When it comes to safety, appearances are much more important than fact. Thieves choose their victims based upon who looks like and easy mark.
I just landed in Lima, Peru last night and at no point did I feel at risk. Yet, many people warned me on my way to be careful (including locals). I suppose it may be because I choose to look like an American. It is not always true that travelers who are the victims of theft could have prevented it, but usually there are several things they could have done better.
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I have 3 separate locks I use while traveling (a tiny padlock to keep my backpack closed, a bike lock to lock it to things like the leg of a chair in a train, and a laptop lock to attach my computer to a desk while at a cafe). My backpack itself is from Pacsafe, a company which creates tamper/theft-proof bags. Many of their products are lined with kevlar or other slash proof materials, and generally designed so even a box-cutter won’t allow a thief access. When I am actually walking around, I keep my backpack on my back and clipped to me in the front, with the smallest lock used to keep the zippers shut. My electronics are in the backpack, my passport and mobile phone in zippered pockets on my person, and lesser items (clothes, etc.) in my carry on suitcase. Each of my bags contains a copy of my passport as well as a travel hard-drive with an encrypted backup of all my work (because work is so important while I travel; I also keep off-site backups).
All of this may seem sufficient to protect my things. It is not.
Locks, fancy bags and “safe” equipment offer nothing more than the illusion of safety. They’ll stop a simple slash-and-grab thief, but not a determined and experienced rogue. Thankfully, this illusion works both ways: it helps to contribute toward the image of a well-prepared and intelligent traveler.
Walk This Way
I owe my understanding of this concept to my female friends who travel alone. Several of them have independently explained to me the importance of walking with a sense of purpose and conviction. Especially in countries like India or Morocco, walking though the streets as though they had somewhere to be and no time to waste did wonders to decrease hecklers.
As I said, thieves target easy marks. Appear lost and confused and you have just made yourself a mark. When you think of a lost traveler, you probably call to mind an image of someone at a street corner with a map out looking confused.
Many people who strive to not look like tourists focus on the part about the map, but I would submit that this is folly. There’s nothing wrong with pulling out a map and getting your bearings. Far more important is your expression and body language.
A wide-eyed mouth-ajar person (even without a single map or bag on his person) will be targeted readily. For a thief, like a conman or poker player, the best skill to be had is that of reading the person himself. So the best front-line of defense is a sense of purpose, even if it is feigned. Even when I am unsure if I am going in the right direction, I make the best guess I can and walk in that direction with speed and conviction. If I am proven wrong, then I take the time to sit down and figure out my situation.
Talk this Way
The last, and perhaps most subtle, element is that of how you choose to communicate. Again, simply having a direct approach does wonders. Of course, it helps to speak the local language (even poorly) because it is just one more way to separate yourself as “not another tourist.” But even without such an ability, asking questions in the direct and confident manner of someone who knows what he wants and where he is headed (even when asking for directions) can accomplish the same thing.
Remember: you’re not a tourist – you’re an out-of-town-er who is visiting a friend.
Before landing in Peru, I already knew where I was going and how I was going to get there (even which Taxi company I was going to use) because I asked the person I was staying with. Getting from the airport was safe, comfortable and absolutely painless.
I make no claims that this is a failproof system (or even that I have never been robbed), yet it goes a long ways to deter even motivated thieves.
Would you add anything, fellow travelers? Let me know below!