Keeping Your Wits About You When Travelling

Do you actually know how to keep yourself safe and secure while traveling the world? Even if you do think you ‘know it all’, you should definitely have a quick glance over this article and double up on your knowledge. Who knows, something in here may help save you from an unfortunate experience someday.


Friends Stick Together

For those who will be traveling with a friend, be sure to stay in the company of that friend, especially during night time excursions.  Make sure your traveling companion’s safety is a top priority when you are in situations that can possibly spin outside your realm of control.  Don’t go in separate directions for the sake of hooking up with that guy/girl. This is especially important when alcohol is involved.  Trust each others judgment, and when your friend says it is time to go home, listen, and follow.  You’ll thank them in the morning.


Stay in the Company of Those you Trust

If you are traveling alone and decide to venture out for a night on the piss (drinking), stay in the company of your roommates and/or new travel friends, stay in public places, and do not leave with anyone whom you do not trust.  Even if you do trust them, be sure to question where you are going and why.  If you feel at all uncomfortable, whistle a cab and make your way home. If home is close and you don’t want to take a cab, then ask a friend to walk you.  When a backpacker goes missing, the news article always reads, “Backpacker was last seen heading home after night out with friends.”  Take 2 minutes out of your night and make sure your friends are safe, even if you just met them that evening.  As humans we have the basic social responsibility to help and protect those who are in need. I would argue that backpackers should be held to a much higher code of social responsibility. At minimum, it is imperative that we spend the time and energy looking out for one another’s well being and safety.


Set Limits

If you find yourself out at the bar drinking, be sure to limit the amount you drink, so that you are still capable of making sound, rational decisions. Easier said then done right? Maybe a little bit preachy, I know. But still… consider this advice anyway.


There is a simple test tat I do on myself to see if I am getting severely inebriated. Here is what to do:


Go to the bathroom and take a look in the mirror –

•           If you can’t look at yourself for more than 30 seconds without giving a smile and a wink – you are too drunk.

•           If your head feels heavy and wobbly – you are too drunk

•           If you look at yourself and say, “What the fuck am I doing?” – You are to drunk

•           If you need to hold on to the sink to keep yourself from falling over – you are too drunk


Once you have given yourself the diagnosis of ‘too drunk’ it is time to do something about it.  Ask the bartender for a couple glasses of water, and drink.  Go to the pie shop around the corner and eat.  Most importantly, don’t keep drinking.  In addition to these reactive solutions, you can also try to be proactive as well. Make it a habit of only bringing enough cash for 3 or 4 drinks, and leave your bank card at home.  This will make sure that you stop drinking when the money runs out.  When a friend offers to buy you another beer or shot, insisting that you drink it, purposely spill it as you go to pick it up.  Your friend will be convinced that you are too hammered to keep drinking, and will be far too pissed off that you spilled the drink and wasted their money to buy you another.  Problem solved!


Plain and simple, people make poor decision when they drink, and by limiting your alcohol intake you can help keep control of your situation.  This is one of the most important steps to keeping your wits about you. Of course, I understand that it is not always this simple, and much easier to say than do.  I have found that practice makes perfect.  The more you get used to refusing that extra drink, the easier it gets in the future.  Plus, do you really want to spend the next day in bed nursing a hangover, while your friends are out exploring the countryside?  I didn’t think so.



Drunk Guy Should Have Avoided the Pie

On a recent trip up to the Bay of Islands on the east coast, of the northern end of New Zealand, Tarra and I met an Englishman named Mark while eating dinner on the hostel patio.  Mark was a tall and lanky blond haired man, with the energy of a monkey, and a wealth of stories that would rival the greatest of sea captains.  He was a lighthearted guy, with a positive outlook toward life and a very generous sense of humor.  He was 19, and clearly still attempting to amass as many stories as possible before returning home to England.


One story that he seemed particularly proud of had to do with a night out in Sydney, Australia.  After a few too many he did the responsible thing and headed next door to the pie shop to help settle his stomach and sober his mind.  On this particular night, however, he probably should have made his way to the pie shop about 5 drinks earlier, and now he was struggling to simply hold his balance. Mark stayed outside the pie shop while his friend went in to sort out the food.  Unfortunately, the steadying mechanism he chose to hold his balance with was the shop owner’s blinds, which came crashing down under the weight of Mark’s swaying body.  Mark was extremely apologetic, as drunks usually are when they do something stupid, and clumsily tried to fix the the blinds, ultimately doing more harm than good.  The shop owner, annoyed by a night filled with drunks like Mark, ran around the front of the shop to confront him.  They exchanged words, and soon began to scuffle.


Mark tells it that the man was, short and stubby, with barely enough height to reach the top of his towering 6’4” frame.  So after a few unsuccessful swings, the shop owner appeared to do what came naturally, and latched on to Mark’s forearm with his teeth.  Mark was no longer in a simple fist fight, he was now desperately trying to keep the large piece of flesh within the shop owners clenches.  It took a number of blows to the head, and a large amount of aid from his friend to pull the guy off.  After which, Mark was left with a very large, oval gash in his arm.  3 months later, when we met him in the Bay of Islands, the wound had not fully healed, and would likely leave a large scar.


Admittedly, Mark realized the error of his ways, and should have just walked away after he knocked down the blinds.  However, on this occasion he was proud to show off his souvenir from the encounter.  Personally I would not be as proud, but to each their own.  The takeaway from this, keep your wits about you! Otherwise you may get more than a scar to take home to the family.



Be Aware of Your Surroundings

When walking alone, drunk or sober, male or female, be sure to keep your head up.  Don’t look at the ground! I cannot stress this enough.  When an attacker looks for a victim, they seek someone who appears unaware and vulnerable.  By keeping your head up, you can ensure that you are conscious of your surroundings, and alert of any potential dangers.  Take note of the people around you, and if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, then walk the other way.  Don’t be embarrassed to be afraid; even if you are concerned that your fear is just a perception. Nothing is ever lost by taking a few extra precautions.  This is the type of fear that often becomes real and one that should not be ignored.


I would also suggest taking a self defense course.  Male or female, this is a good thing to have experience with.  Self defense will not only teach you a number of karate like moves that will help thwart or defend against an attack, it also teaches you to respond to stress automatically, without thinking.  Have you heard the claim that under high-stress circumstances, people actually forget what their local emergency number is, such as 911?  You think, how can this be possible?  We learn it from such an early age that it is engraved in our memory.  This is true, it is in our memory, but it is not developed as a part of our automated response memory unless we practice it.  Most people have never actually dialed 911, and have to recall it from long term stored memory.  This is very easy when the situation is calm and controlled.  However, when the human body is placed in a high stress situation, the heart rate increases extremely rapidly, and blood is drawn from the extremities to protect the vital organs.  This causes the long term memory to be temporarily diminished, and the extremities to become immobile or significantly slowed, potentially leading to a state of paralysis, leaving the victim helplessness as the situation becomes increasingly stressful, such as during an attack.


One way to improve the automated response is by practicing these high stress situations in a controlled environment.  This gives you the ability to automatically respond during a stressful event, despite being unable to consciously recall the specific action from memory.  This is why in driver’s education they place you in high stress situations and tell you to react without warning.  You practice until you get it right every time.  Self defense courses are no different.  They give you the tools to handle high stress situations, and react without thinking.


In the self-defense class that I took, they had a man in protective gear attack without warning. You had to quickly react and do whatever it took to escape.  Even in the controlled environment, some people froze and forgot the training we had received.  It took a few times of practice to make the reaction automatic, but in the end it worked, and eventually everyone punched, kicked, screamed and escaped before they even had time to comprehend the action.  The attack is over in the blink of an eye, and those who are prepared will be on the winning end more times than those who freeze under the pressure.


Build Rapport with the Locals

When travelling in a new city or town, build a rapport with the hostel staff in order to find out information about the area and what parts of town are safe and which parts to avoid.  This can be one of the best ways to ensure you do not end up in the wrong part of town late at night.  You can also venture outside the hostel and try to build rapport with some of the locals, which is easier to do in countries that speak your native tongue.  If you are brave enough you can try your hand at speaking to the locals in their foreign language (which is often received much better than speaking in English).  However, be sure to practice so that you do not end up insulting them by saying the wrong word.  For example the German word for night is nacht whereas the German word for naked or nude is nackt (pronounced with an emphasis on the k).  This gives a whole new meaning to the common phrase ‘goodnight’ if pronounced incorrectly in German.


Don’t Make Yourself a Target

You make think that by showing off your fancy clothing, jewelry, and electronics is impressing the people around you, but the likelihood is your not.  In actual fact, what you have done is painted a big red bulls eye on your back.  In any country regardless of how modern and secure it may seem, tourists (including backpackers) are target for petty crimes such as pick pocketing and mugging.  Virtually ever major city in the world, and many of the smaller touristy ones, are filled with thieves looking to relieve you of your precious goods.  The thieves are smart, brazen and not deterred by your size or stature.  Luckily, there are many things that you can do to avoid becoming a victim.


A thieves’ goal is always to optimize their haul for the day, so they often scout out their victims before attempting to steal their valuables.  Walking in groups can reduce, but not eliminate your risk of being victimized.  Additionally, you should avoid being caught in the less touristy areas after dark.  Don’t wear expensive jewelry such as, watches, earrings, necklaces, or bracelets; leave them at home.  On the backpacking trail you really don’t need to be showing off how rich you are, even if the jewelry has some significant meaning.  Don’t wear flashy clothes, and keep your purse and wallet closed and tucked away from prying eyes.  Carry only as much cash as you will need for the day, this way the thief does not take off with your entire vacation fund.  The less you have on you, the less likely you are to attract attention, reducing the risk of becoming a potential victim.


This being said, even with the precautions you can still be mugged, and it is not always your usual suspect.  I have had more friends robbed by corrupt police than petty criminals, with the occurrences being higher in Spanish countries.  The best thing to do is remain calm, if it is a street thug asking for your goods, just hand it over and walk away.  Do not resist because often the thieves are not working alone and can be carrying weapons.  In the case of being robbed by the police, it is usually in the form of a traffic stop or a street violation.  They will tell you that you have violated some law, give you the choice of a massive fine or a bribe to make it go away.  You can often negotiate the bribe price down.  This is a different form of thieving, but again it is best not to resist. Just accept it as part of the risk of travel.



A Bargain Mugging

Fraser was and Englishman travelling in Rio Dejanaro , Brazil on the last leg of his South American journey.  After having visited Peru, Argentina and Chili he was stoked to finally spend his last 2 weeks relaxing on the beautiful beaches near town.  Upon arriving, Fraser settled into his hostel and quickly made friends with the other 3 Israeli guys in his room.  They decided to head out for beers at a local pub, and spent the next few hours drinking a swapping travel stories.  As it neared 1am, Fraser became exhausted and decided to head back to the hostel.  The Israeli guys decided to go to another bar, so they parted ways and Fraser was now alone for the 3 minute walk home.  Nearing the hostel he turned down a side street as a short cut from the main road.  About 10 steps in and he felt a massive blow to his chest, and quickly hit the ground.  A man had come out of the shadows, and was now towering over him.


The mugger held Fraser down while rifling through his pockets, retrieving a cell phone, some cash, and a passport.  As the stranger stood up to walk away Fraser began pleading with him, “You have me cash, can I at least have me passport back so that I can travel home?” The mugger thought about it for a second, and then nodded throwing the passport back to him. “Can I also have me SIM card from me phone?  It won’t be worth anything to you and at least I can put it back in me phone when I get home.”  The mugger seemed to accept this logic and gave Fraser his phone to pull the SIM card out.  Then within an instant the stranger was gone back into the shadows.  Fraser had successfully negotiated back his most valuable items, while everything else could be easily replaced.


Personally, I was amazed when I heard this story.  I met Fraser in a hostel in downtown Sydney, years after the incident had happened.  He figures that it was the beers that gave him the courage to negotiate with the mugger, something he likely would not have done sober.  In the end, it saved him a lot of money in replacement fees for his passport, and he was still able to keep in contact with his friends since all the information was safely stored in the SIM card in his pocket.



Take a Cab

Spend the extra money and get into a cab, it is just that simple. This is especially useful in parts of the world that are considered dangerous to roam at night.  As a backpacker you will likely always be trying to save cash when you can, but you should never cheap out on safety.  It is important that you keep your wits about you, and if that means spending a few extra dollars, then so be it.  Safety should always be your #1 priority.


Avoid Unhealthy Risks

Don’t take stupid risks, it is as simple as this.  If you feel that engaging in a certain activity presents a level of risk that is outside your comfort level, then don’t do it, even if the hot guy/girl from the hostel is watching.  This includes activities such as jumping from bridges into unknown water, swimming across rivers that are known to be occupied by crocodiles., skiing alone in areas of the mountain that are out-of-bounds, and all other high-risk activities that can be avoided or made safer through a little due diligence. There are a lot of great backpacking stories that you will gain from your experience without ending up in the hospital.  Just enjoy your journey, and minimize the risk to ensure you wake up each morning in top condition for the next day’s activities.


Know Your Limitations

Despite how exciting outdoor survivor shows make getting lost in the wilderness appear,  these are professionals, in very controlled environments, with numerous, and very expensive backup plans in case of emergency.  The wilderness is an unforgiving place for a backpacker, and you must be knowledgeable and experienced to attempt entering them on your own. For example, every year skiers cut the ropes (go skiing out of bounds) and get disoriented in a snow storm. Hikers and campers lose track of where they are and wonder aimlessly in the mountains searching for a way out.  Each country has their own stories of how tourists and even locals go missing in Mother Nature’s backyard.  It is sad to say, not all of them make it out alive.


If you decide to venture into the wilderness, be sure you know where you are going and what to do in case of an emergency. Know what you are getting into, understand the terrain and what hazards exist, inanimate and alive.  Always have a plan in case of emergency, and if you are venturing far away from civilization, pack enough food, water and medical supplies to last at least a week.  If you do feel uneasy about your chances of making it alone, hire a tour company to take you.  For every type of wilderness excursion that you could possibly want to do, there is a tour company that takes you there.  They usually have extremely experienced guides who understand the terrain, hazards and potential dangers.  And they are always prepared with a number of backup plans and support teams who are ready to assist.  This being said, do your research and make sure you are going with a company that has a long standing reputation, and excellent track record.  Keep your wits about you!



By following the advice presented in this section, and employing a little bit of common sense, the likelihood of becoming just another statistic is highly unlikely.  Despite what you may think, backpacking is an extremely safe activity; involving no more risk than would be encountered living in your own hometown.  This being said, we can make the experience even safer and much more enjoyable by looking out for one another.  It is important that backpackers take care of one another by looking out for each others safety and well being.  We are a community that is strong in our thirst for adventure, and equally strong in our willingness to help those in need, and watch over those who are most vulnerable.


Keep your wits about you, and have many safe travels my friends!

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