FINCA TATIN, Rio Dulce jungle, Guatemala– The below photo is of an unattended money belt left sitting out in the common area of a hotel. Its owner is on the other side of the room, playing ping pong in a place where she does not have a clear view of her valuable possessions.
I stood there looking at the unattended money belt, and had no idea what its owner was thinking. No, I know exactly what she was thinking: nothing.
.It is amazing to me how many travelers invite theft and then blame the thieves, or the cultures, countries, establishments they were robbed in. Many travelers, apparently, expect that they will not be robbed so they make few preparations to prevent theft. In fact, they seem to invite it. When they are finally robbed they gasp in shock:
“How could someone do this to me?”
They seem surprised when their number is called.
This girl who left her money belt sitting out at the Finca Tatin was not robbed, nobody touched her unattended valuables. My wife, Chaya, breast fed next to the money belt, I took a photo of it, and many people walked by without giving the apparatus that was probably full of money, credit cards, and passports nothing more than a passing glance.
The Finca Tatin is a relatively secure place, it is not the kind of place where you expect to have things stolen from you, so, it is the kind of place where you can become a little lax with safe guarding your own security.
It is simple to prevent 90% of all theft when traveling. A few simple procedures removes the necessity to tax your mind with security questions. I never ask myself: “Do I think this place is secure?” “Do I need to lock up my bag here?” “Should I make sure that all of my valuables cannot easily be stolen?”
No, I don’t ask these questions. I want to travel to enjoy myself, I don’t want to think about being robbed all of the time. So I have a standard operating procedure that I do in all circumstances — both secure seeming and sketchy.
- I lock my valuables into my messenger bag with a padlock, affix the bag to an unmovable object with a bike lock, and make sure that my hotel room door is always locked when I am not in it.
The Finca Tatin is a pretty secure, safe seeming hotel. I did not think for a minute that anyone was going to break into my room and steal from me. The thought did not even cross my mind:
But I still locked up my valuables.
The military invented something called a standard operating procedure for a reason, and it is because they know that people cannot be relied upon to see the future. Safe seeming situations only seem as such until you find yourself in danger, a place is secure all the way up until the point that you are robbed.
I do not want to worry about being robbed, so I prevent against it in all circumstances: I treat safe situations as I would sketchy ones, I do the same procedure, go through the same routine all the time. I lock up my passport, money, debit cards, computer in my room.
I can still be robbed, of course — it would only take a minimum amount of effort to break into my hotel room, slice my bag open with a knife, and take everything. But I can only do what I can do, I am not going to travel in an armored car, I am not going to worry about my possessions — to do so would ruin the travel experience.
I was called out on my standard operating procedure against theft by my friend, Pablo, at the Finca Tatin. We were talking about riding a bicycle across Central America and camping on the sly.
I found myself saying, “You have to be careful where you camp here.”
He called me out, “Why do you have to be careful here, shouldn’t you be careful everywhere?”
I did conversational battle and backed up my point, but I knew that he was correct. I was acting like I could size up a place, I was acting like I could tell the future. A safe place only seems safe until it is proven to be dangerous, a dangerous place only seems dangerous until nothing happens to you there.
When I was in Livingston, a girl staying in a dorm room had her money belt stolen (Read Hotel Theft in Guatemala). She probably left it out unattended or unlocked in her bag. She was very upset with the hotel: how dare they trick her by making their hotel seem so secure that she feels free to leave her valuables laying around to be stolen?
Theft is often 90% the traveler’s fault.
I was robbed once in Santiago, Chile. It was in 2002, I was young, and a touch thick headed. I had yet to learn a few of the important lessons of travel. I was comfortable in the Santiago, I had been there for an extended period of time, I had friends there, I thought that I could walk through a park in the middle of the night and not be robbed. I thought wrong. A safe seeming place all of a sudden became dangerous when a knife was put to my throat.
It is my impression that it is often vastly easier to be robbed in a safe seeming place than it is a dangerous one. I have heard of more travelers being robbed in Costa Rica than in the whole of Central America put together.
Follow your standard operating procedures, safety and danger are only illusions until something happens to prove your circumstances otherwise. The girl who left her money belt sitting out at the Finca Tatin was not robbed, and, apparently, her illusion still stands that she can leave her valuables sitting out and nobody will steal from her. Luckily for her, she is 95% correct. But that 5% chance is ever looming on the horizon.
The girl in the hotel in Livingston ran out of chances. Hopefully the girl that left her money belt sitting out in the common room will run out of chances as well. Lessons can only be learned through mistakes, and knowledge gained from mistakes often are worth more than the immediate loss.
I am a lucky man that I was robbed in that park in Santiago.