Posted on January 26 2020
AUTHOR Matt Winslow / RM Training Blog / PUBLISHED: JAN-26-2020
Adventure Outside Your Comfort Zone
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Isn’t there a ton of terrorist attacks over there?"
I hear these phrases all the time from friends when talking about my travels abroad. They are insistent that anywhere outside the US is unsafe and that their trusty Glock 19 won’t be able to accompany them on the flight across the Atlantic.
Well, they are only right about their favorite ‘pants pal’ (not that one) not making it on the journey. And as uncomfortable as this can be, it doesn’t have to spell out disaster or lead to an unsafe trip abroad. This is especially true if you pack your most useful weapon: Your Mind.
Only in America
I have a deep love for the United States of America, and by last count, there were less than a handful of states I have yet to visit. From my beautiful home in the majestic shadow of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake City to the bustling cities along the eastern seaboard, there is truly not a more diverse landscape in all the world.
It’s important to explore your own country and breathe in all it has to offer; but you are doing yourself and future generations a disservice by relegating yourself to only roam your own homeland. We are after all, only a couple hundred years old; infant’s by world standards.
Traveling abroad gives us an immersive experience about peoples, customs, and culture, providing an in-depth look at not only the past, but what the future may hold as well. This is especially important in today’s world of uncertainty. Gaining more knowledge about the figurative world outside of our own, enables us to make informed decisions about our country and families’ future.
"I had to be baptized in the catacombs in secret. If the state found out, my parents would be sent to prison or killed.”
Learning from History
Having grown up in the States, I knew Communism was a failed experiment that led to the deaths of millions of people spanning generations. However, It wasn’t until I traveled to Kiev, Ukraine that I learned more about the collectivization of farms in 1932 that led to the Holodomor, a famine based genocide that killed around 11 million Ukrainians. And met people whom were actually affected by Communism and still suffer it’s affects nearly 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Having lunch with a woman named Tatiana in the concrete Soviet styled cafeteria of the Great Patriotic War Museum, (the best WWII museum in the world) she issued a chilling warning:
“You Americans need to be careful. I see you traveling down the same path as we did a century earlier. First, they took our religion, a key component in defining who we are as a people. State-wide Atheism was implemented through violence and intimidation. Even in the 1980’s, I had to be baptized in the catacombs in secret. If the state found out, my parents would be sent to prison or killed."
"They took our firearms, making it impossible to do anything about it. Then they tore down statues, demolished historic buildings, and tried to erase hundreds of years of history.”
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
She then went on to talk about the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution in which hundreds of peaceful, unarmed protestors were fired upon with rubber bullets (and later live ammo) after displaying dissatisfaction with their President collaborating with Vladimir Putin, leaving Ukrainians with a raw deal. The violence lasted several months, with protestors taking up crude weapons; rocks, baseball bats and knives were used as weapons, while pots and pans were used as make-shift armor. Obviously, against 7.62mm rounds, the make-shift armor was highly ineffective, leaving hundreds dead and thousands injured. The siege lasted a total of 4 months with both sides battling it out in Independence Square during the impossibly-cold winter conditions.
The visceral account of the atrocities caused by failed leadership can be seen in the new documentary on Netflix called "Winter on Fire". Check out the trailer below.
Walking up the street of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) 2 years later in 2016, I could see 7.62mm holes in many of the lamp posts, a chilling reminder of what a corrupt government could do to its unarmed citizens if they didn’t tow the party line. The most shocking thing to me is how few Americans know about this continuing conflict. This was a major revolution that happened to an ally of ours, and the media seemed to sweep it under the rug. Coincidence?
I’m not saying that every trip abroad needs to be a life lesson in geopolitics and social upheaval. Kiev will remain one of my most fondest destinations and a place where I discovered a vibrant courageous people with some of the most beautiful architecture the world has to offer. I am saying however, that unequivocally, the conversation with Tatiana and seeing the corruption of a government with my own two eyes has shaped my vision of what the future shouldn’t hold for our own country.
It’s our duty as citizens of this country to be as informed as possible about the direction our leaders are taking us. Traveling to other geographical locations and learning from other cultures about failures and successes ultimately ensures our nation’s survival.
So, what do I need to know about staying safe in a foreign country?
Blend in. Look Like a Local.
I see it all too often where my wife and I will be visiting a beautiful cathedral in France, or a stunning castle in Germany, and we'll see a person coming a mile away wearing a bright orange Denver Broncos jersey, baseball cap, and shorts.
Hmm, I wonder where he’s from?
This person has now branded himself as someone who (presumably) doesn’t know (or care about) the customs in the land he is currently in. This makes him a foreigner and a big target for thieves or worse. In today’s world, you can’t tell who is a foreigner or not by their race. First impressions come down to clothing and appearance.
Just like I can tell the person looking like a 5.11 grenade went off next to them is carrying a pistol, so can other’s tell you are an American by wearing athleisure clothing and flip-flops. Let alone the giant American flag t-shirt. Dress smart and blend in.
Do some research before hand on how the locals dress. The developed world is becoming more homogenous in this respect, but there are still styling cues that should be followed when abroad. As Americans, we have a lot of latitude in the way we dress and we are way more casual than the rest of the world. I’m a lot less likely to get messed with if by appearance, I look like a local. Obviously, this isn’t going to be practical in places where very traditional dress is worn, but for most of the developed world, this is sound advice that should be followed.
Learn the language.
I am fluent in exactly one language: English. That doesn’t mean however that I assume everyone else in the world will be speaking or understand my native tongue.
At least learn the greetings along with the p's and q's of the host country that you will be visiting. More often than not, I will stumble in the foreign language, and the person I’m communicating with will smile and respond in English. They really do appreciate the effort and are much more wiling to help you with your query.
Learning common phrases will also keep you protected from scams. In Paris, some restaurants will give you an English menu if you ask for it. Be advised as the prices on the English menu are typically inflated. In the world of smartphones, your google translator will be your best friend. After downloading the app, simply scan the piece of literature you are trying to read, and your translator will automatically convert it to English. Anymore, the language barrier is no excuse for not being able to see non-english-speaking parts of the world.
Don’t Act Like a Jackass.
I was visiting Washington D.C. and was walking through the WWII memorial. Being a former Marine, these are some of my favorite sites to visit. Rounding the corner, I was immediately confronted by a bunch of foreign tourists stripping off clothing and playing around in the fountains. My blood was boiling. How dare you do this in a memorial dedicated to the 400,000 men and women who gave their lives’ to fight tyranny and oppression. I gave a sharp rebuke and told everyone to get out. My lashing fell on deaf ears as there was a significant language barrier.
Now, I could give them an excuse and say that they didn’t know because of the language barrier and cultural differences, but the fact remains that it was an extremely disrespectful thing to do.
Avoid confrontation by respecting other’s customs and traditions. By definition, historical landmarks are important to the country in which they reside. Refrain from acting in anything but a professional and respectful manner to ensure maximum safety and enjoyment. Remember, an American may cuss you out for being disrespectful, but in another country, they may do much worse.
Make an Itinerary and Stick to It.
Making an itinerary before traveling accomplishes two things: ensures you know where you are going for the day and helps to keep a potentially hectic trip more organized, resulting in more bang for your buck as you get to see the more fascinating things a country has to offer.
Once you know what countries you plan to visit, use the government travel website to check advisory's for your intended destination. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/
Give a copy of your itinerary to someone you trust back at home with directions to forward a copy to the US embassy if they don’t hear from you after your scheduled return.
Prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance.
I aways encourage people to stay at an Air BnB. The most obvious reason is that it is typically cheaper than staying at a hotel. The less obvious reason is that you will be able to immerse yourself in the culture a whole lot better and be safer whilst doing so. Hotels are sterile in decor and typically look like any other hotel you will find in America, limiting your experience. They are also prime targets for terrorists. Air BnB’s offer a chance to live like a local for a couple of days and are much less likely to be hit by a terrorist attack.
Make sure you do your research and look at reviews for the person you are renting the Air BnB space from. Renting a space that is within walking distance of most of the sites on your itinerary is also a safe practice. By staying near the touristy areas, you will typically limit your exposure to more serious crimes.
If you choose to stay in a hotel, try and pick a room on the second or third floor near an emergency exit. This way, you are limiting the amount of traffic that will accumulate on the ground floor and emergency personnel will still be able to get to the second or third floors.
Protect your effects.
We don’t really get a huge amount of pickpocketing in the United States. This is due to our geography being so vast and everyone commuting by car. Europe see’s a great deal of pickpocketing on trains, and other tourist hotspots. It’s an art form over there and many criminals have perfected it. When traveling, I will take a credit card, government issued passport, insurance cards, and cash. I will make a copy of my passport and insurance cards to keep with me while out and about, and leave the real passport hidden or kept in a safe back at the room. I will then keep some of my cash separate from my credit card and passport copy so in the off chance I do get robbed, I can try and appease the criminal by handing over a smaller amount of cash. I will carry my credit card and a few safety bills in a Savage Gentleman Minimalist wallet that I will keep in my front pocket.
Refrain from keeping valuables in a backpack as they can be more easily stolen in a crowd.
This is the most useful tool that you can take with you when traveling abroad. Don’t wander down unknown back-alleys late at night, don’t trust strangers with your luggage or effects, etc. Don't leave your wallet or cell phone out on the table when eating at an establishment, also try and pick a spot that provides good visibility to the exits and entrances. And ultimately, if something doesn’t look or feel right, it’s best to not take chances.
At the end of the day, you are in another land to explore and gain experience, so don’t let paranoia and fear ruin your trip. Have a plan for each day, and don’t be afraid to try new things.
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