By Bryan Mennie
I wrote this a while ago following a trip to the Bay area in California. It was originally published in Gun Africa but I thought I would brush it off and update it somewhat for all of you loyal Gunservant readers.
The Bay area is about the most gun UNFRIENDLY place I have ever been to. Even my travels to North Africa or the various Middle Eastern locations I have been to, and where the carry culture is far more niche than it is here in South Africa, has not generated as much open hostility towards firearms as I encountered following what was a simple query as to where I could purchase a holster in Santa Clara California.
Upon arrival at the sporting goods store, I asked the assistant, or as they like to call it, clerk, where I could purchase a Safariland holster. It was if I had calmly announced that; yes I was from Africa and I had come bearing Ebola. After the effete young man had recoiled in sharp horror at my utterance, he clasped his hands dramatically to his chest and in a falsetto voice he squeaked “This is California, we don’t do guns here, here we love each other”
Now at that time I didn’t feel like continuing the debate by providing interjections sourced from the local news which put his words at odd with reality. It did inspire me to pen a few words on transferring our preparedness mindset into the various type of environments we travel through and to, especially those environments where we should all love each other to a greater sense of security.
Yes I am, as readers of Gunservant know, an avid proponent of the carry culture. I honestly believe in availing myself of as many options I possibly can. One of my favorite axioms learnt from training with Kelly McCann is to always be as armed as you can possibly be. I, and indeed all of us, must balance the desire to always have a firearm with practicality and the reality of the situation we face. I travel fairly frequently, whilst it is not always to hippy havens such as the Bay area, the majority of the time I cannot travel with a firearm and thus find myself in environments where that tool is simply not available to me. So how do I translate my carry culture to that? Simply, I focus on the preparedness pillar of the carry culture.
So let me stop all of you right now, in case you hadn’t realized it I am not going to be talking about guns in this article. I am going to be talking about aspects which are far more important than whatever the flavor of the month sports instructor is telling you about your draw or how to survive the gun fight that he has never been in. We need to understand there is more to a defensive capability than loudly hissing and challenging all who disagree with us.
So back to preparedness and how that translates to being secure whilst travelling. The preparedness element combines, knowledge, practicality, common sense and the will to resolve problems, which translates into whatever situation we find ourselves. I wanted to pen down a few of the helpful hints that have served me well travelling in the less touristy destinations around the globe.
First we need to know the place. I typically will conduct a fairly broad risk analysis of any environment I am travelling to or through. I will seek to understand what the threats are so that I can understand how those threats will impact me and how I should shape my mitigation strategy. It is quite simply impossible, whether you are at home or abroad to defend against all the threats. You need to understand how those threats translate into risk and how that risk is specific to you relative to what you are doing and how those risks need to be managed. I know that when I am traveling to Lagos, my risk of kidnapping is elevated and I need to make sure that I have both avoidance and mitigation measures in place. In other locations, I am, by virtue of my profession a target for industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property or business data. With that in mind I apply a variation of my trade craft to ensure that I am best able to mitigate the risk of threat impacting me.
Be clear and objective in your assessment, the threat is not always criminal in nature, this is a difficult mindset shift for us as South Africans to make, and the threat could easily be environmental, health related or something as fundamentally unsexy as infrastructure.
Where do I find this information you may I ask. From as many sources as possible. I will read travel blogs, Embassy warnings and government advisories. I will hit up friends or colleagues who have traveled there and ascertain their opinion and then I will try and find data, if available, on the threats so that I can add a mathematical baseline to my overall knowledge base. Don’t confine yourself to one source.
Research your destinations laws and cultural practices, especially knife laws and laws covering defensive items such as pepper spray. I will either carry a good knife in my checked in luggage or buy one when landing or have one shipped to my hotel if possible. If I am carrying one in I use my custom Phillip Dunn blade. I used to use a KBAR TDI however I have really gotten to like Phillip’s interpretation of the concept. He uses SNIPER but I have my sheathes made by Geoff Carter from Carters Kustom Kydex. I like the fact that it is a fixed blade, the length of which doesn’t typically transgress any prescriptive laws and is very easy to carry unobtrusively. Where possible I will also carry a folder as a utility.
Once I have ascertained what my trip specific risk profile will be, I work out a mitigation plan. I seek to understand my trip and travel requirements as much as possible. I make as many arrangements in advance as I possibly can and use tools such as google earth to become as familiar with all my itinerary locations as possible. In many of the places I go to I define emergency travel requirements or list places that I would go should my scheduled means of travel suddenly become unavailable. Then I document it and save it in a remote access application, I am a strong advocate of Redfolder (https://redfolder.co/) but there are other methods and services as well. I add this of course to my other IFTT documents (IF This Then!) proof of life words, will etc) I also ensure that my wife holds a printed copy and of course I remind her of the kidnap protocols and other trip specific administration. I then ensure that I have all the required documentation and both paper and e copies of that documentation as well. If you don’t have access to a service such as Redfolder and you don’t want to use drop box or similar then save those documents as attachments in the draft section of a web based e mail service.
Get to know key phrases in the local language and of course have all your key local contact details to hand, if possible written down in a local language so that you can get a non-English speaker to at least call a hotel for you if that is needed. Get to know the local customs as well. Typically no one from any country or culture like a bombastic arrogant snob but there are certain practices that I might not even consider as being offensive which someone from a different culture might well take a great deal of umbrage to. Position yourself to blend as much as possible.
Packing, well that is dictated to largely by how long I will spend on the ground or what I have available when I am there. For short sharp trips I like to try and pack so that I am carry on only and if a jacket and tie is required I will travel wearing the jacket. If not I would rather roll clothes and iron them at the hotel then wait around for luggage. If however I need to fly with checked in luggage then I will always wrap my cases and keep at least a change of socks and underwear in my carry-on bag. For stays that measure in weeks or months I will often fly with a hard plastic gorilla trunk instead of a suitcase. Don’t use corporate tags or branded luggage, rather use a small piece of ribbon or a piece of electrical tape in a fairly non-descript location.
Dress to blend in, don’t dress to a profile. In most cases you will get fairly far with smart casual. Although for long flights or where I don’t need to run into a meeting directly upon landing I tend to favour the TTT ensemble or t shirt, tracksuit pants and takkie approach, just make sure your tracksuit has zipped pockets. I remember in the early to mid-2000’s I would play spot the security contractor based on the wearing of 5/11’s, sunglasses and ID pouches, all in the old terminal at Dubai Airport. I would rather my appearance gives nothing away rather than it shouting security professional, shooting enthusiast or corporate executive. If possible have a wash kit and certainly have spare jocks and socks in your carry on. Lost luggage happens and you have the most control over your carry on. Also get a reliable but non ostentatious watch, even if you only use it for travel rather have a watch then checking the time on your phone
There are a great deal of things you should pack in your carry on and I might focus on that in another article but for now lets just add having a memory stick with scanned copies of your passport, visa etc, plug adaptor, a battery pack/ power source and a good book as other key elements of your carry on bag. On bags, get an RFID blocking bag, all my barcoded items travel in their own special bag which prevents data interception by rfid readers.
Certain locations might require you to travel with a clean laptop, tablet and phone (no corporate or IP data on any device) make sure your clean devices are charged and that the plug adaptors work. Remember IP theft, corporate espionage and even nation state espionage on corporations is a real security concern and must absolutely feature in the planning of any corporate traveler. Always encrypt and use passwords to secure ALL data, memory sticks to tablets to phones.
Bags packed, passport and visa done, tickets in hand what next. Get local currency, at least enough to pay for a meal and cab fare to the hotel, always keep cash separate from your wallet, cards and passport, and have notes in your pocket rather than opening a wallet! Even if you are being picked up by a shuttle or driver. Have a contingency. Know who your driver is if being picked up. When travelling to certain locations I will have my hotel e mail me a picture of the driver and a recognition phrase as well. All in all be as ready as possible. Control all the elements you can control, influence those which you cannot.
On the day of travelling there are a few hints you can use which will make your trip safer and set you up as a more alert person. If possible get a work out in, even push your work out but be very sure to maximize your stretching periods. Definitely try and get a good hot shower or bath in as well. Don’t party it up the night before. Hangovers and flying don’t mix well and Jack or Jill being a dull boy or girl really opens them up to being a victim of crime.
Next step be early, check in online but plan your day so that you have time to spare in the departure area. I try to book my departing flights for earlier in the day rather than late in the afternoon but try and ensure that you are not rushed or frantic about getting through the check points.
Statistically most terrorism incidents at airports happen at departure and most criminal incidents happen at arrivals. If this is part of your risk assessment keep this in mind, be sure to know where the exits are and seat yourself in an area where you can have a good view of the area you are sitting in. Don’t sleep in public area’s or get lost in your electronic devices. Use blue tooth single ear headsets as opposed to the stereo or noise cancelling headset.
Be polite to the various ticketing and check point agents, its not their fault that regulations are what they are and having a pleasant demeanor, good manners and professional nature will buy you a great deal of leeway.
I have been approached for Baksheesh, Bobski Davai or Palm Greasers in almost every travel location I have been to. Typically I play dumb, smile, shake my head a lot and just ignore such requests. Paying bribes often opens you to compromise and you don’t want to profile yourself in that way.
Be aware when in business lounges, especially in areas where IP and data theft is a significant issue. They are natural focus points for intelligence collectors from all sides of the spectrum.
Onboard. I have broad shoulders and short legs so I try and get an aisle seat so I can have good visibility. I don’t drink alcohol on flights and try and stay as hydrated as possible. Also I walk around as much as possible. I prefer reading to watching the movies.
At arrival, retrieve your luggage, get any gear you have in the luggage and sync up with your transport as quickly as possible and get your gear to the hotel.
At the hotel, present your credit card rather than your passport if possible. Be nice to the receptionist, you want to get a good room. In earthquake zones I don’t like a room to high up. In certain cities, hotel raids by criminal gangs have become an issue especially in the reception and first few floors. Then there is always the threat of a large scale shooter such as the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai. I like to balance at around the third or fourth floor and try and get a room as close to a fire exit as possible.
In my room, I use both deadbolts and door jambs to ensure that my privacy is maintained by more than just the key card or room key. Again I want to control what I can.
Once you have got your bags down get to know the hotel. Take a long good walk around the hotel and then if appropriate in the blocks around the hotel as well. Make sure that the ground truth matches up with your research. Chat with hotel staff and ask them about local practices, safe areas etc.
Have your drivers meet you either in the lobby or at the front door. Always keep a matchbook or notepad with the name of your hotel printed on it. It may be needed to show a taxi or Uber driver your destination in the event of a communication gap. Make your trusted colleagues or local points of contact are aware of your general movements and times of arrival. If you are in a higher risk for kidnapping environment then follow any corporate processes. If you have not been given any then set up a check in protocol with someone you trust.
Above all enjoy your trip, whilst all of this might seem to highlight the potential for disaster it really does become second nature fairly quickly and overall will contribute to your safe travel and enhance your overall mindset of preparation and mindset development.
Bryan is a former police officer and following a stint conducting protective work in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and the Sudan he joined the corporate world as an incident management specialist. Part of his protective work entailed teaching kidnap and hostage survival and austere environment preparedness to various G- and NGO’s.