When I last visited São Paulo, I asked at the hotel reception if it was safe to walk around the neighbourhood in the morning sun. “Let me see your watch,” the woman on duty said. I lifted my sleeve to show a bare wrist. “OK, because if you have an expensive watch you need to go up to your room and put it in your safe,” she said.
She pulled a booklet out from behind the desk, opened it at a city map and drew a square around the hotel. “You can walk in these streets,” she said. “Don’t,” she reinforced her line down the main avenue, “go past this one.”
It’s hard knowing whether you can safely venture out in an unfamiliar place. Jet-lagged and disorientated, you present a miscreant’s ideal target: someone who is not quite sure where they are going.
So, how to keep safe, particularly if you are in a city notorious for its dangers?
The travel advice websites of the UK Foreign Office and US State Department have their uses, and not just on street safety. The Foreign Office site, for example, points to the list of medicines for which you need documentation when entering the United Arab Emirates. Dubai airport is the only place I have ever been asked for a doctor’s letter allowing me to carry an anti-allergy self-injector.
But on physical dangers, these sites are too general to be of much use. “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks,” is the Foreign Office advice on countries from France to Indonesia. But terrorist attacks are a possibility almost anywhere. In recent times, they have happened in Manchester and Melbourne. That the attacks are random and unpredictable is their perpetrators’ purpose.
“Be aware of the risk of street crime,” another regular piece of Foreign Office advice, doesn’t help much either.
We want to know: what can I safely do, where can I go? You don’t want to be overcautious, never venturing beyond the hotel. You want to be out experiencing the place.
Relying on local advice is often good practice, but it can be unreliable. Sometimes, for patriotic reasons, people tell you that their country’s reputation for danger is vastly exaggerated. Others, particularly if they think the government is ruining the country, may exaggerate the perils themselves.
Hotel staff, such as my São Paulo adviser, are more dependable, because they are used to dealing with visitors’ confusion and don’t want any harm to come to you while you are in their care. Best, in my experience, are other outsiders who visit the place regularly, or live there, and know it better than you do but still have some objectivity.
Taking up invitations for meals or nights out with business contacts is a good idea too: they want to get you safely to and from wherever they are taking you.
There are obvious common sense steps, such as taking only licensed taxis or those vouched for by your hotel. Don’t drive yourself in a city with unsafe neighbourhoods, unless you know exactly where you are going.
Sally Napper, head of security operations at International SOS, which advises organisations on their employees’ travel safety, adds another obvious tip: whether you are driving or being driven, always wear a seatbelt. Traffic accidents are a travel peril too.
Napper points out that women travellers face additional risks, from street harassment to being bothered on public transport or by ride-sharing drivers.
I always feel safe when arriving at a well-run, brightly lit hotel. Women may not. Napper has a final tip. She always carries a doorstop that she wedges under the inside of her hotel room door. We could all do the same.
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