January 16, 2012
I was looking round the unofficial Bob Marley museum in Trenchtown. I’d been taken there by Turnip, driver of a decrepit taxi, who had befriended us the day before. There was some debate among the slightly unfriendly guys running the place as to how much to charge me for admission, but they settled on ten dollars. On the deck in front of the house where Marley grew up, two guys were flagrantly smoking crack while another was cleaning his nails with a large hunting knife. “I wonder if I’m in any danger?”, I thought. I’d left Birgit on her own to go shopping in Kingston. Would she be all right too?
Of course, everything was fine. The next day, Turnip took us out to Hellshire Beach, where we were quite clearly the only tourists among the Kingston families out for a Sunday swim. Giant sound systems shook the whole beach as we crunched our way though a lobster caught specially for us. But in the shacks behind us, there were definitely dodgy dealings going on, and Turnip had had to negotiate animatedly to get a parking slot. We never even considered there might be a safety issue.
The next evening, we set out to find a particular music bar recommended in the guide book, and got completely and utterly lost. No one seemed keen to help us as we wandered along increasingly deserted and badly-lit streets. Was this a sensible thing to do in a city like Kingston? We didn’t really give it any thought.
All this was three years ago. It was only when reading a “Warning Of The Week” slot in a newspaper’s travel section that I realized that actually, we were probably being rather foolish. Out of curiosity, I took a peek at the Foreign Office website’s advice for Jamaica. Good grief!
“There is a risk in walking alone in isolated areas or on deserted beaches even in daylight hours.” Whoops.
“Don’t walk at night.” We did.
“Only hire taxis authorised by the Jamaica Tourist Board.” There was no way dear old Turnip’s jalopy had ever been licensed by anyone. In fact, he’d wooed us by driving slowly alongside us and enticing us in.
“Try to vary which restaurants you use.” We went to the same one several times.
“Avoid large crowds.” It was Bob Marley’s birthday so of course we went to an outdoor concert.
Well, we had a great time and it makes you wonder whether you’d actually go anywhere if you followed all the official advice. If you read the Evening Standard and digested its contents, you’d never step outside your front door in London, such is the catalogues of muggings, rapes and random attacks chronicled within. But having perused the Kingston advice, I thought I’d reconsider another couple of recent holidays in the light of what the Foreign Office says (my wife and I have reached the age where we want to travel a lot and we want to travel independently). It was quite a sobering read.
A couple of years before, we’d rented a lovely villa in Tobago. After a series of independently-booked, self-catering Caribbean island holidays, this seemed like a great option – and it was. But we were slightly startled to find that we had a 24-hour guard and triple locks on the doors. Nevertheless, we wandered round in the dark, visited deserted beaches and, on at least one occasion, stumbled around the place in a rum punch-induced stupor. If we hadn’t been adventurous and willing to engage complete strangers in conversation, we’d never have met Michael de Souza, creator of the now mega-franchise Rastamouse. We also visited the home of the eccentric German sculptress Luise Kimme, who had twelve guard dogs and massive barbed wire defences and claimed she never left her compound. What does the Foreign Office have to say about Tobago?
“There have been a number of serious robberies against tourists. Some of these incidents have been accompanied by violence, including attempted rape.” Ulp.
“Caution is advised when renting villas in Tobago.” Ahem.
“Visitors are advised to visit isolated beaches only as a member of an organised group.” Oh dear.
Now this is when it gets really serious. We had the most wonderful, carefree time in Tobago, but, weeks after we returned, we read that a Swedish couple living in the same street as our rented villa were hacked to death with machetes in their own home. That concentrated the mind.
Not enough to deter us from taking an independent coastal holiday in Kenya the next year, though. It has only been the recent subsequent series of kidnappings and murders in this area that has made us realize that we may have been not only naïve but perhaps genuinely foolhardy.
We had a gorgeous villa and there were a couple of staff on hand. Our “servant” Bernard wouldn’t let us go anywhere outside the grounds on our own, insisting on driving us to and from restaurants and waiting outside while we ate. He was shocked to see me setting out on a walk around the area and demanded to accompany me every step of the way.
Kenya: “Remain vigilant at all times.” We didn’t.
“Muggings and incidents of armed robbery can occur at any time.” Hmmm.
“Attacks can occur anywhere, but especially in isolated areas such as empty beaches.” I’m beginning to feel ill.
So what can we learn from this, particularly in view of planning future holidays? One response is clear: We have always had a wonderful time and never encountered any trouble, therefore there is nothing to be concerned about. On the other hand, we have probably been exceptionally lucky. But to what extent should the official advice be treated as gospel? I looked at the advice regarding places we have recently visited for weekend breaks, such as Riga and Vilnius, and they are pretty doomy too. Certainly, the reports in our local weekly paper would incline you never to go out on a Friday night in your home town.
We can’t just become recluses, but one thing we are agreed on. We’re going to be a bit more cautious in future, but we’re certainly not going to be put off searching for adventure.