I've been known to travel to places that some people think are dodgy.
I went to Iraq in 2011, was at the Essakane Music Festival outside of Timbuktu in 2013 (in my defence, Bono was there too), and hung out with a few "former" cocaine dealers in Colombia.
Over the years, I have developed a system that works for me in almost every country.
Oddly enough, I've found people should be even more vigilant in "normal" places, because your guard is down - you just expect everything to be super fine and fun and cool - whereas in say, Cairo or Kirkuk, you are vigilant.
So, I present a by-no-means-cohesive list of How To Stay Safe on the Road. Or, alternatively, Paula Froelich's Paranoid Guide To Travel.
First up, so you're not booked into the Four Seasons - that's OK. Just follow these rules:
1. Never stay in a ground-floor room if you can help it. If it is a ground-floor room - and that is all you can get and it's the only hotel in town, make sure there are bars on the window.
2. Upon entering your hotel room, check all locks, bars, closets and under the bed.
3. Insist on a room with its own bathroom.
4. If checking into a not-so-nice place, turn off the lights in the room, shut the door and check for peep holes (it's happened). If there is one, slowly get your mace and spray through the hole before leaving (easy way to tell who has been peeping).
5. Always carry a door jamb for cheaper hotel room doors.
6. Never get a hotel room with a door that enters into another room. Even if it's locked. Don't get me started on that one time in Baghdad when some psychos walked into my room from the adjacent room via a door that I had checked was locked before I went to bed. Thanks to a very heavy object and my extremely loud voice, it didn't end well for them.
7. Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door and leave the TV on when you go out.
8. Do a room check when you enter: look under beds, in closets, behind drapes and on the balcony.
INTERACTING WITH STRANGERS
1. Always carry mace. Even in Ohio and Kentucky. Actually, let me amend that to especially in Ohio and Kentucky.
2. Remember - what you think of as friendly (hugging, touching, etc.) is a come-on in many places. It's OK to be aloof. I once sat down next to a guy in Karbala and that apparently meant I wanted to be his side piece (I, in fact, did not).
3. Try not to walk anywhere alone at night. If you feel really uncomfortable, walk in the middle of the street rather than the sidewalk. In Nicaragua I actually remember looking at a group of teenage boys blocking the sidewalk and thinking, "I'll take my chances with the cars."
4. Don't share your personal information (including your hotel name or room number) with anyone you don't know. I don't care how hot or interesting they are.
5. If someone makes you uncomfortable - even if it's something as silly as "I don't like the way they hold their tea cup" - get up and walk away. Your gut is almost always right. I ignored my gut once in India in 1997 and had my shoes stolen and was locked in a room for three hours. True story.
6. If someone gets all up in your face, think of what I like to call the Rules for Wild Dogs: remain calm. Do not turn your back on them. Do not enter into a staring contest. Weirdly enough - maintain good posture (I don't know why this works, it just does). It's probably best if you say nothing at all. If you must, make it something like, "You know, you have really lovely eyes" instead of "F**K OFF, PSYCHO!" Slowly back away until you can get the heck out of there.
7. In really bad situations - if the person is really crazy and the above doesn't work, forget the above and remember my mother's rule: "Crazy people are only scared of crazier people" and proceed to go completely bats**t.
8. Practice saying "NO" and not feeling guilty about it. Then freely use the negative.
1. Unless you're going on that yacht in St. Barts, leave all jewels at home - except for a wedding ring. Always wear a wedding ring, it cuts down on hassles, especially in southern Europe, parts of South America and the Middle East where many times, Western women are either married, virgins or considered sluts. And I'm betting you're not a virgin. And by the way: even if you are going on that yacht to St. Barts - leave it. Some of the richest people I know are the worst thieves.
2. Keep your eye on your bag at all times.
3. Use a credit card (and let your credit card company know where you're going), not cash. You can't get cash back if it's stolen/lost.
4. Limit your outings at night, both on foot and by car. If you do travel at night, stick to well-lit and well-travelled areas. Or travel with a bodyguard.
5. Never get into a vehicle that isn't clearly marked as a licensed taxi. Another trick - take pics of the driver, his plates, etc., and post them online.
6. When travelling on a train, lock your compartment, if possible. Try to travel during the day, because criminals are more likely to rob passengers on night trains
7. Know where to go if you get into trouble, whether that's the nearest embassy, a police station or hotel.
8. Stay away from crowds. A crowd can turn into a mob in a hot second and then where will you be? Trampled, that's where!
9. Use an iPhone instead of a map.
10. Take other people's religion as seriously as they do. That means, if they want you to cover your hair, cover your hair. And remember: in some parts of the world a clavicle bone is pay per view and cleavage is the money shot. Cover up.
11. Always make sure your phone is charged and always carry extra chargers.
12. In a restaurant, bar, concert venue or club, always know where the nearest exit is and be able to access it at all times.
13. Make sure you have budgeted for Uber or cabs for late evenings and if you feel uncomfortable anywhere - leave. Immediately.
14. Scan pics of all important documents and send them to a trusted friend or family member.