Crime and Safety: Another Reason Why Americans Need to Travel Abroad

There I was, in the capital of a poor country still bearing the wounds of civil war, filled with gypsies and beggars and busted-up sidewalks, and I was safer than in my American hometown.
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"I think part of the reason I've never gotten mugged here," Rachel tells us, "is that I don't stay out late. And on the rare occasions I do, I never walk."

I nod. "I don't walk around at night in the States, so I'm used to it."

"Really?" Anna asks, head cocked in surprise. "I don't ever worry about being out late in Australia."

We're sitting at a back table of the cafe, eating dumplings under the cool breeze of the air-conditioner. We're discussing crime and safety in Phnom Penh, our adopted homes of varying lengths. We compare the number of people we know who'd been robbed -- it's not that different, I think, from the number of friends back home who've been mugged. Rachel tells us about a shooting that happened on her block a few years back, a robbery gone wrong, and it reminds me of a shooting on my street in Oakland this summer. Somewhere inside my head, I hear gunshots echo.

"When I was growing up," I remember, "whenever there were gunshots, my mom would tell us it was firecrackers. 'Must be Chinese New Year again.' It was confusing; I thought there were like 12 Chinese New Years a year." I laugh, though I'm not sure at what.

Crime and safety are huge considerations for travelers, especially those heading off to poor countries where they'll be obvious outsiders, dripping of Western wealth. I was nervous on my first trip out of the States to Lima, Peru, a massive, crime-ridden city in a third-world country for which all the guidebooks warn to take extra precautions.

But after spending a few days there, my number one thought was: "This is it?"

The phenomenon repeated itself. Bogota, Caracas, Mexico City and now Phnom Penh: every "dodgy" place that people have warned me of have not proved shocking. These places have felt oddly familiar. I've used the same street smarts I use in Oakland, and I've never encountered problems.

So I began to consider it handy that I'd grown up in Oakland. A certain level of street smarts is universal, and there are things I simply never do: I don't walk around by myself at night; I don't flash money or my phone on the street; I always keep my purse tucked under my arm; I glance over my shoulder to check my back when I'm walking, without even realizing I'm doing it. I don't think about these behaviors; they are automatic, and I believe they are a large part of what has kept me out of harm's way (the other being sheer luck).

But over the years and over the countries, I've begun to look more deeply at my own street smarts and safety assumptions. I considered them one night last fall, walking home from a dance club at 2 am through the deserted streets of Tirana, Albania. My new-found friends had all assured me that there was no need to call a taxi, that walking home was perfectly safe and normal. "In five years of running a hostel," Robo told me, "I've never heard of anyone having a problem."

It was a delicious type of freedom. Walking, I felt giddy -- and then suddenly saddened by that giddiness. It started to dawn on me that there's something severely wrong with this picture. There I was, in the capital of a poor country still bearing the wounds of civil war, filled with gypsies and beggars and busted-up sidewalks, and I was safer than in my American hometown. There I was, from one of the richest nations in the world, and the only places I'd been that had felt remotely as dangerous as my hometown were in poor second- and third-world countries.

Most of my first-world counterparts, I've realized, do not possess the same honed skills, a dog-like intuition and a posture of don't-mess-with-me. They're rightly troubled by reports of armed robberies; they haven't normalized it, accepted it as an inevitable part of urban living.

"When I first got to Phnom Penh," Rachel told Anna and I, "it didn't seem so different from parts of Baltimore: the trash, the broken glass and stray dogs, the smell of urine."

I nodded and Anna shook her head and it broke my heart a little, in that small way you'd prefer to not feel.

None of which is to say that Oakland or Baltimore are as dangerous and poverty-stricken as these places I've been, nor are they representative of all of the US. None of which is to say the experience of traveling through a place is the same thing as being from a place and truly knowing it. And none of which is to say that my having never been robbed or attacked -- both abroad or at home -- isn't largely just a product of luck.

But it is to say that the level of crime and safety feels more similar than different, and I employ the same skills to protect myself from violence in Colombia or Cambodia as I do in Oakland.

And it's begun to make me sad, in that horrible helpless way, when you feel like you're drowning in something you can't even see the surface of. I'm saddened that I feel comfortable in this, at home in this, that I've had to learn these skills in the first place.

And so crime and safety, I've decided, are yet another reason Americans need to travel abroad.

A record 30% of Americans now hold passports. And I hope they use them, not just to vacation and go on cruises and lounge at resorts, but to see how the rest of the world lives. I hope someday that people that have been most affected by poverty and violence in America, the people living in Camden and Detroit and Richmond, have the opportunity to travel abroad and see what I've seen: to see how similar we are to places we like to think we're above; to see what we've settled for, without knowing that we've settled; and to see what we've let become okay with us -- what isn't okay for other countries of our economic level, our immense wealth and power.

Travel allows one perspective on the world, and perspective on their home. The more one travels, the more one begins to understand her culture in relation to and comparison to other cultures. One sees what is great -- celebrations of diversity, say, or freedom of speech -- and one sees what has fallen short, what shouldn't be, what needn't be.

As I've seen more of the world, I've come to believe that America, Americans, deserve more than what we've settled for -- be it health care or education or the simple liberty to walk home at night alone. And the beauty of America is that we have the freedom and power to fight for these things.

"You guys aren't really selling me on visiting the States," Anna teases, tossing her napkin on the table.

"Ah, well, you probably wouldn't be going to Oakland as a tourist," I smile.

We settle up our tab and head on to the breezy black of a Phnom Penh night, hailing to tuk-tuk to take us the three blocks home.