When I was a kid growing up in the Philippines, I grew up petrified. My friend’s dad was kidnapped in Manila by two guy’s posing as police officers. Another friend’s dad was tortured, shot dead and buried in the sugar cane fields a few miles from our first house. Burglars tried to saw through the bars on my bedroom window and only took off when an armed guard on patrol fired a warning shot. Almost every one had a story of either them or someone close being robbed in some way in Manila. To prove how easy it was to be robbed, a friend of ours stuffed his wallet full of paper, put it in his back a pocket and walked through an open-air market. Sure enough, it was gone by stroll’s end.
Needless to say, I developed a heightened sense of caution. To this day I am notoriously redundant about checking and double checking that doors are locked, money is hidden and that I cross the street if anybody suspicious is walking up to me. I am perpetually paranoid because I have seen too many bad things happen to good people. And the bad stuff often happens in unfamiliar environments.
The most valiant attempt at savvy, global do-gooding can easily be ruined if you are robbed the minute you step out of the airport. It takes street smarts of an international variety to stay safe and unrobbed while traveling. The good news is that there are some common sense principles you can digest to enjoy your international do-gooding sans drama. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
You are not special
When you are trying to do some good abroad it is tempting that karma should be on your side. Humans have an optimism bias. We assume things will go well. This is often a good thing. But this kind of optimism also leads to complacency – you flash big dollar bills; bust out an iPad; ask to get dropped off by a fancy hotel… Rookie mistakes that result in people thinking you are rich and you getting held up.
Don’t try to look cool
Whatever you do, don’t “wear” your money when traveling. Don’t be that clueless tourist with the big camera and flashy Tag Heuer watch. That’s for amateurs. You are there to do some good and learn about the local culture. You’ll accomplish neither if you act like you are on a freaking cat walk. Travel as simply and as low tech as possible. Don’t be that walking target for a criminal.
There’s adventure and there is stupidity
Do not be an idiot. As much as you may be a thrill seeker, you want to avoid the ridiculous. Do NOT let the friendly taxi driver talk you into staying at a different hostel from the one the guide book recommends. Don’t go on bootleg tours of the city offered by someone’s “uncle”. Think twice about extreme sports or anything that could place you in significant physical danger.
Be super cheap
Want to gain respect quickly at the local market? Learn to bargain like a local. Do it with a smile but be a good negotiator. Many developing countries have a very developed bargaining culture. You will not only disappoint if you don’t bargain, you will establish yourself as a big gullible target. Be the opposite. My mom taught me this as she took me with her to go to market in the Philippines. She developed good relationships with merchants by being a loyal customer but she made sure she never overpaid. They liked her but had a sense of respect for her market savvy.
Over to you. Tell me the tips that work for you in the comments. Or tell me what has backfired. Either way I am interested!