When it comes to staying safe on the road, everyone always talks about common sense, as if it's a force field that will protect you and keep the zombies at bay. What exactly are they talking about? Well, since you're asking:
Don’t Flash Your Wealth
In nature, predators hunt the easiest targets, the lowest hanging fruit. Those who target tourists do the same. If they see you walking around with expensive jewelry and cameras, or thumbing through rolls of cash, you become the easy mark. This is especially true in developing countries, where signs of wealth are displayed less flagrantly. Leave your $10,000 wedding rings at home or in the hotel safe. Keep your camera in its bag unless you feel safe in the environment. Draw as little attention to yourself, and try to blend in. It’s the simplest and easiest way to avoid the unwelcome attention of predators.
Don’t Go Where You Shouldn’t
It sounds so simple, and yet it’s amazing how often this is the cause of unfortunate incidents. Every city has places you should avoid. If you don’t know what they are, just ask a local who will gladly tell you. Meanwhile, if it’s avalanche season and you’re advised not to go venturing into the backcountry, heed the warnings. Official government alerts are often over the top, but do some research before you dismiss them outright, and unknowingly find yourself in a conflict zone. If you are visiting a hot spot, make sure you’re in regular contact with friends, and let a government office know. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way when it comes to ensuring you’re not in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Trust your gut
Our intuition has always been there, we’ve just forgotten how to hear it clearly. When you’re travelling though, it can yell a little louder than normal. You’ll hear it telling you: Don’t eat that chicken, it looks undercooked! Don’t walk down that street, it looks too dark? This taxi is taking too long, I’m being ripped off! Common sense means knowing when to trust that little voice in your head, and dismissing it when it’s being too paranoid. It takes practice, but many of the unfortunate stories we hear in the news could have been avoided if people just listened to their gut. Your intuition is a crucial tool for staying safe.
Know where you’re staying
Carry a card with the name, phone number and address of the place you are staying, especially in countries where you don’t speak or understand the local language. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, wandering about for hours before I could remember the unpronounceable name of the hotel I was staying at, located on an unpronounceable street in an unpronounceable district. Most hotels have business cards at reception, so make sure you grab one. If you’re staying with friends, ask them to write down their address to show a taxi driver. The rules of common sense are common for a reason: because they are so simple.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Having traveled to over 100 countries, I firmly believe people would rather help you than hurt you. If you’re in a situation, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re in public and feel threatened, raise your voice, scream, make a commotion so that people know they should come to your aid. If you’re feeling sick, tell someone so they can get you to a doctor or pharmacy. If you can’t speak the language, use gestures. You’ll be surprised just how hospitable locals can be, and how much pride they take in making sure guests in their country are safe and happy. So much so that you’ll want to ask for directions repeatedly, since some locals would rather give you the wrong directions than tell you they don’t know the answer.
When it comes to your safety, you get what you pay for
In La Paz Bolivia, a very popular activity is to bike downhill a 67km road from the mountains into the jungle. A New Zealander who put safety first created it, but once it became a must-do activity for tourists, competitors popped by the dozen with other priorities in mind. They offer a cheaper price, but on cheaper bikes, without maintenance records. Subsequently over 15 tourists have died. The original company has had zero fatalities. Saving a few bucks is simply not worth your life when it comes to choosing between competing services. This is especially true for adventure outfitters, but also for transportation companies. Is the company reputable? Do they look and feel professional? Accidents still may happen, but cutting corners too often might lead to you flying off an edge.
Keep Online Backups of Your Passport, Details and Documents
If you lose everything, and I mean everything, make sure you have backups online. Send your webmail a protected Word doc containing your passport, insurance, banking information and passwords, addresses and contacts. Email yourself scanned copies of your passport and drivers license. Once you have all that information, you can begin the painful, yet necessary task of alerting all the relevant authorities about the theft or loss. But at least you’ll know who to call for help, and what information they’ll need to help you. Make sure, most importantly, you don’t forget your password to access this information online. It’s also a good idea not to keep all your valuables together. Just in case, when I travel I keep a back-up credit card stored in a different location.
Watch our for Common Scams
Read up on some of the most common scams so you’ll know what they are and how to avoid them. Fortunately, I’ve compiled a handy list for you right here. Crowded tourist attractions or markets are popular with pick pockets, so make sure your wallet is safely zipped up, and be vigilant about checking it’s still there. Carry your bags securely and be aware of your surroundings. Never, ever leave your luggage or bags unattended, especially in train or bus stations. Be friendly but weary of random people who approach you on the street.
Act Like You Belong
Scammers and thieves look for tourists displaying obvious signs of wealth, and also those who look nervous and uncomfortable. They might just say hello, but how you answer the question will determine whether you’re an easy mark. The key is to look relaxed and in control, no matter how freaked out and nervous you actually feel. Smile, make eye contact, be assertive but not aggressive. The goal is make it look like you’re too much work to bother with. I once found myself on the wrong bus and had to walk my way out of a South American slum. Inside I was panicking, but I kept my cool by strolling in the streets, smiling, looking like an out of place gringo who nevertheless knew where he was going. Locals are always more willing to help someone who’s behaving rationally than someone in a panic.
Always Carry Insurance, and Avoid Confrontation
Travel insurance is absolutely essential. A few dollars save your butt, and the peace of mind is priceless. Shop around, and read the policy to know what you’re covered for, and what’s excluded in the fine print. Insurance is there for a reason. Never, EVER confront someone threatening violence. It might be brave, but no watch, wallet or cash is worth getting hurt or killed. Remember that the vast majority of people travelling never experience any problems, but sometimes shit happens. Keep a clear head. Call the police to get a case number. Cancel your cards and find out about getting new ones. Contact your insurance company as soon as possible to file a claim. Resist the temptation to tarnish an entire country because of one unfortunate situation. You’ll be amazed at how people will come to your aid when you really need them. But with a little common sense, the chances are astronomically in your favour that you’ll be just fine.
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The Great Wars of Europe killed around 40 million soldiers, and as many as 70 million civilians. Without attempting to understand all this carnage, all I can say is that then, as now, somebody had to something about a situation that had become unacceptable. Somebody, in that case, was the domain of brave young men, including too many Canadian boys cut down in their prime. We remember them with over six thousand Canadian war memorials, honouring their names and sacrifice. Here are a few important ones you might find overseas, and the stories behind them.
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Vimy Ridge, France
Canadians lost around 65,000 soldiers in the human meat grinder that was World War 1 trench warfare. Their proudest moment at Vimy Ridge is one that many historians credit with establishing Canada’s identity as a young nation. Canadian battalions joined together for the first time to attack fortified German positions, sweeping forward with small victories, gaining as little as 100m at a push. The casualty count was high, but Canadian grit persevered, and the Germans were eventually overrun. In gratitude for their efforts, having contributed to a pivotal victory in the war, France gave the battlefield to Canada to forever establish a memorial, to both the soldiers who died at Vimy Ridge, and those who died elsewhere in the country without receiving a proper burial. Located 8km outside of the town of Arras, the 250 acre site is one of the few places to see actual WW1 trenches, although much of it is closed because of unexploded ammunition, and other safety reasons. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the memorial every year, be they proud Canadians, military buffs or veterans honouring the past.
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The Brookwood Memorial, England
The UK’s largest is military and civilian is Brookwood in the county of Surrey. It contains a 37-acre military section with memorials and burial grounds for over 5000 soldiers, mostly from the Commonwealth. Over 2731 Canadian soldiers are buried here, the vast majority from the Second World War. Located on green and peaceful grounds, the impressive circular Brookwood Memorial was unveiled by the Queen in 1953, with the names of 3500 soldiers "to whom the fortunes of war denied a known and honoured grave". The Canadian High Commission holds a Remembrance Day service here each year.
Gapyeong Monument, South Korea
When North Korea invaded its southern counterpart in 1950, Canadian troops became a significant part of an international force assembled by the United Nations. Some 27,000 troops were involved in the conflict, comprising members of air, sea and land divisions. While there is still conflict in the region, the armistice has held since 1953. Today, a South Korean and Canadian flag fly together at the Gapyeong Monument, which contains two additional memorials on either side, honouring the 2nd Battalion for the their efforts in the Battle of Hill 677, and naming all participating Canadian units respectively. According to a plaque on the main monument, Canadian forces suffered 516 deaths, and 1255 wounded during the war. It further mentions that “these valiant Canadians embodied their country's commitments to safeguard the fundamental principles of the United Nations.” Much as they continue to do today as part of the international forces securing Afghanistan from the Taliban.
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The war against an internationally condemned regime continues in Afghanistan, which, like all wars, dooms its soldiers, civilians and victims to violence and struggle. In Kandahar, where Canadian forces have been particularly involved in operations, a Memorial Inuksuk and plaque honours the 152 soldiers who have perished thus far in the country, along with other coalition soldiers who have fallen.
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Malta Memorial, Malta
At the entrance to Malta’s capital city of Valetta, a memorial honours 2298 Commonwealth air crew who perished in the battle over the Mediterranean, with no known graves. A striking bronze-plated Golden Eagle sits atop a circular column, with panels on the base inscribed with the names of the fallen, including 285 Royal Canadian Air Force members. The inscription reads: over these and neighbouring lands and seas the airmen whose names are recorded here fell in raid or sortie and have no known grave. A further Latin inscription, translated into English states: An island resolute of purpose remembers resolute men.
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St Julien Memorial, Belgium
The use of poison gas is so despised today that it helped form the basis of the USA’s decision to invade Iraq. Even in the bloodiest of wars, soldiers have honour. In World War I, Germany pioneered using mustard gas against the Allied forces, resulting in utter devastation and horror. In Belgium’s St Julien sits a park with a memorial to Canadian forces who were instrumental in defending the Western Front against some of the first poison gas attacks in the bloody Battle of Ypres. With the gas unleashed, Allied lines scattered in panic. Before the German infantry could attack, the First Canadian Division assembled into position, frantically holding the line in the wave of repeated attacks. They held the line for 48 hours before reinforcements arrived. Over 6000 casualties, and 2000 dead. Carved in rock, the memorial is a striking 11m high statue called The Brooding Soldier, his head forever lowered in memory of his comrades.
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Passchendaele Memorial, Belgium
November, 1917. In 16 days of heavy fighting, the Canadian Corps were hit with 15 654 casualties and over 4 000 dead, all in a quest to occupy the high ground and capture the town of Passchendaele. Heavy rain and poor drainage turned this offence, part of the Third Battle of Ypres, into a muddy, bloody quagmire. 4000 young men with dreams, hopes and families. Men who could have worked the land, started innovative businesses, built homes for future generations. Standing waist high in cold mud, their friends falling around them, they continued to push on, eventually capturing the high ground. When the Italian army were badly beaten elsewhere, British Commanders diverted operations to support them, abandoning the momentum created during two phases of battle, and at a great cost of life. Passchendaele became an international symbol of senseless violence. The Memorial, located on the Crest Farm about 40km from Lille, is a large block of Canadian granite, surrounded by maple trees. Surrounding it are peaceful green fields. Enough blood has been shed here. As Churchill said not long after the horrors of World War I: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And we did.
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After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.