A few thoughts on personal security

During a February ’03 trip, my pocket was picked in Santiago, Chile. The last time I was a victim of street crime was in 1966 when a band of street urchins stole my wristwatch in Saigon.

I’m an experienced traveler and have made many visits to big, dangerous, third-world cities, like New York and Los Angeles, so I was not only angry at the thief, I was angry at myself for becoming so complacent that I let down my guard.

We were starting down the steps into a subway when I felt a thief’s hand thrust deep into my right pocket. I grabbed his wrist and turned, but the thief broke away and ran. I chased him but slipped on the steps, plus I had gotten a late start. He got away by dodging across five lanes of moving traffic.

My wife said she had noticed the thief coming up the steps as we started down and that he had turned around to start down behind us. She was just about to tell me that when he struck.

The good news is that he got only about $8 that I had loose in my pocket for small purchases. My passport, credit card, ATM card and much more cash were in a neck wallet under both my shirt and my undershirt. My really big cash cache and backup ID (driver’s license), extra credit card and personal emergency information were in a belly wallet below my belt and under my trousers.

I was extremely angry about the assault and spent a lot of time trying to decide if it would be better to grab a thief’s wrist with both hands, to stomp on his foot while driving a sharp elbow into his stomach or to leave his hand in my pocket and spin around to hit him with a left hook to the nose followed by a hard right to the stomach. My wife could sense my anger and provided wise counsel: “Avoid getting hurt.”

Other tourists in Santiago told us about being robbed by multiple thieves, with one blocking for the one running away. Another man was knocked to the ground by two men. He had leg bruises and a bad abrasion on his arm.

So here are some points I am following for personal safety while traveling. Like me, you probably know most of them already, but we have to remember to practice them.

• Your first priority is to avoid physical harm to yourself and your companion(s). The way to do this is to not appear as an attractive target or to provide a thief easy access to anything you feel it would be necessary to protect by physically resisting. Leave jewelry and expensive watches at home.

• The second priority is to avoid losing your passport, credit card, tickets and/or money. The way to do this is to carry in your pocket, purse or day pack only as much cash as you are willing to give a thief. Everything else should be in the hotel safe or secured under your clothing, preferably two layers of clothing.

Some bills and a credit card can be carried in the top of tight-fitting, high-top socks. A camera should be under a windbreaker or shirt; while one person takes a picture, the other should watch for thieves moving in to steal the camera or pick the photographer’s pocket.

• The third priority is to avoid anything that will involve you with local police, even as a victim. See the measures described above. In places where a thief can get it, carry so little of value that reporting its loss to the police would not be worthwhile. You don’t want to lose days of your vacation or miss an important connection because you have to deal with the police or get a new passport.

• Be aware of where you are and who is around you. If someone tries to distract you, give most of your attention to watching for accomplices and securing your person and possessions.

Dark doorways, narrow passages and big crowds require special vigilance. Don’t think you are safe just because you are with a busload of tourists. Frequently look to either side and over your shoulder. Tell your companions if you see anyone suspicious.

• If you are assaulted, yell loudly to attract help and draw attention to the thief, but don’t fight back. A local policeman or crowd might sympathize more with a hurt thief than with a foreign tourist who hit him.

Lastly, don’t become so paranoid that it ruins your vacation, but do exercise common sense about securing your valuables. Losing them can also ruin your vacation.

Montpelier, VT