Protests in Hong Kong (Photo: AP Images)
In 2013, travel writer Helen Anne Travis found herself surrounded by tear gas and riot police during Brazil’s biggest political protest in decades. In the face of demonstrations and riots in Hong Kong and the Ukraine, it’s important for travelers to know what to do. Yahoo Travel sat down with Phil Sylvester from World Nomads travel insurance to talk about staying safe in places experiencing political unrest.
Is that an angry crowd or are they just excited to see me? (Photo: Thinkstock)
The Situation: Last June, my fiancé and I unknowingly made reservations at a sushi restaurant in downtown Rio the same night a massive demonstration was planned at the government building across the street. We spent hours huddled in the middle of the building while explosions rattled the glassware, rubber bullets pelted the walls, and a car burning in the street turned the restaurant’s windows orange.
World Cup Protest in Brazil (Photo: Getty Images)
The Solution: Inside the riot zone, it’s hard to imagine life may be going on as usual a few blocks away. Most protests have a small footprint centered around a public square and surrounding streets. Your goal is to get to safety as quickly as possible, without attracting the attention of the riot police.
Do Your Research: Before your trip, Sylvester advises enrolling in the State Department’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) for alerts about potential political unrest. Once you arrive, check in daily with the hotel staff. Skip that day’s hot spots and you’ll probably have an incident-free trip, Sylvester said. “At the height of the Egypt revolution while Tahrir Square was aflame, a few hundred kilometers away on the Red Sea they were still serving drinks with little umbrellas in them to sunbathers on the beach.”
Protest in Egypt (Photo: Getty Images)
Trust Your Gut: Looking back at the Rio protests, it was clear the city was preparing for something big that day. The shops and restaurants we had planned to visit were shuttered. Shortly after lunch, workers in business attire streamed out of their offices, leaving early to avoid the uproar. In the plazas of government buildings, armed police set up metal barricades. We ignored the feeling in our guts that something wasn’t right.
(Try to) Keep Calm: If you miss the warnings and end up in the middle of the mayhem, keep your head down, hands exposed, and eyes trained on finding a path to safety. Resist the urge to run as it could draw the attention of the police and their pepper spray and batons.
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The Epilogue: After hours trapped in the surrounded restaurant, the waitstaff signaled it was time to leave. They escorted us down a side street past lines of riot police who watched closely as we tried to find a taxi. Back at our apartment all was quiet and the doorman was watching a game show on TV.