Now that many countries around the world are lifting their COVID restrictions, a lot of Americans will start to vacation abroad once again. In fact, Americans love to travel, and there’s no place on this planet where you won’t find us.
Just like many of them, I’ve been traveling abroad for many years, and I’ve picked up a few experiences that I believe will help others be aware of their surroundings while enjoying foreign travel. After all my trips, I’ve realized that it doesn’t take much for a foreigner to look suspicious in the eyes of local police or military officials. Even more, you may easily find yourself in a bad spot, dealing with locals after taking a wrong turn.
Situational awareness while traveling
Finding yourself in unfamiliar lands is sometimes a blessing, but it could also make you a target of a violent crime, or you would have to find ways to avoid an unexpected threat. In fact, there’s no accurate way to pinpoint a scenario that would put you in harm’s way. Since we want to enjoy our free time and avoid stressing too much, employing situational awareness will, most times, keep you out of trouble.
Mugging and pickpocketing are the most common crimes happening abroad, and the unaware fall victim to the less desirable elements of society. If you look like an easy target in an unfamiliar environment, there are high chances you will become a victim.
Being distracted by your phone while reading a map, or keeping your hands full with shopping bags and whatnot, will attract “predators.” Also, you should avoid walking around looking down or staying glued to your phone all the time because you will miss any potential danger lurking around you. If you don’t see it coming, you won’t be able to defend yourself.
Situational awareness is often seen as “spy stuff,” but in its basic form, it is as simple as looking around and scanning people in your vicinity. Put away all the distractions that would limit your field of view or capture all your attention.
Also, it’s elementary to avoid walking through dodgy parts of town after dark, even though this may be difficult to do when you don’t have the knowledge of areas to avoid while being abroad. This is why everyone going on vacation should plan their itinerary long before they board the plane. I’ve been doing this ever since I can remember, and it saved me a lot of headaches. Plan the activities for every day, establish routes and arrange for transportation.
With all the information available online, this has become a simple task, and pretty much anyone can do it. This will help you figure out if your taxi or Uber driver takes a wrong turn, ending up in a bad part of town, and you will know if something’s wrong. He may just be stopping for gas, or perhaps, he’s got other intentions.
I’ve traveled for business or pleasure many times, and I’ve looked for opportunities to mix with the locals. You might not realize this, but from the time you land at the airport, you will be mixing and interacting with the locals since you depend on them. They will provide assistance and transportation in seaports, train or bus stations, they will provide goods and also make your food in restaurants.
These are the most common interactions for travelers, but during certain cases, you will have to depend on foreigners for your safety as well. First responders, police, and sometimes, the military may be the only ones keeping you out of harm’s way.
It becomes your responsibility, and you have to do your best to familiarize yourself with basic customs, etiquette, and ways of transportation in foreign lands. I’ve been in various Arab countries, and often times I had to adapt my dress code to fit in with the locals as they were more conservative and restrictive than others.
One thing that also helps is learning a few common and useful words or phrases of the local language, especially greetings. Your pronunciation may not be perfect, but your effort will be appreciated by the locals you meet. You’ve often seen Americans becoming annoyed or frustrated when interacting with locals because they were unable to speak English. Rather than causing a scene and putting yourself in the spotlight, try to learn a few words from the local vocabulary and adapt yourself to the interaction.
Dealing with government officials
I’ve learned a while back that you should pay attention and respect the local rules, especially if you’re driving a rental car. Pay attention to the traffic lights, signs, and crosswalks because some countries have strict rules, and foreigners are fined much more harshly than the locals.
Even as a pedestrian, you should obey the rules and do as the locals do. Walk when they walk, and don’t try to rush the marked crosswalk before the light changes. Also, small things that may seem unimportant to you, like littering or spitting on the ground, can also get you in trouble, and you may be subjected to local authorities’ harassment.
Have your passport on you at all times when traveling to foreign lands and keep a scan of it on your phone since it’s the main form to prove who you are and where are you coming from. I’ve been to South America, and during an organized trip in Argentina, the local police stopped our group and asked to see all the passports. People started panicking, but the officer was just curious to see where tourists were coming from to their remote location. Despite the language barrier, it was a friendly interaction, and he tanked us for our tourism and gave his info card to our guide to contact him in case we needed assistance.
On the other hand, when I’ve visited Venezuela to do a little bit of research on how people were surviving there and help a friend move back to the US, I had to go through dozens of military and police checkpoints. They all wanted to see our passport, search the car, and keep asking questions about the stuff he was carrying. They were all toting guns and kept asking if we stole that stuff. Only after my friend explained the situation did they calm down and let us go. It was an unpleasant experience, to say the least.
In such situations, you should stay calm and comply with their requests. Don’t escalate the situation and refrain from saying things such as, “I have rights! I’m an American!” etc. They don’t care about that, and you have to understand that they’re just doing their jobs.
For example, when traveling to Kenya, I was detained and interrogated by customs officials because the person checking my bags through the X-ray machine sounded the alarm. I had bought a knife which has a handle made from a horn. Oh, and I also had some cans of mosquito spray that freaked them out.
They called the police, and I had to explain for more than an hour that the knife was bought from a lodge, and they said it was complying with custom rules. They checked the horn, wrapped it in plastic and duct tape, and eventually let me have it.
However, they made a much bigger deal regarding the three small cans of bug spray (one was almost empty) I was carrying. They kept asking me what I was planning to do with them; why is the label explosive on them, even though I’ve told them that’s a sign that informs you about the danger of throwing the spray cans in the fire. I showed them the email in which the company that organized the safari trip told us to bring bug spray, but nothing worked. Strangely enough, I flew with the same cans of spray inland, and nobody said anything.
Long story short, they took them and put them in a container (like they were some kind of a bomb) and let me go because I was at risk of missing my flight. They didn’t allow me to take them back home, and they gave me all sorts of intimidating looks.
I kept my cool while I was in the holding room and did not exhibit any signs of irritation and panic. I followed all their questions with simple answers (like I was talking to children) and provided all the info I had to sustain my claims. This got me out of that predicament, and I do believe that as long as you don’t have anything to hide, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
Interacting with the locals
From experience, I can tell you that the most common two ways travelers end up in “difficult situations” are when they take photos in the wrong place or when they take a wrong turn and end up in the less friendly part of town.
Everyone is taking photos these days, and social media has been feeding their obsession for affirmation and gratification ever since it was invented. Photos are an important part of our life, and we take even more photos when we travel. However, there are times when you need to break this habit if you want to stay out of trouble. Not everyone wants to be part of your travel album, or perhaps there are areas/structures where taking photos is prohibited.
When I visited Dubai, we signed up for an organized trip, and the in our bus were all eager to take pictures with or of the impressive architecture. We traveled to a residential area in close proximity to the presidential palace, and the guide made an announcement telling us that for the next 15-20 minutes, we should put our phones and cameras away since that’s a restricted area and we will be stopped and fined if they see us taking pictures, and out devices will be confiscated.
After 10 minutes, we saw a police car chasing our bus with sirens on, and they soon stopped us. Two armed policemen when straight to a girl in the back of the bus, and they asked her to get off the bus. They kept shouting about “why you take pictures,” and they spoke in Arabic. They checked her backpack, and they wanted to confiscate her phone. She started crying and asking them not to.
Another police car came, and a police officer (I believe he was of higher rank) started talking to her using flawless English. He told her the only way she would get back on the bus with her phone was after she did a factory reset on that phone in front of him. She had no other choice than to do it, and soon enough, we were on our way. The whole interaction lasted about an hour, and there was simply no reasoning with them.
Discretion must always be practiced when finding yourself in foreign lands, and you should control your photographing impulse when needed. Not to mention that if you take photos at religious events/gatherings or during unusual religious practices, you can get in a lot of trouble.
A friend of mine was visiting the bush in Australia, and he took photos of the aboriginal people even though the guide strongly advised him against doing so. He thought they wouldn’t notice, but once they did, the aboriginal people assaulted him and took his camera. They smashed it in front of his eyes, and just like that, $4,000 worth of gear was gone. Apparently, they still believe that you steal their soul if you photograph them, and they get really angry about it.
Another interaction that can turn into a bad experience is the shopping practice. A lot of travelers love to buy souvenirs from the places they visit, and while some will pay the price the vendors asked, no question asked, others will bargain and haggle to the last cent.
While I enjoy a bargain like anyone else, I try to be respectful and have a pleasant interaction with the vendors. I do not insult them or start displaying aggressive behavior since that will lead to nothing good. Some of them may understand English, and you calling them names will just lead to unpleasant confrontation (including physical ones).
Also, read about the areas in which you plan on shopping and learn about the local customs and the behaviors of the vendors. For example, when we went to Thailand, my wife insisted on going to a local market where they were selling all sorts of statues and figurines made from wood, ceramic, bones, and other materials. She’s obsessed with these things, and she always buys some to put in her “around the world” glass cabinet.
The interactions we had with the vendors always started with “where are you from?” and luckily, I’ve read about that prior to getting to the market. They all try to find where you are from to make “a good price” for you. It goes without saying that if you come from a first-world country, the higher the price will be.
Also, I told my wife to bring her own bag because these sneaky vendors had an ingenious system put in place to track the “rich shoppers.” Depending on where you were coming from and how much you spent, but also if you haggled or not, they would give you a different color plastic bag for the stuff you bought to signal to the other vendors if you are a cash cow or not.
It’s always recommended to get yourself familiar with the customs and practices of the locals, especially if you depend on them for providing important items such as food. Even learning about how much you should tip will save you a lot of headaches. In Japan, I never tipped the servers because when I first tried to do so, they told me there’s no need to do such a thing, and I’m being rued if I try to tip them. In Turkey, regardless of how much I tipped the workers in the food industry (I was following the local guidelines), they always hit me with the “one dollar more my friend!” line.
Staying safe in foreign lands is a matter of common sense combined with basic situational awareness. Far too many of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen act like they’re at home when they find themselves abroad, and they fail to realize that their domestic habits may not fit well with the locals. My advice for when you find yourself in unfamiliar lands when traveling is to be aware, different, and adapt to the new environment and situations.
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