I'm thankful to be an American. For me, it truly is the greatest nation on earth. But look around the globe and you'll see not everyone's a fan. In fact, there are places on earth where just being an American is dangerous. Regardless of where you're traveling, knowing how to blend in with your surroundings is always a good call. It can even mean the difference between coming back home alive or disappearing forever.
Believe me, I appreciate the value of blending in. I'm a blond hair, blue-eyed, 6'5" white dude with a booming voice. Blending in doesn't come easy to me....even in my own country. Nevertheless, I've picked up a few tricks over the years that have kept me safe while traveling through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. I'm confident it can do the same for you.
So, if you're traveling overseas on vacation, a business, or missions trip, here are 3 strategies to help you stay safe.
1. Don't Look Like an American: Nothing says I'm an American like a baseball cap, t-shirt and sneakers. Ditch those STAT. Go for more muted colors - preferably logo free. I usually start out with a collared shirt and pants until I get a feel for what the locals are wearing. Then I adjust from there.
My rule is the locals are never wrong. If you can dress like them, you're more likely to blend in with them.
2. Don't Eat Like an American: It may surprise you, but Americans have different table manners than other parts of the world. Clint Emerson, author of Escape the Wolf Risk Assessement: Personnel Security Handbook for the Traveling Professional, recounts the tragic tale of the Jedburgh operatives of WWII.
The Jedburghs were a group of elite American and British operatives, who inserted into occupied France to conduct espionage and guerrilla operations. These operatives lived on the edge of the blade, posing as local frenchmen among the Nazi occupying forces. The Jedburghs looked the part. They talked and even walked the part, but sadly, it was their eating habits that gave them away.
You see, Americans tend to eat with the fork in the right hand, while leaving the knife on the table until needed. When cutting, we switch the fork to the left hand and cut with the knife in the right hand, switching back and forth as needed. Europeans, on the other hand, tend to use both the knife and fork throughout the duration of their meal and never switch positions. Unfortunately, it was precisely these types minor details that gave the Jedburgh's away. Many were captured and imprisoned. Some were executed on the spot.
Don't be like the Jedbughs. Watch the locals. Observe their customs and mannerisms and mimic them the best you can.
My rule is the locals are never wrong. If you dress like them, you're more likely to blend in.
3. Don't Sweat the English: If you're worried that speaking english will give you away as an American, don't. Apart from Europe, most foreigners can't tell the difference between an American, Canadian, Australian or British subject purely on language alone. That's because the dialects are not as pronounced for a non-native speaker. It takes some training to recognize the difference - training that most non-native speakers won't have.
Furthermore, if you get the mannerisms right, you should be able to pass yourself off as another foreign national who just happens to have a command of the English language. If you have a little background in a another language, even better. I've passed myself off as a German national when I was in North Africa and the Middle East. It's very doable.
Bonus Tip: Familiarize yourself with the local currency.
Regardless of what your plans are when you reach your final destination, at some point, you will probably have to conduct some cash transactions using the local currency. Make sure you're familiar with the cash and coins that make up the monetary system.
Whether you're using public transit, buying food, or gifts from the local markets, having basic familiarity with local currency will help make your transactions smoother and help you move about more efficiently with greater confidence. It's a basic item that many neglect.
So there you have it. Just a few tips from a former spook to help make your summer plans a little more safe and secure.
If you're traveling overseas for vacation, business or a missions trip, leave a comment below. I'd love to hear about it.