“Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.” – Mark Jenkins
I should preface this article with the following: in 12 years of traveling I have never been pick-pocketed nor have I ever been robbed or mugged. I have been throughout Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Latin America in places the U.S. State Department has claimed are exceptionally dangerous (such as Colombia or Bulgaria). I’ve walked side by side with people who have been mugged and talked with people who have been robbed, but I’ve never had it happen to me personally. I’m sure that one day it will happen, but it hasn’t yet and I attribute that to street smarts more than blind luck.
When you are making the transition into the location independent lifestyle as a digital nomad there are always going to be learning periods in whatever city you choose. Different cities have different levels of street danger and you have to learn the ropes for your particular city if you want to truly live like a local and understand things the way the locals do. But there’s more to it than city specifics, and if you really want to be safe there are a few things you can do to ensure the chances of you having any issues are as low as possible.
The first thing you need to understand is that all cities in the world pose a risk in terms of pick-pocketing or robbery. New York City, London, Denver, Dubai, Shanghai, Cancun, Bogota…they all share this in common. Fear of being robbed should not stop you from choosing a particular city, because no matter where you go in the world you have that same risk. Even where you live now you have the risk of being robbed, although they are probably lesser because you have taken precautions against it. Like alarm systems, living in a secured neighborhood and etc. You can do the same thing when you live like a local as long as you know what to do.
Probably one of the most important types of street smarts to hone is your perception, or what is going on around you. People who walk around with their nose stuck in a smartphone texting, downloading, browsing and doing other online things run a higher risk of having something happen to them on the streets not simply because they are walking around with a piece of tech, but also because they aren’t aware of their surroundings. While there are certain sections of cities where you can do this (centros are usually safe in cities around the world), there are also parts of cities where you need to keep your eyes open. Places like open markets, commuter buses, trains and subways are good examples of these types of places. These are places in all cities where you put away your toys and you pay attention.
Don’t walk alone at night is another common-sense item. No matter what city in the world you are in this is true. Any traveling done after 11 or so in the evening should be done via registered taxi or with a couple of friends. In the same vein you should always stick to well-lit streets if you do decide to walk. But here’s a couple of things to consider. I’ve lived in Sofia, Cancun and Bogota for prolonged periods of time. Each one of these cities are supposedly notorious for having foreigners get pick-pocketed and robbed. And even in my time in Bogota I did meet three other people who had been robbed within a week of talking with them. But they weren’t following a few basic guidelines to professionally following the location independent digital nomad lifestyle. I’ve walked extensively in all of these cities, after midnight and even alone a few times on well-lit streets (that I knew well from having lived there long enough to know I could trust them) and not once, in all my time of being in these places, have I been robbed or in any way threatened. I’ve never once felt unsafe. I say this to point out that as long as you are smart about things, you shouldn’t have any problems no matter where you live.
Never carry your debit cards or credit cards after 11 as well, and keep cash on you to a minimum. Remember that saying about how you should never take anything with you if you can’t afford to let it go? This applies to street smarts in foreign destinations. If you leave your home with a fancy phone, 150 dollars in cash, a 300 dollar watch and other accouterments to boot you are just another target. I travel with about $20 to $25 at any given time, and I only take the debit card out when I’m going grocery shopping. I have a cheap burner phone that cost around $25 and I don’t wear expensive jewelry. If I were to be robbed at any given time the thief might get off with $50 worth of things.
Never hail a taxi from the street after 11 at night. Either call ahead and have a taxi meet you or use a taxi that is waiting in front of a well-lit and busy public area. Most parks in central sections of cities are happening spots for nightlife with the locals, which means there are usually restaurants and streets along the parks with plenty of taxis waiting for people to exit the restaurants or leave the park. If you want to add in some extra safety you can always call a friend when you are entering the cab and give them the cab information. If you do this in the local language it’s a good way of just establishing with the cabbie that you aren’t just some drunk tourist but are in fact someone who knows their way around things, and there are even less chances of something happening because they know your friend has the info about the cab.
In short, no matter where you plan to live like a local and follow the location independent lifestyle as long as you follow a few simple rules you can establish street smarts that will last you for years to come regardless of what city in the world you happen to be in. Remember, it’s not the city that is dangerous. It’s only the people who aren’t cautious who get robbed, and there’s nothing wrong with being a little overly cautious.