Having traveled over a million miles to various parts of the world - usually on business, occasionally on holiday - I want to share my experiences for the benefit of fellow travelers. For the most part, my travels have been international, involving air journeys, but my general experiences are relevant to any traveler.

Since I have had close encounters with four coups in different countries and at different times during my travels, I would like to begin by recounting these experiences.

Coping with Coups

I had the dubious distinction of being on the spot just two days before the Shah of Iran was overthrown. It was 1978 in tehra,; mobs were on the rampage everywhere and the hotel I was staying in was set on fire. The other guests and I took shelter in an annexe that night and I managed to get on a plane out of the city the next morning, virtually dodging gunfire. Luck was obviously on my side as the airport was shut down for several days thereafter.

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The adventure the second time around was post-coup. The location was Liberia (West Africa), just a few days after a group of 17 junior soldiers had executed the entire Cabinet and taken over the country. Unlike several of its African neighbours, it was the first time that Liberia (then a one-party, one-government state) found itself caught up in such a high level of violence. When I arrived at the airport, it was crawling with soldiers, one of whom barred by way even after I cleared both Immigration and Customs. Some time later and after much confusion, I realized that all it took to get going was US$1!

Having bought myself successfully out of that tricky situation, I promptly encountered another: Any delay meant being overtaken by the curfew. Fortunately, the hotel I was booked into was just across the road, and I made it there only to find there was no room for me despite a reservation. I decided to camp in the lobby and told this to receptionist, who threw the rule both at me. A rather lovely and very friendly strewardess on my earlier flight came up and pleaded my case, finally offering to share her room with me. A happy solution, I thought, and was about to accept gladly, when money spoke again. The receptionist turned to both of us and declared that for US$50 extra, I could have a room of my own.

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My next encounter was with an attempted coup in the Maldives. I was in a hotel on one of the many islands when a group[ of mercenaries from Sri Lanka entered Male, the capital. A friend who lives there recounted what happened.

The Sri Lankans were accompanied by a couple of Maldivians who were behind the coup attempt, and the entire lot were running helter-skelter between the houses of the senior government officials. Unfortunately, the Maldivian armed forces had the unusual nocturnal practice of retiring under lock and key in their barracks, presumably to keep out of mischief. The keys were, apparently, held by the country's defence minister.

As a result, the mercenaries began their attack on this walled-in area. Their bullets were of no avail, and neither were those fired by the soldiers on the inside. No one was hitting anyone.

The Maldivians, peaceable and peace-loving by nature, assumed that a movie was being shot, and turned out in large numbers to watch the fun, not realizing that real bullets were flying all over the place. A couple of innocent people were hurt in the crossfire. Over at the presidential home and office, however, things were a little different. There, the guards were of the ceremonial kind, and so were their guns- these had no bullets!

The drama between the Sri Lankan mercenaries and Maldivian soldiers continued for a few hours until two plane-loads of soldiers from a friendly neighbouring country arrived and brought things under control. Meanwhile, the mercenaries attempted to escape on a slow cargo boat and were promptly captured by a battleship. My friend in Male was then the shipping minister, and he had been taken hostage on the cargo boat, hurting his foot in the fracas.

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My fourth and final brush with political turmoil was in Thailand, a couple of days after the coup took place in 1993. I arrived in Bangkok one morning to learn that the army had once again taken over the country. The immigration officer who received me at my port of entry explained that "in Thailand, the people like playing musical chairs," referring to the tussle for power between the army and civilians. However, everything was business as usual, with no visible changes in either government policy or business activity.

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Coups aside, here is a basic list of do's and don'ts that should come in handy if you find yourself caught up in political unrest or civilian strife while traveling:

Do not panic.
Do not try to leave the country by road, sea or train. An international flight is the safest route.
Keep yourself occupied. During the attempted coup in the Maldives, I spent the extra time reading Thor Heyerdahl's Maldives Mystery, which was both interesting and insightful.
There is no need to take sides. Keep out of the cross fire as well.
If things get really hot, embassies are a good place in which to take refuge. However, they may also be the target of attacks, either as political targets or for rampaging mobs who see foreigners as been particularly vulnerable in such situations. If that is the case, it may be better to stick to your hotel.
Some introspection is not our of place at a time like this; it is said that coming close to death often alters the course of one's life dramatically.