"A ship is safe in the harbor...but that's not what ships are built for."
We've only been a victim of thieves a few times. All occurrences were non-violent, and almost went completely undetected by us. It was simply scoundrels preying on the right opportunity. We were victims of being "short-changed" by two separate taxi drivers in Mexico City, one of the most populated cities in the world. A city of this size cannot escape crime, just like NYC, LA, Chicago, etc. At the time we felt we were being very cautious and aware, we were still duped because we couldn't spot the counterfeit bill and we were also distracted while paying close attention to all the wrong details. We now chalk up the experience to life skills, and we have two counterfeit 100 peso bills that we've kept as souvenirs to our misfortune in wonderful Mexico City.
Another time was when our vintage garage sale Coleman Dual-Fuel stove was stolen off our back bumper in the Peten region of Guatemala. These old stoves are not something you see in this part of the world and to a curious thief it looks like a fancy suitcase that might have something of value inside. It was always left on the rear bumper like that, for the past six months, but it had two padlocks to keep passersby honest. This was the one time I left it unsecured and someone simply walked by and grabbed it. My mistake.
Another time was in the Pampas region of Argentina when I stopped to fill up my gas tank and the pump attendants started chatting me up. Instead of filling up my tank, they only put in a few gallons and charged me for at least 10 more gallons, pocketing the difference. I had heard of this scam 14 countries earlier, but honestly I had dropped my guard and they distracted me with friendly small talk. I had become almost too comfortable after several years of travel and finding the Argentinians are some of the friendliest people. Seeing as how my fuel gauge was already broken (we were going by mileage), I didn't realize it even happened until I ran out of gas shortly after. As luck would have it, I ran out of gas right next to a gas station. Of course, I didn't realize we ran out of fuel until taking the time to change the fuel filter and the car still wouldn't start. In desperation, I tapped on the fuel tank and it sounded bone dry, realizing what had happened. Lesson learned.
Here's a few tips to avoid being a victim to thieves and other dangerous tomfoolery...
- Pay attention to your surroundings. Research "Human Behavior Pattern Recognition & Analysis" and learn what to look for. "All people, events, and vehicles give off certain 'signals' when they are measured against context, relevance, and societal or environmental baselines. Once learned, you can read these 'signals' as anomalies or as benign behaviors."
- Plan and prepare. It's always good practice to have an exit strategy, with multiple options and backup plans. A smart criminal will have this in mind, so why shouldn't you? This isn't just paranoia, this practice will serve you well in inclement weather, natural disasters and other unexpected emergencies. In stressful situations, you have very little time to think. When you have a plan and make contingencies, IF you have to act quickly then it becomes reaction and most of the critical thinking has already been taking care of. Not only does this save you precious time but it increases your odds of success by already having most of the heavy thinking out of the way.
- Avoid carrying expensive items around. If you absolutely need your laptop or your DSLR with you while you're walking around town, keep them in a backpack or bag until the moment you need it. We bring our little point-and-shoot camera everywhere, and sometimes a guidebook. We often prefer to use a grocery bag to carry these small items, sometimes with an umbrella or scarf to further obscure what's inside. To the unsuspecting thief, this can just look like a bag of groceries. After Shannon had a pair of shoes pulled out of her backpack on a subway in Chile, we decided to invest in a lockable, slash-proof backpack that's reinforced with thin steel cables and lockable zippers. PacSafe makes some great bags that blend in very well. I also try to limit how much cash I carry and which cards. I also like to spread these essentials out in different hiding spaces, whether it be secret pockets or compartments built into clothing/shoes. I also like to carry an old wallet that has some expired credit cards and a small amount of cash. In a quick holdup, this is what I have always planned on handing over but ultimately if our safety is threatened I will happily hand over all of my belongings and our vehicle if it ensures we walk away with our lives.
- Ladies, avoid bringing your Dolce & Gabbana handbag even though there's always a knockoff readily available in the nearby market (it tells everyone that you have expensive taste). Avoid wearing jewelry...even a simple watch can make you stand out.
- Wait for the right moment to login. Before getting out electronics to connect to the internet, wait until you're in a private place or somewhere with limited access to avoid snatch and run thieves. Try to secure backpacks, purses or handbags by wrapping a strap around your chair or table leg. Be culturally sensitive when surrounded by locals who are not able to afford such expensive electronics. Flashing such expensive toys can attract unwanted attention.
- When leaving your vehicle unattended, keep your valuables in a secure place, out of eyesight. If it's feasible, add a lock-box or keep it in your trunk where it's not possible for a quick smash n' grab. Most criminals are creatures of opportunity and curiosity, if they see a bag or anything that looks like it would have expensive goodies, they'll smash your window and run off with the bag to dig into after their getaway. Tinted windows can be helpful and some tints also double as a security film that makes it harder to break a window, but tint also increase the thief's curiosity and keep in mind that security film can also make your vehicle difficult to escape in a bad accident where your doors are inoperable.
- Avoid unfamiliar territory at night. We all know the freaks come out at night, in some places they're even freakier. It can be very difficult to deem whether a place is somewhere you trust, when you can't completely see everything.
- Carry around a flashlight for night-time exploring. You can use a bright flashlight to quickly blind and throw a would-be attacker off guard. You can also light your way home to avoid slips and falls. Brenton is a bit of a gear nerd, so he has always carried a tiny Streamlight Microstream Pen light. This pocket-sized LED flashlight is powerful enough to disorient an assailant and can reinforce a punch if packed in a closed fist. It's also a super handy alternative to a headlamp, either by just holding it in your mouth or using the hat clip to attach to the bill of a ball cap.
- Safety in numbers. If you're concerned about safety, travel in groups and you'll be less of a target. Avoid walking home from the bar completely wasted and all alone.