The Three Ws of Personal Safety and How to Stay Safe Abroad

The Three Ws of Personal Safety and How to Stay Safe Abroad

I've been a digital nomad for almost 8 years and since 2020 I've spent a lot of time in Mexico.

Whenever I mention that fact, the question I get almost immediately is:

"But isn't it dangerous?"

Yes... and No.

When it comes to personal safety, very few parts of the world are black and white. For example, traveling to an active war zone like Syria or Ukraine is not a great idea and very likely dangerous.

On the other hand in a country like Singapore, you can mostly trust that you are safe.

The majority of the world however is made up of shades of gray, and understanding how to navigate that is the #1 thing you can do to stay safe.

Here is the mental model I use to make sure that I reduce safety risks for me and my family no matter where in the world we are.

99% Of The World Is A Shade of Gray

The question of personal safety actually can't be addressed on the national level.

It comes down to cities. And double-clicking on that, every city has parts that are more dangerous than others.

For example, my wife is from Detroit, a US city that for most people in terms of "safety" brings up visuals of decrepit buildings and gangs.

However, she grew up in a neighborhood that is so safe that some people don't even lock their doors!

This brings me to the first W...

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Where (Wrong Place)

The very first thing to consider when traveling abroad is pretty straightforward - where are you traveling to?

It's important to realize that most cities can't be easily categorized as "safe" or "unsafe" since that really comes down to the neighborhood.

For example, Mexico City has neighborhoods like Polanco, Roma Norte, and Condesa where for the most part you're quite safe.

Polanco in Mexico City

But CDMX is also home to neighborhoods like Tepito and Iztapalapa which are properly dangerous and to be avoided.

So when going to a new city, do some research not just about the relative safety of the city as a whole, but the individual neighborhoods and which ones could carry a higher risk.

When (Wrong Time)

Even if you're in the Wrong Place, you could still be relatively safe as long as you're there at the Right Time.

Sticking with Mexico City as an example, in the south of the city you will find the neighborhood of Xochimilco. This neighborhood is popular with locals and tourists alike as it contains the last remnants of the Aztec canals that once spread across the entire valley.

Many tourists come here during the day to rent colorful canal boats called trajineras to float down the canals while enjoying a few drinks and listening to music.

Xochimilco canals

However, after dark Xochimilco can become quite dangerous and is best to be avoided.

Similarly, back in Detroit, there are many parts of the downtown area that are perfectly safe during the day, but come night time and things can get sketchy fast.

So always consider When you're going to a particular location, is it the Right Time to be there, or the Wrong Time?

What (Wrong Activity)

Whenever I hear about someone who had a negative experience in terms of safety I always run their story through the following questions:

Where were they?

When were they there?

And finally... What were they doing there?

You can be in the safest part of a city and in broad daylight, but if you go looking to buy cocaine you're 100% guaranteed to have to deal with shady characters, and that exponentially increases your chances of being the victim of some sort of crime.

For this reason, I follow these 3 simple rules:

  1. Don't buy illegal drugs
  2. Don't get intoxicated in public
  3. Don't be the easiest target

The beauty of the Three Ws is that you can get one of them wrong and still be OK. For example, you can be in a bad part of town but if you're there during daylight and you're not doing something sketchy, you will likely be fine.

Problems arise when you get a few of them wrong:

Bad part of town + midnight + visibly intoxicated = you're an easy target for any number of crimes.

Of course, sometimes you can do everything right and still find yourself in trouble. Bad luck is real. Sadly that's not something you can control. The key is to take steps to reduce your risk as much as you can.

Despite what mainstream media tells you, the world outside the borders of your home country is not all doom and gloom, in fact, you may be surprised to find that statistically, your hometown might be more dangerous than the city you're traveling to.

Keep the Three Ws in mind when you're choosing your next location and as you move around the city to reduce the chances of having a negative experience ✌️