Why It’s Friendliness, Not Defensiveness, That’ll Keep You Safe On The Road

If there’s one question that I can guarantee will come up in a post-film Q&A, it’s the one about safety.

“Didn’t you ever feel threatened by people?”, someone will ask me of my 32-country bike trip. “What was the most dangerous situation you had to deal with?”

“No,” I will answer, and honestly so. “By far the biggest danger was enormous lorries flying past, six inches from my face, on developing-world highways with no hard shoulders. I never encountered any outright aggression from people anywhere. Even the gangs of Ethiopian children throwing rocks at me I can’t count as aggression, because they were just playing!”

This will prompt a chuckle from half the audience, which will irritate me later because it wasn’t actually a joke. The other half will just look thoroughly unconvinced. I’ll see the visible split between those who suspect that news reports of the world are the real joke here, and those who are still unaware that the human race is for the most part composed of families going to work and drinking tea, not misanthropic marauders and terrorists-in-training.

The broad assumption that the foreigner is a potential target is based on a false extrapolation. It is true that if you are a foreigner with a high political or economic agenda and an entourage of 4x4s and bodyguards, and you’re deliberately travelling somewhere that you know plays host to groups who would see the eradication of ideals you represent, you are indeed at a higher risk of being a target, because you have made yourself so. A defensive shield of flesh and metal is an obvious way to create the illusion of safety. You’ll be the one creating the news reports if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. You are for whom government agencies publish paranoid travel advice.

It’s really important to understand this as an independent adventurous traveller. Because you have no high political agenda. You aren’t surrounded by broad-shouldered men with Ray-Bans and earpieces and sidearms. You don’t have a whistle-stop itinerary of sensitive locations, nor an NGO or aid job that predicts your whereabouts, and you probably don’t hang out at 5-star international business hotels. You are, for the most part, not for whom government agencies publish paranoid travel advice.

And so I find it difficult to know what to say when someone asks if I took self-defence training before setting off. Partly this is because I did take some self-defence training. But mainly it’s because to assume that hand-to-hand combat skills are what’s going to keep you safe when you’re wandering the Earth is to see the traveller’s role in the world all upside down.

Wherever you go, you will be on someone else’s territory, and you’ll be arousing their curiosity. You will attract attention. By all means try to puff up and deflect it, but it would be much better, surely, to have local people on your side. Wouldn’t a small army of new friends be better security than an intimate knowledge of knife-disarming techniques? Perfect the art of making friends, without reservation or hesitation, and the world will only conspire to help you.

Maybe you are naturally introverted and self-conscious. Well, you’ll have that hammered out of you, especially if you happen to have chosen the bicycle as your mode of transport, in which case wearing the same clothes for a fortnight, loafing on a grubby patch of pavement to eat your lunch every day, and being questioned every waking moment about what the hell you’re doing on a bicycle will have already eliminated any concern of appearing slightly strange.

And, over time, you will find yourself automatically ingratiating yourself with new communities of people. You’ll be disarming folk with smiles alone. You’ll be left wondering why other foreign travellers are so suspicious and offish. You’ll wonder why you’re still carrying around that heavy chain and padlock when you feel so much more comfortable leaving your worldly possessions with a table of tea-drinking retirees you just met outside a cafe, instead of locking your bike to a lamppost. You’ll wonder why you ever bought into that skewed world of mainstream media in the first place.

And so it’s friendliness, not defensiveness, that’ll keep you safe on the road. Right?

23 Responses to “Why It’s Friendliness, Not Defensiveness, That’ll Keep You Safe On The Road”

  1. ramona

    RIGHT RIGHT! the most dangerous places we’ve been have been cities, but the only danger is that someone would take off with a bike. so we tend to avoid cities (which aren’t fun on fully loaded bikes anyway). people are just people and it turns out that most of them are kind, curious, and have a good sense of humor. bike touring is a lesson in that, for sure.

    Reply
  2. Dave Baxter

    I also follow another blog about cycling east and he seems to be saying exactly what your saying. Everyone is friendly and very helpful.

    Dave

    Reply
  3. Nigel Francis

    Nice piece Tom.

    The one only concern I had would have when wild or stealth camping would be contact with man. So I always follow; out of sight out of mind. If it’s hard for me to get to, then man won’t be there either. Mans generally lazy.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Spot on. Man is more of a nuisance than a danger, but your mantra is the one follow to ensure a good night’s sleep!

      Reply
  4. Wandering by Bicycle

    Excellent Post Tom. Sometimes it’s hard to convince people that a wave and a smile can be the best method of self defense.

    Reply
  5. James

    I have been on tour for the last 6 weeks and have only met friendly and helpful people, so I agree with the sentiment of this article 100%. But I don’t really think that news reports are a “joke” or to blame for people’s paranoia and worries. To quote peep show:

    Nancy: (watching the news) bad news, bad news, bad news. Jesus, one bus crash. What about all the bus crashes that made it safely to their destination?

    Mark: yes, I suppose the news should just be a dispassionate list of all the events that have occurred the world over during the day. That would be good. Except of course, it would take FOREVER!

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      If people are paranoid and worried (which they often are, particularly in the West, as well as being helpful and friendly), where do they get their paranoia and worry from if not the media? They certainly don’t get it from their actual experience of life, with a very few exceptions.

      News reports are not a joke, but they are a very skewed form of truth because of their selectivity and lack of context. They are selective because bad news sells better, but I don’t buy that as a justfication (no pun intended).

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      • James

        I think that people worry naturally about personal safety, regardless of how the news portrays the world. The fact that the news often reports negative news stories doesn’t help, but in my opinion, these stories only add to a worry that already exists on a very basic human level.

        I could be wrong though, and it’s an interesting issue. In your experience, do people living outside of the western world worry less about personal safety when travelling alone to unfamiliar countries? And how do you think that the news in the uk could be reported so that it is less skewed?

        Reply
        • Tom Allen

          I think that people living outside the western world would worry less about personal safety when travelling alone to unfamiliar countries, but they don’t because they can’t get visas. And I don’t really think the news in the UK shouldn’t be reported any differently – just that those consuming it should be encouraged to develop a more informed worldview to fit it into. Hence, in part, this blog!

          Reply
  6. Roger

    I’m not an experience tourer at all. I cycled for three months in New Zealand half a year ago. When I went it was my first tour ever in my life. First time on my own as well actually. And first time I went camping. A lot of first times. BEfore I went I read a lot about safety, stealth-camping and preventing stuff from being stolen. After several weeks on the road, I knew instinctively that all that fear was instilled in me by the western fear-society. There really was nothing to worry about. Just go with your guts, smile and trust people. Because once you do that, they do the same.

    Not once did I feel threatened, scared or anxious. Instead, I received an overwhelming amount of generosity, happiness and friendliness from total strangers. I got food, drinks, places to sleep and a shoulder to cry on when the going got a bit too tough. And all I was able to give was a smile. But it was enough. A smile is the one piece of luggage you shouldn’t leave behind.

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  7. Frank Burns

    Sound advice. I have cycled in more than 20 countries (trying to catch up with you!) and never once have I felt threatened by people……by wild dogs, yes…but that’s another story.

    Reply
  8. Fraser

    Great piece Tom.

    From my brief experiences so far, a smile and a wave is the most effective way to instantly cross the boundaries of language, culture and the potential concern that a wandering stranger could cause.

    The only way to fully appreciate this is by experiencing it first hand. Just spend a day smiling and saying hello to strangers wherever you are.

    Fraser

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      That is indeed the only way to fully appreciate it – more’s the pity. But then that’s part of why I write this stuff…

      Reply
  9. Barbara Weibel

    Absolutely agree. Have traveled to 50+ countries as a solo female traveler and the only place I’ve ever had trouble was in my home country, the USA. I was robbed in Hawaii back in 2002, but have never even felt threatened anywhere else in the world. And, I find people the world over will bend over backward to help.

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  10. G Griffiths

    This crosses over to all forms of travel. I often find people in their own country are scared of their neighbours or even those people living in different regions! Quite often we would get warnings from people about those in the next country or over the next mountain and like always, it never proved correct… Although whilst we were in Yukutia (Siberia) my side window (4×4) did mysteriously explode at 10pm on a desolate forest road. We still cannot work out how that happened!

    Great writing Tom

    Griff

    Reply
  11. Jana henderson

    Imagine you’re pootling through the silent mid-afternoon streets of the Moroccan Sahara town of Er-Rashidia, when a group of persistently irksome local kids who have been following you for the last half-hour finally relieve your saddle bag of its contents, strewing the innards across the street.
    Letting out an exasperated, heat-frazzled yelp, and scaring the kids away – who return immediately in the manner of expectant starlings – you set about retrieving the bits and pieces of your life to the good-natured and innocent – but to your tired and heat-frazzled mind, trying – jeers and taunts of many many many mocking 7yr-olds.
    The extreme irrational and unreasonable hatred you’re now feeling for these kids and their kith & kin, for treating you so awfully, for making you cry, for throwing pebbles in your pond of peace and grooviness, is immediately dissipated by the sudden appearance of an adult voice berating the kids in Arabic. The man, the father of the chief mini-antagonist, then helps you get yourself together before beckoning for you to follow him.
    Hesitantly, if not somewhat reluctantly, you go. You’re led into the most basic and spartan of dwellings, where what remains of your resentment is uprooted by the parents of the ringleader sitting you down with the family and offering you hot, sweet mint tea & home-made cookies on what is evidently the only item of any significant financial value in the family home; the silver tray with its cups and plates.
    What then follows, far from being an excrutiating period of silent misapprehension and culture clash, is in fact an abject lesson in humility – their humility and your eventual understanding of the true meaning of the word humility.
    The apology is offered by the parents in the truest form of the sense and never has a 7 yr-old looked so contrite.

    You could have held on to the ‘grrrrrr’ and painted the rest of the country with the same ‘grrrrr’-brush inviting more antagonistic behaviour, possibly from adults, but you didn’t, you kept your heart open.

    There is beauty and potential all around for those who choose to see it.

    Thanks for taking the time to read this. Much love, Jana

    Reply
    • Diane Vukovic

      Thanks for sharing this story, Jana. This brought tears to my eyes. I’d be crying now if it weren’t for the strange glances it would elicit in the coffee shop where I’m sitting 🙂

      Reply
  12. Jeremy Hughes

    Hey there Tom. My name is Jeremy, and I’ve been a avid local cyclist for about 3 months now, and truth be told, the articles you’ve posted have deeply inspired me to start touring. However, I have a couple of questions-and maybe they were covered in articles, but there are so many!-. Such as number one, what do you recommend advise wise for a Type 1 Diabetic such as myself? I won’t be doing any multi-country riding as I’m here in the USA, however Multi-State riding is sure a great concept for me!!

    Second, I ride a Trek 700 with a few modifications, such as handlebar grips, lights, mirror, cage-pedals, and the seat. Everything else is stock really, the hybrid tires, 7 speed rear gears and 3 front. Any recommendations on what to do there if -anything-?

    Finally, a tip to share. 🙂 I’ve heard from a lot of people that ‘it gets so hot outside I could NEVER do that more than a mile!!!”, well in addition to staying hydrated, I’ve found shaving or using nair to get rid of the core body hair[Pelvis up to the chest], -significantly- helps that. Doing the same with arms and legs helps too, presuming one is not too sunburned; however what good cyclist ISN’T sunburned?

    Thanks a bunch for these articles, again they’ve been a -massive- inspiration, and it’s a new lifestyle I hope to embark on soon.

    Reply

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