Expat Survival Guide : Dealing with Danger
Dealing with Danger
It goes without saying that, during your expat travels, you’ll probably stand out from the local population: not just for your skin or hair colour, or your facial features, but the way you dress, the car you drive and the way you speak. This makes you an obvious target, since expats are perceived as wealthy and unlikely to put up much of a struggle if attacked. Men and women are in equal danger of attack.
Always walk confidently, so that you don’t appear as easy pickings. If you do need to consult a map, stop in a café or shop to do so. If the street is very quiet, or shadowy, walk in the centre of the pavement and give corners a wide turn, to avoid direct contact with whoever may be waiting just out of view. Carry an extra wallet with a small amount of local currency: to hand over as a decoy to muggers. If you think you’re being followed, check for reflections in shop windows or cross the road; to shake off your would be assailant, enter a hotel, café, shop (or even the gate of a private residence).
While busy streets bring a certain degree of safety, jostling crowds make pickpocketing more of a problem. Keep all valuables in inside pockets and ensure bags are well zipped and visible in front of your body.
Walk to face oncoming traffic, so that cars can’t creep up on you from behind and, on returning home, have your keys to hand for quick entry.
In honesty, if you are set upon by a mugger, it’s wisest to comply calmly. If their intentions are more disturbing, you have but a few moments to decide how to respond but I advise letting rip and making yourself more trouble than is worth their while.
Being drunk also makes you an easy target; if you can’t walk straight, you won’t be running away from whoever is ‘stalking you’. Use your common sense.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that all your new local ‘friends’ are fascinated to meet you. Some may have ulterior motives – including robbery. Be suspicious if approached out of the blue; there may be a hidden agenda.
Drink spiking is a real danger, so never leave your beverage unguarded. A blue tinge can be a giveaway, although there is often no real change in odour, colour or taste.
The drugs are fast acting, especially when combined with alcohol, and the side effects (besides being robbed, raped or photographed in a compromising position, for blackmail purposes) can be nasty, including temporary paralysis and memory loss.
You’ll start feeling sleepy and it takes but a moment for someone to guide you out the door and into a car or alleyway.
Ask a trusted friend to watch your drink if you need to ‘powder your nose’ and, if in doubt (it looks moved, topped up or tastes strange), don’t drink it. Your barman may even be responsible; if you’re concerned, order beer by the bottle and request opening it yourself (or watch very carefully). To be extra cautious, you can hold your thumb over the opening between sips.
Never accept drinks from strangers (or new ‘friends’) and don’t share or swap drinks. You’re more likely to be on guard in a seedy bar, but drink spiking can happen anywhere: at an upmarket hotel or a private party. Moreover, men are just as susceptible as women.
Be aware of where you’re parking your car. You don’t want to return to a dimly lit, quiet location, and should avoid being near fences / rubbish bins, behind which people may hide. Where possible, travel in a group rather than alone.
When driving, keep your doors locked and your windows closed. Vary your route to and from work / home / the shops; the aim is not to make yourself an easier target than necessary.
Many roadside accidents are genuine but some are also staged, with the intention of removing you from your car. Don’t take everything you see at face value in your desire to be a good Samaritan. The same is true of cyclists / pedestrians ‘falling’ in front of your car; trust your instinct. Another car may ‘bump’ yours, as if by accident, to encourage you to pull over and assess the damage, or a driver may flash you or wave to you from alongside, as if to alert you to a problem with your vehicle. These have all been used to faciliate robbery.
Most car-jackers are armed so, if forced out of your car, it’s best to make slow movements and avoid eye contact, complying with their requests. Don’t speak unless spoken to and hand over your car keys when asked. A claim on your car insurance is better than on your life insurance.
A common place for car-jacking is the front gate of your own home, so be wary of being followed home, and look out for people ‘loitering’ on your approach. If you’re uncertain, don’t stop. Drive to the nearest hotel or busy public place.
Traffic lights are another common hijack point. If you have genuine concerns, it can be a good idea to drive straight through (carefully) if the road is quiet and the path seems clear. You don’t want to cause an accident so must gauge your behaviour on your knowledge of local road safety and the potential danger you feel yourself to be in. Leave enough room between your vehicle and the one in front, so that you can pull away if you need to (if you can’t see their rear tyres, you’re too close). Keep a check in all your mirrors, to monitor your surroundings.
In some countries, fake police road blocks are used to stop your car. If an armed assailant enters your car and requires you to drive away, consider crashing the car (at low speed) into a tree or wall; you don’t want to be kidnapped and forced to drive into the middle of nowhere. Be aware, however, that this will anger your attacker and could provoke violence.
If police corruption is prevalent in your host country, it’s likely that you’ll be stopped at some point with the express intention of money being extorted: even those travelling on diplomatic plates are not immune to the occasional ‘shake down’. If you don’t mind a long wait, you can act the innocent until the police allow you move on; if your time is more precious, you may decide to pay up. Just remember that each time you do so, you’re encouraging the police in this practice.
Check with your embassy about local travel warnings. For example, in early September, 2012, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office strongly advised against travel to Nigeria’s northeast, due to potential terrorist attacks. Check online to find out which areas of your host country may be ‘no-go’. The authorities might even consider your travel into specific conflict zones illegal, leading to your detention.
Please do add your own tips and experiences below.
Part One – It’s Life … But Not as You Knew It
Part Two – The Truth About Saying Farewell to Friends and Family
Part Three – Infidelity and Relationships on the Rocks
Part Four – Tears and Tantrums
Part Five – Little Beasties – When Not to be a Welcoming Host
Part Seven – Customs and Etiquette