Traveling to a foreign country, whether with a tour, a local, a friend, a group, or by yourself, introduces some measure of danger or risk to your safety. While all danger can’t be completely avoided, it can be mitigated to some degree by learning ways to avoid it and by being prepared for it.
In self-defense, there is a term called, “Get off the X,” which basically means, don’t be the target, get out of the line of fire, or move to somewhere safe. Unfortunately, traveling to another country already puts us at a disadvantage, and puts us on the “X”. Usually you have limited knowledge of the language, the city layout, and the customs and culture, all of which make you vulnerable. The more foreign you look, the more of a target you are.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do, to travel off the “X”. This is Part 1 of a 5 part series dedicated to traveling off the X.
*Disclaimer, I am in no way guaranteeing safety or validity to the following suggestions. They are just things I have found through research, classes, and experience that could potentially be useful.
OPERATE IN THE YELLOW
Most people operate in the white, meaning their attention may be consumed by their phones, they have no idea what is going on around them, and they are not paying attention in general. Operating in the yellow means to be alert, and aware of your surroundings. It means constantly swiveling your attention and noticing anything that appears “out of the normal.”
Note, “out of normal” is contingent on the place you are at. Try and find out what the baseline normal is everywhere you go. It may be “normal” to see people running in the streets during the Running of the Bulls in Spain, but not in Paris. And if you notice someone following you or something potentially threatening your safety, you shift to operating in the orange, prepared to run or fight or do what is needed to get off the X.
How can you notice potential danger, if you aren’t paying attention?
DON’T BE A TARGET
Criminals typically case their victims first, and you want them to just skip over you and find you not worth their time. If you look like you are operating in the yellow, and not the white, you will be less likely targeted. Think about it, if you are a criminal on a popular tourist street and you have the choice to rob the person not paying attention and looking at their phone or map, or the person with their head up looking around and even making eye contact with you in a guarded manner, you are going to pick the person not paying attention.
Avoid unnecessary extravagance like expensive watches, purses, or jewelry. I even go as far as making my stuff look more dingy than it is. My phone case is black and beat up, not brightly colored and glittery, my bag has some wear, and my camera strap is plain without the logo.
Don’t pull out wads of money. I always try to get the smallest denomination of money, and put a small amount in my pocket, so when I go to pay for something, I am not pulling out loads of money. And realize, “loads” of money is different depending on where you are. In some countries, a small amount to you equates to an entire year’s income for another. In some places, even your phone is worth more than an entire year’s income.
I fancy myself an amateur photography, and drag my Canon DSLR camera with me everywhere I go, which makes me a target. I try to put it in a nondescript bag, a bag that doesn’t scream camera bag, and I only pull it out when I am using it. Sometimes, I have to just accept I won’t be able to get photos, because I just can’t risk bringing my camera, like when I toured the Kibera slums in Nairobi. Another danger could be found in not being courteous when you are taking photos. I witnessed a woman try to attack a tourist for taking her photo. She believed that having your photo taken would steal your soul, and was livid that her’s was taken without her consent.
Unfortunately, if you are by yourself, a female, disabled, or older, you are seen more as an easy target. There isn’t much you can do about these, except just be more prepared and vigilant.
The more foreign you look, the more of a target you are, because criminals will know they can capitalize on your ignorance of the culture, location, and language. If you can’t blend in and look like a local, at least try and look like an expat and dress as much like the locals as makes sense. Obviously, you won’t dress like a Maasai Mara warrior, but it does mean scrapping the tourist outfit and any bright colors or patterns that make you stand out.
You want to blend in, not stand out. This could also mean learning some of the language, cultural norms, and customs. Be respectful of the culture, if they dress more conservatively, you should match that level. All of that will make you look like you know what you are doing and know more about where you are going, even if you don’t have a clue.
When you walk around, walk with purpose and like you know what you are doing and where you are going. If you need to consult your map, do so discreetly by either stepping into a private area or a storefront where you can mask your route finding.
OVERCOME THE NORMALCY BIAS
The Normalcy Bias is the reluctance of our brains to notice things out of the normal. Our brains tend towards assuming everything will be normal all the time, and will automatically write off things that are out of the normal as normal. This is because the probability of non-normal events is low, and, therefore, our brains are less likely to jump to non-normal conclusions.
This bias means we are less likely to respond to unexpected events, or signals to dangerous situations. This is why it is important to operate in the yellow, and to take anything out of the normal seriously, because you have to overcome the bias. Sure, the suspicious character across the road who is staring at you, the person walking behind you at the same pace, or the friendly local that walked up to you offering directions or help, may be innocent and you could write it off as that, but preparing for the possibility they aren’t, is a safer response. You need to be ready and constantly vigilant.
It is also important to assess what the baseline normal is in the area you are at. Should you be hearing things that sound like explosions or gunshots? Should this area be heavily populated? Is this peaceful protest turning violent? Should there be strangers coming up to talk to you? Should this taxi cab be driving down a secluded dark alley? Did you leave your bag like that in your hotel room?
It isn’t the most ideal way to travel because you want to be worry free and trusting, but always assuming people have ill intentions will help protect you. I’m not suggesting to treat people poorly, but I am suggesting you always remain alert and suspicious. So far, the majority of the time in my travels, I have really only met kind and helpful people who would change your opinion of humanity for the better, but I have been scammed a lot and in situations that could have turned easily. Just use common sense. If someone approaches me and starts talking to me, I generally don’t trust their intentions. Depending where you are and what the baseline normal is, it is usually not normal for someone to go out of their way to talk to a stranger. If I need help, I usually go into a store, ask a local with a family, or I ask a woman. I generally avoid asking police or security officers, because in most the countries I go to, the police force is corrupt. Your local embassy is also an option to turn in times of need.
Now that you have completed Part 1 of the “Traveling Off the X” series, please go on to Traveling Off the X – Part 2, where you will learn about hotel, airplane, and taxi safety.
“Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them. When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy. Aside from anything else, the possibility of a sequel is nonexistent.” – Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth