It’s time for you to fly the coop, but you’ve never flown a coop before. You’re scared and confused. Don’t worry. I gotchu. It can be tricky out there, and if you slip up, you’re suddenly broke, or dead, and your travels are over.
Stick to the Bible and you’ll come out of this smelling like a worldly, jaded rose.
Rule 1: The Wingspan Test
Everyone wants your money. Always have that in mind.
If you’re in a crowd, and you put your arms straight out to the sides of you, would you be touching anyone? That’s too close. They’re close enough to snatch your shit and take flight like a bat out of hell. Off with your headphones, it’s focus time.
At the same time, you can’t avoid every crowd in the world or you won’t be doing a whole lot of traveling. Just do the Slide-Up.
The Slide Up: Keeping your wallet (or phone) in your back pocket is like exposing your throat to a wolf. You’re advertising your confidence that nothing will happen, right up until it does. Slide them up to your front pocket. You might look like a dork, but you’ll look like a dork who still has money.
Rule 2: Be Cautious of Friendliness
There’s normal friendliness, and then there’s red flag friendliness. You’ll know the difference, unless you’re absolutely beautiful and kind of dumb, in which case it’s time to learn the difference.
Normal friendliness: Simple conversations about the weather, an event, the location of something. Names won’t be exchanged unless deep in conversation.
Suspect friendliness: Profound interest in where you’re from, bodily contact, relating to you about your families. Names are immediately exchanged. Also, you may be told you’re very attractive.
The second group are always, always grifters. They’re putting their little grabby hands on you to get at your money by building a fake friendship and locking you into a sense of social obligation.
No one can make you feel anything. This is invasive and worthy of contempt. Rebuke them gently at first. If they get pushy or try to guilt trip you, it’s okay to get mean.
Rule 3: Nothing is Free
My boy Epictetus had it that “Nothing can be had for nothing”. As true now as it was then. If somebody comes up and gives you something, anything at all — a flower, a drawing, a postcard, a friendship bracelet — they’re going to demand money from you. They’ll be real friendly before they do it. You’ll know each other’s names, where you’re from. They probably love America.
“No thanks,” as soon as it’s thrust into your hand. “Got no place for it. Got no money. Have a nice day.”
Rule 4: Don’t Follow Strangers
This should be pretty obvious, but maybe you’re drunk, or stupid, or both. Someone friendly is trying to bring you to something you really want. Maybe that’s a hot locals-only bar, maybe it’s an underground weed cafe, or maybe she’s just a goth prostitute with reasonable rates.
You’re gonna get mugged. As soon as you go down the alley to wherever seedy locale they just advertised, three or more giant dudes are going to take your wallet and probably kick the shit out of you for good measure. They might need your kidneys, too. The booze, weed, or sad purchased sex, even if real, doesn’t justify the risk.
Rule 5: Three-Star Minimum on a Hostel
I know the 2.5 star hostels are cheaper, but there’s a reason for that, and that reason is bedbugs. Pay the extra $3 for clean sheets, hot water, and walls that don’t have permanent bloodstains.
Rule 6: Look Like You’re Doing Something
No matter what you’re doing or where you’re going, look like you’re on a mission. If you’re wandering around wide-eyed and open-mouthed with a map open in front of you, murmuring “Woooow” every few seconds, everyone will know you’re a mark. Hell, I might pick your pocket on principle.
Head up, eyes level, walk like you’ve got somewhere to be. You can look at your phone, but don’t make it too obvious you’re doing Google Maps, and for Athena’s sake, don’t do it when you’re surrounded by people.
Rule 7: Character Select
Be yourself, always, but wheel out different aspects of yourself depending on the circumstances. Most of the time, you’re gonna be striding around with purpose, scoping things out, smiling at strangers. Most times, there’s nothing to lose by sticking out in a crowd.
But then there are times when you’ll stumble into a protest that’s becoming violent, and you’re gonna want to make yourself scarce. Now’s not the time for swaggering. Fade into the crowd. Go ghost.
Maybe cops are blowing whistles, or a particularly insistent hustler has promised that he’ll wait for you at the exit to take you to his candy store. Take off your hat and hunch forward a little, change your gait, fall into step behind the tall dude in front of you until you’re out of the line of fire.
It might feel dishonest, but it can’t be. If you can fake these little variations in persona, then they are a part of you. They are you. Use that.
Rule 8: Just Say Hi
If you follow the first seven rules without the eighth, then you’ll be the safest hermit abroad.
Don’t worry about language barriers, although a perfunctory “Hi, do you speak English?” in their native tongue is a nice gesture. Just walk up and say Hi. If you’re in a hostel, you’re guaranteed to be friends immediately. You have everything in common or you wouldn’t both be staying in a hostel.
If you’re talking to a local, probably the same deal. Everybody likes attention, and you singled them out to talk to, stranger in a strange land as you are. Locals are proud of where they live (probably why they’re still locals), and they’re usually more than happy to tell you some of the secrets of their town.
Don’t google everything. That won’t be a problem if, like me, you’re not paying for data overseas. Just find someone who looks bored and ask them your stupid question. It’ll work out. But make sure to check your new friend against Rule 3 and 4 before doing anything silly.
Use these rules, and your common sense, and you’ll be untouchable. Happy trails, kids.