Choose Adventure

Safely Navigating the Challenges of Third World Travel

Assessing Neighborhood Safety When Traveling

Assessing Neighborhood Safety When Traveling 660 880 Greg Ellifritz

I occasionally am asked how I assess the relative safety of the areas I inhabit when I travel to third world countries.  Different customs and language change societal norms, but these factors remain relatively constant no matter where you are in the world.  Take a look at this article and learn how to assess the baseline.

The Collective Mood and You

 

It will help you make a good decision.  The techniques are mentioned by the authors of Left of Bang, an excellent book to check out if you want to learn more about baseline behavior profiling.

 

In addition to the article’s advice, I would also suggest that you might take a look at a couple additional factors.  These guidelines may be pretty basic, but using them will give you a quick assessment of your relative safety in any neighborhood in the world:

  1. Are there lots of armed guards?
  2. Do the properties seem to be run down or not cared for?
  3.  Are people in the area walking in pairs or small groups rather than walking alone?
  4.  Is there a lot of graffiti present on the walls?
  5.  Are there obvious security measures (like broken glass embedded atop walls, electric fences, barbed wire, etc.) present?
  6.  Are there lots of people are aimlessly “hanging out” in the street?

If you answer “yes” to most of these questions, you may not be in the world’s safest place.  It’s time to move on.

 

For a more detailed explanation of these concepts, read my book Choose Adventure- Safe Travel in Dangerous Places.

 

How would you assess the safety of this neighborhood?
The world famous “Black Market” in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay

Pandemic Flight Precautions

Pandemic Flight Precautions 283 178 Greg Ellifritz

I just flew out to Phoenix, Arizona to take a training class.  It was my first flight since early February.  Flying in a mask was strange.  Both legs of my flight were completely full.  The planes and airports seemed exceptionally clean.  I guess it remains to be seen if all of these precautions worked, but I am not ill yet.

 

The rules are constantly changing.  We really don’t know what works best.  Most of us are guessing and trying to establish best practices for keeping healthy.

 

I’ve found the articles below to be helpful.  Read them and get some ideas as to what tactics other travelers are employing.  Take Bruce Lee’s advice.  “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.”

 

Flying Isn’t Just a Big Coronavirus Risk

 

If You Have To Fly in a Pandemic, Here’s Where to Sit on the Plane

 

How Rules Have Changed at TSA Checkpoints

 

CORONAVIRUS AND TRAVEL: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW (PLUS RESOURCES)

 

I flew on the 4 biggest US airlines during the pandemic to see which is handling it best

 

“Street Meat”

“Street Meat” 750 499 Greg Ellifritz

Most guidebooks will instruct you to “never eat street food.”

 

That’s bullshit.  Street food is often the safest option for travelers.  It’s prepared fresh and is still hot.  It hasn’t sat overnight on a rat and cockroach infested counter in a restaurant kitchen waiting to be rewarmed in a microwave.  Besides that.  It’s delicious.  Just look at all of these amazing street foods at the link below:

 

Best Street Food Around the World: 50 Favorite Street Food Dishes

 

I’ve eaten most of the foods listed for the countries I’ve visited and have not yet gotten sick from any “street meat.”.

 

Look for a vendor who is cooking the food in front of you and a long line of locals.  If you do that, you’ll likely be fine.

 

If you want some more information on street dining, pick up a copy of my book or check out the links below.

 

How to Eat Street Food Anywhere in the World Without Getting Sick

THE ULTIMATE STREET FOOD SAFETY CHECKLIST: HOW TO EAT LIKE A CAUTIOUS LOCAL

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the above links (from Amazon.com) are affiliate links.   As an Amazon associate I earn a small percentage of the sale price from qualifying purchases.

If you would like to further support my work, head over to my Patreon page.

 

Travel Log- Honduras

Travel Log- Honduras 620 465 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip to Honduras in 2012.

 

I traveled down to Honduras to both celebrate my 40th birthday and learn to scuba dive.

 

I spent the majority of my time on a small island (Utila) off the coast.  The island is fairly difficult to get to by North American standards, but was well worth the effort.  With only about 2000 residents, it was a very mellow place with warm water, fresh seafood, and great ocean scenery.

 

Utila Island Honduras from the Ferry

 

I also spent a little time in the towns of La Ceiba and San Pedro Sula (the 2011 murder capital of the world).  San Pedro Sula is the home of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang and had 159 murders per 100,000 residents last year.  In comparison, Chicago (which has one of the highest murder rates in the USA) had 34 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2010.

 

There is a lot of crime and a lot of potential danger in Honduras.  Despite its reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world, I had no problems at all.  I traveled alone and took only public transportation …local buses, taxis, ATVs, a ferry nicknamed the “vomit express”, and a 6-seater plane that looked like it had its best days in the 1950s.  I had a couple hotel rooms in some fairly dodgy parts of towns where I stayed.

 

The view from my “deluxe” $17 a night hotel room in La Ceiba. My balcony overlooked the back of the city soccer stadium.

 

Don’t believe everything you see on television.  Very few residents of foreign countries hate Americans or are looking to victimize travelers.  Having spent significant time traveling on five continents, I can tell you that people from almost every other nation are invariably more friendly and helpful than most of the people I meet here at home.

 

I talk to the locals as much as I can in all my travels.  I always try to get some information about the local crime trends and tactics the residents use to stay safe.  The advice I received from all the Hondurans with whom I spoke last week holds true for most of the world as well.  The Hondurans told me that if someone stays away from drugs and gangs, the chance that they will be killed is extremely low.  Most of the murders in Honduras are tied in with drug trafficking.   It’s pretty much the same for any big city in America!

 

Third world hot water….I love these shower heads that plug into an electrical socket! What a great idea!

 

I also had some interesting conversations about guns and fighting.  There are lots of guns in Honduras.  In the larger cities, every single retail outlet had an armed security guard standing in front of the door.  Most of these armed guards carried beat-up .38 special revolvers (I saw S&W, Taurus, and Rossi all represented) and no spare ammunition.  If a particular guard was carrying spare ammo, he generally had six extra rounds of lead round nose .38 special ammunition carried in an old-school loop cartridge carrier on his belt.

 

More lucrative targets (like banks and hotels that cater to wealthy clients) had a greater armed presence.  There would generally be at least one guard with a long gun standing outside.  I generally saw Mossberg pump shotguns and Ruger Mini-14 rifles in the bank guards’ hands.  The guards outside the wealthier mainland hotels had FAL or Galil rifles.  Even the bellhops wore concealed revolvers in one the nicer hotels where I stayed!

 

Clear evidence of the “gun culture” at the bait shop on my little island

 

The cops all carried Beretta 92 9mm pistols and occasionally FAL rifles.  The Berettas were carried in every imaginable holster from a cheap homemade nylon leg rig to a Safariland SLS.  On the sleepy little island where I stayed, the cops didn’t carry spare ammo.  In the bigger cities, cops usually had two spare magazines in open top kydex belt carriers.

 

While I was traveling, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place.  It was all over the news down there.  On the island, I didn’t have any American TV stations, only local stuff.  The Honduran local news covered the shooting as thoroughly as CNN did here.

 

The shooting led to some interesting discussions about guns and gun rights.  On Utila Island, it is fairly difficult to legally obtain a firearm.  According to the locals, the first step to getting a gun permit in Honduras is a police background check.  They told me that the cops on the island rarely approved the check.  They don’t want people armed in their little section of paradise.

 

The locals were quick to explain that the gun control laws didn’t really disarm anyone.  One guy told me “Everyone has a gun.  They just don’t have a permit for it.”  He explained in great detail how they smuggle guns onto the island from the USA mainland.  I won’t reveal the process, but it was quite ingenious and clearly worked.  On the “black market” a cheap 9mm pistol (like a Taurus or KelTec) costs around $1000 US dollars.  A Glock or Beretta would be about the same price down there if legally acquired with a legitimate permit.  Guns are expensive there due to high import taxes, but it was obvious that many Hondurans believed they were a necessary purchase.

 

You can’t legally buy a gun on Utila island, but the island’s only pharmacy also sells beer and chicken.

 

As long-time readers know, most of my blog posts are related to firearms and tactics.  This particular post doesn’t fit with my usual fare.  With that said, I think the stuff I write about in this post is just as important as any of the other articles I write 3-4 times a week.

 

Let me explain…

 

Many of my readers are extremely serious about developing the skills they need to protect themselves.  I am too.  But I recognize that sometimes a constant focus on self-protection can lead to an obsession with “safety”.  Being overly “safe” will keep you away from some of the best experiences you might ever be able to have on this planet.

 

Don’t obsess over the advice on this page or any of the other great firearms/self-defense websites out there.  Be smart.  Read.  Learn.  Prepare.  But then go out and LIVE YOUR LIFE!  Have some fun.  Engage in a passion other than fighting or shooting.

 

I consumed a large part of my younger years with every waking moment devoted to learning, practicing, and studying the fighting arts.  My dedication created an excellent skill set but I really wasn’t happy.  What good is a defensive skill set if the only thing you can defend is the boring life that you don’t truly enjoy?

 

You don’t have to travel the world and do all the crazy things I like to do.  Just find something you enjoy outside of the fighting arts and make it a point to devote a greater amount of time pursuing that enjoyable hobby.  Allow yourself to find and cultivate ALL of your passions.

 

Last year I spent more than six weeks traveling outside of the country doing all the things that I enjoy.  I made it to five new countries (Thailand, China, Singapore, Colombia, and Honduras) as well as a repeat visit to Mexico.

 

I learned to scuba dive, paraglided off a mountain in Medellin, Colombia, camped on a beach in Thailand, rode my first overnight train, and saw some amazing Buddhist religious artifacts.  I ate incredible food and met dozens of new friends from all over the world.  Next year, I will do even more.

On the dive boat

 

For your “tactical” homework assignment this week, I want you to forget about guns, shooting, and fighting for a couple days.  Take that time to plan out how you are going to have more fun and live a better life in 2013.  In the long run, those few days off from the gym, the dojo, or the range will do wonders for increasing your quality of life.

 

 

 

Sunset from right outside my room on Utila. Getting to see this every evening for a week made up for the crappy view of the city soccer stadium I had at the other hotel.

 

FIELD STRIP: Makarov Pistol And Licensed Copies

FIELD STRIP: Makarov Pistol And Licensed Copies 660 495 Greg Ellifritz

Do you ever research which  guns are most prevalent in the foreign destination to which you are traveling?

I do and I think it’s very important.  If you need a gun in a foreign country, it may not be the same gun you are used to carrying and shooting at home.  It’s best to have a broad knowledge of how different guns work.

 

My friends at The Firearms Blog are committed to providing some of the information you may need.  Check out the link below:

TFB FIELD STRIP: Makarov Pistol And Licensed Copies

This is just one installment into TFB’s excellent video series covering the field stripping of uncommon guns.

 

Why would anyone need to know how to shoot a Makarov?

 

You should understand it because the Makarov is still commonly carried by cops and soldiers in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, and many of the former Soviet Bloc countries.  If you are visiting one of these areas, taking the time to watch a short video like this is a cheap insurance policy.

And for what it’s worth with regards to the Makarov, they will generally shoot (but not reliably feed).380 acp cartridges.  If you can’t find that oddball military 9 x 18 mm ammunition, keep that little bit of knowledge in the back of your mind.

 

Don’t Depend on the Police to Save You

Don’t Depend on the Police to Save You 634 389 Greg Ellifritz

The police in the developing world may not be as well trained or dedicated to the job as your local cops.

 

Read this article.   In an attack on Tunisian beach resort, the first cop who arrived refused to go after the killer because he (the cop) wasn’t wearing body armor (which likely wouldn’t have stopped an AK round anyway). A man who worked at the hotel beach activities stand took the cop’s gun and went after the killer. Unfortunately, the hotel worker couldn’t use the weapon. He had difficulty with the safety, got one shot off (that missed) and then the gun jammed.

 

We’ve seen the same thing in most of the large active killer incidents outside the USA…cops unwilling or unable to do their jobs. It was a huge problem in the Mumbai attacks and the attack on the mall in Kenya.

 

If you are traveling internationally in third world countries you really shouldn’t expect that the local police are competent. Know how to use any weapon you may encounter. If a tourist or hotel worker could have correctly operated the cop’s gun in the Tunisian event, the killing would have been stopped 20 minutes earlier.

 

A standard pre-travel ritual I engage in is to prepare myself to use any “battlefield pickup” weapons I may be able to acquire overseas in an emergency. I look at the weapons that local cops/soldiers/security guards carry and make sure I can use those particular guns proficiently. The chance of me needing some local cop’s gun is extremely low, but so is being caught in a hurricane or trapped in a volcanic eruption. I’ve experienced both of those disasters while traveling and want to be prepared on weapons side of things as well.

 

All across the world, the most common gun that you will see in public is a double action .38 special revolver. Armed security guards are more prevalent than the police and military in many developing countries. All those guards carry a .38 wheel gun in some kind of cheap nylon holster. In a crisis, if I had to arm myself, I would either offer to buy one of those guns for an exorbitant sum of money or I’d choke out an unsuspecting security guard (sorry dude) and “acquire” his weapon.

 

The problem doesn’t end with the mere acquisition of a revolver. Some other limiting factors necessitate that you not only have the gun in your possession, but you be exceptionally skilled in its use. Because the security guards who carry these revolvers rarely carry spare ammunition, and the ammunition they do carry tends to lack stopping power, you must focus on extreme accuracy and making fast head shots. One round of round nose .38 to the chest isn’t a fast fight stopper and you won’t have extra bullets to spare. Plan on using more head shots than you might normally consider. The combination of faster stops and fewer cartridges used is exactly the solution you will need.

 

You will find a variety of weapons carried throughout different countries. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the .38 revolver that I described above is exceedingly popular. You will also see a lot of pump action shotguns, many of which will be equipped with pistol grips. The ubiquitous nature of those two types of weapons dictates that the knowledge of their use is critical before traveling. In all my other travels in third world countries, I see the following other guns most commonly carried on a regular basis by the local cops/soldiers/security guards:

– Glock Pistol

– Beretta 92 (or Taurus Copy) 9mm Pistol

– M-16/AR-15 semi-automatic or automatic rifle variant

– Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle

– FN/FAL Battle Rifle

– AK-47 and AK-74 fully automatic rifle. (As a pro-tip for you American gun owners, recognize that the manual safety positions on a fully automatic AK rifle are different from the semi-automatic AK rifles you see in the USA.)

 

To be a well-rounded and better prepared traveler, you should understand basic operating functions of all of those weapons. They are the ones you will most likely see. If the topic interests you, talk to your gun owning friends and ask them to take you to a shooting range and show you how guns like these work. You may also be able to talk a friendly gun store clerk into giving you an impromptu lesson. If you have time, use Google Images and search “xxxx country police weapons.” Look at the guns you see the cops carrying and make sure you are at least proficient on those weapon systems.

 

Knowing what types of guns the police and military carry in your destination country may have additional benefits as well. If you are stopped by a group of criminals posing as police officers or soldiers, you may be able to recognize that their lack of authority when they aren’t carrying the kind of guns cops/soldiers carry in that area.

 

That bit of knowledge saved the life of a friend of mine when he was stopped at a roadblock by a gang of criminals posing as soldiers on the border of Guatemala. As he was driving up to the roadblock, he recognized that the weapons and uniforms the “soldiers” were using didn’t fit those carried by the other soldiers he had already seen in the country. He sped through the roadblock and escaped. When he reported the incident at a military base down the road, the real soldiers returned to the area of the roadblock and found six people stripped naked and bound in the jungle. The thieves had tied them up and were planning on executing all of them at the end of the day after victimizing as many travelers as they could. It pays to know your local weapons.

 

 

Using Your Smart Phone Internationally

Using Your Smart Phone Internationally 675 405 Greg Ellifritz

This is a great website to bookmark if you are interested in communications issues.  It’s the best site  on the internet for comparing international SIM cards and data plans.  Read this article in particular:

International SIM Card Comparison: Which Is Best?

 

For those of you who have never used your phone in another country, there are basically three ways to do it.  You can use your own phone/data plan, but it’s often absurdly expensive.  You could also buy a local SIM card.  You get a local phone number and it’s really cheaply.  The downside is that it’s a pain in the ass to buy a SIM card and get it recharged in some countries.

 

A third option is to buy an international SIM card.  These are more expensive than the local options but work in multiple countries.  This article compares the features of the best international SIM cards available.  Recognize that your phone needs to be unlocked to use this strategy.  If you are on a contract with many US cell companies and haven’t paid off your phone, it is likely still locked.

 

ATM Card “Skimmers” in Foreign Countries

ATM Card “Skimmers” in Foreign Countries 580 487 Greg Ellifritz

As far as travel questions go, one of the most common inquiries I get is regarding how to safely make currency withdrawals from the bank and how to convert American dollars into the local currency.  I wrote an entire chapter on this topic in my book.

Needing local currency is not as important as it was 20 years ago.  Even in the developing world, grocery stores and restaurants almost always accept credit cards.

To summarize, I recommend that if the traveler needs local currency that he or she should simply withdraw local currency from a nearby bank ATM machine.  Exchange rates will be better than you get at the border money changers and ATMs are common in most cities.

The one thing you have to be aware of is the installation of a card “skimmer” on the ATM machine.  The articles below detail how card skimmers work and how they are used in Mexico.  The author’s advice holds true in most of the other world as well.  Read these three articles to get a comprehensive understanding of the issues involved:

Tracking a Bluetooth Skimmer Gang in Mexico

Tracking Bluetooth Skimmers in Mexico, Part II

Who’s Behind Bluetooth Skimming in Mexico?

 

ATM skimmers used to be pretty rare.  They were large contraptions that fit over the outside of the card reader on the ATM.  They were most commonly seen in tourist areas on “stand alone” ATMs that weren’t regularly serviced.

Now it seems that the ATM technicians are installing small bluetooth compatible skimmers to steal your data inside the machines themselves, at least in Mexico.  My best advice is to avoid ATMs in obvious tourist areas and to use the ATMs that are inside a bank.  Although not a foolproof strategy, doing this will at least limit your chances of having your card data stolen.

 

One other thing.  For foreign travel, you want a traditional ATM card, NOT an ATM debit card.  The traditional cards have daily withdrawal limits so the crooks can’t clean you out.  With the debit card, they can take out more money and charge things to your account.  The traditional ATM card will help limit the damages if your data or card is stolen.

 

 

Travel Log- Colombia

Travel Log- Colombia 300 225 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip through Colombia in 2012.

 

I just spent the last couple weeks doing some adventure travel through Colombia.  It had been one of the few South American countries that I hadn’t visited.  While there I checked out Bogota, Medellin, Santa Marta, the Tyrona National Park, and Cartagena.  I paraglided for the first time, hiked, swam, body surfed, and attempted to experience as much of the local culture as possible.

 

Colombia has changed drastically from the days of FARC and Pablo Escobar’s narcotraficantes.  It is one of the safer Latin American countries I’ve visited.  The people are very pleasant and the police are professional.  I would highly encourage those of you with an adventurous spirit to check the country out.  If you are interested in a local guide, shoot me an email.  I can heartily recommend the services of a friend who is a professional tour guide down there.

 

Since this website is primarily about self defense, firearms, and training issues; I’ll stop rambling about my travel adventures.  I will share some photos that you might find interesting….

 

From the National Police Museum in Bogota, some guns you’ve probably never seen:

 

The most obscure collection of break-top revolvers I’ve ever seen.

 

The local slang for this one is “chongo”…a home made pistol. One of the reasons why gun control laws will never be effective.

 

Custom stainless steel Iver Johnson Enforcer with an M-2 full auto switch

 

A 28 gauge revolving shotgun

 

Since we are talking guns, you may be interested to know what the locals carry.  The national police carry SigPro 9mm pistols in Blackhawk Serpa holsters.  More than half of the National Police (there are no local police forces) in Bogota also carried Galil (an Israeli version of the AK-47) rifles.  The cops in Cartagena carried M-16 A-2s as a supplement to their Sigs, but the M-16 had an empty magazine inserted and a visible yellow empty chamber flag!

 

All the cops are also armed with a PR-24 style baton, handcuffs, and a radio.  That’s it.  Most of them carry empty spare magazine pouches at the small of their backs.  I never saw any cops with full magazine pouches.

 

Explosives Detection cops on random patrol in Bogota. Note the empty mag pouches on the belt of the cop on the right.

 

The national police around the Presidential Palace carry HK G-36 rifles instead of the Galil.

 

I saw several citizens walking the streets of Bogota with pepper spray in hand and even saw one young man working the front desk of a hotel with an ASP baton sticking out of his jacket pocket.  Security guards were almost always armed with 4″ S&W revolvers, although I saw a few 3″ round butt J-frames on some security guards’ belts.  All the security guards had cartridge loops sewn to the outside of their nylon belt holsters.  The loops were full of round nosed lead .38 special ammo.

 

According to the police with whom I spoke, it is relatively easy for a citizen to get a gun permit down there.  The guns are limited depending on geographical location.  In the cities,  people can get permits only for handguns.  Rifles and shotguns are not allowed.  In the rural countryside where hunting is common, “almost everyone” has a long gun, but pistols are prohibited.

 

Medellin, Colombia

Drinking Alcohol Safely in Foreign Countries

Drinking Alcohol Safely in Foreign Countries 540 720 Greg Ellifritz

Have you heard news reports about tourists being served tainted, poisoned, or adulterated alcohol in foreign countries?

It’s relatively rare, but it certainly happens.  There have been a couple recent articles written that provide tips to avoid being poisoned.  If you want some background info, check out:

How to Drink Safely On Vacation

Know the Risks When Drinking Spirit-Based Alcohol Away From Home

 

All of that is great advice, but I’ll share some additional experiences from nearly two decades of consuming homemade and locally made alcohol in third world countries.  To establish my drunken bona fides, here is some photographic evidence of my taste for third world hooch.

 

Roadside moonshine in El Salvador

 

Local rum with a friend in Cartegena, Colombia

 

I have no idea what the bartender is pouring down my throat. Bogota, Colombia

 

After the shots in Bogota, we set the bar and ceiling on fire with local moonshine.

 

Guifitty, a local rum/herb mixture in Honduras.

 

Home made rice wine on the street in Saigon, Vietnam.

 

With my bartender in Tanzania drinking banana beer

 

Mixing moonshine and Tang to create a beverage that tasted OK despite no refrigeration on an un-named island off the coast of Panama.

 

Buying moonshine straight from the still (in an old Jagermeister bottle) in rural Costa Rica.

 

Despite all of these insane adventures, I’m still here.  And I’m not even blind.  Here’s my personal strategy when evaluating the local stuff.

 

As a person who has enjoyed local brews on five different continents, I can tell you there is a safe way.  You don’t buy this stuff at your resort or at a tourist liquor store.  You ask a local to take you to the person who makes it.  Taxi drivers, hotel concierge staff, and tour guides know where to get the local homemade brew.

 

When you arrive you ask to sample a shot.  Of course, you are polite and offer to buy the seller a shot as well so that he drinks with you.  If he won’t drink his own brew, run away.  If he drinks with you (out of the same bottle) you are probably pretty safe.   I’ve done this a lot of places and I’m not blind yet.

 

It’s safest to buy your own alcohol at the duty free shop in the airport, but where’s the fun in that?  If you want to try something a bit more adventurous, remember my strategy.