When you travel through a dangerous country, you're generally safe if you're self-aware and vigilant, and generally unsafe if you're unaware and distracted.
I was in the Philippines for four days recently, and I generally had my awareness high.
Except for my last night there.
For whatever reason, when you're about to leave somewhere and nothing bad has happened, it's easy to lapse in awareness. I was exhausted at the end of the trip, as I'd done a bunch of tedious administrative work with an intense focused effort on getting it done, and I'd been doing some mental training at the same time to increase my focus, ability to stay focused and single-mindedness.
And it had all gone well.
I'd decided at the start of the trip that I'd go off my dietary regime for four days, and I'd take some notes and make some observations about the differences. I'd recently scaled down my caffeine consumption, quit coffee/tea/etc, and instead would take precise dosages of 200mg to 300mg of caffeine per day. I was eating basically no carbohydrates with the exception of immediately post-gym.
In the Philippines, I gave this up, and had interesting notes on the effect of multiple cups of coffee (jitteriness), and the effects of high carbohydrate foods like potatoes, chocolate, ice cream, etc (lower energy levels after a brief spike).
I was leaving the next morning, so I decided to "over-do it" on the bad foods, which is a good way to strike future temptations. It causes a mental association that's poor, and makes you want the stuff less.
So I stopped in a large convenience store, and got some juices, dried mango, pastries, and finally at the register I got a big chocolate ice cream.
Meanwhile, I got into a conversation with an Australian guy transiting home via the Philippines from Japan. I'd basically not talked to a Westerner my entire time in the Philippines, but we had an interesting conversation.
So, I've got a little convenience store bag with snacks and drinks it in wrapped halfway in my hand and arm, and a big chocolate ice cream.
As I walk out the door, with quite high distraction and low awareness, suddenly there's three teenagers surrounding me with their hands out in begging positions, but extremely aggressively so.
This is not good.
The biggest rule of not getting mugged or assaulted in developing countries is don't be surrounded, especially by young people.
I'll sometimes cross the street to avoid walking by a group of people, and when people converge on you it can easily be trouble.
And here I am, surrounded. I've seen this exact same posture and bodylanguage before, it was highly aggressive. You see, most people are unable to rob or do violence against someone without any justification at all, so prior to a mugging or pickpocketing attempt they'll look to interact with you or make some demands of some sort -- that way, when you say no, or you're rude, or whatever -- by their standards -- they're then justified in doing what they want to do.
Most muggers, you see, don't just hit you with a brick from behind and take your stuff. They usually will begin to verbally interact with you first.
So, all my radar is going off, and I immediately say,"No! I have nothing for you" and start to move away, but the teenagers are kind of converging on me.
I react without much thinking, and half-jog/half-run around them through a gap to the left about five paces. If you do this, you look a little stupid, but who cares? And people don't follow.
Here's where it gets a little scary -- the kids start half-jogging/half-running after me.
Before I left the United States, knowing I'd often travel in dangerous countries, I took a crash course in Krav Maga. I've needed to use it at times, and I feel pretty comfortable defending myself. But the real risk in a situation like this isn't just a potential assailant, it's the fact that if you fight them, there's a chance you wind up fighting a lot of random people in the vicinity who join in with their native countrymen against the foreigner for whatever reason.
So I half-jog/half-run, and the kids are behind me. I'm in good physical condition, and I'm outdistancing 2 out of 3 of the kids. The oldest, leader-ish one of them is on my heels, and I snarl and yell back for them to get back.
"Get back! Get the f*** back! Get the f*** away from me!"
Some Philippine people call out to me as I go by, encouraging me to come over to where they are, or yelling at the kids to get back, or laughing, or... something. It's hard to catch up with things when it's in such a blur. It's all happening very quickly.
Ahead of me, the main road goes through a very dark stretch with no people on it and no shops that are open, and two of the three teenagers have fallen back a fair amount. I decide that if they're going to keep in pursuit, it's better to have the initiative, and there's no other people here to intervene on their side.
I plan, as soon as I'm solidly into the dark/unoccupied area, to stop and plant my feet, and try to put a sidekick right into the teenager whose momentum will likely bring him right into it. Worst-case scenario if I land it, it's 2 on 1 after that, but I can probably run at that point and be gone into the night air.
I look behind me, sizing things up, and slow down slightly. The kid picks up on something, or realizes his friends aren't there, or something, and he falls back into the lighted air and I'm alone.
I keep walking quickly, get back to my hotel, and sit down on my bed. My head is throbbing.
Wholly unconsciously in the comedown from the adrenalin, I dig into the dried fruit, juice, and eat the ice cream fast.
Then I realize I ate so fast, and feel kind of sick to my stomach.
I go to the bathroom, and there's a bunch of chocolate on my shirt from running while holding a melting ice cream that I wasn't paying attention to.
And I'm standing there, just totally aggravated. I rarely eat junkfood, and the one time I was going to go about it... I get chased by some damn kids, and now my shirt is maybe stained, and I feel awful overall on just about every level.
Not my finest moment, by any stretch of imagination.
But then, I had an incredibly interesting moment, that might be worth something to you, dear reader.
I thought to myself, "You know, I could feel bad and label this and be miserable. Or I could just look at it objectively. I was coming out of the store with some junk food, wasn't paying attention, and some kids surrounded me to beg aggressively and maybe try to grab something from me. I went to run, and they chased a little bit. Maybe they were just having fun, who knows what they would have done if they'd caught up. Now I'm back in my hotel room, safe, but feeling pretty bad and run down. But how I interpret it is up to me. In any event, I'm here on adrenalin comedown, and I've got chocolate on my shirt, and that's what happened."
And after that, things surprisingly weren't bad. Things just were what they were.
Feeling much much better, I stopped and analyzed. And then I had a number of interesting realizations.
One thing about history I never quite understood was the Mongolian cavalry feigned retreat to set an ambush. It was a tactic that Genghis Khan's soldiers had used repeatedly to lure defenders away from stable positions.
And this little event in the Philippines made me start to understand it. People are naturally wary of conflict, even hardened criminals, but once they see a potential victim give flight, there's a tendency to charge after them. It seems to be instinctively built into humans.
If you read up on the history of ancient warfare, you find out that the casualties in battle were actually surprisingly low - until the enemy broke ranks to retreat. According to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, in "On Killing," it's estimated only 15% to 20% of soldiers during World War I and World War II actually discharged their weapons.
The same numbers seem to hold up during the American Civil War, and many other conflicts.
When you look at the ancient world, the patterns hold. People are generally fearful about confronting people who will fight back, but become greatly empowered when a perceived adversary is retreating -- especially when they seem to have caused the retreat by their own valor. The real damage people take is after that retreating greatly empowers people to pursue.
I had never put the two points together -- about the confidence from generating retreat, and about thinking about the Mongolian cavalry troops would bait their foes to charge...
...but sitting there in the little room on the last night in the Philippines, I think I got it. Not just intellectually, but a much more visceral understanding of why pursuit happens. So I've maybe got a more nuanced understanding of history and human nature.
It's remarkably powerful when you replace subjectively negative emotions with objective assessments, and then look to gain understanding from it. I'd been studying some techniques for having a greater mental control, and by looking to apply them -- and just understand the situation that unfolded objectively, instead of placing any value on it -- I was able to break from feeling bad, and instead get interesting intellectual understanding of it.
I'm not happy it all unfolded, but I'm not at all unhappy either. It's just interesting. And how many more opportunities in life are there, when things seemingly go wrong, to gain interesting understandings?