I’ve done a fair amount of traveling over the years. I’ve stood next to pyramids on two continents, wandered around the Coliseum and the Acropolis, gone white water rafting in Alaska and relaxed at a wine tasting in Malta. Que Johnny Cash singing, “I’ve been everywhere,” because, although there’s still plenty of world left to see, I’ve seen enough to know what to expect when I get there.
Despite what Tumblr posts and motivational memes on Facebook would have you believe, travel alone isn’t really enough to educate you in the ways of the world. Tourism is a powerful industry; powerful enough to shape your experiences as you jet set around the globe. Many tourism based economies revolve around the idea of giving you (the tourist) what you want. In some places, that means only offering food that fits a region’s stereotypes rather than local tastes, but in others, like many Central and South American countries, it often means the construction of entire facades intended to convince you of some Disney interpretation of local life, carefully built at just the right angle to obstruct your view of reality. The reality of poverty tends to stay under wraps–but that’s not the only way traveling can mislead you.
It’s honestly pretty easy to write an article laying out a few simple steps that can help keep you safe when seeking adventure that’s a bit off the beaten path, but the problem with that sort of article is that the IDEA of adventure seeking inherently requires a bit of risk. The risk in some situations is the very goal of the trip. Therefore, the secret is to actively manage those risks, and make sure you try your best not to end up in over your head.
Do your research.
Back in my HR days, I was always amazed at people who would come into my office for an interview without ever even googling the company they hoped to work for. If you didn’t know what we did, or the specific requirements for the job, you were unprepared and off my hiring list. Call it harsh, but if you don’t prep for our meeting I’ll assume you aren’t going to a competent leader if hired.
Just like you should know all you can about a company before an interview, you should know all you can about a place before you arrive. No, that doesn’t mean re-reading the brochure your travel agent gave you, it means doing a little digging around the internet, checking news stories and, if applicable, State Department warnings. If you’re visiting someplace you’ve already been, you should still do some research to see what new changes have occurred since your last visit.
This counts for cities in the U.S. as well. Before I set off on a trip to New Orleans a few years ago, I did some quick google research and found a story about local thugs approaching tourists and asking them “where they got their shoes.” Apparently, it would make people glance downward, allowing these criminals a chance to start the beat down with an unobstructed shot to the head, followed by a good old-fashioned mugging.
The very concept sounded too idiotic to be true–until I found myself standing face to face with a big, bald dude in a Bourbon Street alley less than 24 hours later, asking me where I got my shoes.
Maybe he saw me walking around in khakis and a polo shirt from afar and thought I’d be an easy mark, but realized he bit off more than he could chew when all 6 feet and 230 pounds of me was staring him in the eye and waiting for him to flinch. Maybe he was just really into alleys and shoes. Either way, I kept my wallet that night and possibly my intact face, thanks to situational awareness and a bit of background research. Having a real mean stare helps sometimes too.
Plan for the worst.
It doesn’t always seem cool to be the guy that’s planning for safety. Some will think you’re paranoid, others that you’re “playing operator” and just showing off your tactical vocabulary, and there’s usually at least one (like my wife) that’s a little too sure of his or herself and in their ability to fight their way out of trouble. To quote Mike Tyson, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
You need to be the person with a plan for WHEN you get punched in the mouth. Identify a spot to meet back up if you get separated from your group, talk about how to get to safety and what safety IS in the location you’re in. At the mall in Cleveland, safety might mean just meeting up in front of Sears. In Turkey, it could mean finding a consulate, depending on your faith in local law enforcement (the last time I was there, they were far more interested in taking pictures of my wife with their cell phones than giving me directions).
If you’re traveling with veterans, they probably won’t think twice when you start dropping ORM bombs (Operational Risk Management) in the middle of planning a night of hard drinking in Honduran bars, but if you’re among civilians, you may catch a few stray eye rolls–but I’ll always take those over right crosses, or god forbid, stray rounds.
Trust your gut.
This is the second time I’ve written an article about travel advice and included those three words. That’s not due to a lack of creativity, it’s because your gut is THAT important when it comes to survival.
Trusting your gut is more than trusting yourself–it’s about trusting a specific part of yourself. I once tried to fight a group of guys in Italy over five Euros. My gut told me that I was in a dangerous situation, but it was my ego that told me the solution was to punch my way out of it. Fortunately for me, my wife was present in both body and mind and just gave the dude the money to save her husband’s hide. My ego said that was giving in, but my gut knew it was the fastest way to getting us out of a dangerous situation. Paying up isn’t always the right move, but in that instance, squaring off with street peddlers just outside the Vatican gates, it was the right call.
It’s not in my nature to avoid a fight, but it is often in my best interest. If you can manage it, especially when overseas, diffuse situations before they start and look for ways to ease tensions as they rise. Avoiding a fight might not only save your life, but even winning a fight in many countries will land you a trip to the sort of jails you’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. Use that gut instinct to get you of harm’s way, before harm even knows you’re there.
Acknowledge that some risk is necessary.
In the military, every operation can be visualized in the form of a fraction: you take your risk factors and throw them on top, you take your objectives and stick them on the bottom, and hopefully your result will be equal to or less than 1. From there, work on ways to mitigate risks until the ratio starts looking friendlier.
Travel doesn’t have to be very risky at all, but sipping rum runners from the deck of a cruise ship isn’t everyone’s idea of adventure and if you’re hoping to go live a chapter in a book you hope to write one day, it’ll mean raising the risk number in the numerator of that fraction.
You don’t always have to avoid risks to reduce the threat they present, sometimes you need only to be aware of them. However, it’s imperative that you make an objective assessment of what could go wrong in the pursuit of your adventure, and pair it with an honest appraisal of how much risk you’re willing to deem acceptable. That’s a personal decision that needs to be based on your level of experience, ability to address dangerous situations on the fly, and the amount of faith you have in the people around you.
Risk doesn’t have to be avoided, but it should always be assessed.
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