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How to: Live Safely Abroad

by Shane Townsend Nov 29, 2011
Following on from Matador’s article about How to: NOT get robbed when traveling in a ‘dangerous’ country, Shane Townsend shares his tips on how to live abroad safely as an expat.

“NOW WHAT HAS POSSESSED YOU that’d make you want to run off to a place like Bolivia?” Aunt Loretta asked me. “They killed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid down there, right? And, Che. They killed him too.”

Her mouth smiled, but her eyes didn’t. The edges turned down toward the gravel at our feet. I thought she was crying, but it was just sweat from another 100 degree day in Jayess, Mississippi. I smiled and looked back at the ground.

“Well, go on then,” she said leaning in for a hug, smiling now with her whole self. “Just get back home safe.”

For the next two years, I lived in Bolivia’s Andes Mountains and Amazon Basin, where I worked in micro-enterprise development with a Native Chiquitano community and in volunteer safety within my organization. I had some close calls, such as in the Black October protests, and during a Movimiento Sin Tierra town siege.

But I did my best not to disappoint my aunt, and years later, when I moved to the Philippines, I found the lessons I had learned as a volunteer still rang true.

Before moving abroad, get connected

According to the theory of six degrees of separation, each of us is only six introductions away from any other person in the world. If you can find those introductions, you can set yourself up for success overseas. It’s best to explore those connections well before your bags are packed. You want to have someone you trust introduce you to someone he or she trusts in the destination country. Having a reliable contact on the ground when you arrive will be invaluable.

Before I moved to the Philippines, the Philippine embassy’s cultural attaché gave me contact information for people to meet upon my arrival. Organizations with which I had relationships connected me to their Philippine branches. And LinkedIn helped me navigate the six degrees between me and would-be Manila contacts. Before my move, I had a list of contacts awaiting me. And I had a basic understanding of the norms of dress, behavior, and so on.

Look for connections through your university, faith-based community, or volunteer organization. If you have no such connections, make some. Check out Habitat for Humanity International, or National Red Cross organizations—which work worldwide, and depend on volunteers. Also look at organizations that serve expats abroad, such as the Federation of American Women’s Clubs and the US Chamber of Commerce.

Once you have your in-country introductions, use them! Meet your contacts as soon as you can, and bring a token gift of thanks from home.

The first rule of expat living: Integration, integration, integration

I believe community is the cornerstone of a safe and meaningful life abroad. As a community member, you have access to people, places, and news that’s only shared through informal networks. Strong community relationships give legitimacy. They offer protection, and resources.

By becoming part of the local community, you become part of the local fabric of life, and you have many people looking out for you. More than once, a neighbor in Bolivia knocked on my door to warn me of an imminent protest and encourage me to take the bus out of town.

The expat community offers another set of resources and connections. You may feel, perhaps, a deeper-rooted sense of belonging, and will have access to deeper pockets that can help get you out of a tight spot in a pinch. When I got off the bus in Bolivia, my expat community was there. Years and continents later they remain some of my dearest friends.

An introduction by an insider is the best way into a community. Do everything you can to get that before you arrive. Other ways to develop relationships include:

    Sport: In Bolivia, playing soccer with the children led to chewing coca and fishing for piranhas with the adults. That led to working the fields with community leaders, which led to the work I was there to do. In Manila, my closest relationships with locals and expats alike were forged in a muay Thai dojo, as we beat the snot out of each other.

    Music: If you can play an instrument or sing, you’ll have fast friends the world over.

    Faith: Faith communities open quickly to others of their faith.

    Sweat: Contribute to your community so you’re a citizen, not just a resident. Volunteer your time where you can, especially if there’s some sort of disaster in the community, or a group project.

Depending on your circumstances, you may find you need to assuage people’s fears and build their trust of you. A good way to do this is through food. Make a point of trying to eat local, the more alien to your palate the better. For example in Manila I slurped down feathery duck fetus – balut – at breakfast on my first days. My predecessor had never even tried it.

These strategies will help get you started, but sustained presence and participation will earn your entrance into a community. Find out how people spend time together and do it alongside them. Even if you don’t like badminton, for example, just go along and play–it might be fun. And, when the personal invitations start rolling in from people you trust, accept every one you can manage.

Match your behaviors to your surroundings

Living safely abroad is about knowing your environment, the local culture, and adapting your behaviors to blend in as best you can.

Again, start your preparations at home. Contact the embassy of your destination country. The cultural attaché will share insights into norms of dress, social interaction, business dealings, gender relations, and so on. Guide books and on-line resources will also help.

Ask for advice from your in-country contact, such as on what to wear and where to buy it. Watch people of different ages, genders, and status. With whom do you want to be identified? Note their clothing and mannerisms. How loudly do they speak? How do they dress? Do people wear jewelry? How does all this change in different settings?

Transportation is a big one. Which modes are safe and which are appropriate? If your community members are always on foot and you rent a car, you stand out, and so might be reminding them that you have more resources than they.

To a certain extent, you need to behave like a chameleon. In a crowd of folks clad in worn browns, the guy in a bright blue Marmot wearing iPod ear buds draws attention. At a party of rural farm workers, everyone is thinking about that one unaccompanied woman wearing a miniskirt and drinking whisky.

Expats often interact with people from a wide socioeconomic spectrum. The farmers you fish with in the evening may only own one shirt. The urban business folk you golf with in the afternoon may own homes on three continents. Find the common ground so they can too.

Mind your home: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) offers a helpful framework for keeping your home safe. CPTED consists of what should be simple, commonsense precautions to make the built environment safer, and which we often take for granted in developed countries:

Natural Access Control, which defines private areas around your home and discourages entrance.

  • Plant shrubs or build a fence around the home to define private areas and to direct visitors to the proper entrance.

Natural Surveillance, which draws attention to an intruder who has entered that defined private space.

  • Neighbors become part of your security system. Help them watch your house.
  • Light all external doorways.
  • Trim lower branches of trees above head height.
  • Trim hedges to below two feet, and make sure fences don’t block all visibility.
  • Remove hedges and trees within six feet of your doorway so your neighbor can see your front door.

Maintenance, which is more than aesthetic.

Target Hardening, which strengthens buildings and makes them more difficult to breech.

  • Ensure windows and doors are sturdy and have secure locks.
  • Deadbolts in wooden frames should be fastened with at least one-and-a-half inch screws.

Learn more about CPTED.

Don’t get cocky or complacent

As an expat you are most at risk during two periods: when you arrive, because you know nothing; and after a year or so, when you’ve been there long enough to think you know everything. You don’t!

I knew an expat who lived without incident for two years. She spoke the local dialect beautifully, knew everyone in her community, and traveled the whole of the country. Yet the week before returning to the US she had her laptop stolen during an eight-hour bus journey. She’d let her guard down, and fallen asleep after putting the backpack containing her laptop in the overhead bin.

This could, of course, happen anywhere in the world. But my point is this: no matter how fully integrated into society you think you are, don’t let this apparent familiarity with a country lull you into a false sense of security. It’s just common sense, really.

Further (US-centric) resources

Alertnet (See Country Profiles and News)
Iceberg Cultural Consultants
Cultural Attaches at Foreign Embassies in the US
Cultural Crossing: A community built to understand cross-culture etiquette and understanding
Federation of American Women’s Clubs
Her Own Way – A woman’s safe travel guide
International SOS
Overseas Digest
Rotary Club International
US Chamber of Commerce
US Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security Americans Abroad

[Editor’s note: Also check out Matador’s collection of articles on expat life.]

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