I’ve never been mugged, robbed, kidnapped or jailed in all my forty years of travel. Yes, there was that time in Istanbul when a mob of veiled gypsies clustered around a friend’s wife, patting and stroking her. She thought it was quite “touching” until she realized that her purse had “become unclasped” and her wallet and credit cards were missing.
And, yes, there was that time on a water taxi in Venice where I was packed in so tight that I honestly couldn’t turn around. I felt a pair of hands gently but firmly clasping my butt cheeks. My wallet was safely in a breast pocket underneath a buttoned jacket, so I strained back a little and wiggled a bit to get the full benefit of the free massage. The hands faltered, and went away.
Years later, and again in Venice, I was on a staircase descending through a crowd of packed pilgrims towards the Maria Della Santé Basilica. To the disgust and amusement of many eastern European spectators, instead of marching ahead and allowing the “women folk” to fend for themselves, I usually keep the girls in front so I can see ahead and “bring up the rear.” This time, I had allowed my wife to lag, and heard a muffled commotion from behind. A trio of women shouting “Andiamo, andiamo!” jostled and pushed my wife from behind, and tried to wrench away her purse in the confusion. The robbery attempt failed, but my wife almost broke a leg tumbling through the crowd down the stone staircase.
So, although to-date (knock on wood) I have been spared the worst downsides of international travel, I have indeed got a glimpse of the tip of that iceberg that bottoms out in terrorism, human trafficking, kidnapping, injury, rape and murder.
To dismiss predatory criminal behavior as “poverty-driven desperation” is dishonest; ill-gotten gains keep the street scum pretty well fed. To dismiss these despicable acts as “cultural anomalies” absolves the local police from doing their job. And while I refuse to make excuses for the selfish trash that rob the unwary, or blame the unwary for portraying themselves as easy prey, I do indeed urge all travelers to take adequate precautions.
Remember: criminal bottom-feeders feel no remorse or pity. They are not steered by human kindness, charity or compassion. Their moral compass is not your moral compass. Playing the helpless tourist, totally at sea with illegible maps, incomprehensible street signs or confusing currency only whets their appetite. Take the time to learn exchange rates and denominations and pay attention to what other people are paying. Map out your route before leaving the airport, taxi, bus or hotel.
I caution beginner and seasoned travelers alike: It’s not “cute” to simply hold out your palm full of exotic coins and let the vendor pay themselves. Even if the vendor is honest (and he or she may or may not be), others are watching. You have what they want, and while most crooks would just as soon not risk felony assaults or prison time, they really don’t care if you get hurt.
There are a lot of do’s for the savvy traveler – and as many don’ts. On the “do” side, I am a firm believer in keeping emergency cash, folded up copies of my passport title page, and even “mini-credit cards” in a concealed money belt. Do let trusted friends and/or family know your travel plans, and check in periodically. Do safeguard your passport. Do take out travel insurance in case you fall ill (or are hurt) overseas. Do bring prescriptions for necessary medications. Do hone your language skills (Where is the American Embassy?), pack a language dictionary, digital language translator, or flash cards with key phrases. Do enjoy yourself but do be aware of your surroundings and drink responsibly (do stay in control). Do memorize your passport number so that you can fill out forms with brandishing your passport (hence nationality and a degree of vulnerability).
On the “don’t” side, don’t travel alone when you can avoid it, and avoid dark and lonely side-streets when you can. Don’t “flash your cash” and keep small denomination coins and cash readily accessible. Don’t exchange currencies on the streets or even currency exchanges in the arrival airport (do this at departure). DO NOT BUY DRUGS. Don’t wear baht gold chains or flaunt jewelry that would support a local family of five for a year (or two). If you must bring that $1000 plus camera with the intimidating lens, keep it in your hotel safe or out of sight in your bag when not actually using it. Don’t hitchhike, don’t pick up hitchhikers and don’t accept rides from strangers.
Be careful how you travel at night. Be polite and be courteous, but be wary of strangers (chances are – they are all strangers). When attempting to achieve that golden mean between paranoia and lax indifference – error on the side of paranoia.
And extend those precautions to the front side. I have canceled a stop over in Colombia, rescheduled to avoid a stay in Mexico, and sadly, delayed (indefinitely) a trip to Georgia (the country, not the state).The U.S. State Department offers travel warnings (unstable governments, civil war, ongoing intense crime or violence, frequent terrorist attacks), and travel alerts (strikes, demonstrations, health issues). At this moment in time as I put fingers to keyboard, at-risk destinations range from Chad, Honduras, Iraq and Kenya, to Sudan, Ukraine, Venezuela and Libya. The State Department also offers their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) which allows the nearest U.S. embassy to contact you in an emergency, as well as provide real-time safety alerts while on travel.
Don’t let the down side stop you from travelling – it doesn’t stop me. I just try my best to exercise caution. You should too.