For all our readers that ask around the question, “How do you balance safety and openness on the road?” A few thoughts.
The U.S. State Department Travel warnings are shaking the news once again. Apparently, many people are wondering whether to cancel their travel plans. We’re getting notes from family and friends asking us to be careful. And we’re currently in Berlin.
And while we could not finesse our way to safety if we happened to be right on top of the next terrorist attack, there are all those other times — whether we find ourselves at home or on the road — when a few safety approaches and techniques come in handy. Some are natural, but most are acquired and honed from our years on the road in places like Guatemala and Uzbekistan, Egypt and Myanmar. These approaches not only enable us to travel more safely, but they also give us the freedom to open ourselves up to more people and better experiences.
So when we’re asked, “Is there a way to stay open and stay safe?” the answer notwithstanding that there are absolutely no guarantees in life is yes.
Reader note: This piece is long. If prose bores you, you can head straight to the tips here. The reason I include a long pre-ramble is that readers often ask, “How do you do it?” And a travel safety tip list alone, no matter how well articulated and supported, will not get you into my head and explain my approach. I also invite you to read our piece on evaluating travel warnings: The Danger Map of the World: Fear vs. Awareness.
Safety vs. Engagement
But wait. Isn’t personal safety at odds with engagement? The more I put myself out there, the less safe I will be?
It only appears that way. When you step back, you’ll find it depends on your orientation.
Safety is crucial. I grant that first. In the hierarchy of needs, safety is among the most basic. If not addressed properly it will ruin your vacation. On the other hand, it’s also not the factor that’s going to make your vacation. We never return home with stories of what a wonderful experience we had with all the safety precautions we took.
The trick is to keep safety in perspective and realize that through balance, you can use safety as a lever to open your engagement and indirectly yield stories of the “you can tell your grandkids” variety.
The Foundation: Awareness and Observation
Most guidebooks and top ten lists will give you the basics of personal safety when traveling – dress conservatively, try not to stand out (i.e., no white sneakers), don’t wave your money and camera around, put your valuables in zippered pockets or money belts, don’t walk down dark alleys at night (especially after you’ve tied one on at the bar).
The best general foundational advice one can give: remain aware.
But what does that mean? At this point, we must stress: “remain aware” does not imply, “Be suspicious of everything around you and cower.”
Instead, it means observing from time to time your surroundings. Awareness is an art, one that can be mastered with a little practice and patience. It involves filtering a lot of noise from signal and separating what is perfectly normal and safe (e.g., hundreds of people hanging around a street corner in Mumbai looking for construction work) from something that could cause harm (e.g., a crowd gathering for a violent protest).
1) Be most aware in tourist areas.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? What are “tourist areas” you ask? These are places with concentrations of popular sites, restaurants with pretty menus in multiple foreign languages, buildings with new coats of paint, cute shops that line the streets. The whole atmosphere is built to feel “nice” and “comfortable.” It’s easy to relax, almost to the point of complacency, which, it turns out is exactly what petty thieves like pickpockets are hoping will deaden the senses of their next target.
Thieves also understand that a high concentration of tourists usually comes paired with high concentrations of spending money, cameras, phones, and other gadgets.
Obviously, we’re not suggesting you avoid these areas completely. However, we do suggest turning the vigilance meter up a notch when it comes to securing your personal belongings.
We’re reminded of: Granada, Nicaragua. Very pretty old town center, almost mesmerizingly so. From the moment we stepped in the shadow of the newly painted buildings on Plaza Colon, we could feel eyes following us and see movements of people working together. We kept our belongings close each time we found ourselves on the main square, particularly when the streets were at their busiest. Remain vigilant on transport as well (read the sad story of our friends who weren’t).
Contrast this to the town of Leon, Granada’s more run down – but to many, more charming – neighbor to the north.
2) If you feel you are being cased, stop and look at your watch.
Ever have that horrible feeling in your gut when you’re certain someone is following you in the I want to fleece you of all your stuff type of way? If you feel you are being scoped or cased, choose as safe a spot as possible and pull off to the side as if you are checking the time on your watch (Note smarty pants: this is not the time to pull out your fancy smartphone to check the time.)
If you don’t have a watch, just contrive the motions of something else that you need to do. You can easily note the behavior of the person in question out of the corner of your eye. If he continues to walk by at the same pace and doesn’t notice you, it’s likely that everything was only in your imagination.
If the person you believe is scoping you changes pace and starts to hang around, does some itinerant turns and changes behavior, then your gut was likely right on. Get yourself to safety — into a shop, café, hotel, etc. to wait him out, get help or call for a secure taxi to take you the rest of your way.
In either case, the cost of being certain: cheap as chips.
If you are traveling with a partner, agree in advance that a certain phrase will indicate that this is what one of you is doing. Otherwise, one will check his watch and the other will be halfway down the block!
We’re reminded of: Just before arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal we met an Australian traveler who’d been robbed of his camera and money coming home from a bar in the tourist ghetto of Thamel. So each night we were on our way back to our guesthouse(coincidentally not in Thamel) we were on alert, stopping several times to check for the time. Fortunately, it was all in our heads.
Having said that, we’ve watched the itinerant spins dozens of times, from Kazakhstan to Kokomo. It’s rather satisfying to see the frustrated look when they realize we’re on to them.
3) Make eye contact, smile, and say hello.
Another tactical entry from the counter-intuitive travel handbook. If someone in passing makes or you feel uncomfortable and that he's up to no good, consider looking the person straight in the eye, smiling and saying hello.
On the one hand, I find that this immediately breaks down the distance and fear, often resulting in a surprising smile in return (I love this!). On the other hand, if the person has actually been scoping me out, I’ve just let him know that I’m watching him and know exactly what he looks like if I ever have to describe or identify him. Fortunately, I’ve never had to cross this path.
Cultural caveat: In some traditional countries (Muslim countries, also India) women should exercise caution in making direct eye contact with men as it can be seen as flirtatious or taken as an invitation. In this case, I usually nod slightly to show that I’ve acknowledged the person.
We’re reminded of: Santa Ana, El Salvador. On a walk from our guesthouse to the main market, several local people approached us (including a cool guy in an old Ford Mustang) and told us to be careful. When this happened half a dozen times, I was on alert. I greeted everyone on the street and at the market in a form of self-defense. In the end, we had a great time and met some people we otherwise wouldn’t because of all the hellos and smiles I gave that day.
4) Ask what type of danger.
The thing I love about the vast majority of people we’ve met around the world: they are protective of us. They look at us as guests, some of them look at us as kids (I love that, Dan adores it) and they see it as their charge to protect us. But sometimes that protection risks going overboard to the point of keeping us from experiences that are within our safety zone.
When someone tells you “It’s dangerous,” it’s worth asking, “What kind of danger? What sort of harm will I face? Will my stuff get stolen, or could I face physical harm (e.g., gun or knife)?”
With that information, you can make a decision on what level of “danger” you’re willing to face and how you might prepare for it.
We’re reminded of: In Guatemala, we stayed with a host family to learn Spanish. They were a very nice family and our personal safety was of primary concern.
But it seemed that everything we wanted to do was peligroso (dangerous), so we began asking “What type of peligroso? Pickpockets? Or will we face people with guns and knives?” More often than not, the peligroso referred to pickpockets. We can handle that type of peligroso and take precautions. Guns and knives, that’s another set of risks we'd prefer not to encounter. We made our decisions accordingly.
5) Find the grandma.
If the world is ever saved from itself, the grandmas will likely be the ones responsible.
Grandmothers are often a traveler’s guardian angel, particularly for women, and especially for single women traveling solo. On public buses, not only will grandmas often take you under their wing to be sure you get off at the right spot and have some fruit or snacks to go with you, but they will also protect you from drunks and unwanted advances. They often have no qualms about chewing out people who are bothering you; they’ve lived long enough to do what they want without traditional social pressures.
We’re reminded of: A grandma in Kyrgyzstan who nearly threw from a bus a drunk guy who insisted on leaning aggressively into me. (Note: Dan had challenges of his own on the other side of the bus. That’s for another story.)
Also, in Nicaragua a group of older women came to our rescue when a thief scammed us by pretending to be a bus ticket salesman. After figuring out what happened, they yelled after him, forced the real bus ticket guy to track him down. We eventually got our money back. Go team grandma!!
So be safe, but don’t let it strangle the life out of your holiday. Be aware and be open to what travel is really all about.
What would you add to the list? What are some unconventional approaches you've used to keep yourself safe?