I recently wrote an article that featured some great adventure travel equipment tips from Robert Young Pelton, the hard-core author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places. As I was thumbing though my old copy of this classic (my edition is one of the first, and dates to the mid-1990s), I realized that there is some very useful travel wisdom here.
What follows is my paraphrasing of some of Pelton’s more useful survival tips. These are lessons he learned from years of working as a war correspondent, adventurer, and intrepid traveler.
I have learned a few things myself over the years, and have incorporated them into the text below. Even if you never plan to visit a “dangerous place,” Pelton’s book is worth getting if you’re a hard-core, snake-eating traveler.
Before we get into the details here, let me just try to dispel some myths here. Americans tend to be very afraid of unfamiliar foreign situations, and there is a lot of hysterical propaganda in the US press about all the horrible things that might happen to you if you travel abroad. The irony of this, of course, is that statistically, the average American is in far more danger in his own metropolitan areas than he might be in nearly any Third World country.
In all my years of travel, I have never been waylaid, robbed, threatened, or drugged. I’ve been short-changed in Rome one or two times, but that was hardly anything. It’s all in the attitude: how you walk, talk, carry yourself, and your demeanor. I look vaguely ethnic enough so that people aren’t quite sure where I’m from. I try to speak the local language. I avoid trouble spots. And I walk with a sense of purpose and confidence in my stride. In the vast majority of situations, you will be fine as long as you keep to the basic rules and don’t do anything stupid.
But that’s the problem, of course. When people are tired, careless, distracted, or let their guard down…then anything can happen. That’s why it never hurts to repeat these things over and over again. So let’s dive into Pelton’s survival tips.
Know Your Enemy
Pelton’s first tip is to know the possible enemies out there. As he sees it, the predators of travelers come in several categories.
1. The Professionals. “Criminals spend every day thinking how to maximize their return while minimizing their risk.” Absolutely right. Consider yourself under observation most of the time. All major tourist destinations are being combed carefully and regularly for marks and suckers. As Pelton says,
Kids sit up on the hills behind museum parking lots and beaches, watching you hide your camera in the trunk and stroll nonchalantly to your destination. Women chat up conventioneers whose rooms are being rifled. Prostitutes slip drugs into overpriced drinks and then steal your wallet. Taxi drivers tell accomplices not only where you are going, but when you’ll be back in the evening.
2. Junkies and Opportunists. These are usually found “in the sleaziest parts of town”:
Whether they’re transvestite hookers who hang around the Moulin Rouge in Paris or the kids who crowd around you in Jakarta, they look for an opportunity and they go for it…they start with the business traveler who drinks too much and then becomes careless.
3. The Con Men. You will tend to meet people of all types when you travel. If something doesn’t smell right, it probably isn’t right.
You meet a businessperson in a bar who will introduce you to potential buyers for your new widgets. He also promises that there will be entertainment. You not only drink too much, but find out later that your credit card has been charged up to its limit…The first rule of the con man is to never let the mark suspect that he is being conned, even after the con is done.
4. The Killers. It’s unlikely that you will run into these types, but they do exist. Botched robberies, holdups, and kidnappings do happen. But it’s all about the odds:
Unlike domestic crime, tourist crime relies on chance. The odds are in your favor that you won’t be robbed, attacked, killed, raped, or even cheated. You just have to works the odds your way.
How To Beat The Odds
This is the part where Pelton’s years of experience really bear fruit.
1. Travel Tough. “Think of travel,” he says, “as a herd of animals roaming across the savannah. Predators watch them from the sideline, looking for the weary, the stragglers, and the confused.”
Move quickly and with conviction. Expect to be ripped off. Look suspicious people straight in the eye for a second longer than normal. The key to avoid becoming a victim is not to look like one in the first place…It’s a look and an attitude that says, “Hey man, I’ve been here before. Maybe even more times than you have.”
2. Travel Smart. Pelton tells us that situational awareness comes down to being well-read, well-prepared, and well-studied:
Know real danger. Read, talk, listen, and plan. Be aware of scams and dangers before they go down. Understand where and what crime is most likely to occur and be alert at all times. If possible, learn and practice the art of self-defense.
3. Think Simple. You need to avoid looking like a mark or an innocent abroad:
Try to use simple and nontraditional devices for your valuables. Aluminum equipment cases advertise “steal me.” Stickers bearing [brand] names scream “steal me faster.” Put electrician’s tape over conspicuous brand names or badges. Wear neutral or dark-colored clothing without slogans, brands, or bright patterns. Do not write your address on the outside of your luggage. Put a business card inside your luggage with just your initials and fax number or office phone number on the bag. Carry plastic garbage bags to slip your luggage inside for bus rides.
4. Travel Light. The more stuff you carry, the more of a mark you are. “Crooks prey on the overloaded.” Mark your bag with plain tape if necessary. Use cable locks to frustrate thieves. Make sure both hands are free even when carrying bags. Use twist ties or locks to secure outside pockets or zippers. Keep your bags on you at all times.
5. Stay Away From Bad Places. Cheap bars, back alleys, whorehouses, slum districts, and public parks or beaches at night are generally bad.
6. Avoid Having Too Good A Time. Two key things to be aware of are fatigue and alcohol. Avoid excesses of both. Bad things tend to happen “after a 12-hour flight and a few Scotches.” Many robberies and scams are just about taking advantages of opportunities presented by careless travelers. Americans tend to talk in loud voices and act flamboyantly abroad, and this is bad. Conspicuous spending is always bad.
7. Stay Away From Tourists. It’s not generally known, but the source of a lot of theft and crime are other tourists. Mingling with other tourists means that they can pull you into their drama, bullshit, and scams.
When I’m traveling (this is me talking, not Robert Pelton), I make a point of being polite to other tourists, but then getting as far from them as I can. Most of them are not street-smart, act like fools, and get on my nerves. Keeping a low profile and flying under the radar is the best way. And don’t even think about doing anything remotely illegal or getting anywhere near drugs.
You can get sucked into their drama very easily. Some of them even expect you to baby-sit them, once they find out you can handle yourself. The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest dangers can come from stupid actions of other travelers.
8. Get Local. Stay with locals if you can. Try to get with small villages. Village people tend to be more honest and honorable. Pelton tells us:
On one occasion I left $3000 in cash and a camera in a small Andalusian village. After its discovery by a local, the entire village tracked me down and was greatly relieved when I was found…Stories of honesty and generosity around the world are legion…Large cities are breeding grounds of crime.
9. Think Plan B. Always be situationally aware. Keep alert to everything happening, all the time:
Look for escape routes; avoid funny looking people. Walk fast. Keep away from doorways. Stand under bright lights. Look purposeful. Always be aware of a 100-yard circle around you.
10. Run Like Hell. If you’re robbed, give the criminals what they want and then try to leave the area quickly. Do not argue with them. Do not think you are Charles Bronson, and try to fight them. The chances of being pursued once they have your valuables is very slim.
If the robber is armed, do not obey a command to go with him to a place more secluded than where you are then. Instead, run in a weaving motion to try to get to a place of cover. If you are stopped at a roadblock by criminals or militias, do not go with them willingly. “If you’re going to die, die on your own terms.”
The bottom line, Pelton cautions us, is that it’s better to lose your valuables than your life. Experience is the best teacher, and you want to live to see another day. He tells this amusing story:
I was once attacked in a market in Bamako, Mali. While standing around, two men tried to steal my camera. Finding that it was attached tightly with taut straps, they tugged and tugged while a busload of onlookers gazed in fascination. Giving up their futile quest, they suddenly stood still with their heads hung low as if awaiting a beating. Half of the passengers on the bus admonished the men for trying to rob me, while the other half chastised me for showing off such expensive items in their impoverished country, and tempting these poor ragged men to rob me. They were both right.
My Own Thoughts
Everything Pelton talks about is right on point. My own recommendations that I’ve found to be useful are these:
1. Before leaving your home country, make sure your credit card companies know of your travel.
2. Copy all important travel documents (passports, etc.) and take copies with you.
3. Do not discuss details of your travel with people you sit next to on planes or buses. It’s none of their business.
4. Avoid other tourists. Learn enough of the language before you get there to survive.
5. Bring a well-stocked first-aid kit. Always.
6. If you use Airbnb.com to rent rooms, make sure it’s a place that others have stayed at and can vouch for. Read those reviews carefully. Do not rent from people who give you a hard time about your bringing other people to the room. Do not rent from people who are demanding, whiners, complainers, or do not have any reviews.
7. When taking taxis, always used metered ones. Never any other kind. Prefer older drivers over younger ones. Younger ones can be more desperate and inclined to try to get over on you.
8. Be careful about using ATMs. Pick ones from larger banks. Do not use ones in grocery stores or smaller establishments. Always have the phone numbers of the credit card companies with you or in your room, so you can call them if you need to. They all have policies where you can call them collect.
9. If you are traveling to South America, consider getting an international drivers license. You can get them for very little money through AAA, and I highly recommend it. Even if you never drive, it’s good to have another form of ID with you that has different languages on it. It’s a level of preparedness that goes above that of the average person, and this sends a message to others.
10. Avoid discussions about politics, religion, or other sensitive subjects. People don’t care about your point of view. While religion may not matter to you, it matters very much for 95% of the world. Respect other people.
11. I am convinced that obese people are targeted far more often abroad than are people of normal weight. It all ties in to looking like a rich, spoiled target.
12. Know as much of the local language and customs as possible. Don’t whine to me that this is too hard. Do it. If you aren’t willing to do this, you have no business being in that country.
13. A good rule of thumb is that you need half as much clothing and accessories, and twice as much cash, as you think you’ll need. Plan accordingly.
14. Avoid those “youth hostels” that everyone seems to think are so cool. You should have enough money to rent a place with Airbnb.com, or do a home-stay, or use a local hotel. Youth hostels, in general, attract a certain type that I find off-putting.
While I’ve never had problems while traveling, I do know people who have.
One guy I know visited Colombia with a friend. The two of them didn’t know Spanish very well or at all, and must have looked like typical marks. They went out to a club, partied with what they thought were regular girls, and then invited a few of them back to their hotel. For some reason, one of the guys allowed the girls to roam around the room unsupervised.
They hung out for a short period of time and then left. The two guys then found out that they had lost about $2000 in cash, stolen right from under their noses. They compounded their foolishness by reporting the theft to the police, who did little more than laugh at them.
I really hope they learned something from this.
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