Thursday, August 3, 2017

Traveling in Mexico - is it safe?

I want to circle back to the beginning of this Mexico trip, when friends asked me whether it's safe to travel there.  After traveling for 2 weeks in Mexico, the answer is YES.  However, it's no more safer or dangerous than many of the places I travel to.  There are bad people everywhere.  As I've said many times, sometimes I feel less safe in the United States than in other countries.  Why?  The answer is the easy availability of guns in America.  Just because the Second Amendment said that you are allowed to carry guns, doesn't mean you should.  I think a person carrying a gun feels more powerful, stronger, dominant, and therefore, can challenge anybody.  It's a "Frontier Days" mindset that is clearly obsolete.

Mexico, like most countries in the world, do not allow any private citizens to carry guns.  Yes, the drug cartels have guns (mostly smuggled in from the US) but they are not going to go after a small fry like me.  Most crimes that you come across in Mexico are petty crimes;  like pickpocketing, purse snatching, robbery, sexual assault, etc, that are by means life threatening.  So, what then are my recommendations for avoiding such incidents when traveling in countries like Mexico, or anywhere else?

  1. Don't wear expensive clothes and jewelry.  Unless you are going to a very expensive restaurant or official function, you can be grubby when you travel.  Just wear something decent and you will be staying inconspicuous.  That's the trick - to blend in with the crowd.  If you stand out, you are asking to be robbed.
  2. Leave your passport in the hotel safe or the hotel receptionist.  Make a few copies of your passport and put one in your pocket.  Hide the others in different places in your luggage, valuables, make-up bag, etc.  Write your address, phone and email address on the other side of the copy.  This serves two purposes:  One, if your luggage or valuable is lost, they can track you down and return it.  Two, passports are very hard to replace when you are overseas.  US Passports, especially, are very sought-after items.  If someone ask for evidence of your citizenship, a copy of your passport will usually suffice.  Even money-changers or hotel registration will accept copies of your passport.
  3. Don't walk alone at night, especially women.  There are all kinds of crazy people out there and they see someone alone as an easy target.  If you must walk alone at night, walk in a busy area where there are lots of other people.  Walk in the middle of the street where you are not easily surprised by someone hiding behind something or in the shadows.  Wear light color clothes so that drivers can easily see you when you are crossing the street.
  4. Most of the time I go to an ATM to get a country's currency when I land at the airport.  Find an ATM that you see someone withdrawing money from it.  That is evidence that it is working.  If not, wait until someone withdraws money from it before you withdraw yours.  When entering your PIN, hide your hand or use your body to hide your PIN.  Make sure no one is behind you and looking over your shoulder.  If the ATM looks strange, walk away from it.  Someone may have installed a skimming device on it.  If you are in the city, withdraw from an ATM at a bank when it's open.  I've seen many ATM cards being "swallowed" by ATMs' and the customers almost in tears. If you are in a bank, you can get someone in the bank to help you.
  5. Don't buy a bus or train or any ticket from someone other than the official counter or ticketing machine.  I once bought a ticket from someone at a train station in Berlin.  I thought I would save 3 euros.  On the train the ticket inspector checked my ticket and told me it was a counterfeit ticket.  I ended paying a 40 euro fine.  Not worth trying to save a few dollars or euros.
  6. Make copies of the front and back of your credit cards and hide them in different places in your backpack or suitcase.  In case your wallet is stolen, you can quickly go back to the hotel, use Skype or any other means to call your credit card company to cancel your credit card.  The customer service number to call should be on the back of the credit card.  The toll-free call is usually free.  But, first you should open a Skype account.  Put some money in there in case you need to call home.
  7. If you don't feel good about an area, it's best to wear a money belt.  The money belt is tucked into your pants and it's near impossible to take anything from it without alerting you.  Bring as few credit or debit cards as you need whenever you are walking around in public.
  8. If you are an American, don't be loud or let everyone know you are an American.  In today's political climate there are people who just don't like Americans.  Likewise, don't wear clothes or any indication that you are an American.  You will notice Canadians always put a Canadian flag on their suitcase or backpack to let people know that they are NOT Americans.  They don't want to be mistaken.
  9. Don't always be ready to help.  Sometimes it's a distraction so that this person's partner can pick-pocket you when you are helping the first person.  This is especially true in popular tourist cities in Europe.  Also, don't let any gypsies get close to you.  A group will swarm around you and before you know it, your wallet is gone.
I will update this list as I think of more advice for my friends who are reading this blog.