In any given year dozens of nations will ignite with protest so strong they threaten to topple the government, so chances are, if you travel enough, you’ll eventually be passing through when dissidents start burning tires. The careful traveler can try to avoid this turmoil, but the sparks that cause rebellion are usually only clear in hindsight.
More often than not, and especially in the developing world, one side—either government or insurgent—will try to restrict movement. In the Andes dissidents are fond of blocking roads at mountain passes on either side of a city, effectively cutting it off from the rest of the world. Sometimes those governments raise the stakes and declare any nighttime movement illegal. In Haiti, the police are well versed at locking down the capital during any unrest. Whichever side is stopping the flow of people, it becomes very hard to be a ‘traveler’ in the traditional, geographic sense, but if you’re traveling to learn about new places, political unrest can actually be a boon and provide a crash course.
Every place rebels differently and likewise each government responds in its own way. In Nicaragua dissidents set up blockades on major roadways and slashed the tires of any car that tried to drive around; police used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. In Kerala, India—home to the world’s first democratically elected communist government—a transportation strike focused on buses but without hard and fast road blocks; and police just waited them out. In the United States, public parks in city centers were seized; and police sent out press releases and made mass arrests. In one place brute force rules, in another it’s media messaging and incarceration and in all of them a traveler can learn first-hand what the guidebooks cannot convey.
You may want to wait until things cool off to venture too far but when you do, bring it up with the locals. What you find shocking they may shrug off and vice versa. Political upheaval can cut away all the fat and get at the soul of a foreign place.