How To Not Get Robbed Out There

May 31, 2012 by

Sorry mum, this post might make your skin crawl a bit.

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil

I was high up on a mountain top, standing near the helicopter landing pad, in the heavy Brazilian heat after taking a cramped and winding car ride up the mountain to stand there, in that place, hoping for that one moment of clarity, when the clouds would dissipate, and they would reveal what we’d all come to see: the Christ.
This came after having already stood at the Christ’s feet. After we were done visiting him face to face, we were told there was an optional vantage point from which we could obtain spectacular views if we chose to go. Of course the decision was clear, though the skies were quickly becoming less-so. Off we went. And while the Christ came out to play a little as we stood there, he only flirted, and quickly retreated behind the clouds, leaving us hoping and praying to see him again, just to get the right shot.
I got a few decent photos, and just before we left, our guide asked me if I wanted a photo of myself in front of the Christ. I definitely did, so I traipsed off into position and stood there, waiting, waiting. Then this was the photo I got. The Christ was done for the morning, apparently.
What shocked me most when I reviewed my photos later is what I am doing in the photo. I’m holding onto my little brown basket bag, even though there is no one around me, even though we were high up on a mountain top, far from the crowds, even though I trusted the other travelers who were with me. I was acting out of habit, and while I had an eye on the Christ, I had a hand on my bag.
I’ve never been robbed on the road, and while I’m not superstitious, knock on wood. Experiencing a robbing or mugging or pick-pocketing is not something I intend to do. In the past, the possibility of being robbed has come up again and again, and as I continue to travel, it will continue to come up. So it is important to be savvy in order to avoid a robbing. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way in order to not get robbed while traveling.

 

1. Be aware.
This is the most important advice I can share. Be aware in all regards. I become hyper-aware when I’m traveling. To keep track of the people around me, I watch shadows on the ground and reflections in store windows and car doors and mirrors. I listen for traffic, strange sounds, sudden voices, or sudden silence. I listen to the voice in my head that tells me something is not right. This is why I’m utterly exhausted after a long day of exploring a city (especially alone), but also why I’ve never been robbed.

 

2. Hang onto your crap.
Have a day bag that you can sling across your shoulders. Longer straps allow for this and make bags harder to nab in a rob-and-run. Keep your bag on your lap in a cafe/restaurant. Avoid hanging it on the back of your seat out of sight, even if someone is sitting across from you with their eye on it. You don’t want the opportunity to blame them for being robbed to arise. Lastly, without looking paranoid, keep a constant check on your bag, and make sure it is intact. Whenever I sightsee, I either keep a hand lightly on the zipper of my bag or I check it at regular intervals. This eventually becomes habit. Keeping a close watch on your stuff is a sure way to make sure you don’t get side-swiped, only to realise it hours later.

 

3. Dress simply.
I love clothes, I love jewellery, and I looove shoes. When I went to Europe last summer, I came home with 9 new pairs of shoes. However, when I travel, I avoid flashy or complicated outfits. In other words, I try to draw as little attention to myself as possible by not looking like I have a lot of money. That’s not to say clothes can’t or shouldn’t be fun on the road. Quite the opposite! This leads me to my next point…

 

4. If possible, blend in.
What are the locals wearing? How much jewellery does the average woman wear? What kind of purse does she carry with her? Is she wearing heels or flats? I use the average woman in a given city as a gauge of how to dress, and then I slightly under-dress. Of course, in some places like Vietnam or Bangladesh, I’d stick out like a glowing beacon of white white skin, but in other places, I can do quite well for blending in. I loved South America for this because I could pass for a Brazilian. Since I spent the majority of my time there with Brazilians, I just kept my mouth shut, and no one questioned my nationality otherwise. In Chile, when I spoke Spanish to people, they would excitedly say to me, “¡Ah, Brasileña!” and I would reply, “No… Canadiense…” They always seemed so perplexed that this was even a possibility. It was fun and helped in my not getting robbed there.

 

5. Plan your path!
Late one afternoon, when I was in Buenos Aires, I visited the neighbourhood of San Telmo, which is famous for the popularization of tango. I had no problem getting there; I just hopped on the metro. Getting back, I looked at my map and visually connected San Telmo to my hostel. Figuring it wasn’t too far, I decided I could just walk. While I saw some neat things and met some kind people on my way back, those neat things and kind people eventually faded away into concrete desolation, void of friendly faces. Taxis and cars zipped by me, and I worried that I would be entering an unsafe area the deeper I went, but I went on while there was still some sun in the sky. I was lucky that I didn’t have much farther to go and arrived relatively quickly at Puerto Madero where I bought myself gelato. This could have turned out disastrously if I hadn’t been so lucky. Make sure you understand the nature of the streets you plan to take before you go!

 

6. Listen to the locals… sometimes.
In Argentina, I was warned about visiting certain areas. The “most dangerous plaza” in Buenos Aires turned out to be a cute little spot, buzzing with cafes, people enjoying the warm night air, and artisans hawking handmade jewellery, musical instruments, art and crafts. In Valparaíso, Chile, I was warned about a plaza and told to absolutely not go there under any circumstance. The guy was adamant, so I didn’t even bother approaching it. Many nooks and crannies in Valparaíso gave me the creeps, so I listened to him and stuck to the main roads where the people were.
Sometimes locals have good reason to warn so strongly. Other times, they just want to look out for you and don’t even want to chance anything bad happening. It is important to temper the advice with common sense and gut instinct.

 

7. Walk properly.
Seriously.
The first thing I learned when I took a self defence class when I was 12 was how to walk. Walk tall, walk strong. If you look frightened and uncertain, you will immediately be a target. Even if your guts are roiling with nerves on the inside, you can look the opposite on the outside, and no one needs to know. If need be, deke into a convenience store to calm down, get a drink, and let the hubbub in the streets pass you for a while. Then continue on your way.

 

Have you ever been pick-pocketed or robbed on the road? What are some robbery avoidance techniques you’ve learned from traveling?

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8 Comments

  1. I like the shot of you in Rio!

    I do enjoy fashion and pretty clothes, but when I’m on the road I like to blend in with the locals as much as possible.

    When I was in Rio I made friends with some locals who took me out for samba to a more dangerous neighbourhood, and they also told me not to speak and I would blend right in, haha!

  2. Thanks Audrey!
    I love Brasil. Let’s go!

  3. i got the most warning visiting brasil. it seemed that not one person i met on the road didn’t have a story about being mugged or robbed in rio de janeiro, but when i got there. i found that you just have to be careful as you would in any big cities. yes, there are ways on how to not get robbed.

  4. Emy

    I’ve never had anything bad happened to me while travelling, but I’m so naive and I’d be the perfect target. I just have no instinct at all for that kind of things. I’m pretty good at reading people and I know when to stop a conversation or when someone looks suspicious but watching my stuff ? i’m so bad at it. If It wasn’t for my friends and the reminders of my parents, I would trust everyone and let my stuff anywhere…
    But I know it’s not really smart to do so, so I force myself to be careful, but that’s really not an habit at all!

  5. Sarah

    My advice – never leave your purse hanging on your chair at a restaurant – always keep between your feet or on your lap! And always have you IDs and credit/debit cards in separate locations so if one thing gets stolen, you have backup ID/money sources.

  6. I definitely agree with the walking tall point. It is more important to feel strong. That said a few months of boxing classes does wonders as well!

  7. Great tips! Also, consider splitting your money into multiple places, so that nobody ever sees where you keep your main stash. Think about how much money you might want to be walking around with. If you get robbed, which does happen on occasion, it’ll just be your day money, and not all of it.
    Some people where a “money belt” with money inside their waist – it can work great if nobody sees you reaching into it.

    • Colleen

      Hehe, well I wear mostly dresses when I travel so money belts do not work for me!

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