In the summer of 2006, I was hiking with some friends in northern Israel, about six miles from the border with Lebanon. This happened to be the day that a group of Hezbollah agents attacked an Israeli jeep, initiating a month-long conflict between the two forces. I watched as Ketyushim rockets rained down on the small Israeli town I was in, and I spent the night in a larger city listening to rockets crashing all around us. I got out of the war zone safely because I acted calmly and was staying with Israelis who took care of me. What kept me together was being among Israelis who had dealt with violent situations before and could answer my questions and tell me their predictions. However, I learned that you cannot always trust the locals’ expertise. My hosts swore that the city of Tzfat would never be hit by rockets because it was a holy city with no military targets. The next day, as we were on a bus to Jerusalem, we heard the news: Hezbollah had begun bombarding Tzfat.

If you are ever traveling in places that are in constant states of war, like the Middle Eastern countries, or places that lack stability such as many Latin American countries, there are a few things you need to know in order to be ready should disaster arise.

1. Keep a small notebook while traveling with a list of emergency contacts, your name and basic information (home country, health insurance information, allergies), and the address of where you are staying in that country. Think of it this way: if you are traveling in places where there are riots, wars, social unrest, or violence, you could be a victim at any point. People need to know who to call about you, how to treat you, and what country you are a citizen of.

2. Always know where your passport is. You need to be able to get to it quickly. If you aren’t afraid of being robbed, you might as well carry it with you. However, if there’s a chance of robbery, just carry a copy of it with you, and keep it in a safe place at your hotel or lodging.

3. Register with the US embassyin the country you are visiting. Keep the address of the Embassy (assuming you are American) and have it handy at all times. You can always call them or go directly there if there is a catastrophe, and you can call them for help if you are taken to jail. However, I have spoken with people who were on the Lebanese side of the war with Israel in 2006, and some of them were unable to get any help from the U.S. Embassy. Be prepared to rely on yourself.

4. Have contacts in major cities that you can call to ask for a place to stay or for some comfort in times of stress. If you are traveling along, be sociable and meet other backpackers, and exchange e-mails so you can be in touch along the way. If you are doing volunteer work or teaching, keep the contact information of your organization with you at all times.

5. Know a few words in the local language: “Help,” “Where is the American embassy?” “How do we get out of here?” Even if you can never memorize these sentences fluently, at least write them down in your notebook properly so you can show them to people, or just try to memorize a few key words that will communicate the basic idea.

6. Be alert, but remain calm. Wherever you are, you will be more terrified than the locals if you have never experienced this kind of event before. Realize that you, and they, can survive if everybody works together to find an escape or a solution. Keep your eyes and ears open at all times so you will always know whether a situation can become dangerous or not. Read the newspaper or watch the news every day so you are updated. Listen to what locals are saying. Watch how the locals act. If they appear frantic, you probably should be worried.

If you follow these suggestions, you’ll at least be prepared for dealing with catastrophic situations as they arise.

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More info:

1. State dept site for registering w/embassies

2. an in-depth article on Travel Safety by a detective

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About Rachel Signer: “”I’m a freelance anthropologist, roaming the world doing what I have to do to accomplish my dreams, loving it all, and recognizing the beautiful parts as well as the not-so-pretty things.”