up shortly thereafter. Clearly, the FBI is going to be more persuasive than your broken Spanglish. If you get into trouble, you need to know how to get out of it; the embassy is your first and best contact.

embassy usa britain uk flagsTo find a U.S. embassy in your next destination, check out our Embassy Search.

The State Department recommends that Americans register their trips when spending more than a month in a foreign country, or when traveling to areas of unrest.

5. Choose your lodging carefully
Of all the details you can dedicate yourself to getting right, I would concentrate on safe, clean lodging. You will want a place where you can:

  • leave your stuff (inquire about a safe for your valuables)
  • trust that your health is not in jeopardy
  • get solid advice
  • find safe haven
  • expect sufficient security, especially after dark
  • count on the communications system, particularly telephones
  • have recourse if something goes wrong

    You might also ask about climate control (that's air-conditioning to you); it is a great luxury in many locations, but it could also come in handy if you're taken ill or have to get work done during a vacation.

    You might consider staying at a Western chain hotel if available. On one hand, it may have better security; conversely, it might be more likely to be a target for crime. This is precisely the type of question an embassy can answer for you; they are equipped and willing to give relatively "routine information" of this type.

    6. Arrange for transportation ahead of time
    You are never more vulnerable than when you arrive at the airport with thousands of dollars worth of luggage and gear; the airport hustle is the easiest and most lucrative job in the business. Either arrange for transport from the airport with your hotel or guide, or take only "official" transport vetted by airport personnel or other authorities.

    7. Protect your passport
    Lose your passport in the wrong place, and you are in for a world of hurt that could last some time, and have implications far beyond simply an extra few days in a hotel.

    8. Money and shopping: know what to expect
    American banks may not carry much clout in some developing nations; don't expect to pay for every meal (or even every hotel) by whipping out your plastic. In Central America, on the other hand, some governments have adopted the U.S. dollar as the official currency, while greenbacks are accepted readily in many others. This doesn't mean you can buy your breakfast or get a haircut with a credit card; the "green" in greenbacks is the operative term, so be sure to bring some cash.

    Shopping may be an erratic and bare bones experience. For example, markets will typically offer only one brand of most items; menus may be sparse and not all items available; hours of operation may be unpredictable.

    In El Salvador, you could not purchase T-shirts, bobbleheads or logo visors -- in fact, I saw no souvenirs of any kind, which was very refreshing. The rule of thumb in places like this is that the markets have regular people buying regular things -- thread, slippers, soup bowls. For now, you'll find no swarm of tourist traps.

    9. Cope with communications
    Communications in developing nations can be very frustrating; in El Salvador and part of Nicaragua, for example, many "land line" telephones could not connect to the cell phone network whatsoever. This can sometimes be circumvented using calling cards. For more information, see our guide to international calls.

    10. Learn the language
    In many of these locations, exposure to English has been minimal. Although a number of the burgeoning tourist entrepreneurs are multilingual and may have even spent time abroad, outside the confines of your tour guide bubble, you are going to need some language skills. No hacking it along in broken English; you will know the full extent of Babel.

    11. Consider cruise ships
    One way for travelers to dip a toe into previously forbidden waters without getting in too deep is to take a cruise that visits such destinations briefly and safely. For example, a few cruise lines are planning to stop in Bandar Abbas, Iran in the next couple of years.

    12. Expect to share the wealth
    The assumption in many distressed regions is that you are insanely wealthy -- and, in fact, you are. I have a tradition of getting a haircut when traveling (I consider it something of a chickenshit tattoo), and a local elder helped me find a barber in La Libertad. For his troubles, he asked for a quarter, the cost of about one ounce of coffee in the U.S. Without feeling like you are being taken, and without too much pain, you can also share the wealth, often where and when it is most needed.

    To discuss this and other Traveler's Ed articles, visit the Traveler's Ed Message Board.

    Go Anyway,
    Ed Hewitt
    Features Editor
    The Independent Traveler
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