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Independent Travel
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Tips for Independent Travelers:
Tip #1: Go Outside the Tourist Season
Tip #2: Seek Out Traditional Festivals
Tip #3: Learn to Say 30 Key Words in the Local Language
Tip #4: Meet Strangers
Tip #5: Get off the Beaten Path
Tip #6: Don’t Carry the Whole Book
Tip #7: Go to Nonpublic Centers
Tip #9: Write a Trip Summary

Tips for Independent Travelers

Tip #8: Carry Few Valuables

Along with the many wonderful experiences that occur when we travel come some unpleasant ones, like theft. Desperate, poor, or opportunistic people occasionally try to steal, pickpocket, or mug travelers outside of their familiar territory. Most travelers wisely make it their top priority to prevent physical harm when this happens. The next best precaution you can take, after avoiding situations where theft is a risk, is to minimize loss when it does occur. Carry as few valuables as possible within easy reach, and have a low-value wallet ready to give away if necessary.

For weeks, my companion Micha and I had been warned more strongly than usual not to walk around alone in Johannesburg, South Africa, one of the worst three cities in the world for violence and crime. After sitting for several hours on a morning bus, we had four free hours before our transfer bus departed for the historic diamond mines of Kimberley. Wanting to stretch our legs, we reasoned that two medium-sized men would be safe roaming the heavily populated streets close to the bus station in the middle of a sunny weekday. We checked our backpacks into a storage room and ventured out of the guarded station.

After just 20 minutes strolling on the sidewalk, five men surrounded us behind a large, parked truck blocking the view from the road. While scores of locals walked by, the thugs held Micha and my arms, searched our lower backs for guns, reached their hands into our pockets, and demanded “Mo-ney, Mo-ney” in accented English. One held a 4-inch knife in front of my stomach. I instinctively didn’t resist, and yelled “Take it, take it,” the men disappeared as quickly as they had come. We beelined directly back to the guarded bus station and began to process the 6-second mugging. Mostly we were very grateful we hadn’t been physically hurt or killed.

I had felt them remove my wallet and bag claim checks from my front pants pocket. All we had lost with it was $30 in South African rand, six 10,000 Polish zlotty notes (worth five U.S. cents), an expired New York subway pass, and a credit card-sized calendar. When we traveled together, Micha and I agreed I would carry cash for both of us for one day’s expenses. Our most important cash and valuables were tucked under our shirts, around our upper stomachs and mid-backs, in money belts. Small amounts of cash and some documents were buried in our day packs, but luckily the thieves didn’t take them. We feared that they might have beaten us to claiming our backpacks by turning in the tags. The luggage clerk shook his head when we explained what had happened, and fortunately pulled out our bags.

I hadn’t seen the thieves inspect my wallet during the mugging, but I knew the combination of local cash, valuable-looking foreign currency, and a few exotic cards would satisfy most thieves at a quick glance. There was a low risk they would demand more. After counting our blessings for being unharmed, we now felt more relieved that very little of value had been taken. Having enough excitement for one afternoon, we decided to remain in the station until our bus departed. Micha looked at his wrist to see how long that would be, but his watch was gone. There was nothing we could do but laugh, imagining five thieves pawning a Mickey Mouse watch and some worthless Polish zlotty.

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