It happened to me. I had heard and read about muggings, pickpockets and scams in many parts of the world. I’ve always known it was possible on my travels and even in the city I live in. I don’t know why I thought something like this would never actually happen to me. It wasn’t that I thought I was immune, it’s just that I do keep my guard up and have always had positive experiences where I’ve lived and on my travels. Well, it happened to me. I was mugged by two young guys on a street in Valparaiso, Chile four days into my 2-month South American trip. Thankfully, I wasn’t physically hurt, but my spirit was broken and my purse was gone.
I was traveling solo and went out one evening with some friends I’d recently met. I left late at night to go back to my hostel. Alone. I made a big mistake. In the words of Vivian (Julia Roberts) in “Pretty Woman”, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” I also had way too much in my purse that wasn’t needed for a casual night out. Thankfully, I still had my passport, the equivalent of about $20 and a tablet in my backpack at my hostel. But my iPhone, camera, credit/debit cards and a small amount of cash in my purse were gone. Not having a camera or phone to take pictures was the least of my worries. I had bigger fish to fry. How was I going to get cash to eat, pay for my hostel and get from point A to point B? I had my work cut out for me.
I dealt with the initial shock, processed what had happened and thought about how I could have avoided putting myself in this type of situation. Over. And. Over. I also realized how fortunate I was to have not been hurt. Then, I got to work. I slowly pieced my “life” back together with the help of several kind individuals. I’ll spare you the dizzying details. However, I did manage to get some cash and continue on with my journey.
In an attempt to help other travelers avoid unfortunate and often dangerous situations like mine, follow these travel safety tips:
1. Do your homework: I’m not one to plan out my trips well in advance or detail out an itinerary, but it’s necessary to know about the crime and safety of areas you’re planning to visit. The U.S. Department of State is a good start. However, after reading the safety and security section of any country (including Bhutan where they measure Gross National Happiness), it’ll make you never want to leave, or perhaps even live in, your own country. Get a guidebook and talk to travelers and locals about their experiences. When you arrive in a city or town ask which areas to steer clear of.
2. Never walk by yourself at night: Duh. But, sometimes it’s easier said than duh—I mean done. Want to check out the local culture at night, but traveling by yourself? Make friends with someone where you’re staying and bring them along. This way you can walk to and fro with a buddy. It’s best to stick with groups. The more, the merrier! Sometimes, it may be a better idea to stay in and rest up. Tomorrow is a new day full of fresh (and safe) adventures.
3. Don’t stick your nose in a map—look up: A surefire way to look like a tourist (other than being tall, pale and blonde in South America), is to appear lost and study a map on the street. Before you leave your accommodation, note where you’re staying on a map and route your way to your destination prior to leaving. Okay, so it doesn’t always work as planned. If you do get lost continue to walk with purpose. Then, stop into a café or indoor public area to gather your thoughts, look at your map and perhaps even ask a motherly type for directions. Need to ask for directions, but don’t speak the local language? This is where learning a few key phrases (e.g. Do you speak English?, Where is x?) in the language of the country you’re visiting comes in handy.
4. Take only what you need and have backups: Assess what you’ll absolutely need to take with you for each particular day’s or night’s outings prior to leaving your room. You probably don’t need to take everything but the kitchen sink with you if you’re simply running to the market for water and fruit. For a night out, only take a small amount of cash and a copy of your passport. That’s right, make a copy of your passport to carry with you. Always leave your passport locked up in your room, along with a backup credit card and debit card and most of your cash.
5. Travel with a small carryon between destinations: Whether you’re traveling my plane, train or bus, your luggage will most likely be stored out of site and who knows what can happen from there. If you’re backpacking, there may be many openings to your pack, so a lock won’t do. Be sure to place all valuable items in a carryon bag that you can wear for the duration of the trip. A small crossbody bag or backpack are good options. A hidden security waste wallet is your best bet to store your passport, credit/debit cards and cash, especially if traveling on an overnight bus or train. Never set your small bag down at bus or train stations or really anywhere until you check in to your room.
6. Wear travel-appropriate clothing: Can’t wait to sport your favorite crop top or muscle tank? Save it for the states. No matter where you’re traveling abroad, it’s best to forgo flashy clothing and jewelry. Dress to blend in rather than stand out. Yep, ditch the white sneakers. Also, watch your pockets. Pockets above the waist that zip or button are best. A collared shirt with a buttoned pocket for guys is a good option to store cash. For women, your bra can do double duty.
7. Be aware of scams: Scammers usually work in twos and unfortunately often involve children. One will distract you, while the other steels your bag at a bus station or jacks the latest iPhone from your pocket. Although, after having read #s 5 and 6, you won’t set your bag down at a bus station or have your phone in your pants pocket, right? The scams are endless. Anything from “students” wanting help with their English to having something “accidentally” spilled on you. Don’t fall for any of these.