What Travelers Can Learn from War Zone Reporters

A couple weeks before leaving for my recent short trip to Qatar, a book came into the office titled How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone. Although I had been told Qatar was remarkably safe, I was still going to a part of the world known for turmoil, so I leafed through the book with interest. I was delighted to learn that the book’s author, British journalist Rosie Garthwaite, is based in Doha, Qatar’s capital, so I tracked her down and emailed her asking if she’d have time to meet up when I was there. Over nonalcoholic lime mint drinks at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, we chatted about her book (out in July) and what living in Doha is like. (Little would I know that just a few days after our talk, her book would seem unfortunately timely with the deaths of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros during ongoing combat in Libya.) Here are some excerpts from my Q&A with Garthwaite:

Your book is really thorough, covering details of how to deal with everything from kidnapping to death, riots to rape. I really don’t have any plans to be in a war zone, but your book seems like it would be relevant to travelers as well. Which of your tips would be particularly useful for a traveler?

The book is built not only on my small experience as a war zone reporter but all the amazing stories from the 68 contributors—journalists, NGO workers, army people, doctors, and even a Somali pirate—who spend their lives in dangerous places. If you are going anywhere remote, this book would be useful. It is not only about war zones. It tells you how to get by pretty much anywhere in the world.

There is a good section on driving in dangerous places that would be useful for many destinations, particularly South Africa where you have to be very aware of your surroundings and it is still possible to be car-jacked at crossings in the middle of a city. You’ll want to keep your windows closed, doors locked, and leave enough space between you and the car in front of you to turn around if necessary.

I found people’s tips on choosing a place to stay (being close to a police station is usually a good idea) and what essentials I should pack in a “grab bag” for emergencies very useful. I am always far too cavalier and trusting about safety in hotels. I always assume everyone is good until proved otherwise and as a result I am ripped off or robbed far too often!

The kidnapping section is something anyone traveling in the Arab world or in Colombia and Mexico should read. And the short and sweet First Aid section will definitely contain at least a couple of things you didn’t know before.

What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever been in?

Iraq. Or perhaps Yemen’s Hadramaut Valley where we stopped for honey and I felt like we were about to be kidnapped by the rather unfriendly AK47-toting bee-keeper.

Are there any places you wouldn’t go?

There is nowhere I wouldn’t go. Though I am not too keen to go back to Kuwait. It was dead dull. And Mogadishu would just be silly for someone white and non-Muslim like me.

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How did you end up in Qatar?

I came here to work as a news producer and journalist for Al Jazeera English, which is based here. They are the most interesting and diverse news channel to work for at the moment in my opinion.

What’s Qatar like compared to other Middle Eastern places you’ve been to?

Qatar is like a village compared to Dubai. It is brand new compared to heritage-filled Iraq. It is hugely rich compared to Yemen. It’s more fun than Kuwait. It is faster and more modern than Oman. It is empty and quiet compared to Egypt. It is the most family-based place I have ever lived. Jordan has a similar vibe at night time to Qatar, bars and restaurants are generally inside and away from residential areas. It is nothing like Beirut or Morocco with their throbbing markets and nightlife.  I can’t remember if I have been anywhere else!

Favorite things about Doha?

When the sun shines at just the perfect temperature and I can do water sports all day. Running down the beach at morning and night. The diversity of people here from a thousand different places, the meeting of like-minded people. The museums, particularly the new contemporary art museum. My flat in the Zigzag Towers.

Least favorite things?

The traffic. The lack of grass and pavements. The expensive restaurants. The traffic is worth mentioning twice. The hot hot hot summers. The lack of public beaches—I have to borrow a friend’s beach for jogging.

If Doha were a celebrity who would it be?

Gosh. Maybe George Clooney. He is pretty glamorous and rich but keeps himself to himself and takes an interest in the outside world. The Sudan peace talks have been held here for years now.

Any tips for how  a regular traveler could go about meeting an actual Qatari?

The best way to meet Qatari boys is to get involved in some of the fast and furious sports they love. You will find plenty of boys playing football (soccer) out on Qatara beach, or on jet skis in the Lagoon, at the shooting range near Qatar University, dune buggying in the desert near Sealine Beach Resort, or driving their remote control cars around just outside the golf club. Or go to the racetrack at Lusail to meet the boys with big cars.

Girls are harder to meet in this region. But if you are brave you will find Qataris very friendly and keen to meet new people if you just go up and say hello. Many girls will be found shopping or having afternoon tea at the mall or the Pearl complex most afternoons.

Photo by Jane Dutton