When I was young, my motto was, “It’s not fun if you can’t die.” It was luck rather than skill that I survived my youth. I still have a thirst for adventure, but now believe in informed risk taking and mitigation where possible. Bad things can (and do) happen, and the last place you want that to occur is in a foreign land where the medical care and law enforcement is unfamiliar or inferior to what you are used to. I don’t want to discourage you from traveling or make you paranoid; I do want to help ensure that the worst thing that happens to you is a sunburn.
There are several areas of safety I plan to explore in future posts, but this post will focus on the one essential tool to keep you safe. I’ll give you a hint, but if you don’t get it, you may want to stay at home…its what’s between your ears. Cliché I know, but trust your instincts! Instinct is your body’s biological tendency to make one choice over another, including, “fight or flight.” Situational awareness allows you to fully leverage your instincts, but neither will come into play if your head is buried in your phone or you’re stumbling drunk. While this is obvious, situational awareness is more difficult to put into practice than one might think.
You can’t just put situational awareness on your trip checklist and turn it on when you get to the airport. It’s taken me a year to develop decent awareness skills but I’m often guilty of the phone mistake mentioned above. I suggest starting immediately on your home turf and before long your situational awareness will be running on auto-pilot. Just yesterday, we exited a store and my 12-year old daughter asked why a man had been staring at us. I had noticed the same man but had identified he was waiting for the woman behind us in line. Besides wanting to brag about my daughter, this highlights one of the best ways to improve situational awareness, which is to practice it with friends and family.
Put Into Practice
Here are a few things to start practicing identifying in your daily life and then apply to your travels. Make it fun…you can even assign points for each.
- Alternative exits in restaurants, stores, theaters
- Someone paying a little too much attention to you or another
- Homeless / street hustlers – where they congregate and signs of aggressiveness or dangerous instability
- People getting rowdy in a bar or at a game
- Stray or off-leash dogs – Is their tail standing up? Are they in a pack?
- A clip on pocket knife
- Someone with an unnatural bulge in clothing or wearing baggy clothes potentially concealing a gun
Pro tip: Best time to spot a gun is when someone is standing-up, sitting, or lifting as they will check with their hand or eyes to confirm the weapon is still concealed and secure
Can you notice what this priest seems to? Besides not seeming to like me taking his picture, look at his left side above his pocket area. He is concealing a firearm. His demeanor and his noticing me (I was using telephoto and pretending to take pic of something else) are clues to pay attention to someone who presents like this.
For the record, I wouldn't have taken his picture (or known he was carrying) except that he was our bodyguard. I was in Israel for work and our company required his escorting us into Jerusalem. He went on high alert later in the day when some kids made a loud noise while playing ball...interesting to observe.
Once you put this into practice you should be able to avoid most potential incidents before anything happens and avoid the “fight” part of the equation. My wife was walking alone to her car in early evening and noticed a van parked on the driver side of her vehicle. She initially pulled out her tactical pen but then trusted her gut that she likely couldn’t fend off a couple men if they opened the sliding door and grabbed her. I was recently in Nicaragua and went into a bar off the main drag that sounded lively. Once inside, I immediately noticed it was a locals-only establishment and made it appear that I was looking for someone before making my exit. In less than a minute, I caught a very intoxicated local nudging his friends and nodding in my direction. Say no more…exit stage left!
Another aspect of situational awareness is paying attention to your environment.
- Area: Neighborhoods can dramatically change from one block to the next, pay attention to where your GPS is leading you. Better yet, check your route beforehand so that phone can stay in your pocket.
- Time of Day: The beautiful park you cut through in the daytime to get back to your hotel may not be your best option at night. When in doubt, grab an Uber.
- Political: It may be interesting to watch a protest but many turn violent or they may want you to mind your own business. If you don’t completely avoid, be on high alert and have an exit plan.
- Terrorism: Unfortunately, the new terrorist weapon of choice is a vehicle. Increase your alert level at crowded festivals or tourist areas and pay attention to where vehicles could come from and your escape options.
On a much needed lighter note, besides keeping you out of trouble, situational awareness will greatly improve your people watching skills. You will be amazed at what you will begin to notice. Grab a coffee outside a train station or tourist area and spot the hustlers or the clueless people who would have no idea if a gang with machetes was following them.
While I only touched on one element of travel safety, I wanted to provide enough depth to give you something useful and actionable. The real value of this post is only derived if you take action and put situational awareness into practice. Obviously, this isn’t all inclusive, please share your related stories or tips.