As someone who frequently travels to far off lands I want to share a few tips on how to stay safe when traveling . Some of which are constantly in my toolbox, and some I should do more of myself. Please think of these as some ideas to consider or discard as you see fit, and realize that I am not a ‘certified expert’ in these matters, though in all honesty I would be very suspicious of anyone who claimed they were.
Many of the tips are just as useful when at home too, if we take a look at how to navigate and survive in a benchmark city those skills will transfer well when traveling, and you just need to consider a few extra points. Transit hubs such as Bus Stations, Airport Connection Stations and Primary Tourist Stations are more densely packed with opportunistic criminals. Examples in New York City would be: Time Square, Port Authority Bus Station, and Jamaica Station. You will notice a higher proportion of homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes at these places, which can create a dangerous mix. Additionally, on a less seedy level having a better state of awareness reduces the chances that you will pay tourist rates for Taxis or agreeing to dine in crappy restaurants at sky high prices.
The differences between a Tourist and a Local
Tourists are much better targets than locals, as when you are ‘a tourist’ your risk and reward matrix shifts, you are more likely to be carrying a larger amount of cash or monetary instruments from the Airport to your hotel to pay for your trip, and you are likely to be tired, distracted and confused by the unfamiliarity of your surroundings. This makes you a better target than tackling a local when it comes to robbery.
The best thing we can do is rebalance the shift so that you appear more like a hard target by focusing on the following areas:
Increase the Fear of the Risk of Failure
Many street crimes are opportunistic, the perp is looking for a soft target, that ambling tourist who appears confused, you can change this image by some of the following strategies:
Think of a tourist site like a busy road
You would never attempt to walk across a busy road without looking left and right for traffic, and crossing swiftly when safe to do so, yet in a big city people are constantly walking around with their head high in the air rubber necking the local sights. Before you start to look at something, be it the Empire State Building, or the Pyramids of Giza look left and right and assess the danger zones. I want to refer to a very useful threat matrix to help with this, the Jeff Cooper Color Code:
To stay safe when traveling your general Alert level should be Yellow, and raising briefly to Orange when scanning the area if the Location is in an uncontrolled environment. I also, always raise to Orange when at an Egress Point in Transit. Examples of this raise in awareness in an uncontrolled environment would be The Empire State Building, as viewing it would be on the street on 5th Avenue, or the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Busy streets packed with tourists attract predators. If the area seems safe, reset to Yellow and enjoy the site, but keep a look out for new ‘traffic’ or dangers by pausing to scan the area periodically, especially useful when taking photos as your vision can be very tunneled at these times.
A controlled environment would be one where the entry points have security, such as paid entry architectural sites, or places like Disneyworld or onboard a Cruise Ship, where the mix of people have paid a entry, or possibly shown ID to get in. These are safer environments and you rarely need to consider Orange Alerts.
Be careful of Street Performances
It is a classic Magic trick to distract the eye and pull a rabbit out of a hat, the principle of diversion is employed equally well by street performers, as you are idly watching the show often times their team is working through the crowd pick-pocketing. If you do stop to watch a performance be alert, stand behind your family so you can watch them and their pockets, and keep your wits about you.
Make your Targets harder to reach
- Gents, carry your wallet in your front pocket.
- Ladies, cross strap your bag/purse and keep the zipper facing forwards.
- Do not leave bags or high value items (cameras etc) sitting on tables, even if you are present as they are snatch targets.
- Consider a money belt that you can wear under your clothes.
Lead, do not be Led
Whenever I leave an Airport or any major transport hub I seek to move aggressively to my destination. Often times this is when Taxi Drivers will approach you directly and offer to take you to your destination. Frequently you do not have a benchmark price for your journey, so you are at the mercy of these people to be honest with you regarding the price of the fare. Furthermore many of these people are unlicensed and in the event of an accident you will not be covered.
A darker side of this is jumping into an unmarked car when you leave a bar or restaurant, be extremely cautious of doing this as you don’t know who the driver is and what their intentions are. People can be taken from one location and robbed, raped or killed by people impersonating taxi drivers. If you are planning to take a car home have the restaurant call a proper car service for you before you leave, and don’t accept offers from strangers to take you home.
The Darkest Side of being Led
This is a controversial topic, but very important to understand. A criminal intent on doing you bodily harm, either in the form of rape, or a comprehensive robbery that might end in murder will want to lead you from a safe zone to a danger zone. To do this they will employ many tactics, such as:
Primary Attack – Goal to Move to Secondary Location
A fast attack, with the intention of scaring you into submission, so that you go along with them to an unknown destination. They may grab or strike you and there is a chance that you will want to comply with them in the hope that they will be appeased by this. There is a natural response in the brain that will cause you to shut down and want to go along with the attacker, and there is some hope that if you do you will survive. However, realize that they are seeking to take you to a place where it is safe for them to do what they will to you, where nobody will come to help you. So by going along without fighting back you risk losing your only chance to survive the encounter.
The personal choice here is to whether you can accept being taken away, and if it is not a fatal incident be comfortable with the decision to go along with the attacker. That is a profoundly difficult question to deal with, and one only you can answer.
If you are attacked like this, with the goal seeming to be location leading for escalation my advice is to scream, scratch and run. If there are people nearby they are more likely to come to your assistance if you scream ‘fire’ than if you scream ‘rape’ so scream ‘help, fire, fire’. It is a sad fact that many people would not seek to intervene in a rape or robbery, but people will come running for a fire, and even though they may not intercede just the sight of people running towards your position can scare of an attacker. It should be noted that in the event of an attack keeping a cool enough head to think of this rather than react emotionally is not an easy thing at all.
Target Softening – Goal to Move to Secondary Location
Similar to above, the goal is to move to a secondary location in order to conduct the more serious crime. Tools are encouraging this behavior and allowing a different breed of criminal to attempt this form of attack. The best known is a Roofie (Rohypnol), adding a small tablet to your drink when you are distracted. These types of drugs are powerful sedatives, so you will appear very drunk or tired, and your ‘rescuer’ can now take you home, or anywhere they please to attack you. Alarmingly the most common form of “Date Rape Drug” is Ambien.
Whilst such predator drugs are often aimed at women, men too should be worried. I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me he suspected a Roofie attempt whilst in Vietnam, as some overly friendly guys offered him a beer. Do not accept drinks from anyone you don’t know well that includes people on a tour with you, or other travelers you have met during your trip. Furthermore do not leave your drink out of your sight. If you are a smoker, in some states and countries you will have to go outside the bar to smoke, do not return to your drink when you do this.
Familiarize Yourself with Local Laws
An often overlooked aspect of self defense is how your actions will be dealt with by the local authorities. There is no point being a hardened martial artist who uses kung fu moves to beat up a bunch of locals in the Middle East if doing so results in triggering laws that will do more harm than good. Understanding local laws and customs will both make you appear more relaxed, and less of a target, and also make you less likely to fall afoul of them.
Knowing when to Break the Law
If you understand the local laws you are more able to decide when to break the law and when not to. Ultimately as people we are always making this decision, and people break the law daily to some extent or another. An example of how you could break the law in New York would be to carry a weapon with you for personal defense. If you carry a knife in New York City you will be arrested for it, the question comes down then to a personal choice of dealing with the consequences of this risk, or your desire to carry.
I made a choice to carry a knife with me during our Honeymoon in Africa. Generally speaking most of the Countries we were visiting were OK with the weapon since their carry laws are more liberal, however it isn’t that clear cut a decision. For example we traveled through areas of Mozambique that had rates of HIV/AIDS in excess of 11%, I wouldn’t pull the knife unless I had another knife or weapon to contend with, and the realities of a knife fight would be lots of blood on both sides.
Therefore by bringing a knife I am opening the risk for infection. A very heavy choice to make. However whilst we were there we went a little off reservation and wandering through local towns there were a few incidents of violence between the locals, I recall one fight between what appeared to be two local criminals that attracted a large crowd, as the only two tourists there I did feel better about being armed.
I say Africa was ‘generally ok’ with the knife carry laws as in this case I decided having that form of protection trumped local laws, so if there were any borders we crossed where the carry was illegal, I was willing to break that law in order to have the knife.
This post touched upon some of the darker sides of our society. Remember to stay alert and stay safe when traveling , and hopefully don’t allow these things to detract from your experience. Ignorance is bliss they say, so I hope that by opening some eyes here I haven’t cast a negative effect on peoples bliss.