Traveling usually put’s us outside of our comfort zone. We are transported from our familiar surroundings, routines and people that we know into a different world of new and sometimes scary places and people. In bushcraft, we often travel to far flung places in search of remote wilderness and can find ourselves well off the beaten path.
The first time I traveled from London to Mexico City, it seemed that I had been plucked from a city in which I blended in and never really had any problems and was deposited into a scene of chaos in which I stood out like a sore thumb, nothing I did seemed to take the spot light off me, everyone was driving past me shouting “hey gringo!” and every other person would stop me in the street and either try to rip me off or involve me in some sort of scam.
I was a bit puzzled about why I was standing out as a soft touch and gave it some thought.
It was a fast learning curve but I quickly worked out what the problem was and how to solve it and I now have no problems at all in-spite of regularly traveling to some very sketchy places.
Humans are ambush predators, we are neither faster nor stronger than other apex predators on the planet and we excel at hunting due to our ability to out think our prey as we have the biggest brain in nature. As hunting for food is no longer our principle method of acquiring food, those same skills are often used to rob or steal from people.
Most of the crime that you are likely to encounter while traveling is going to be theft, assault, some sort of sexual violence or a combination of all of them. You will not have any forewarning that the attackers are going to attack you, it will happen quickly and when you least expect it. It will be an ambush that you cannot plan a defence for as you will not know when it is going to happen.
The best form of defence is to avoid trouble altogether. You win every fight that never starts and it is always easier and more pleasant to not have to fight at all. (also i make no apologies for the spelling of “defence” here in this article, this is the English spelling vs the American spelling “defense”. Sorry but that is just the way it is.)
The short answer is to do these four things
- Look poor
- Look Situationally aware
- Look a little bit annoyed / angry
- Blend in as much as possible
Do those fours things and most people will leave you alone and not mess with you.
To get a good idea of how not to act as a visitor simply go to your nearest tourist area and watch the tourists, look at how they act, how they look, what they wear and how oblivious to their surrounding they seem. You can almost always pick out local people from tourists. Tourists are much more likely to be attacked as they are more likely to be carrying wealth, more likely to be unaware of cons and tricks and will be easier to confuse. Local people will be aware of all the tricks and will know how to avoid them.
Do you want to look like a tourist or a local?
Do those four things are most people will just leave you alone and look for softer targets. An ambush predator does not want a challenge, he wants an easy victory and will therefore target people that look weak. If you look poor, they may move on to somebody who looks like they have more valuable items to take.
Although I speak a lot about generally avoiding people and circumstances that can lead to trouble, it is also important to take notice if an area is deserted. Beaches late at night are a prime example of a dangerous place to be. In the great outdoors and the wilderness, this is not a problem but in places that have towns or villages nearby, deserted places tend to be deserted for a reason or they attract people because they are deserted. If there is nobody around apart from a few dodgy looking people lurking in the bushes, get out of there and find safety among people again.
Generally, people are good, decent and do not want to hurt you or steal from you so safety can be found among them.
Here we borrow a term from the military. It means to be continually aware of your surroundings and the people and potential risks in your space who are moving through you space. Your space is defined as anywhere around your person that another thing or another person could reach you to cause you harm. Your spacial awareness and the conditions that your environment presents will determine the size of this space. Right now as I sit in my home and type this, I am not concerned with my immediate safety because any new threat will come from outside my home so my space is quite large here.
At a bus station of a busy street, my personal space is much more limited and there will be many other people coming close to me that i must be aware of and my personal space may be within my arms reach.
This means that you should not be glued to your phone in public spaces. If you are staring at your phone, immersed in something then you are not aware of your surroundings. It also shows that you have an expensive phone and somebody may decide that they want to take that phone from you. The same goes for headphones. If you cannot hear somebody approaching then you are at a disadvantage.
I cringe when I see tourists in sketchy areas walking around holding their phones or walking around with their bags open with a phone inside on display.
Avoid traveling alone
You are more likely to be attacked if you are alone that if you are in a group.
Look like you know where you are going and what you are doing
When you are moving around, look like you know where you are going. This means taking a look at the map before you leave the hotel and not walking around holding or carrying a map. If you do have to get the map or your phone out to check where you are going, make sure it is safe to do so. People walking around looking lost or with a map sticking out of their pocket are like magnets for opportunistic thieves.
Humans in the act of preparing to ambush somebody display some common body language which are known as Threat Indicators. Examples of these are
- Hood up
- Avoiding eye contact / looking at the floor
- Swaying from side to side
- Chest puffed out
- Head jerking from side to side as they look around to see if anyone will see them attack you. Also known as the target glance
- Averting the face
- Boxers stance
- Standing way to close to you, face to face
- Clenching Fists
- Staring into nothing / the 1000 yard stare
These are all common body language non verbal indicators that something is about to happen. People cannot usually help revealing their intentions through this type of body language and these will usually set off your own instinct as your spidy senses realise that something is wrong.
People may be saying one thing like “have you got the time?” while their body language is saying “I am about to launch an attack on you”. Your own evolutionary memories will often pick up on this incongruity but it really pays to be consciously aware too.
Redundancies and good ideas
- Do not carry all of your money, cards or documents in your wallet at the same time. If somebody does manage to rob you then they need only take your wallet and they have everything and you have nothing.
- If you are traveling with quite a bit of cash, keep most of it rolled up and stuffed in a sock or down your trousers or otherwise hidden so that if you do get stopped by somebody, you can plausibly deny having it and they wont find it.
- Keep a spare wallet with a small amount of cash inside and if you get robbed, give them that wallet. Throw it on the ground in front of you and while they bend down to pick it up you can turn and run or push past them and run. Most of the time they will be content that they have a wallet and wont put up too much resistance to you escaping.
- Make copies of all of your documentation including your passport. If you loose your documentation, you are going to need replacements and having a copy will make this a bit easier when you call the embassy or visit them.
- Keep a list, on paper, of all of your important data, phone numbers, passport number, bank account numbers, next of kin contacts, emergency contacts and addresses so that if you loose your phone or wallet, you at least already have a set of numbers to call when you get back to a safe place. Loosing everything is a very stressful event, make it as easy on yourself as you can and prepare in advance.
- If you are staying somewhere that has a safe, use it and keep your passport in there.
- I take a photo of my passport and then email it to myself so that I can log in anywhere and get a copy of my passport.
It is so important that you travel as light as you can. If you are tied to two large and heavy suitcases then you are unable to move quickly and are unable to blend in. Sometimes we can’t avoid it i know but in those situations you can still take action to minimise your exposure to risk. If you have massive suitcases then you can get a taxi to your hotel and not the bus or train. Get an official taxi from the airport, not just some guy that hassles you outside.
If you have lots of heavy bags then you need to reduce the amount of time that you are exposed to risk, then when you get to your hotel you can unpack and carrying no bag or a smaller bag with you when you go out for the day
If you are traveling light and something happens, you can move away from trouble far more easily
Trust your instincts
You have them for a reason and they will help you. If something seems “off” or wrong in some way, it probably is and you can afford to move on and live to fight another day.
Ladies : Dress modestly in rough places. As sad it is sounds, some parts of the world have serious problems in the treatment of women. If you can imagine that a person is prepared to murder another person to take their money, it follows that this person is probably not going to take no for an answer either. Do not walk around rough places in a bikini, dress modestly and you should be fine.
There are places in Mexico, for example, that that rarely see a woman with blonde hair and the men are known to react with vigor to the presence of a blonde in their midst. Wearing a hat can see off that particular problem.
Traveling is a great, it is fun, it broadens the mind and opens us up to new experiences from which wisdom can be gained. Follow this basic advice and be sensible and you should be fine.