Travel in the Time of Terror: 4 Rules for Every Traveler

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June 01, 2016
Travel
Michael Schubach - michaelschubach@me.com

On March 22, the attacks at the Brussels airport and metro station unfolded on the news like the latest installment of a Victorian penny-dreadful. It was another collision of evil and innocence, of deliberate carnage and senseless death in the name of religion and the state. As the drama unfolded, our national sigh of relief was almost audible – there, but for the grace of God, go we. At least this attack wasn’t on the American homeland. Sorry to think it, but thank goodness it’s happening to them this time and not us.

Thinking that the problem is somewhere else is a remarkably narrow view of the world. Today’s variation on mindless violence is that our bad-guy element does not believe in innocent bystanders – anyone present is a target. Of course one could reasonably argue that the world has never been a particularly safe place – from highwayman to terrorist, humankind has always exhibited a penchant for inexplicable cruelty. Nonetheless, the risk today seems more prevalent, more generalized.

Or maybe it just seems that trouble used to be easier to evade. In the olden days of the 20th Century, so long as you didn’t put yourself into a questionable neighborhood at an unreasonable hour, you felt relatively safe. In the post-modern world, danger is randomized, and local to everywhere. The sad truth is that when an enemy strikes through disaffected adolescents and disenfranchised young adults, every neighborhood is questionable and every hour is unreasonable.

Moreover, the modern traveler goes… oh, everywhere.  The chances of a chance encounter – being in the wrong place at the wrong time – seem so much likelier than before.  We AirBnB in residential neighborhoods, we’re off the beaten path and taking the road less traveled. There’s danger in that. In order to find our way through the world, whether for business, pleasure or self-discovery, we congregate in airports, train stations, metro stops, restaurants, theaters and hotels. There’s even greater danger in that. We are, without giving it a second thought, living our lives with targets on our backs. 

Perhaps most disheartening is that so long as terrorism comes down to individual action, the threat will be persistent. There is no sense in wondering when all of this nonsense will go away – it’s now a permanent part of the landscape until the world is a fairer place and people are happier living in it. Even if our politicians succeed in making the country great again, they’ll never succeed in making it the way it used to be.

So what course of action makes sense for a traveler?  I think back to the first visits I made to New York City, before Times Square was cleaned up and Disney-fied. It was (or was perceived to be) perhaps the unfriendliest urban setting in North America. Savvy visitors were told not to become too preoccupied with the danger, but that didn’t mean there weren’t common sense directives. These rules weren’t written to fend off a terrorist attack, but that isn’t the only – or even the most likely – emergency you may face when you’re away from home. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to review the rules you should already know.

1. Be aware of your surroundings.
Look around you for exits in an emergency and for shelter if required. I always look at the hotel floorplan posted in every room to determine the direction and distance to the stairwell. Unless I paid extra for the view, I request a lower floor so that both my right knee and I can make it out unscathed. I’m slow and I know it; I could use a five-floor head start. The same rules apply to restaurants, theaters and arenas. Think one step ahead and perhaps you’ll be able to stay there.

2. Be aware of yourself.
Know where your phone is all the time. Ditto your wallet or purse; don’t fumble for the things you’ll need in a rapid departure. Don’t end up being held incommunicado for lack of a phone or immobile for lack of ready currency. It increases your risk and drives your friends and family at home crazy if they can’t find you or don’t hear from you in an emergency situation. This, of course, speaks to having a plan.

3. Move with purpose.
Yes, the sights are lovely and you definitely should see them, but don’t be oblivious to what else is going on around you. Know where you are and where you’re going next. If something looks out of place, point it out to those in charge. And perhaps, while you’re a stranger in a strange land, you should forego walking-and-phoning or walking-and-texting in favor of walking-and-watching. (I’d suggest this behavior for home as well, but I’m trying to suggest the pragmatic rather than the traumatic.) 

4. Respond rapidly. 
I am steadfastly amazed when people hear a fire alarm and assume that it must be a test, a prank or a system malfunction rather than a fire. Yes, Virginia, buildings do burn down, and you shouldn’t be inside one when it does. People get injured or killed simply because they didn’t acknowledge a credible threat. Do something, exclamation point: duck and cover or stop, drop and roll, but take appropriate action and do it quickly, exclamation point. Don’t wait for a tour guide to tell you what to do. 
 
Whether you travel for a living or live to travel, it makes sense to pay attention to the fact that the world offers a different set of challenges.  So… adapt. Learn how to say, “where is the ___?” and “help me, please!” in three new languages. Carry a little extra cash in your sock. Remember:  it’s a post-modern jungle out there, and misfortune is something you may not be able to avoid stepping in – so wear sensible shoes. 

MICHAEL SCHUBACH IS A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO HOSPITALITY UPGRADE AND CAN BE REACHED AT MICHAELSCHUBACH@ME.COM.

 
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