Safety While Traveling Abroad – Physical Demeanor

Posted by | December 11, 2013 | Safety, Traveling Tips | 14 Comments
Destination Freedom group in San Cristobal de las Casas

This post is a continuation of our Safety Abroad series, which started with Monday’s Situational Awareness.

Your physical demeanor is also an important aspect of avoiding issues in any city around the world. If you are constantly pulling a guidebook out of your backpack, glancing in all directions, trying to get your bearings, looking like a tourist and acting nervous and staring over your shoulder ever five seconds expecting something bad to happen…you stand out like a sore thumb. You don’t look like a local. You look like a lost, nervous tourist trying to figure out your way to a destination.

And chances are, something bad will happen to you because you are making yourself look like a lost little tourist just ripe for the picking.

Walk like you belong there. Do your research in advance. Learn the streets via Google maps before you go. Memorize your route. Some general fumbling is always going to happen on your first time to an area, but if you walk like you live there, as if those streets have seen the soles of your shoes a million times before, no one will know any different.

Locals aren’t gawking at the architecture on a Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. or snapping photos of a monument on a Thursday afternoon. They see these things every single day. To them, it’s just another monument, no different than a cat or a dog crossing the street. If you want to stand out and act like a tourist, you run the risk of being the hook with lots of juicy bait on it. But if you walk with confidence, with steady, purposeful strides, and you avoid staring with wide-eyes at every little building you come across, you blend in.

Now, understandably you can’t avoid some things. Maybe you only have three days in a destination and your only option to get photos is to go on on a Tuesday, without a guide, without any friends and with all of your gear. But understand that your risks are directly proportionate. By standing out like a baited hook, you run the risk of all those hungry fish swimming as fast as they can to be the first one to snag the bait. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the danger level of the country, or its people. It’s all about you and your exposure and your situational awareness. With a higher level of exposure comes a higher level of risk.

Another example was a German couple I met at a restaurant in Bogota. Older couple, in their 50s, on vacation. They were complaining about how they had gotten robbed the night before. As they are talking, I’m sizing them up. They were wearing their “backup gear”, as their primary gear had been stolen. The woman still had jewelry on. The man still had on a watch that looked to my eye to be worth at least a couple of grand. She had a Prada bag. They both had Gucci sunglasses, North Face jackets and North Face hiking shoes. They didn’t have cell phones as theirs had been robbed the day before, but they were still wearing several thousand dollar’s worth of clothing/gear. Their cameras had also been robbed the day prior. They said they had lost over $5,000 worth of cameras + cell phones + one credit card and $500 in cash.

They got robbed getting off a bus in a poor section of Candelaria after sunset and had stopped to open a map to get their bearings. The thieves made off with loot that was the equivalent of what they make in an entire year of physically-intensive jobs. The German couple, in my mind, deserved to get robbed because they lacked situational awareness. They didn’t even make an attempt to blend in. They had done the equivalent of throwing down a fat, juicy steak in front of a starving lion, then pissed their pants and blamed the animal when the lion attacked them to get at the steak.

Lion

Some situations are unavoidable. If you are the only white-skinned expat in a country of dark-skinned natives (or vice versa) you are going to stand out no matter what kind of clothing you wear and no matter what time of the day or night or what weekday or weekend it is. But most dangerous issues can be avoided with simple common sense and some practical situational awareness.

Carry yourself like you’ve been living there your whole life. Walk with purpose, with confidence, with strength. Han Solo’s line in Return of the Jedi when Chewie asks him how he should fly is, “I don’t know…fly casual!” Personify the word “casual” with your gait. Don’t stare over your shoulder every 10 seconds like a scared little tourist. Stroll along as if you are just out for an afternoon walk to enjoy the weather.

If you think you are being followed, a single, casual look as if you are checking traffic will suffice. Multiple glances every few moments throws off all the wrong signals and it’s like sending out a text message to any would-be thug in the area. “Look at me! I’m new here! I’m lost! I’m nervous!”

If you are lost and need directions, don’t whip out your map/cell phone in broad daylight or in the middle of the sidewalk so that everyone within visual range knows you are lost and thus a stranger. Duck into a cafe, a convenience store, a bookstore, a restaurant, somewhere just off the street where you can safely check to see where you are.

Look like you belong, but not just with your physical appearance. Just as animals can smell fear, thugs and muggers can sense if you are a terrified tourist or someone taking a morning/afternoon stroll without a care in the world. If you act like you mean business, if you walk like you live there, if you have confidence in your step and the way you handle yourself, no one will ever target  you because they won’t know any differently.

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This post first appeared as part of The Expat Guidebook blog.

 

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the editor-in-chief and founder of Marginal Boundaries. He is the author of Beyond Borders - The Social Revolution and The Expat Guidebook, along with numerous other publications offered through the Marginal Boundaries immersion travel store.

14 Comments

  • I know, Jennifer! Bait on a hook =P

  • Jennifer says:

    “Walk like you belong there.” Absolutely! Demonstrating you are aware of your surroundings and appearing confident is the best way to ward off scammers and thieves, even when you have a camera strapped around your neck. Whenever I pass by tourists with the map unfolded and looking helplessly around, then quickly darting back into their map, I always peg them as the exact people that scammers will prey upon.

  • For the most part, that’s true, Martyn. But I’ve met many a veteran traveler who still breaks the rules, especially when it comes to smart phones + camera gear because “I gotta get shots for my blog, and I need my GPS”.

    It’s all well and good to have it with you, but keep it out of sight…and dress/act like you belong.

  • I think what we’re talking about is the difference between a ‘traveler’ and a ‘tourist’. Travelers know that even if they don’t blend in, they are still engaged in the country and their surroundings. You don’t wave a sign around that says ‘ignorant rich person’. I walked around in poor African countries where a Caucasian has difficulty blending in, but wearing sun-faded clothes, sunglasses without a visible brand, and keeping your valuables out of sight does a lot to prevent harassment or worse.

    Especially in poorer countries, walking around with expensive clothes and visible camera gear will instantly mark you as prey. Those German tourists you mentioned are indeed steak for the hungry wolves.

  • Aye, Samuel: I almost never get bothered by the “fishermen” anymore. Assertive = I belong.

  • I agree with most of what you’re saying and this really resonates well with me: “Walk like you belong there”

    I’ve noticed since I’ve become more assertive and act less like a tourist, I’m also not hassled nearly as much.

  • Aye, Kenin. I haven’t worn a watch since around 2006, before I even left the U.S. And I’m with you on the messenger bag. We don’t use camera bags simply because they stand out.

  • I can’t even imagine toting that kind of high dollar “backup” gear with me anywhere. We stopped wearing watches and jewelry about a year ago now, and put our camera gear into a old beat up backpack, or in a messenger bag when we are out on the streets instead of a camera bag. Presence is also a huge deal. Even when we are miserably lost we walk around like we belong there.

  • Absolutely, Freya. A cat can smell a mouse, every time.

  • I agree about appearing confident, especially if you’re a solo traveler. Scammers worldwide know their mark. If you appear like one, you’ll get victimized for sure.

  • I think everyone will find themselves in unexpected situations from time to time, Laura…as you say, key is keeping them to a minimum.

  • Sometimes we get in unexpected situation where we know we are more vulnerable. Generally we try to be smart and stay safe. Thanks for the tips.

  • Yeah I was kind of flabbergasted they had backup gear like that, Dan. Some people, LOL.

    Asking locals for directions is also good, although I usually do it in shops as opposed to out on the street. Duck in, ask a shop owner. When I did that in Bogota one time, the guy actually shut down his shop for 45 minutes and walked me around the barrio showing me all the other little corner stores as well.

  • We try very hard not to pull out maps while wandering around cities, especially at night. We typically just ask a nice looking face on the street (considering we speak a little of the language). Then you get to chat with a local as well :-) As for wearing your backup gear and expensive jewelry the day after you got robbed… I can’t help you there.

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