If you’ve ever wondered how safe it might be to travel to another country, Landes Holbrook knows the answer. Holbrook is the international security analyst at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, and also has extensive experience doing security analysis for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Stowaway caught up with Holbrook recently and asked him about his analysis process, personal experiences, and helpful tips on how to be prepared for travel abroad.
How do you determine the safety level of an area?
There is a certain science and methodology to it, yet it is important to take in the human and cultural aspects as well. I learned this years ago when I was in Haiti. I met with several nuns, media disc jockeys, people who work on the street, the consulate general of the US embassy, a ministry officer, a political officer, and the head of the Mennonite church in Haiti—in addition to all the online resources.
Sometimes the street people are the best resources. When I was in Cuernavaca, Mexico, I met with a gentleman named Emilio Flores. He sits outside the gates of a cathedral and watches a lot of what happens. He knows a lot of the bad guys on the street. He knows what crimes happen. He knows everything.
How has security analysis helped in an emergency?
Through good analysis and training, we have actually thwarted a number of potentially hairy situations. I hear stories from students and faculty who have learned the local risk and key strategies to deal with these kinds of situations. They tell me about close calls and attribute their safety to having put successful strategies into practice immediately.
Natural disasters are the most unpredictable and potentially problematic events. Although rare, they are hard to plan for. A group of BYU students was caught in the 2009 earthquake in Chengdu, China. Thankfully, no one was injured. The university had good local contacts and worked closely with the US embassy and consulate. And the leaders were well prepared and knew what to do in a crisis situation—this is key. The outcome was positive, even though the experience was frightening.
What have you learned from personal travel experiences?
I studied abroad in Mexico twice as an undergrad student. The first time I went, I was a bit bold: I bought a $50 one-way ticket to Tucson, Arizona, and then crossed the border and jumped on a bus to Mexico City for two and a half days. I didn’t have a place to live, so when I got there, I enrolled myself in the university and found an apartment and stayed there for a couple of semesters. This experience changed my life.
Before I left, my mom sewed a pouch with a zipper on top for me to keep my passport and cash in. I could tie the pouch around my waist underneath my pants. When I got to Mexico City, I went to the university and paid my tuition. I had my extra money in this pouch underneath my pants, but I also had a wallet. In my wallet, I had my driver’s license and $50 that I didn’t put in my little pouch.
When I got on the bus, some college kids got on the bus as well. One of the guys said he dropped his bus pass, so he got underneath the seat and was climbing around trying to find his bus pass. He was pushing up against my leg, and pretty soon I was leaning to the side, trying to help him get his bus pass. At that moment, somebody from his group pick-pocketed me and stole my wallet. And so I learned: you have to be vigilant not to be a victim of crime. That was something I learned years ago, and since then I’ve never been robbed.
How can our readers better prepare for travel?
The more you learn about the culture, the people, and the language, the safer you will be. What I mean by culture is not just the stuff that is above the surface, like art, dress, and food. More importantly, I mean the vast culture that lies below the surface of the iceberg, such as traditions, religious beliefs and practices, family values, and routine behaviors. Try to reduce feelings of ethnocentrism: don’t think that your culture is the best. Do a lot of listening instead of talking, at least in the beginning.
Don’t transfer your routines and culture directly to the new culture without some thought and adjustments. For example, just because you go out jogging at 11 pm alone each night, don’t assume you can safely do this in a new location. Understand the specific cultural norms and safety risks; then act accordingly.
Finally, be realistic about security. Learn about specific risks. This varies, sometimes greatly, by location, time of day, activities, and choices. Once you learn the specific risks, understand what strategies you can put into place to avoid becoming a victim—like not displaying wealth, for example.
Maybe in the location where you’re traveling, you have to leave your credit cards and money locked away at your residence and put your money in your shoes when riding the subway. Maybe you should not make eye contact with anyone or smile at people you do not know. Maybe you should not stay out past 10 pm or ever be alone. Or maybe you should use ATM machines only during business hours in bank lobbies, or fully cover your arms and legs and consider a headscarf before going out in public.
We automatically become safer when we are realistic about the risks. We understand that we are not above them—that they apply to us as well. And we put those routines into place to reduce the likelihood and impact of the specific risk on our own personal safety.