This blog is presented by dear friend and Transportation Blogger, Kevin H. Posey:
How to Travel in the Event of Civil War
In an era in which the current US President tosses around phrases like, “enemy of the people,” to describe the press, Sarah Silverman calls for revolution, rumblings of secession emanate from the West Coast, and Russia appears to be winning the Second Cold War, you may be feeling a bit tense about travel in America. How will you cope with touring around a future United States that more closely resembles Yugoslavia during its 1990s civil war than the stable, prosperous democracy last seen in long-ago 2016?
Fear not! I have survival tips that, helpfully, come from my own expedition to the very same Yugoslavia’s breakaway regions of Slovenia and Croatia in the waning days of Bush the Older. For those of you who are geographically-impaired, that’s in Europe. Europe is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic is that big body of water you splash in when visiting Daytona Beach…oh, never mind.
- Act stupid and smile a lot. This gets you out of all sorts of jams. “Colonel, he is no threat. Look at his stupid face.” Some of you may be better at this than I was.
- Wear a big camera around your neck, even if you don’t know how to use it (like me). Journalists have a built-in excuse to be nosy and really, really reckless.
- Carry hard currency from some other nation. Slovenia and Croatia still used the currency of Yugoslavia, whose government took a dim view to their separatism- often expressed in the form of tanks, airstrikes and artillery barrages. This posed a problem for currency conversion, as banks on either side of the front lines weren’t exactly talking to each other. Get currency from a stable and prosperous country. The Canadian dollar is a contender, though the de facto German national currency- aka the Euro– might be a better bet once Greece gets kicked out of the EU.
- Have a passport from similarly stable and prosperous country, but pick one that is also well-armed and may potentially provide aid to the regions you’re visiting. Canada wins on the first two. Germany wins on all. Ironic, eh? The Kaiser will be pleased.
- Tell someone where you’re going. This should be a family member who actually cares about you. If they happen to work for someone with political influence, excellent! In my case, the employer sat on the House Armed Services Committee. I felt far more clever than was really warranted.
- Be prepared for pushback from those family members you inform. In my case, this was in the form of my wife’s playback of a State Department warning not to travel to Slovenia or Croatia due to ongoing unrest. FYI- this is not the time to mention that you’ve been listening to BBC reports of sniper fire around the train station in my destination, Zagreb, Croatia. Save that info for when you’re safely back out.
- If you’re wondering how dangerous the situation is where you’re going, observe how many other people are making the same journey. If you are literally the only person on the train besides the conductor and engineer, it’s bad. It’s really bad. But, hey, at least the train is still running.
- Make sure the picture on your identity documentation looks like you. Here’s how I found that could be an issue: the young Croatian border guard in the too-big military uniform looked at my passport, furrowed his pimply brow, handed back my passport, then disappeared for a few minutes. He returned with a senior officer, based on relative mustache size, who gravely asked for my passport again. After a moment, he laughed, said something in Serbo-Croatian, and gestured to his own mustache. My passport photo showed me with a mustache; IRL me lacked one. IMPORTANT: it’s best to laugh along with the well-armed border guards in these situations.
- Be prepared to buy a visa upon entry into breakaway regions. It takes awhile for separatists to get international recognition, unless they have oil (Texas, take note). That makes getting a visa rather difficult. When the Slovenian border guard in Ljubljana noted my lack of a visa, I made use of items #1 and #2. Problem solved.
- When you visit the crowded city market and buy a wee flag representing the breakaway region you’re in, don’t be surprised in your accent/language difference causes every set of eyes. We’re talking Lord of the Rings deep in spots. One lucky hit by a Serbian bomber pilot and no more choo-choo out of town. If fighting escalates, get out quick.
- Those tank barriers are probably there for a reason. Sure, you can take pictures. But be discreet. Ditto if you see flatbed railcars loaded with tanks. Armed guards should be equated with signs that read, “No photography please.”
- Pick a hotel near your exit point, in case you need to depart with haste, but maybe check to see what else is around it. The Hotel Central in Zagreb was just across a wide plaza from the train station, so presumably bombs meant for the latter might not hit the former. However, I failed to notice that the main telecom building was next door. One Serbian pilot with a case of the hiccups and my room suddenly gets a new skylight.
- If air raids are an issue, perhaps you should refrain from picking the top floor of the hotel. While it will offer you a magnificent view, this may become a tad alarming when the sirens go off. See item #8.
- Air raid sirens aren’t always drills. Here are clues that they can be quite real, based on my trip: a. A woman in high heels sprinting faster than Usain Bolt across the plaza between the Hotel Central and the Zagreb train station; b. The maid knocking on my door, pointing to the floor (in the direction of the basement) and saying with a nervous smile, “Alarm, time to go down!”; c. The sound of high-speed aircraft.
- When taking pictures of large, government buildings, always ask permission of the edgy paramilitaries guarding them. Paramilitary units can be identified by their plainclothes, automatic weapons, and an obvious omission of sleep for the past 24 hours (or 24 days). They will probably say no.
- If you can’t get permission to take pictures, go ahead and sneak one, but be careful. The guard at the Presidential palace may show you what his AK-47 looks like from the pointy end. This is a good opportunity to refer back to item #1.
- When you visit the crowded city market and buy a wee flag representing the breakaway region you’re in, don’t be surprised in your accent/language difference causes every set of eyes in the market to swivel towards you. Remember item #1 if this should occur. By the way, English with a clear southern accent really stands out in Zagreb’s market, even when everyone is loudly discussing politics in Serbo-Croatian.
- Know when to leave. If opposing forces are advancing to within twenty miles of where you’re eating a leisurely dinner and you notice the TV is playing a music video commemorating the fall of another city that you know hasn’t actually fallen yet, it’s time to go. Remember item #10.
- Be sure to keep some money on you for the trip out. This isn’t for travel expenses. It’s for when reporters, who are also getting the hell out of town on your same train, need to borrow money. Really sorry I didn’t have any to spare, Chuck Sudetic (New York Times Balkan correspondent at the time and cool dude). Thanks for the tip about taking pictures of those tanks!