Safety While Traveling Abroad – Situational Awareness

Posted by | December 09, 2013 | Safety, Traveling Tips | 14 Comments

I was recently doing some light reading and came across several stories from travelers who had been robbed or mugged during their travels to specific countries. I found myself going through the stories and shaking my head in chagrin at the fact that each of the individuals in question had suffered some sort of robbery or mugging and rather than analyze what they had done wrong were instead pointing fingers at the people of a given country and blaming it on the country and its people rather than their own lack of awareness and common sense.

Issues with mugging, pickpockets, thieves and thugs exist in every single city in the world. Washington D.C. has a 31.4 in 100,000 murder rate compared to Cancun’s 2 in 100,000 murder rate. You are 29 times more likely to get killed in a violent crime in the capital of the United States than the beaches of the Riviera Maya in Mexico, one of the “most dangerous countries in the world” according to Western media, yet you have the exact same chances of being mugged in a dark alley late at night if you choose to disregard the common sense rules of situational awareness, regardless of what city you are in.

In 15+ years of traveling I’ve never been mugged, pick-pocketed, robbed or in any way, shape or form threatened during any of my travels, and I’ve been to plenty of countries that are on the U.S. State Department’s “you will be kidnapped, mugged, raped and killed if you go here” list. Note that I’m knocking on wood and I’m sure that I will eventually have an issue, but to-date nothing has happened and I credit that to simple common sense.  Again…knock on wood.

One of my personal favorites was reading a post from a blogger in Colombia who mentions himself and his lady friend getting mugged while walking down a dark, sketchy-looking alley at around 11:30 at night. He admits in the post that they shouldn’t have been in the area at that time of night, so at least he realized one of his mistakes. However, it was the second and far more grievous error that really jumped out at me. He talks about how he didn’t even realize there were muggers behind them until mere seconds before he felt a hand on his shoulder and a voice speaking in Spanish.

Situational awareness is the number one rule of avoiding issues while out and about in a street environment, regardless if you are an expat abroad or living in your home country. I’m sorry, but if you don’t notice two or three people coming up behind you on a darkened street at 11:30 at night you deserve to be mugged if only to teach you a lesson that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life: pay attention to your surroundings.

It’s like a child who doesn’t understand that fire is hot until they touch a stove and burn their finger. But once they get burnt you can bet your life savings that they will never again touch something hot because they know what will happen if they do. You have to pay attention to your surroundings at all times or you will fall prey to those who are more situationally aware than you are.

Another story that jumped out at me was a blogger who talked about her traveling partner getting robbed while out alone and having over $4,000 worth of camera gear stolen. Situational awareness comes into play here as well. The more obvious issue from my point of view is that the individual in question should have never been out alone with that much gear in a section of a city that was potentially dangerous. The situational awareness factor is that the person should have researched where they were heading and found out from locals if it was a potentially dangerous place to be. Especially not late at night.

This is where some simple communication skills can go a long way. The locals always know which areas of the city are safe, and which ones aren’t. Just as people living in Denver, Colorado can tell you which parts of their neighborhoods are sketchy after 7 p.m. at night, or residents of London can tell you which streets to avoid after a certain hour, the local residents of whatever city you are traveling to can let you know which places you should avoid, which places are safe, and which places you should or shouldn’t visit alone.

Think about a lake. On the surface it looks completely calm, tranquil, safe, inviting…but below the surface there is a teeming neighborhood of many different types of fish. If you drop a hook into the water without any bait, the fish will go on about their business, completely oblivious to the hook because it doesn’t have anything tasty wrapped around it. It’s just a hook. But if you put some bait on that hook and drop it into the water, suddenly you have a swarm of fish rushing to be the first one to make it to the juicy little treat just dangling there, waiting to be taken.

This is where your physical appearance comes into play. One of the first rules of thumb is to look like a local. Blend in. Be the unbaited hook. Wherever you hail from, you don’t go out to the grocery store at 11 p.m. at night while decked to the nines in North Face hiking boots and jacket, digital camera, tripod, camera backpack, camcorder, Rolex and iPhone. Not unless you are Brad Pitt and you have a team of bodyguards with you 24/7. And you don’t go for a walking around alone with all that gear on in sections of cities where there aren’t sufficient security forces or people around and plenty of light.

If you want to be doing photo shoots and video shoots, do it on a Saturday or a Sunday when there are lots of other locals doing the exact same thing. You are a local, after all, even if you are an expat, which means you are blending in. If you make a grocery store run you do it in flip flops, a plain t-shirt and some shorts (example), you don’t go out with $5,000 worth of gear on you.

Want to take photos and videos of a place? Do it with friends if you are going to be out in a strange part of town, or wait and go on the weekend when you know that there will be plenty of locals around so that you can blend in with other people who are doing the same thing. Don’t go alone while packing 5k worth of gear and then blame it on the country when you get robbed. You can just as easily get mugged in New York City for acting like an idiot and walking down a darkened street at 11 at night with a bunch of camera gear just dangling from your neck/shoulders.

Situational awareness can not only save you from being robbed, but it can also save your life.

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

About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.


  • We have certainly noticed this too. For some reason many people get themselves into situations they would never dream of doing in their home town. It only takes a bit of common sense. Look around, you can usually tell if someplace is not the kind of area you should be walking around in.

  • Exactly, Jennifer. One of the things we do when we are on our tours is someone is ALWAYS on bag duty, at all times. If we are at the bus station and someone needs to go to the bathroom, it’s their responsibility to find the bag duty person and hand it off (if necessary), and it’s the bag duty person’s responsibility to keep a close eye on the bags for their turn.

    Knock on wood; after all these years I’ve NEVER been mugged or ripped off, but I attribute that to situational awareness more than anything else. I’ve been with groups such as what you describe; we had a woman lose her extra shoes in a bus one time because she left them behind, found out five hours later, then she got all upset because the driver couldn’t be located and it was 9 p.m. in the evening and she was cursing all Mexicans for being “thieves” when it was her own fault she lost her shoes.

    /rolls eyes

  • Jennifer says:

    People do tend to jump to blame the country they’re in and hardly ever take responsibility for not paying attention. Fact is there are bad and dishonest people no matter where you go.

    We were on a group trip with G Adventures to Russia a few months ago and one of the girls on the trip had her backpack stolen. Worse, she didn’t trust the hotel we were staying in so put all of her camera gear, money, and passport in her backpack and took it to dinner. Tim and I elected to do our own thing for dinner, so we weren’t with the group. But they went to a super touristy cafe and the girl hung the backpack on the back of her chair. No one in the group even realized the backpack was gone until the bill was presented. Absolutely no one in that group had situational awareness.

    Of course, the whole group was moaning about how much they hated Russia for the remainder of the trip. It really could have happened anywhere AND it could have been prevented.

  • Jay says:

    You’re quite right about travellers blaming everyone but themselves. This is all common sense advice, but never hurts to have it reiterated. Amazing the people you see flashing expensive gear around on their travels.

    That said we can all be victims of circumstance, but it’s rare if you don’t act like one.

  • smurf-bomb FTW, Martyn :)

  • Excellent article. I also agree with the comment to carry a secondary ‘bribe’ or ‘mugger’ wallet that you can give up under duress. I have one with a paint-bomb inside that will explode in the mugger’s face and turn them blue like a smurf.

    I also don’t understand why people would walk around with their wealth in full view when they should know there are poor people around.

  • Indeed, Valen; there’s nothing wrong with a secondary wallet just to be safe. Many people here in Mexico have a “bribe” wallet that is specifically used for those moments; 20 bucks cash, disposable, just to be safe.

  • This is so true. I think so many people zone out and don’t pay close attention at all to their surroundings. It really is about common sense!! I do travel with a second wallet, though. I keep it full of expired credit cards and a little cash. If I ever did get mugged, then I would throw it as far as possible and run.

  • Absofrackinglutely, Dan. I’m a morning man myself, although Cris tends to be more the late-morning riser. But I’m up at 6 a.m. most mornings and ready to pound the streets by 7 a.m. Best photos + cafe culture can be found in the 8-11 a.m. bracket IMO, and you don’t have to deal with the cut-throats as much.

  • I’ve been lucky enough not to have had any real confrontation. For me, it really boils down to not making yourself a target. I love your analogy with meat and the tiger because it is so accurate.

    We are also at a stage where we work online most nights so we are hunkered down in our hotel room by dark and up with the sun. In my opinion there is more cool stuff to see in a city at 7am than at midnight :-) Stay safe!

  • I know, Kenin! I mean, I grew up in the Midwest of the U.S., which when I grew up was the type of place you could leave for a week, leave your house unlocked and not have any issues, but even I know enough to pay attention to what’s going on when I’m walking about.

    The ones that REALLY get me are the people who cry about getting 4k worth of camera gear ganked and then blame it on the country. REALLY? You just threw down a hunk of juicy steak in front of a starving tiger (street thugs in a developing country where 4k worth of camera gear = their cost of living for 6-8 months) and you blame the TIGER for swiping its claws at the hunk of meat?

    Or going down a dark alley without paying attention to noise, surroundings, footsteps, etc.

  • We had some sticky situations in India and situational awareness kept us safe. I just don’t understand how people DON’T notice a group of muggers behind them, or decide to go down a dark alley in the middle of the night. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Miami, but I just know better.

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