She was working in Uganda on the launch of a mobile operator when riots broke out causing a general state of emergency for two days. She was caught in Kenya during the ethnic violence following the 2007 elections. In January 2009, she found herself in Madagascar during what was later called a coup, in Sudan during the attack on a US Diplomat, and in Nigeria, working away on her laptop when shooting erupted right outside her door.
“With a high-flying job requiring constant travel, Mar Pages has spent the past decade hopping on planes to exotic destinations.
So far, the former globetropping telecommunications consultant, originally from Barcelona, has visited more than 80 countries on all continents — except for Antarctica. All in the name of work. And all expenses paid.
Along the way, the 34-year-old discovered that things don’t always go to plan.“ This is her story. This is about the time she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time…five times.
What do you love the most about travelling?
Learning. I believe travelers are curious minds at heart and I find that I am constantly attracted to things that are as different from my background, my cultural values and my surroundings as possible.
I want to see the Earth and get to know things that are not in textbooks (or the internet). Perhaps it is also because I crave diversity and loathe boredom and repetition
What inspired you to start travelling?
My curiosity. I started traveling because of my job. I found it exciting to land in a different country every week, to discover that my expectations and my common sense were not necessarily common to everyone, that different sets of values existed, and that the world was a very diverse place where everything is relative.
Once I started, I was not able to stop.
You’ve been caught up in coups, wars, political crises, demonstrations, and violence in several countries. Tell us about the times you’ve been in the wrong places at the wrong times.
If I didn’t know myself I would think that I get a kick from the adrenaline that comes with being in a crazy dangerous situation when I travel, that I have a death wish.
Whereas this may actually be the case I have had the incredible misfortune of being caught up in coups, wars, political crisis, demonstrations and violence in several countries.
Uganda During the Riots
In September 2009 I was working in Uganda on the launch of a mobile operator for the bottom of the pyramid. We were at the beginning of the project when all of a sudden the situation in Kampala deteriorated in what was later called the Kayunga riots.
The unrest emerged when the cultural leader of Buganda tried to visit Kampala and was prevented from doing so by the police. Violence and rioting ensued. Roads were blocked, cars and tires burned and a general state of emergency took over the capital for two days.
As always, the international press made it look like war had erupted whereas the reality on the ground was far from that. It was a tragedy, one not to be brushed off, but it was not the start of a civil war. That would have brought more coverage and interest from the voyeuristic international press so they certainly used sensationalist headlines.
We considered an emergency departure but the roads to the airport were closed and where the epicenter of the struggle was, so we resorted to staying at the hotel for as long as it was required. Obviously, family and friends back home thought that we were caught up in the middle of a full blown civil war whereas in fact we were trying to pass time at the Serena Hotel.
We even got to share some fried chicken with a couple getting married on the hotel lawn on that same day. Life in downtown Kampala went on while the police killed 40 innocent people, allegedly hit by stray bullets. In a country so used to revolts, riots and fighting, this did not seem like a good enough reason to the couple to postpone the wedding.
On the Saturday night we ventured out of the hotel and into a nearby bar for a couple of lukewarm beers and jazzy African music and dance. Eventually after two weeks trapped in Uganda we made it out, unscathed.
Kenya’s Post-election Violence
I travelled to Kenya for almost a year but the most heart breaking time was during the ethnic violence following the 2007 elections.
After Kibaki’s victory was announced the opposition leader, Raila, called for mass protests to denounce the vote manipulation, confirmed by international observers. The protests quickly evolved into a wave of ethnic violence, first against the Kikuyo group Kibaki belonged to, and then spread over the course of a few months to all the other tribes as the Kikuyo defended themselves.
Since this took place during the very important Christmas break, most of the Kenyan population had gone up country to their homes and Nairobi was emptier than usual. The ethnic killings, reminiscent of the Ugandan genocide, went on for months.
News of what was happening in other parts of the country were patchy as communications had been cut off. Some weeks the situation was so dramatic that we even left the country mid-week in two occasions when we feared we could be stranded in the middle of a full-blown civil war.
When the crisis exploded we considered our options and decided that we would continue traveling to Nairobi. Most of the airlines stopped flying, reduced the number of flights or instated rules whereby the crew would spend the least amount of time possible on the ground. Emirates continued flying, business as usual for an airline so accustomed to flying to danger zones, but the seats were almost all empty.
We were not fools, the situation was indeed to be accounted for and we couldn’t go about pretending everything was ok. So we contacted an emergency evacuation company and laid out a plan in case of needing to be airlifted to safety. We also moved hotels to one that was closest to the airport and monitored the situation daily. A curfew was imposed so we were simply going from the airport to the office to the hotel and back.
For the most part, life went on, despite most of the economic activity came to a halt. The population was stranded in the rural areas, unable to get back into the city and went into civil war mode.
The fear of a Ugandan style genocide escalated for the first few weeks and so the population cut back on any non-essential expense and stocked up on food and fuel. Working for the mobile operator we tried to control the downtimes but some parts of the country were isolated and couldn’t be reached safely so fuel for the towers could not be re-stocked.
On the ground, the reality was scary and sad. I had spent so much time in Kenya it felt like a second home to me. It was the first country in Africa I worked on, a year before that already, and I held a special place in my heart for it. Seeing the suffering, the deaths and the massacre that took place in some parts of the country was devastating.
Eventually things calmed down and normality returned, but not before months of killings and violence. The remnants of the ethnic fighting still lingering on everyone’s minds.
In January 2009, Madagascar suffered what was later called a coup. Although I was not specifically on the ground on that day, I was scheduled to fly and I had a team in the country. I was regularly visiting Antananarivo for a six-month period. Every week I would visit at least two of the four countries where our project was taking place: Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Madagascar.
As soon as the violence erupted, as the Mayor of Tana proclaimed the President’s loss of power things worsened. The instability and the back and forth between the Mayor and the President ended with fleeing and with illegal declarations by the Tribunals.
On the ground violence was more tamed than in other conflicts because it did not have the ethnic connotations but for a population so peaceful it was indeed striking.
Sudan’s Attack on a US Diplomat
I love Sudan. I can’t explain why or how or even what it is about the country that I find so special but it is a country where I spent a significant amount of time. Like Paul Theroux I fell in love with this dusty desert of sand dunes and simple living.
If you spend any significant amount of time there you are likely to live through some dramatic moments. In Sudan I constantly lived the drama of Darfur, so long forgotten although it remains Humanity’s saddest crisis, the war and subsequent independence of South Sudan, the kidnappings, the threats, the violence. And also, occasionally, despite Khartoum is one of the safest cities in Africa, the risk of terrorist or other indiscriminate attacks on foreigners.
If you visit any of the Foreign Ministries of any Western Government Sudan has been deemed a dangerous place to be avoided unless strictly necessary for the best part of the last two decades. While this may be an accurate image of certain parts of Sudan, Khartoum always felt extremely safe. Except for that one time a US Diplomat working for the Agency of International Development was shot dead on his way home.
Reports were unsure as to whether he was the target or was just caught in the middle but as a result, several Embassies on the ground closed down, including the UK one. The American embassy sent out a reminder email to its citizens and all other embassies followed suite. “Terrorist groups continue to seek opportunities to carry out attacks against U.S. interests, U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets in public places.”
On the ground there was tension and I remember feeling slightly squeamish because Khartoum had always been such a safe place. We used to hail down regular cars to get a ride back to the hotel in the evening as taxis were not always available. This certainly made us all slightly more aware of the realities of a country where so much suffering and war is taking place.
The crime was later credited to an unknown military group.
Nigeria is on the top of my list for places I would never return to. This is because of a mixed bag of reasons both factual (violence, kidnappings, ethnic strife) and also because I just never felt welcome, wanted or even respected in any aspect.
For the three months that I traveled to Lagos all I felt was corruption, bribes being asked at all points, officials trying to steal my clothes from inside my luggage or money from my wallet, rudeness, queues, humidity, pollution…I could go on.
But a moment that summarizes it all happened on day we were working in our office on the, theoretically, safest part of the city, Banana Island, where the business center is.
As we were working away on our laptops we started hearing shooting outside, by the main door. It turned out that two men were arguing about a parking spot and one had decided to take the gun out and solve it like that. Needless to say we moved inside far away from the window.
The entire time in Nigeria was a lesson in truly living in a place where safety is a major concern. We had tinted window cars with curtains, Kalashnikov-wielding guards escorting us to and from the airport and stopping at nothing, and we were, obviously, never outside of the hotel or office.
It was claustrophobic and extremely dangerous. The worst part of all was dealing with the authorities/police. Being in Nigeria, anytime, is being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
What is the first thing which goes through your mind in one of these situations?
I go through a decision tree. How bad is it really? Should we leave? I have learned that the media cannot be trusted in these situations and that the best proxy is the security services at the Client we work for. If we are encouraged to leave, when is the next available flight? Can we get on it? Is it safe for us to wait until then?
If not, we would contact the evacuation company and consider being airlifted. The reality is that none of the situations I found myself in were life threatening and, we could either wait for things to calm down or take a safety stance and get on the next available commercial flight.
What kind of steps do you take to ensure your personal safety?
I always leverage the opinions of those who know best. In cases of conflict, the security teams at the client we were working for were the most truthful and reliable source. Security companies are conflicted as they make money for over exaggerating the situation. At the same time, they are likely to err on the side of caution because they can’t provide you with an advice that may be too risky and their selling proposition is the fact that they know how to manage situations of risk.
Aside from all the situations I described above I do regularly travel to places where security is a concern. I was recently in Pakistan and, although I have extensively written about the need to bust all the myths about this heritage-rich and warm country, I visited with the full understanding of the real risks.
I got in touch with someone who is well established and connected and who had a good understanding of the security situation. I did not wander off around Lahore by myself and I always ensure I arrange a reliable driver to take me around.
The reality is that, aside from these unusual conflict situations, the most dangerous place I have ever been to is South Africa, where I was living for eighteen months.
Joburg can be an extremely dangerous place so I followed the golden rules my local friends shared with me: never stop at night at a traffic lights; don’t fall for the road blockage scam; don’t argue with the police, chances are the bribe they are after can be resolved with a burger from McDonalds or a small note, so have change ready in the car. And so on.
The most valuable piece of advise I can give anyone is to be vigilant, wherever you are.
What is your opinion on the importance of travelling with health insurance while abroad?
I think it is essential and possibly the most important item a traveller should have in check. During all of my years on the road I had full travel and health insurance coverage for all the countries. My work health insurance policy covers me everywhere in the world for elective or emergency treatment. I can see a doctor in whatever country I choose to.
Emergencies have always been covered under my policy, including air evacuation if needed for treatment. My policy also covers repatriation of remains, life Insurance, disability, etc. It is important to make sure that you are covered in cases of Force Majeure and/or war. Given that my job regularly involved places where this was a real risk this check box is ticked for me.
It is also important to include the cost of prescription drugs in the policy – some travel vaccines or preventative drugs, in particular Malaria treatment, can be extremely expensive. Even birth control treatments can cost a fortune in some countries. These are all elements to consider when purchasing health and travel insurance.
Terrorism and other Natural Disasters are more and more widely spread and no longer the reality of the world’s most isolated places. Earthquakes happen in Nepal but also in Japan or the Philippines. Above all, when tragedy strikes, you want your insurance to take care of it all. It is in those occasions when a really good policy shines.
Travel insurance is one of those things that you never want to understand the value of but, if you have to, you don’t wand to regret having brushed its importance.
What other precautions can people take to ensure they are covered if they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Always let someone know where you are. Itinerary, contact numbers or names of hotels you are staying at. And leave it with someone who is constantly thinking of you, someone who would notice if you went missing for a day.
A satellite phone is a good way to ensure that you can be reached in case of emergency. These will work even when the telecoms network is down like in cases of terrorism, natural disaster or isolation. Believe it or not, large parts of the world are still not covered by mobile signal.
I always carry cash in my wallet, you never known when you might need a deposit to guarantee payment for treatment. US Dollars have the highest value, but make sure you carry new notes, always from 2009 onwards, or you may struggle in some parts of Africa where counterfeit is common.
Keep contact numbers for your insurance, particularly of the services they provide on travel advise and support in cases of emergency, handy.
Somewhere in the belongings you carry everywhere with you, have the number of a next of kin and your blood type, so, in case you are unconscious, the hospital knows who to contact. Make this visible with instructions, “In case emergency contact XYZ”.
Let this be someone who speaks English, even if that is not someone in your family, so they can communicate with the hospital. And make sure this is not someone who is regularly unreachable.
Re your insurance, read the fine print and understand what you are covered for and not before you travel. If you are going to participate in activities that are out of the ordinary check that you are covered.
Also, ensure you are covered in all the countries you plan to visit. The US is notorious for being frequently excluded because of the high medical costs. Countries that are considered at war may also be excluded as Insurance companies consider the risk you are taking being your own responsibility.
What do you have to say to those who think “it will never happen to me?”
I broke an arm in South Africa after falling from a horse in a team building activity. In Kampala, the situation escalated out of nowhere in a country that was largely safe and peaceful, nobody had ever mentioned the spiritual leader that was the source of the conflict before. Khartoum was extremely safe before the shooting took place. My friend getting stung by a stingray was simply walking on the beach of the luxurious Kempinski Resort in Zanzibar.
These things can happen to anyone, even in a developed and safe place.
On my series on “Moments which resorted my faith in humanity” I often receive stories of travellers who found themselves in some sort of health emergency and were helped by strangers. Although I believe most people are kind and helpful, you don’t want to have to rely on strangers. It really is better to be safe than sorry.
Get proper and extensive coverage. When things go wrong you don’t want to have to worry about payment or about not getting adequate treatment because your insurance didn’t cover you for this.
In South Africa, despite my best in class insurance, the hospital would not accept me without pre-approval from my insurance or my American Express as guarantee for payment. Have a credit card with a high credit limit ready as well, but be careful about fraud. I have found Amex to be great in these situations as they are a benchmark in fraud management.
Bear in mind that hospital bills, even in developing countries can be outrageous and put you into serious debt. My five days in South Africa with the operation and a shared ward reached close to $10,000.
Most practical piece of advice for those planning travel?
Talk to someone who has been there before, ideally someone who shares your style of travel, who would be scared, worried or excited for similar things and get their insights. Planning is important but more often than not, for countries where security is a concern, no book or travel guide will be able to tell you the implications on the life of a traveller like another traveller can. Plus books go out of date very quickly in today’s fast changing world.
Leverage the age of technology to find someone who knows someone who has been where you plan to go. Don’t be afraid to reach out. People who like to visit places nobody goes to appreciate the reality of such destinations and will gladly share their experience with you.
And you can always reach out to me, I have been to my fair share of the least visited countries, and have many friends who have visited over 100 countries. Chances are I will be able to direct you to the right place for real advise. You can see the countries I have been to in my map.
Travel proves that people are good in nature and that we treat others how we would like to be treated ourselves. Don’t let fear keep you at home.
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Photo Credits: Feature by Ivan Bandura, Pinterest Images by The National Guard & nsahusse. African dance by Anna Carolina Vieira Santos & goooder. Kenyan man of Samburu County by Africa Progress Panel. Sudanese Farmer by United Nations Photo. Sudan Sand Dunes by Dia Eldin Khalil. Nigerian Child by Orbis – Giving the gift of sight. Female Treatment Team by DVIDSHUB. USAG- Humphreys & DFID – UK Department for International Development.
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