Safety and Crime while Traveling 22


“What gives value to travel is fear.” Albert Camus

The flooding of the foreign into our living rooms – our bedrooms – is not always conducive to a sense of calm; all the spirits we like to keep locked up – suspicion, defensiveness, fear – suddenly rear their heads. A stranger is always at our door, nowadays, with an offer, an inquiry, and we don’t know what to make of him. The Other brings alien rhythms, smells, and spices to the neighborhood, and we’re in the dark even when the room is brightly lit.

Pico Iyer

I don’t have statistics, but I bet that you aren’t much more likely to be a victim of crime in most of the places I will go to on this trip as I would be in New York City or Miami or Washington D.C. In fact, statistics might even show the opposite, I very well might be statistically safer in 95% of my trip that I would be if I instead had moved to Manhattan, but I do know that – you feel a hell of a lot safer at home.

Most of that feeling, I believe, is just a function of familiarity and language. If I am in D.C., I can understand what those kids on the corner are saying. If they are saying something about an idiot tourist or about a backpack, I have an idea they are talking about me.

In San Jose, Costa Rica, I have no idea what those three guys at the corner are talking about – so I usually give them wide berth, sometimes even crossing the street.

Engage in any sort of long-distance or long-duration travel (unless you are on a very high-end guided tour) and you will be guaranteed to have innumerable conversations about a variety of topics you never talk about at home: can’t miss sights, good and cheap places to stay, the current and previous state of everyone’s digestive tracts, and tales of theft and robbery.

I have been on the road for a short four months and I have already heard these stories:

“My laptop got stolen out of my backpack at a border crossing by the people working on the bus, when I wasn’t paying attention.”

“My nephew only made it as far as Columbia on his round-the-world trip because he got stabbed and had to come back home.”

“I got robbed in Managua, Nicaragua.” Not an unusual story, that is a bad town, but the details being, “by a cab driver that picked me up, took me to a dark road, and pulled a knife on me.” And I thought I had some bad cab drivers before. . .

I met a guy that got robbed in Nicaragua. At rock-point. Apparently, he was stumbling home drunk late one night and someone held him up by menacing a large rock. I am assuming he was too drunk to realize that running in that situation might have been effective. Or too drunk to run.

“I left my laptop under my bed for a bit at the hostel and got it lifted.”

I have met or heard of at least six people that have had their compact cameras pick pocketed off them, without any of them feeling or seeing anything.

And numerous stories of getting ripped off by various tour operators over promising and under delivering.

These are hints from various guidebooks that I have read:

  • “Carry a drop-wallet.” A drop wallet is one you keep in your normal back pocket with a bit of money and other personal stuff in there, so that pick pockets have a target to aim for. In the meantime, you carry your real money and credit cards in your front pocket or in a money belt. I had one at the beginning of the trip. . . but then I lost it. Seriously. It didn’t have anything important in it so I didn’t pay attention to it and I left it in my pants when I took them to a laundry.
  • “Never walk anywhere in this neighborhood at night. Always get a cab, even if you are only going 4-5 blocks.” This advice is excellent – unless the cabbie is the one that robs you.
  • “Try to get off the bus and watch your backpack in the cargo area at each bus stop.”
  • “Don’t take a night bus south of X town, because there have been reports of armed hold-ups of entire buses at night in the area.”

Some of the ways to stay safe are pretty basic. About 3/4s of the robbery or theft stories I have heard begin with, “so it was 3 a.m. and I was wasted.” Hmmmmmm. Methinks at that point, perhaps you might have been asking for what you got.

I am not a danger junkie. I didn’t embark on this trip with any intention of getting ‘close to danger’ and see how the adrenaline rush feels. I would just as soon come back after a year journey and have not a single exciting story to tell about getting robbed – unless by rock-point, I think that sounds pretty creative.

In reality, you are a bit of a target on the road. Gringo also says to people: “I have money and shit worth stealing.” That is, unless you look like those backpackers who never shower, have nasty dreadlocks and ratty clothes.

And I don’t care how safe it makes you – I’m not willing to go there.

A healthy dose of paranoia is good, but it is also tiring. Alert takes a lot more energy than auto-pilot. There are a variety of things that tire you out mentally on the road, but the need to be vigilant is certainly up there on the list.

You have to develop a mental checklist:

  • money and ATM or credit card (if you need to carry one) goes in the same pocket every time
  • your iPod only comes out on long bus rides or in a hostel with a secure locker
  • on the bus, the iPod goes in the opposite pocket as your money
  • camera is always in the locked part of your backpack
  • laptop goes in the same place every time in the backpack and never gets brought out any place that would draw attention to it
  • passport, spare money, credit cards and such all are in the money belt (in my case, money necklace thing) – locked in backpack or locker when in a town and on a bus, around my neck, so that if they take the backpack, I have it on me
  • as soon as you check into any dorm room, you put all valuables into a locker, which is a pain in the ass if you check in late at night
  • back-up credit card and emergency money is not in your money pouch, it is in a separate place in your backpack
  • before boarding a bus, always put your rain cover over your backpack, so there is an additional level they have to get through to rifle through your stuff.

Developing routines is a mental necessity. If you don’t develop set routines, you will exhaust yourself constantly worrying about what you might have forgotten. “Did I leave my iPod in my backpack earlier, or put it away in the locker?”

I am going to be gone a year. Of course I am going to get robbed or be the victim of theft. Precautions and paying attention are great, but even if I was merely traveling in the U.S. for this long, I would expect to be the victim of crime. For me, being safe and prepared is a comfort, but to the same degree you cannot become a victim of safety paralysis.

I am carrying a really nice digital SLR camera. It’s a Nikon D80 with a 18-200 mm VR lens. I love my camera. Unfortunately, since it is a big SLR camera, carrying it around certainly makes you a target. I can upzip part of my backpack and make a small fanny pack out of it, so most times that I carry my camera around, I can keep it covered up in that.

When I was in Medellin, four of us were going to go to the bullfights one Saturday afternoon. I was staying in a hostel with Garret, the guy from Montana that was on the sailboat with me. I asked him if he thought it was safe to bring the camera to the bullfight. He said, “why else did you bring it with you?”

He was right of course. I by no means take it everywhere, but I did bring it to use it. If it gets pinched – well, so be it – as long as I did my part to be safe.

From Bullfighting in Medellin
From Bullfighting in Medellin
From Bullfighting in Medellin
From Bullfighting in Medellin

About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.


22 thoughts on “Safety and Crime while Traveling

  • Reba

    During our adoptions, we went to Guatemala five times. I was nervous each time (especially leaving the airport where most robberies seem to happen against Americans), but we never once had any trouble there. Guess where we got robbed? Our house here in NWArk…my husband came home while it was happening. I found something very ironic about that. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I felt safer anywhere I went as compared to Little Rock. I wasn’t safe in my own home there–three burglaries in a year. Ouch! And I lived in a nice neighborhood. Be alert in South Africa but otherwise you should be fine anywhere else you are going.Scott

  • nodebtworldtravel.com

    “I am going to be gone a year. Of course I am going to get robbed or be the victim of theft.” I would not say it is an absolute certainty that you will be a crime victim while you’re on the road for a year. I was on the road for 4 months and had nothing happen. In fact I had people look out for me because I was a foreigner in their land. I’m sure there are others who have been traveling longer than me and came home with nothing but smiles, memories and great pictures.

  • Erica

    I’m also taking my D80 when we head down to Central/South America early next year – but it is something I’m okay taking a risk for. <3

    Great tips on how to spread out your valuables. 🙂

  • Federico

    After many years of traveling around the world I have only been robbed once, in el Salvador, and it was because my door wasn’t locked while sleeping. I just finished a 10 month trip with a D90, tripod and netbook, and never had any problems- it’s just a matter of taking precautions, and perhaps a bit of luck.

  • Dave and Deb

    We have been all over the world and have yet to be robbed.(knock on wood) Like you, we carry lap tops, digital SLRs, Iphones. One thing we don’t do though is go out at 3:00 am and get totally drunk. We don’t dress like we are rich, we don’t carry computer bags that scream “there is a laptop in here” and we take the regular precautions that we do anywhere that we go.
    We take out our expensive cameras to capture incredible images and think nothing of it. It is exactly as your friend said, why else did we bring our camera along? If we are going to be afraid of it getting stolen, then we better bring a different camera.
    One thing that we do now though is lock up our electronics in a pacsafe when we leave the room. We lock it to the bed or anything that is secure. We worry more about getting robbed in our room while we are not there than getting robbed on the street. It was the best thing we bought for peace of mind.

    • Shannon O'Donnell

      I second the Planet D on the PacSafe – it has given me untold amounts of peace of mind when I have to leave expensive equipment in my room! It’s not fool-proof, but it will stop the vast majority of the quick and grab thefts! 🙂

      • Michael Hodson Post author

        I have one also and keep in my pack all the time. Then again… I haven’t used it in a LONG time. Knock on wood…

  • DTravelsRound

    Great points. When I traveled, I always made sure to put my valuables — wallet, passport, laptop, camera, iPod in the same place consistently. I was fortunate to avoid robberies, but I heard so many stories about people who were robbed (mostly while stumbling home drunk at 3 a.m.), ripped off by cabbies, had laptops/cameras/wallets stolen. You always have to be careful, but at the same time, not deprive yourself of those enriching experiences that come with traveling — like taking your camera to a bullfight.

  • Margo

    You are SO right about paranoia about these things being exhausting. Great advice about having routines…The better prepared I am with my stuff and in my mind, the more enjoyable everything is. It was my grandmother who first taught me “nothing good happens after midnight” Also I took a self defense class once and the policeman said that most personal assault/robbery crimes happen between 3:00am and dawn.

  • Abby

    As you know, I got robbed bad my fourth night in Costa Rica — and never considered leaving. You learn, you move on. A different level of street smarts can make the world of difference. And you CAN find trouble anywhere.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      your story is one of the robbery inspiration stories — deal with it and move on. Thanks, Abby.

Comments are closed.