Safety Issues when Overlanding – Trusting People

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“How do I know if I can trust people? How do I know if I can take up an invitation from a stranger? How do I know they won’t kidnap or rob me?”

We frequently receive such questions about safety issues, in particular about trusting people. Like today, from Alexandra, who with her partner is considering an overland trip to explore South America’s fabulous continent.

I will say that the possibility of being kidnapped generally isn’t part of such discussion. This specific remark of Alexandra is better understood when knowing that kidnapping is not uncommon in her home country of Venezuela, as it is in e.g. Mexico.

In my attempt to answer her questions, I found myself thinking about the initial stage of our trip. I was under the assumption that fear had not been much in our mind before or at the beginning of our trip. But now, going back in time made me realize that this wasn’t entirely true. In my discussion with Alexandra I found myself mentioning these occasions.

In Venice, we took a ferry to Greece.
Why start our journey with worries?

1. Before departure – Which road do we take from the Netherlands to Greece and (then) Turkey?

Driving from the Netherlands to Turkey presented us with two options. First was an easy one: driving to Italy and taking a ferry to Greece. The second route included driving through former Yugoslavia and/or Bulgaria/Rumania. At the time Bulgaria, Rumania, and Bosnia Herzegovina were notorious for corruption. For example, at the border with Bosnia Herzegovina overlanders had to pay €100 for some kind of non-existing insurance and you got 24 hours to get to the other side of the country. There were a lot of stories going around about paying bribes and such as well (I don’t remember the details).

Coen and I had traveled but weren’t ‘real’ travelers, if that makes any sense. Our journeys and trips had mostly taken place within the comfort zones of (west) Europe and the US, where this kind of corruption doesn’t exist. We didn’t want to start our trip driving through these ‘unpredictable, corrupt’ countries. How would we know whom to trust or not? We had no clue so we took the easy option via Italy.

Now, after 12 years on the road, I very well understand those initial fears but with the experience we have today we wouldn’t hesitate one bit to go the same countries under the same circumstances. That’s what experience does, I suppose. But we all have to take that first step, don’t we? And by not leaving home, well, you simply never take that step and that would be a pity.

In Turkey we were regularly asked to join a family for lunch.
This encounter taught us how to peel fresh figs – we had never seen such beautiful fruit before.

2. On the road – Fearing the landowner.

One afternoon during our first weeks in Turkey we had a hard time finding a place to camp. Finally we spotted a shady spot but it was clearly on somebody’s farming land. Since the area was void of people, we couldn’t ask for permission. As we set up camp we hoped nobody would show up.

Not much later we heard a tractor approaching. “There you’ll have it, now somebody will chase us away with a hoe, or worse, a gun,” Coen predicted. The tractor was driven by a farmer with his family sitting in a cart behind the tractor. They stopped in front of us. We smiled and they smiled; we had no common language to communicate. The farmer got off his tractor, walked to the cart but didn’t pull out a hoe nor gun, just two hands full of fruits and handed them to us in a welcoming gesture.

I think that’s where all our presumptions about dangerous people dissolved as I can’t come up with any other examples. Sure there have been places where we didn’t feel at ease or encounters that haven’t been pleasant, but we’ve trusted our gut and left as soon as we felt we should (except on one occasion, more on that later).

Which brings us to tips on trusting people when overlanding. Before doing so, let me emphasize that these tips are based on our experiences. While I’d say that twelve years on the road do account for something, they are by no means laws or tips that work for everyone. Feel free add your tip or contribute to the topic in any other way in the comment section below.

1. Trusting Your Gut

I am so glad Alexandra trusts us as well!

I can imagine that it may be hard to trust that gut if you live in a country dominated by criminality, where you have lived behind fences and have the habit of driving in a locked car. Safety centers around taking rational precautions and taking decisions based on knowledge of your surroundings and what past experiences have taught you.

On the road, on the other hand, you don’t have this knowledge or experience. Every place is different, cultures may be similar but not the same, exchanges between people may be unfamiliar, the level of criminality is higher or lower, etc.

The key element becomes relying on your gut.

In most cases our guts tell us the same thing: Generally Coen and I agree on whether a place is good or bad to camp, whether a person is reliable or not, whether we should hit that trail or turn around. In case we don’t agree, we choose safety. If one doesn’t feel sure about something, we don’t do it.

Alexandra remarked, “When I told people around me that we were going to receive visitors from the Netherlands in our home, people whom we had never met and whom Rodolfo (her partner) knew only through the internet, some considered us insane. How do you know they won’t rob you?” they asked.

In a way Alexandra answered her own question. I said, “See, there you go. You ask me how you will know who you can trust. Yet when you met us you decided to share your home with us. That’s exactly what I am talking about. When we met, you had the gut feeling you could trust us. The same thing happens on the road. Somebody in the street may come up to you for a chat and subsequently invites you over for dinner. Either you feel connected and you say yes, or you don’t feel at ease with that person and say no.”

“Here are the keys to my 2nd apartment. Feel free to use it as long as you want,” Jeroen offered when we met in a street in Rosario (Argentina). We stayed two weeks, met many of his friends and I had one of my best birthday parties ever in the companionship of people I hardly knew.

The one time that we did get robbed was exactly because we didn’t listen to what our gut was telling us. It wasn’t that we weren’t trusting it. But we were going through some very rough times for a number of reasons. We were fighting constantly, energy levels were below zero, and we had almost crashed into another car. Everything seemed against us. A guard told us to park in a street farther down the museum and when parking we both knew we shouldn’t be there (it was next to a slum). It didn’t feel good at all. But our mood was too low to care. We were too tired and irritated to drive on.

On our return from the museum a guy stood waiting for us with a big knife, demanding Coen’s bag (with camera) and my wallet.

People at home thought the robbery would traumatize us. It didn’t. In fact, we got into the car – feeling extremely lucky nobody had forced us to empty the entire car of its content! – and said, “So, finally got that done with. Where are we going now?” We knew we had asked for it. Not a robbery per sé, but that something was to go wrong. This robbery had been totally our own, very expensive, fault. It was a reminder of listening to that gut, also when you’re tired and/or in a bad mood.

2. Having Faith in People or: The Law of Attraction

Instead of trouble we got help from several people when we blew our second tire in ten minutes and had to fix on on the road as we carry only one spare.

Coen and I believe that the majority of people on this earth are good people. Twelve years on the road in all kinds of countries and having taken up dozens of invitations without any bad encounters stand testimony to that statement.

We are firm believers in the law of attraction. If you believe people are good and trustworthy, you will surround yourselves with good people. If you see the bad and ugly in everyone, you’ll succeed in finding them (or they will find you). Your own mindset determines for a large part the outcome of an encounter or experience.

In Colombia we were asking around if we could travel to Quibdo, an area still dominated by the FARC. Opinions differed. We cared much for the opinion of a man who actually owned a farm in Quibdo. He summoned it down to, “If you are afraid, don’t go because you’ll get into trouble. If not, go.” (read about it here).

To give another example, which isn’t exactly about the Law of Attraction, but on how travelers can perceive people totally different. I think the underlying cause is our emotion/feeling about a place or people. We had no fear going to Pakistan (and had no trouble), these people did (and saw danger all around them).

In India we met a Swiss couple who had driven from Europe to India in five weeks. We were aghast; the same journey had taken us a year. We had fallen in love with Pakistan and asked how much time they had spent there.

“Five days.” And then explained. “It was very dangerous. Everywhere we drove were bearded men in shalwar kameezes staring at us and many had Kalashnikovs dangling from their shoulders.”

“Did you speak with them?” we asked.
“No! Of course not.”
“Let us guess, you have aircon?” we asked.
“Yes, we do.”

On our way to Gwadar, in the Baluchistan Desert, we were ordered to take two armed guards in the car, for safety reasons. What option did we have but to trust them and hope for the best in this back of beyond of 1200 kms of desert?
Neah, not ‘all’ of them have beards…

With aircon it’s too tempting to keep your windows rolled up. As a result you are driving even more in a bunker than you already do when traveling in a car. One of the requisites to minimize that bunker idea, we feel, is to lower your windows whenever crossing settlements. We turn off the music, roll down the windows, smile, and put up our hand in greeting. Yes, sometimes this is tiring, sometimes it is too hot or cold, sometimes we don’t feel like doing that at all. But we do anyway. We are hosts in their country and it’s up to us to show them that we’re open to meeting them.

We had driven exactly the same route as this Swiss couple (but decided to stay an additional six months in the country…). We had seen the same bearded men, received the same silent stares and had been shocked by the number of people carrying guns. Yet we smiled, we wove, hang out of our windows, and said hello. In return people waved back, smiled and sometimes gleefully called out to us. “Hello sir, welcome to my country,” or “Hello sir, how are you?”

We stopped to buy sweet treats from vendors who carried trays on their heads, took a break to buy a fruit juice. In the case of the latter I had to get down from the Land Cruiser, and could hardly get back in on my return as it was totally surrounded by, yes well, bearded men in shalwar kameezes with guns slung over their shoulders. Nobody was pointing a gun at Coen or otherwise threatening him. They were curious and wanted to talk. Invitations for cups of tea followed and we had a wonderful trip.

I am not saying our way is better than that of the Swiss couple. It’s not. This anecdote is just for you to compare two ways of traversing in a region that was completely unfamiliar to us. See the results. Then decide what way suits you best.

3. Understanding that Others Don’t Necessarily Trust You

Meeting indigenous people in Brazil has not been a matter of course. They have reasons to be suspicious of outsiders.

The whole issue of trusting people is a two-way street. It’s not just about us trusting others; it is also about them trusting us. Hearing, or realizing that people don’t trust us is like being punched in the stomach. It happened on a handful occasions, one of them was in Brazil.

We had permission from an indigenous tribe to drive to a waterfall in a nearby natural area, which in itself wasn’t an indigenous reserve yet. Or so they thought. On arrival we saw people building a new settlement. Coen turned off the engine, we stepped down the Land Cruiser and walked up to them. One spoke Portuguese, the others only their own language and so we depended on a person translating.

We could see they had a multitude of questions burgeoning inside them. They wanted to know who we were, where we came from, what we were doing here, on and on it went. By then we had learned that indigenous people in Brazil are very weary of outsiders and so we took our time to carefully answer their questions.

“That sounds all very nice,” the chief answered after a while. “But how do I know you’re telling the truth?”

I was completely flummoxed by his words. They hit me right in the chest. In fact, they hurt, and for a moment I was lost for words. Then a sadness came over me because I realized what was the cause of this mistrust, and it had nothing to do with us. Their biggest fear is that people will take away their land (for farming or mining). It has happened too often in the past and is continuously happening today.

Kolonel ul Mulk, part of the former royal ruler clan of Chitral in Pakistan, made us feel welcome.

In an attempt to dispel the man’s distrust we showed him our portfolio with copies of printed articles, explaining that we weren’t journalists looking for headline stories but travelers sharing stories about beautiful people throughout the world. This seemed to satisfy him and we were allowed to stay for a couple of days.

4. Respecting People and Local Customs

As travelers we play an important role in building trust among people. We can show people that you don’t need to fear somebody you don’t know, whether it’s your next-door neighbor or a person coming from the other side of the planet. Our behavior plays a role in whether local people are going to trust the next foreigner who crosses their path.

Apart from trusting people being an important part of how we stand in life, I’d like to add something. It has to do with respecting people, including in situations where we don’t feel that respect in our heart but show it anyway.

We, as travelers, are ambassadors.

Let me expand on this a little bit.

We are the travelers. We are in somebody else’s country. We strongly believe that are the ones who need to adapt to their culture, whether we like it or agree with it or not. For us this means dealing with two more-or-less regular recurring issues (depending on which country we travel).

“Come to my house, I want to cook a meal for you,” Rama insisted when meeting us in the street of Jesus Maria (Argentina).
We knocked on his door, needing a place to camp. “Sure, drive your car up here in my garden,” El Español answered.

People starting to party at 1 am with music blaring from their car stereos is equal to us getting into a very bad mood. Depending on the situation Coen will step down the Land Cruiser and ask the party-ers to turn the music. Sometimes they are not aware that we are sleeping in a vehicle nearby and are happy to move down the road/beach a bit.They are not partying to ruin our night, after all. If they don’t want to move or turn down their music, well, either we move or we have a sleepless night. We generally opt for the latter as finding a place to sleep in the middle of the night is not a matter of course. It’s as simple as that; after all, we will all get over a sleepless night.

They are not partying to ruin our night, after all. If they don’t want to move or turn down their music, well, either we move or we have a sleepless night. We generally opt for the latter as finding a place to sleep in the middle of the night is not a matter of course. It’s as simple as that; after all, we will all get over a sleepless night.

Drunks generally aren’t fun to hang around with. I have to admit, I admire Coen’s way of handling them. He will never shoo a drunk away but will talk with the person. Not to the person, but with (for as much as the drunk’s inebriety allows to). There’s a big difference. Coen will ask him to sit down and offer a cup of coffee. He will take the time to patiently talk or listen and shakes hands when the person finally leaves.

By doing so he is polite but there is a selfish part here too. “I don’t know this person and I don’t know his friends. I don’t want to anger anybody who may then return with others and giving us trouble,” is Coen’s response.

We can show this respect because, at the very core of it, we trust people. Having said that, alcohol plays a role thus behavior is less predictable, and so we are a bit more cautious about how to interact with them.

We do grow tired, we do feel annoyed at times, but we never get angry and never shout at people. We are the travelers; we are the ones who need to adapt. We also feel that we are ambassadors, not just for our country, but of the traveler’s community. We don’t want the next traveler to be shoo-ed away because of a bad experience with us; on the contrary, we want the next overlander to be welcome as well.

Trusting people is what we need to build bridges, to overcome fear, to create an ever-lasting peace on this planet, to experience the beauty of each other and, ultimately, ourselves.

Edited to Add Nov 10, 2015: I came across this piece, by Torres de Roche, in which she talks about dealing with fear. This section particularly appealed to me: 

“We were each born with the gift of instinct. Hone in on it. Listen carefully to it. Trust implicitly in it. Always be ready to save yourself. If someone gives you a bad feeling, get away. Now. Don’t wait for the world to change or become more fair before you do what you want to do; all we have to work with is how things are now. Make peace with it. Be brave in the face of it. While feeling peaceful, fight fiercely for equality. Learn to kick ass. Listen to your own judgment and exercise your own common sense, because you are smart and capable and strong and powerful. Be courageous and curious. Trust openly but attentively. Don’t be afraid, be a fucking warrior. Explore the world by the power of your own two feet.”

Read her full story here.

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