Some of the most fascinating places in the world come with a hitch.
I love Rio de Janeiro for the beaches, Mexico City for the art scene and Medellin, Colombia, for the fun people. But these cities, like most destinations beyond Canada's borders, are places where visitors are more at risk of crime than at home. Although Medellin and Mexico City both have dramatically reduced violent crime over the past few decades, statistics don't mean a thing when you have the misfortune of unknowingly stumbling into the path of a crook.
Being strategic can't eliminate all risk, but can reduce it. Despite years of travelling in parts of Latin America where theft and kidnapping are real possibilities, I've just once had something taken from me. It was my first visit to Mexico City, two decades ago, when I walked straight from an ATM into a subway station known for pickpockets. I saw a guy noticing me as I headed to the train, but didn't think about it until I felt my bulging wallet slipping out of my pocket. A supposed fellow passenger caught my attention and pointed behind me, suggesting I should go after the thief. I stepped back onto the platform – hold it, how had the passenger known I'd been pickpocketed? – and the little gang made off with about $200 and my bank card.
I no longer charge through known hot spots with wads of cash. But, through luck or savvy, I have made my way through many dubious neighbourhoods, at all hours, with no or little hassle, and have raised pints in bars that even locals are skittish of.
First off, I accept what I cannot change. In many parts of the world, I stand out. I'm 6-foot-1, light skinned and of European background. I look like I come from a rich country. So I dress modestly, but also to fit in: shoes if locals are wearing shoes, flip-flops if they're wearing flip-flops. It's not camouflage, but shows that I'm familiar with local norms and probably didn't head straight from the airport to the entertainment district with all my belongings on me. In many Latin American countries, for example, any man wearing shorts after dark is making a public declaration that he's not paying attention to his surroundings. Women's clothing is less globalized than men's, which makes it trickier for women to play chameleon. A Western woman in India wearing a midriff-exposing sari can come off as playing dress-up, though a salwar kameez, with its trousers and tunic, takes less chutzpah.
When visiting a high-risk destination, I always plan for the worst. Even if nothing happens – and nothing likely will – it lowers my stress in the moment, so I can let my guard down to interact with people. Needless to say, I keep my cellphone and camera out of sight unless I see other people around who are using them. I use a dollar-store wallet in which I carry only the cash and cards I need for an outing, never anything I can't afford to lose. Walking at night, I carry only cash. In crowds where personal space disappears, I tuck my money into one of my shoes, a trick a friend from Brazil showed me one night as we partied in a packed Rio nightclub.
Friends who have been robbed have warned me that thieves can get upset if they find little or no money on a victim – they might double down with kidnapping or worse – so I always carry at least $40, so criminals can have some quick success with me and be on their way. I'll wear a money belt if I think pickpocketing might be a risk, but I have no intention of playing hide-and-seek with muggers. Leaving back-up credit cards and cash back at the hotel makes me less inclined to make an impulsive decision that could escalate an ugly situation.
If I'm touring on foot, I always walk with purpose, even if I have no idea where exactly I'm going. If I need to check a map or otherwise get my bearings, I'll discreetly duck into a nearby business.
In less-developed countries, I try to stay aware of the difference between criminals and people who are poor and have problems. Many victims of crime in foreign countries report it happening in broad daylight, sometimes in good neighbourhoods. There's often intention and planning. The one time I saw a mugging was in Arequipa, Peru, on a busy street lined with upscale restaurants.
By contrast, when I accidentally strayed into a Medellin square where dozens of drug users were stretched out on a grassy boulevard, they paid me no attention at all. It was not an uplifting travel experience, certainly, but it was an authentic one. I didn't gawk or take photos. I just continued on until my surroundings felt safer. If I want to help local people, I'll donate to an appropriate charity. My thinking is this: The economic disparity between me and the downtrodden makes any in-the-moment display of generosity seem like it's all about me. Taking action on what I've learned can wait until later.
I used to be wary of taxis in high-risk cities and would walk through strategically chosen neighbourhoods to avoid taking them. I figured that if I quickly passed through places where I was unexpected, nobody could target me. It's been one way I have discovered offbeat places. These days, I'll use Uber or have a restaurant or club owner hail me a cab. If a taxi driver is especially interested in having me as a passenger, that's a ride I'll avoid. In fact, although encountering friendly people is one of the reasons I travel, I give short shrift to anyone who is more than casually interested in me and what I'm doing.
More than anything, I've found the appearance of respectability (but not wealth) remains the most powerful tool for getting out of sticky situations. On a recent visit to Cartagena, Colombia, I returned to my hotel late at night, sober and dressed in a collared shirt and dress pants. I took a wrong turn onto an empty street rather than one full of pedestrians and, violating one of my own rules, continued on. Within minutes, two motorcycle cops pulled over and demanded to search me. Only gradually, when they became more focused on what was in my wallet than, say, the possibility that I had a knife in my sock, did I realized I was being shaken down. They seemed tentative, bumbling and nervous. I refused to open my wallet, told them in Spanglish I was staying at a very nice nearby hotel and calmly walked away. They let me go without a word of protest until I took a photo of their motorcycle licence plate. Then they started yelling and I ran into a nearby square full of people.
I don't know what was going through their minds. But I like to think the police officers had initially hoped I was a drunk or high tourist with a guilty conscience, only to encounter someone capable of making a public stink. That's exactly the look I'm going for when I wander off the beaten path.