Here’s my bad news/good news shtick.
First, the Bad News.
International travel is riskier than sitting in your pajamas in the living room with the curtains closed. Of course, if you are eating an entire bowl of cheese dip with a spoon while watching Netflix . . . well, never mind. Deep down, you want to go outside and play. Maybe even visit the lands of the Bible. But you are afraid. So let me help. Wipe the dip from your chin and read on.
In my experience, personal security challenges fall into one of three categories.
1. You could be robbed.
2. You could become separated from your group.
3. You could hurt yourself.
Wig out over each of these. When you are done, chill by either returning to Netflix or moving on to
The Good News.
The good news is that the bad news is less likely than FOX people would lead you to believe (see our article on Group Security here). And frankly, there are ways to lower exposure to risk in each of these categories. Let’s handle them one at a time, moving from more remote to more likely scenarios.
The first challenge to your personal security is this:
You could be robbed.
Realize that a violent confrontation is extremely unlikely. In fact, it is statistically more probable in the USA than it is in the Bible Lands. Cincinnati makes Jerusalem look like the patio at Ben and Jerry’s. And then there's Chicago.
Precautions taken while traveling at home still apply. You know the drill. Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t go off by yourself into the night. Be careful sharing personal information with strangers.
A less remote possibility is that someone might take something from your pocket or bag. Savvy travelers minimize the risk of fast fingers in several ways. First, they don’t bring bling. Traveling light (minus jewelry or unessential valuables) eliminates this worry on the spot. Ka-pow! Second, even though we are repeat customers in secure hotels, savvy travelers lock their room doors behind them and use the in-room safe for storage of passports and/or money. Third, savvy travelers carry and retrieve money discreetly and securely. Nothing substantial should ever be flashed, kept in outer (or back) pockets, or stored in suitcases. A small stash of cash for daily use is placed “at the ready” in a front pocket but apart from this, everything else is kept in "deep storage" in a money belt tucked under clothing. Fourth and finally, savvy group travelers look out for each other. Keeping buttons buttoned and zippers zipped becomes an exercise in community living.
The most likely scenario for robbery is in the marketplace. Crowds, flexible prices, money exchange “mistakes,” and credit card fraud are realities. Minimizing the shopping risk begins with knowing exchange rates and learning to recognize foreign currency. Credit card fraud is minimized by dealing with honest shops (I can help you with this) and being extra-responsible with your card/wallet.
Beyond being robbed, the second challenge to your personal security happens if
You become separated from your group.
For solo travelers, getting lost is half the fun. For group travelers, though, this is a problem. As our program runs under a clock (timing of visits is contemplated in advance), the search for one lost sheep may force an itinerary adjustment for the whole herd.
Steps are taken to minimize this risk while on foot. We use a microphone and earpiece system to deliver one-way communication (even when out of sight) with clients. While I cannot hear you, I can offer directions (e.g., “turn right at the bakery”). This is important if we are walking single file through the maze of a Middle Eastern city. In crowded situations, it becomes critical that each group member not lose contact with the person in front of him/her. While traveling by bus, noses are counted after each stop to be sure that no one is left behind (Please take the "meet back here at such-and-such a time" announcements seriously!).
Personal reasons may demand that a traveler step aside from the group. If this need arises, it is important to tell a buddy. Preferably that buddy will be me. Don't play the "I'll-just-disappear-for-a -second" game. The rest of us may disappear in that same second and then we have trouble!
There is one more option should a separation occur. Every local in Israel-Palestine carries a cell phone. Stop one and politely ask him/her to dial me, the bus driver, our host company, or our hotel. You will receive these numbers on a card when you arrive in-country. Carry the card on your person.
Bottom line: if you get separated from the group, don’t panic. Stay put. Be visible. Let me find you.
This leads me to address a third challenge to your personal security, namely,
You could hurt yourself.
This challenge is rife with potential. You may find this hard to believe, but when traveling internationally, you are your own greatest enemy! Almost every injury I encounter is self-inflicted.
Poor shoe choices and inattention result in twisted ankles and broken bones.
Summer heat connected to lack of hat, sunscreen, hydration and overexertion are a potent combination that may lead to dizziness, heat-stroke, or worse.
Photographers who shoot and walk at the same time can tumble. Surfaces are often uneven.
Street food can make you sick. Some water can too.
Am I sounding like your mother yet?
Many of these injuries can be avoided by dressing appropriately, slowing down, taking your time, and making wise choices. Remember, study- and pilgrim-tours are supposed to be enjoyable. Hurry and scurry with tired legs in a distracting environment is a recipe for disaster. It is a recipe we don’t want to cook.
If professional health care becomes necessary, however, the good news is that Israel has a highly developed medical infrastructure. The system can and will handle your emergency. Just know that flashing an insurance card from the USA will not pay the bill. You will need to swipe a credit card before you leave the facility. Notify your insurance in the case of a claim and keep all receipts for reimbursement. It is a very good idea to have a chat with your health insurance folk before leaving home.
Traveling abroad is fun and educational. There are some personal risks of course, but these can be managed. They need not overwhelm the curious adventurer.