How local knowledge can save your life

Neil Island sunset. Photo: Ankur P

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2004 South Asian tsunami, aid workers feared the worst for the isolated tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

This remote archipelago, east of the Bay of Bengal, sat directly in the path of surging waters as the unprecedented natural disaster decimated coastlines and left almost a quarter of a million people dead.

The aboriginal islanders – nomadic hunter-gatherers with minimal outside-contact – were already living a precarious existence. Disease and isolation had left some groups numbering just a few dozen individuals.

In the days following the tsunami, observers feared they’d been wiped out completely.

However, Indian Air Force helicopters flying over these tiny specks of land began to report seeing men on the beach.

Many indigenous islanders appeared to have escaped the worse ravages of the disaster. But how?

It’s now believed that these groups were far better prepared than previously thought.

Upon feeling the first tremors of the massive earthquake which triggered the freak tidal surge, they’d immediately fled to higher-ground. Researchers believe this life-saving reaction was the result of an oral history dating back thousands of years which had instilled in them exactly what to do when the ground shook.

If there’s a lesson we can learn from this tale, it’s that hard-won local knowledge can sometimes trump the most modern resources for staying safe.

In other words, make friends with the locals.

This is not limited to avoiding natural disasters. In fact, getting educated by a friendly local on common scams and dangers as well as potentially volatile developing situations is the smart way to travel – wherever you are in the world.

In Quito, Ecuador, a local stopped when seeing me try to hail a taxi on the side of a busy street. This is a city where ‘express kidnappings’ (forcing you to a cashpoint at knife or gunpoint) are an all-too common criminal enterprise for fake taxi drivers and their accomplices.

After a few pointers, I knew exactly what to look for – and what to avoid – from the motley flow of yellow taxis prowling the capital. Other travellers I met during my time in the South American country hadn’t been so well informed.

While living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we’d commonly spend the evening in the local pizza joint, knocking back complimentary rice wine with the owner. However, the free booze would intermittently cease for a week or so at a time. “The rice wine is bad at the moment,” our Cambodian host would offer as an explanation.

Almost invariably in the next day or two, we’d see in the local English-language newspaper how a dozen had been poisoned by toxic rice wine at a local wedding party. Bad indeed.

This type of street-level knowledge is something many locals are plugged into with a veracity far exceeding a TripAdvisor warning or a dated blog post. Take advantage of these ‘experts’ and you add a powerful tool to your arsenal of danger-avoidance.

Fishermen returning from their trip at sunset. Andaman Islands, India. Photo: Jakub Michankow
Fishermen returning from their trip at sunset. Andaman Islands, India. Photo: Jakub Michankow