My background is former police officer, former soldier, and former expedition leader. I work now in concentrating on keeping people safe when they operate overseas. That includes a lot of people who are doing scientific research; these are people who are going out to some of the more remote parts of the world, and sometimes some of the more dangerous parts of the world.
We need to understand our own risk appetite. For some people, going on holiday to southern Spain could be really adventurous. But for others, spending an extended period of time in somewhere such as Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan might be fine for their risk appetite. So everyone needs to understand what their own comfort zone is and prepare accordingly.
Make sure you do your preparation. Make sure you know what you’re getting into. Speak to other people who’ve just come back from a place. The time we’re most vulnerable is when we first arrive in a new destination because we don’t have a baseline of what is normal. It’s only when we understand that can we start spotting anomalies, and put in procedures to look after ourselves.
The things that people are often really worried about are so rare. Your chances of getting caught up in a terror event are one in 20 million. Equally being involved in an air crash – there are little things you can do; sitting at the rear of an aircraft is a lot safer than sitting at the front of it, never be more than five rows away from an emergency exit – but statistically, your chances of becoming an airline fatality are one in about eight or nine million.
When we look at issues that are most likely to affect travellers, first and foremost it’s going to be some sort of gastrointestinal illness because they haven’t looked at how that food is prepared. Street food is notoriously bad for giving you bugs. Even something as simple as choosing where you’re going to eat makes a big difference.
If you look at the WHO statistics, 1.2 million people are killed in traffic accidents across the world every year. Most of those are occurring in low- to middle-income countries, the very places we like to travel. When we’re travelling we think, ‘Well, no one else is wearing seat-belts, so we don’t have to wear a seatbelt.’ But the laws of physics still apply.
The whole idea behind writing The Travel Survival Guide is to highlight what the issue is, what the problem is, what we can do to improve the odds, then a checklist at the back of each chapter, and a story that goes with it that actually makes it real. It’s not a safety book. I don’t want it to be a safety book. I want it to be an adventure book that’s actually going to teach you something.
I’ve been honest where I’ve made mistakes. None of us are perfect. We do get it wrong. But there are other occasions in there where I got it right, and those can be life-changing moments, where you have what we would refer to as a ‘near-miss’. But it does then mean the next time you’re faced with that you’re going to do it slightly differently.
In the jungles of Colombia in the mid-1990s, there was a civil war going on. If you were a Westerner you were deemed to be either working for the CIA or the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. We were confronted by a group of armed militia, who I have no doubt whatsoever were summing up what we would be worth when they kidnapped us. But being sat around the fire with those guys and talking to them about the state of Colombia – the civil war, how families had been torn apart, actually getting to know a bit about them – there would have been things within that conversation where we humanised ourselves to them. We were no longer merchandise, we were human beings. I think that is what tipped it in our favour.
Is the world becoming more dangerous? Probably not. But, do we hear about it more often? Yes, because of social media, and everything else. I don’t like using the term ‘health and safety’, because it conjures up images of a ‘nanny state’. We use the term ‘risk management’, or ‘personal resilience’. Those sorts of terms are going to be more in tune with what you’re doing, in order to protect yourself and those with you.
This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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