Why Safety Matters

“How safe is (insert country name?)” is a question that many people ask themselves, and Google, when deciding to travel somewhere new. And, they should. Danger comes in many forms and is as varied as language, cuisine and culture. Sometimes it’s subtle, almost undetectable. Like an expert pickpocket or seemingly harmless game on the side of a busy street. At other times, it can be right in your face and put you in both legal and lethal harm’s way; places where you never want to find yourself unless you’re trying incredibly hard to be James Bond, Triple XXX or any other thrill-seeker who always seem to just escape real and palpable harm. But, those are fictional characters and, if you’re reading this, you’re a real live human. A human that is capable of making mistakes, being taken advantage of and harmed.

Now, none of this is to scare you away from traveling. In my view, there’s far more good in the world than bad, but bad does exist. And, if you’re traveling to new places, near and far, it’s best to equip yourself with any and all knowledge to ensure you have the best time possible.

Me being safe at Uluwatu Temple, Bali
Me being safe at Uluwatu Temple, Bali

Safety Tips to Protect You Anywhere in the World

I know the title of this piece is “Obscure Safety Tips to Protect You Anywhere in the World,” but, I’ll level with you; some of these tips are going to sound like common sense and others will actually be a product of the strange, and often dangerous, situations I’ve found myself in. If you have any of your own, please be sure to include one or two in the comments – sharing is caring.

Money

Money, regardless of how much you have, is one of the main motivations for any type of crime that you may find yourself a victim to. More than lust, envy or any other emotion that could serve as a reason for someone harming you, money is at the top of that list.

  • Publicity. Never take your money out in public, unless you absolutely have to. Meaning, you need to pay for a meal, transportation, accommodation or to purchase that awesome new souvenir you probably don’t need but think you do (I’ve been there many times). “But, what do I do when I absolutely have to take my money out, Mateo?” you may ask. Well, make sure that you budget what you’ll need for a specific day before you set out on all of your new and exciting adventures. If you think you’ll need $50 for the entire day, take out $50 worth of the local currency and no more. If you find that your daily budget was actually more than $50, pay attention to the next point.
  • Eggs in one basket. The term, “don’t put your eggs in one basket,” doesn’t apply here figuratively, but it does literally. Under any circumstances, don’t store your money in one place. You may, like me, take out a lump sum (week’s worth) from an ATM at the beginning if your trip, but you shouldn’t put it all in one place e.g. your backpack, pocketbook, that hollowed out book you think is secretive, etc. The reason is, if someone takes wherever you’ve stored all of your money, all of your money is gone. Instead, put a little bit in one bag, some in another, a bit in that hollowed out book (I’m joking, but it’s not a horrible idea), and more in another inconspicuous place. I’ve hid money in everything from hard drives to socks to secret backpack compartments.  
  • “This is so cheap!” If you’re in a market, just had a delicious and unforgettable meal, or have recently purchased anything that you deem to be “so cheap!” please don’t say this out loud. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard travelers (euphemism for tourists) loudly exclaim what a bargain something was, only to have a local or nefarious traveler look at them like a “come-up”(a.k.a. easy person to rob). Not only is this rude and you’re putting a big “Rob me, please!” sign on your back, but you’re also likely to make prices go up on whatever you’re saying is “so cheap!”
Me being safe at the Rainbow Mountains, Peru
Me being safe at the Rainbow Mountains, Peru

Accommodation

Just scored that awesome Airbnb? Crashing in a dirty hostel and loving every second? Or maybe you’re staying with a friend via Couchsurfing. Hell yeah – I’m glad you found somewhere to stay. But, if anyone asks you where you’re staying, unless they’re an immigration or police officer (even then, be wary), do not tell people where you’re staying. In many countries, like Indonesia, the first question someone will ask is, “Where are you from?” and the second will be “Where are you staying?” As someone from New York, that quick second question never fails to catch me off guard. I immediately think, “I just met you, why do you want to know where I’m staying?” But, it’s usually meant in good faith and no one wants to harm you. However, to be on the safe side, just don’t tell anyone where you’re staying until you’ve seen them a few times and relatively trust them.

A 30-second story on this. I was in India in 2011 and found myself in a seriously sticky situation with a friend. My friend was under the influence of something and, in that state of mind, told two strangers where we were staying. The town we were in was a labyrinth – difficult to enter, difficult to leave – and when the threats and demand for money came from these two strangers, we were cornered in terms of ways to get out of the situation (literally and figuratively). Tell no one where you’re staying.

Public transportation

Transportation is one of the places where it all goes down. “It” being theft, sexual harassment, assault, etc. You name it. Crowded buses, trains (or empty ones, which are worse) are fertile ground for things to get out of hand. But, keeping the following tips in mind will help you stay safe.

  • Baggage Part I. If you’re carrying a backpack, pocketbook or any other form of luggage that isn’t a huge rolling bag, carry it in front of you. This protects against people lightly opening your bag, slicing it open or ripping it off of your back. It ensures that you can see exactly what’s going on with it, and makes sure no one is tampering behind your back. When I was in Tajikistan, I saw a kid with a knife on the bus, which, I believe, was for slicing bags open and extracting the contents more than it was for actually stabbing anyone.
  • Baggage Part II. In many countries, especially in Central America, it’s customary to put larger pieces of luggage on top of a bus. However, it’s not uncommon for people to grab your luggage from up there without you knowing, especially if there are multiple stops. So, if you can put your bag in your lap, do that. If not, take all valuables out and put into a smaller bag that does fit in your lap. Preferably something that isn’t transparent. You don’t want anyone seeing that you have a new Nikon DSLR, iPod (do people still use those? I loved the last one I had), iPhone charger and all of the other goodies you have.

Sit. If possible, sit down. Standing, especially if you’re holding onto a rail above your head, leaves your pockets as a prime target. If you have to stand, do your best to stand in a way where you can have both of your hands in your pockets. This protected me against a group of pickpockets in Italy. One guy put his arm around me, another got close and I felt his hand try digging into my pocket, which was already occupied with my own hand. Not today, brother. Not. Today.

Me being safe at the Miraflores Locks, Panama
Me being safe at the Miraflores Locks, Panama

Private transportation

  • Transportation Network Companies (TNC). With the international rise of Uber, Go-Jek and Grabcar (soon to be Lyft, too), private transportation (also known as TNCs) is easier to come by than ever before. This is a point of extreme contention in the States, but in the States we have police and a variety of other enforceable laws that dissuade disgruntled taxi drivers from beating up Uber drivers. Not so in other countries. In places like Costa Rica, Indonesia, Malaysia and many more, Uber drivers are routinely targeted and assaulted. At times, the riders of those services are also harmed. So, if you do use Uber, or any other form of 21st century private transportation, be careful. Don’t be conspicuous and if taxi drivers approach you, just say that a local friend is coming to get you.
  • Scooters, Motorcycles, Bicycles. In many countries, renting, or even buying, a scooter (like in Indonesia), motorcycle (like in Vietnam) or a bicycle (like in the Netherlands) is a much preferred option to public transportation. This is because they’re affordable, low on gas and fun. But, with choosing one of these modes of transportation comes a host of challenges. In some cases, travelers just get scratched up when they realizing oncoming traffic is coming from the opposite direction they assumed. In other cases, people die. Travelers are known for driving recklessly, and also driving when they don’t have a firm grasp on the vehicle and the country’s traffic rules (or lack thereof). Proceed with caution before operating a vehicle you’ve never used before in a controlled (not hectic) environment. Know that if you’re anxious about doing so, you’re not only endangering yourself, but others.

Night Strolls

This is one of the less obscure, more common sense, tips. Don’t walk around alone at night unless you speak the language, feel secure enough to arm yourself, and trust that if something does go wrong, you won’t be left alone to fend for yourself.

Respect

One of the worst things you can do in any country is mouth off to someone (a local). It’s not your country, you didn’t grow up there and you probably don’t live there. If you disrespect someone, especially someone who may not have much to lose, you’ll find yourself on the bad end of a sticky situation.

The tough part here is that respect, disrespect and other cultural mores can vary from country to country, province to province, hell, village to village. So, do your best to watch how locals interact with one another (in some places, it’s basically a sin to shake someone’s hand with your left hand, touch someone’s head, sit at a higher level than someone older than you, etc.) and act accordingly.

Me being safe in Trinidad, Cuba
Me being safe in Trinidad, Cuba

Romance

Ah, romance. You know, when you go to a far away, exotic land and meet someone who sweeps you off your feet. At least, sweeps you off your feet into an unmarked car after they’ve roofied you and you can no longer walk. That’s extreme, but you get the point.

Be wary of people you meet (especially at bars and clubs) and people who buy you drinks. If you do hit it off and go home with them (probably shouldn’t go home with a random person in a foreign country when you’re drunk, but I get it), make sure your friends, or someone, knows where you’re going. That way, if you don’t show up for a few days, they’ll know where to find your body. I’m joking, but just be careful.

Once in the Czech Republic, I met a Czech guy at a bar when I was out with friends. I was pretty excited that he wanted to chat, since I heard that most Czech people are unfriendly, and we discussed his country, his Thai wife (he was weirdly showing me their texts) and other random small talk. After chatting with my friend, I turn around and the guy hands me a beer. “Thanks, man” I said as I took it. I wasn’t thinking twice about being roofied by another dude. But, one drink later (I’m not a lightweight) I was belligerent. It felt as if I had eight drinks! Was I roofied? Maybe not, but I think I was. Fortunately, no one was dragging me off my feet.

Scams

There could be a whole book about scams. Actually, there is. I recently read it. It’s called, “The Confidence Game,” and it’s one of the most informative books I’ve ever read on con men / women and why we fall for them. Buy it.

The thing about a scam is that they come in all shapes and sizes. The main common denominator is that many, the good ones, at least, will go on unnoticed until it’s too late. However, others do rely on coercion and physicality. If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ve likely seen many of these scams e.g. “Where’s the ball / pick the card” on the side of the street, the one where someone ties a bracelet to your wrist and asks for money, the one where someone says they found your gold ring and asks for money, etc. There are so many all around the world!

Be vigilant and don’t be in any hurry to join a crowd if something is going on, and don’t partake in any little games happening on the sidewalk where money is involved. Even if money isn’t, it could still be an opportunity for pickpockets to go through the crowd and rifle through pockets of people whose attention is elsewhere.

Me being safe in Reykjadalur, Iceland
Me being safe in Reykjadalur, Iceland

Food & Beverage

Not all safety is about people out to get you. Oftentimes, your own safety is put into jeopardy when you’re confused, not thinking clearly or unsure about a certain situation. This often happens with food and beverage. You see some delectable street food and say, “I should try that.” Or, you hear about how poor the sanitation system is in a country, yet you still drink water from the tap (I do, but that doesn’t mean you should).

  • Bottled water. If you’re traveling to a country where you’ve heard that the water isn’t the cleanest, or you’re unsure, drink bottled water and only drinks that are bottled or filtered. However, do some research on a country’s water system beforehand, or else you could be laughed it. For example, the water in Iceland is so pure that locals laugh at travelers who buy bottled water.
  • Street food. Eating food off of the street, which locals eat, is often a frugal and fun way to get to know a country. However, there’s always a toss up in terms of if you’ll become ill or not. If you’re someone with a weaker stomach and immune system, stay away. If you believe you have a bulletproof belly, have at it.
  • Local liquor. Many countries boast local liquors that are basically their own version of moonshine made out of who knows what. Sometimes, it’s fine to sample them. But, please proceed with caution. Local liquors don’t just blind people and impair hearing, they can also actually kill you. See exhibit one, two and three.

Drugs

This will be short. If they’re illegal in the country you’re visiting to, don’t buy them. It’s not worth it. If you’re caught with drugs, the authorities will likely go harder on you than they would on a local, in order to make an example out of you.

In 2005, a group of Australians, the “Bali Nine,” were caught smuggling heroin out of Indonesia and into Australia. Some of them were imprisoned, others were executed by firing squad. Now, buying drugs and smuggling drugs are two different things, but have fun explaining that to the authorities.

Me being (sort of) safe in Jaipur, India
Me being (sort of) safe in Jaipur, India

Police

Unfortunately, police have to be included here as potential threats to your safety (but mostly the safety of your pocket). In many countries, bribing police is as commonplace as coffee. And you, as a traveler, are their main cash reserve.

Now, if you do need to bribe someone, negotiate. Never give them the amount, which is typically high, that they’re asking for. Hell, tell them you have no money and can’t pay them (it’s what I always do). But, you really need to do your best to assess which type of police you’re dealing with. I’ve encountered every type from AK-47s in my face in Kenya to police in Tajikistan and Indonesia who I basically told, “No way, I’m not paying you,” and walked away. This was for smaller infractions, of course, like random visa checks and driving without a helmet. Obviously, anything more serious would have warranted detainment. And places like Central America, Europe and the States have police that don’t mess around. Tread lightly and know that if you ever resist giving them what they ask for, you’re taking a risk. Be smart about which you decide to take.

New Lands, New People and New Life

Traveling is fun and exciting. You’re heading off to new lands, meeting new people and experiencing life in ways you’ve never experienced it before – jump in with full force and have the time of your life. But, keep the aforementioned tips in mind. Nothing ruins a trip like theft, assault, sickness, having to bribe police or any other less than ideal situation people find too frequently themselves in. Remember, the world is a beautiful place where there’s more good than bad, but do yourself a favor and put yourself in the best position to avoid as much of the bad as possible! And, if you have any of your own safety tips, as I’m sure you do, please share them in the comments!

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his first novel. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com

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