Traversing a new land is both exhilarating and exhausting. Though I strive to see the good in all people, I've learned the difference between being open and friendly and being naive. The danger of traveling in a country that's foreign to you is real and should not be ignored. I'm not telling you to hide solely within your comfort zone, but instead, asking you to open your eyes and use your senses. No one wants to feel on edge throughout a trip. By following these simple guidelines you'll be on your way to smarter and safer traveling.
The most important advice I can offer when visiting an unknown place is to first, be very alert and aware of your surroundings at all times and secondly, trust your gut. Take a minute before brushing the latter off as cliche. I've traveled to third world countries and have spent time in fairly dangerous regions. In my experience, instincts have helped keep me safe while still allowing me to live freely. So, go on and be free and build lasting relationships along the way. But first and foremost- be cautious and use your head.
If traveling with expensive electronics, I'd plan on carrying them with you. The only way I'd leave my camera behind would be inside a secured locker. Pick-pocketing and personal theft is, unfortunately, a huge problem in poorer countries. But, lets not ignore it's prevalence in big cities and large public transportation areas as well. There are obvious ways to lower your risk of such theft by securely strapping your bag to your body, carrying it in front rather than behind and placing locks on double zippers. Though, even this won't always deter a thief. I've read of criminals who slash bags' bottoms while attached to the owner, the contents dropping to the ground, quickly scooped up and ran off with.
To avoid becoming a target of theft, it's smart to remove or cover up any big name-brands displayed on the outside of your bag. This way, at least you're not advertising it's contents or your ability to afford such a brand. My camera backpack has Canon spelled out in five strategic locations on the bag's exterior. Shown in photos at the end of this post, I hand-sewed fabric over the large tag along the top, but didn't stop there. Three additional strips of fabric were added to help blend this cover-up into the bag's design. Tags with stitched brand names can easily be colored over with a black permanent marker. This won't cover up the name entirely, but will make smaller, white-on-black tags far less noticeable. The zipper pulls all say Canon on my camera bag and even though these are rather small, they're easily read while stationary in a congested or closed-in area. You can purchase plain pulls and swap them out with little pliers, or refer to my photos for another, more decorative possibility. Digital SLR cameras are typically black, making electrical tape your trusty friend. Using fine-end scissors, cut small strips to go over the "Nikon", "Canon", or "Fuji" names on both the body and lens.
For backpacks, a rain cover is a really smart purchase. Not only will it conceal your personal items from last minute weather changes, but will also block hands from potentially entering outer pockets and pouches. A rain cover could also save you from having to hide branded tags, if worn at all times. The only downfall to a 24-7 cover is the minor inconvenience of taking it off each time you want inside.
If visiting a region where wild monkeys roam, don't carry any food on you- unless you don't mind losing your entire bag! They will attack you for it. May sound kind of funny, but I'm positive you won't be laughing when it happens to you! It's also smart to avoid eye contact, as it may come off threatening. If you happen to be caught eating as a wild monkey approaches, you definitely want to throw the food far away from you. Please don't make the mistake of underestimating these cute little beings because they can be extremely aggressive and violent.
When traveling by train or bus, keep bags with important contents by your feet. The compartment overhead may seem safe enough, but in high-crime cities, many become victim to fellow passengers grabbing their packs and running off.
As far as beggars, be confident and firm with your answers. When approached for money on the streets, promise to never "donate" to this cause- for numerous reasons. Strongly say NO and walk away. If the person follows, make it known to those around that you are being harassed. You don't want to participate in keeping kids on the streets, am I right? Impoverished parents and child-slave owners use innocent children to beg for money because, over time, they've learned how people take more pity upon street children than adult beggars. Unfortunately, some parents even keep their kids from attending school so they can be used for begging purposes. Real life horror stories exist of abducted children transported to new locations, purposely mutated to attract sympathy from passerby's. Believe it. These innocent souls unwillingly have their limbs chopped off to, ultimately, generate more income for their captors.
You may not believe that giving money has anything to do with theft, but look at it this way. If a child you give money to has a threatening superior forcing them to work on the streets, that child is not benefitting from your "donation" in any way. The boss man takes your money and uses it to continue his vicious cycle, sending children out on the streets day after day. Handing over a few shillings or pesos may seem harmless, but you're really enabling this street life, child labor and slavery.
Another reason to never pull cash out on the streets is to conceal both where your money is kept and the amount you're currently carrying. No matter how discrete you may feel, there's no predicting what the beggar or overseer might do. Simply put, it's best not to make yourself a target by avoiding showing any money on the open streets- especially while visiting a foreign country. Tourists are believed to carry cash and can be pinpointed for this stereotype.
Leading into my final tip; blend in with the locals. Before leaving, do your research on what current fashion and dressing stipulations are expected within that region. If showing your knees or shoulders is considered immodest, pack appropriately. Not only do you want to show respect for the culture, but if safety is top priority, you don't want to draw unwanted attention to yourself.
And this may seem obvious, but it's important enough to mention. When traveling to a poorer area, don't wear your expensive-looking earrings, flashy watch, or designer shoes. Even if you got them for "cheap", you'll stick out like an even sorer thumb- advertising your relative wealth to all. It might seem cute to announce your American nationality, inability to speak the local language and that you're completely lost... but it's not. Comments like these will leave you exposed as vulnerable and naive.
That being said, I've befriended some amazing people and seen incredible places by striking up conversations with strangers in other countries. I toured Jaipur, Rajasthan in 2011 with four young men and a family of three whom I met earlier that day. By the final destination, we were all sharing food and laughing like old friends. After the tour, I hopped into a taxi with the four gentlemen and took it into the city's center. Overlooking the radiant sky of a setting sun and the bustling Indian city below, we found ourselves upon a rooftop restaurant; drinking beer, smoking hookah and sharing about our lives. Strangers at dawn and true friends by dusk.
Instincts have greatly aided in decisions regarding my safety, but have never seemed to hinder the adventure in my travels. Without a little risk and faith, I never would have stood in awe of the Taj Mahal or been given the private, palace-grounds tour in Fatehpur Sikri. I never would have traveled around Uganda with a dance and theatre group or slept in a hut in a remote IDP camp. Without risk, I never would have ridden on the back of that boda boda back to Gulu, flying down a dirt road, weaving around the most pot holes I'd ever seen. And that's coming from a Michigander!
In fact, without risk, I never would have traveled at all. We're constantly taking chances in life. Don't live in fear, but at the same time... take caution and feel things out. Most importantly, listen to yourself. If a situation feels off, trust that vibe and flee. Otherwise, take the proper precautions, use your head, have faith and take the risk.
Following these rough guidelines will place you in the right mindset to explore the unknown by listening to and balancing your head, heart and surrounding environment.