Tips on Trips
Editor: Piero Scaruffi
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Tourists are often targets of criminals around the world because they must
obviously travel with money and most likely with a lot of money.
In most countries even your most humble belongings (such as old shoes and
t-shirts) constitute a luxury for ordinary people.
This page is meant to provide basic advice to tourists who are traveling to poor areas of the world. Of course, many dangers exist for travelers
to rich countries, and they are not listed here.
Generally speaking, there is only one country not at war where guns are easily
available and violent crime is common: the USA. In the rest of the world (not
at war) guns are rare and violent crime is confined to extremely poor neighborhoods that you are unlikely to enter.
The main problems for a tourist are: 1. the thousands of very persistent touts
with a vast repertory of tricks to sell all sorts of unnecessary services; and 2. pickpockets.
Again, in the USA a simple argument may escalate to a deadly shoot-out (even with ordinary people), whereas in developing countries it will most often result in the tout moving on to the next tourist.
Frequently Encountered Problems
| Avoid being a target
| If robbed
| If attacked
| When driving
Frequently Encountered Problems
Touts, hustlers, etc. Simply ignore them. If you answer their questions, you are starting a negotiation. The best strategy is not to answer any question (where are you from? where are you going? do you need this or that?). Just keep walking.
Short change. When you hand out money (especially to taxi drivers and assorted
touts) make sure that both you, him and a third party sees very clearly what
banknote is exchanging hands. Many of them specialize in short changing gullable tourists. Ditto for counting change. Best is that you always pay exact change.
Fake police. People who own a police badge and even a uniform may be crooks in
disguise. Be suspicious of anybody who asks you to show them your money. Ask to
be taken to the nearest police station before they search you or your belongings.
Drugged food/drinks. Don't accept food or drinks offered to you on a bus/train/etc.
They may drug you and then rob you.
Money changers. In most countries of the world you don't need to look for black
market rates. Sometimes you are approached by people who volunteer to change
dollars at very good rates. They will show you a roll of banknotes, then switch it
with another roll of worthless notes while they take your dollars.
Never trust a taxi driver, whether in the USA or in Africa. Either you know
where you are going, the route and how much it will cost, or avoid taxis.
They will try to sell you something else (hotel room, restaurant, drugs).
They will overcharge you (they can drive you around for hours).
They may harass you, rape you, kill you.
Do not put your luggage in the trunk: after your luggage has been locked in the trunk, you are a hostage, not a passenger.
Do not trust taxis with meters. Would you buy a good without knowing the price? Then why would you accept to get a taxi without knowing how much the ride will cost you?
If you travel by private hired car/driver:
you miss 90% of the experience;
you display a colonial attitude;
you are an obvious target for thieves and terrorists.
Avoid crowds where you have to slow down. Every time you slow down while
walking in a street you become an easier target for pickpockets.
Be suspicious if somebody slows you down (eg, falls in front of you, his clothes get stuck in something, etc): it may be a pretext to facilitate an accomplice who is behind you.
Be aware of who is behind you. If the same person is behind you for a few minutes, be suspicious.
A decoy wallet may help distract the thief. The thief will target your very visible wallet, while your money is somewhere else (eg, in another pocket).
Avoid to travel with big luggage. The bigger the luggage, the more visible you are and the harder it is for you to defend yourself, chase a thief, etc. Backpacks can be easily opened even while you are walking.
Always ask for receipts at hotels when they make you pay in advance.
Avoid guides: their purpose is mainly to educate the tourists on how much guides expect in tip.
Always bargain the price of a taxt before entering it, even if it has a meter.
In most countries of the world it is inappropriate to approach strangers (especially women). Anybody who approaches you (no matter how big his smile) is breaking the rules of his own culture.
Anybody who speaks good English in a non-English speaking country is suspicious by definition.
Almost always that person will turn out to be somebody who wants to make money
out of you, either by being your guide or by selling you souvenirs or worse.
If you refuse, they will turn nasty. The best strategy is to avoid anyone who speaks fluent English.
In most countries of the world women never respond to strangers, not even if they like the stranger. For a foreign woman it is never a good idea to respond to men who approach her. The appropriate behavior is cold silence and indifference. Even a "no" is viewed as beginning a conversation. A smile is the worse course of action (in some cultures means "I am saying no but I mean yes"). A woman is supposed to be very offended that a stranger approaches her openly in the street. Only prostitutes smile when that happens.
Always be cold to strangers. Once they force you to behave friendly, they have the upper hand psychologically. They know that you were raised to be nice to people who are nice to you.
Avoid being a target
Walk fast all the time. Every time you stop (to browse in a shop, to write a postcard, to take a picture), you
become an easy target.
Don't wear expensive clothes/watch.
Try to dress as much as the natives (give the impression you "live" in the country,
not just travel through it).
Dress as humbly and dirty as possible (give the impression you are poor).
Cumbersome luggage slows you down and limits your visibility and ability to run after a thief. Travel as light as possible.
As you travel, the most frequently asked question will be "where are you from". If
you want to minimize chances of being bothered by touts, answer with a country
they are not familiar with and they don't associate with rich tourists.
Anglosaxon tourist books always seem to exaggerate the dangers of theft, mugging, etc. The truth is that Anglosaxon tourists tend to be more easily spotted than other tourists, both because of appearance (tall, blonde, blue eyes) and because of attitude. In addition, they have a well-deserved reputation for being naif (most Anglosaxons grow up in countries where theft is a rarity). Don't look too Anglosaxon. USA citizens have a strong accent that gives them out right away: try to conceal your accent by practicing to speak with Europeans (who usually have a neutral accent).
Forget it. You will never recover your money or belongings. Your belongings will be sold in another city.
If you were robbed after something unusual happened in front or around you, don't chase the thief, follow the person who generated the commotion: s/he is probably an accomplice, and probably less skilled in running away. Don't try to stop her/him until there is police nearby. If s/he is an accomplice, police will probably recognize her/him right away. Accomplices are often women and children.
Most cities have a market that sells stolen goods. If the stolen good was precious, you may go to the market and ask around. If you ask the right way, there is a chance that someone will help you recover your good for a reasonable price.
The vast majority of people in poor countries hate thieves. Thieves are sometimes stoned to death in public. If you are in a crowded area, it definitely helps to shout "thief" in the local language. Be aware, though, that the mob might beat and possibly kill the thief in front of you.
Move slowly, time is on your side.
Use violence only if the attacker is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Otherwise you may be risking your life: he has obviously more experience than you.
In most countries theft is an accident of life and police will not even make an effort
to investigate, but murder, especially of a foreigner, is a major event. From the point
of view of a thief, that means that he has no interest in hurting you: if he doesn't
hurt you, he's likely to get away with his crime, but if he hurts you the entire police
force of the nation will be after him. Unless you do something really weird, no thief
has any interest in hurting you.
Pulling out a knife of a gun is a good way to get killed.
- Make sure your luggage does not show from the trunk
- If you are lost in an unsafe neighborhood, do not show that you are lost.
Do not stop, keep driving and look at the map while driving.
- Don't rely on public telephones: if you are in a bad neighborhood, they
are unlikely to be working.
- The best protection is prevention: make yourself familiar with the topography of
the city before you start driving. If you get lost, you should at least be
able to guess (without asking) in which direction you have to steer.
- Just don't look like a tourist who is lost, helpless and desperate.
Look like somebody who lives around there and is about his business.
If you are stupid enough to do drugs, you probably deserve what is going to
happen to you. One of the oldest tricks is this. A westerner sells you drugs.
You take it to your hotel. The police breaks into your hotel room and finds
you with the drugs. You are arrested. The police charges you a huge fine and
threatens to keep you in jail for years. You can get off only if you accept
to help them: they give you drugs and they ask you to find a westerner who
will buy it from you... Get it?