There is a famous saying in Colombia and one of the best travel safety tips of all time: no dar papaya. Directly translated, that phrase means don’t give papaya.
What I interpret it to mean is that personal safety is mostly our own responsibility. It means don’t be naive. Be aware of your surroundings. Do your part to keep yourself and your belongings out of trouble.
No matter where in the world you find yourself, this is a good philosophy to live by. I spent 6.5 years traveling around the world and living overseas, mostly alone.
During that time, I have been able to keep myself and my stuff out of harm’s way.
And it’s not because I have only traveled to the safest places in the world. I haven’t.
When I first arrived in Tegucigalpa, the hotelier told me to bring only the money I absolutely needed. He warned me not to bring my phone out, because people were killed over phones. (In case you’re wondering, I took his advice.)
There are certain situations that are unavoidable. No matter what preventative measures we take, we could be the victims of a “wrong place, wrong time” situation. However, there are always preventative measures we can take to stay safe.
These are some of the best travel safety tips that I’ve learned over the years.
Macro vs Micro
One of the biggest errors that I see people making is thinking that an entire country or region is either safe or not safe. That’s just not true.
Take the U.S., for example. Many people would agree that the U.S. is a pretty safe place to live. Yet there are certain neighborhoods in every city that you wouldn’t walk through alone at night.
Other places throughout the world are no different. Some cities are less safe than others. In some, it’s mostly a neighborhood thing. But there’s no need to judge an entire country because of one small section of it.
Ask A Local
Locals are always the best source of advice. Having grown up in the area, they have learned what’s safe to do and what’s not. Maybe it’s OK to take out your camera in certain places, but in others you should keep it in your backpack. Maybe there are certain scams to look out for in certain places. They know. Ask them.
When traveling, I always make it a point to blend in. I enjoy observing a culture, its style and social norms and adapting to them whenever possible. One of my favorite experiences is meeting someone new and confusing them because they thought I was from there.
Sometimes, looking like a full-fledged tourist will make you an easier target. Just because you’re in another country doesn’t mean you have to dress like a poor backpacker or wear name-brand travel gear from head to toe.
Some people will disagree with me here, but I’ve always found that it’s safer to look like everybody else than to stand out. This goes with language, too. If I feel like I’m in a dicy area or the vibes are a little tense, I will normally not talk or keep my voice low. No sense in drawing attention to myself by speaking loud English with my American accent.
Have you ever heard the statistic that says that 90% of communication is nonverbal? The way we carry ourselves, how we look around, and even our energy sends a message to those around us.
It’s important to find a healthy balance between passive and aggressive. If you come across as too alpha, other alphas will challenge you. If you are too passive, walking fast with your shoulders hunched and gripping your bag, you are not doing yourself any favors.
I recommend walking confidently. Look straight ahead. Be aware of your surroundings, but not paranoid. Put your phone away. Place your hand casually over your bag without calling attention to it.
Most thieves look for easy targets. Projecting a sense of awareness and balanced confidence will deter them.
Use Common Sense
Your common sense is the most important thing you can bring with you.
Don’t leave your drink unattended. Keep your purse in your lap at a restaurant instead of hanging on the back of the chair. Don’t keep your most important belongings in the outer pockets of your backpack.
Be discreet with your cash. I’ll sometimes put some cash in my pocket so I’ll have some in case my purse gets stolen.
When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Travel Safety Tips for Women
I believe that women should be able to wear whatever they want, whenever they want. I think it’s totally cool in your home, where you know what legal and human rights you are entitled to.
To stay safe while traveling, though, we have to recognize that women don’t have the same rights in every country.
If the local women don’t wear shorts, I don’t wear shorts. If they keep their shoulders covered, I keep mine covered. If they don’t wear tight, form-fitting clothes, neither do I. This is where blending in and taking a cue from the locals comes in.
There is probably a reason they’ve come to dress as they do. Wearing immodest clothing when the local women dress conservatively won’t benefit you. It can also be viewed as disrespectful and make you a target for unwanted sexual advances.
As a solo female traveler, there are certain precautions that I had to take that are different than some that men would need to. I never walked around alone at night, for starters. I normally avoided very private places, instead opting for busier streets with more people.
When I lived in Quetzaltenango, I walked around the city on Sundays when the streets were particularly quiet. On a couple of different occasions, I passed a lone man who was staggering home from somewhere. I would always cross the street so I didn’t walk next to him. Sometimes I would even change my route if I sensed some weird vibes.
There is safety in numbers.
The world does not have to be a scary place. Again, I traveled around the world for many years and had no problems. I was in some dicey situations, yes, but using these tips I was able to keep myself out of harm’s way.
And remember – take the wise advice of the Colombian culture and don’t give papaya!
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