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?
Great story. When I traveled the Philippines, I definitely did not feel like it was the safest country around. The advertisements in the local newspapers for AK-47 and machine guns, available for purchase at the nearest shopping mall, did not allay my fears.
I've also had some more or less scary experiences in the developing world. I think the one I most vividly remember was back when I arrived in Saigon, Vietnam, back in 2009. I decided to catch a cycle-rickshaw, or whatever you call them there, and I asked the price beforehand for a ride that would've taken something like 10mn. I knew the usual price went by US$1 (around 15,000 Vietnamese dong I think). The driver responded, cheerfully, "You pay what you want. No worries. Just pay any amount you want." I kind of insisted in knowing how much he charged (rather than firmly making my offer), but just got the big smile with the same response.
I decided to take the ride, and after getting driven around to shops owned by his buddies, and pressured into buying some crap, I finally arrived to my destination. Disembarking the cycle-rickshaw, I tended a $1 bill to the driver, and said thanks. He then looked at me and said, "No. You pay me $15. This is the price for the ride." At that point I basically laughed and categorically refused to pay him the exorbitant sum he asked. He continued, increasingly more aggressively, to insist on me giving him the equivalent of US$15. After about 10mn--which felt like a long time believe me--where I basically just stood in front of him replying "no" over and over again, he started shouting "I going to kill you. No joking. I kill you right now."
At that point I started freaking out a little bit, but luckily it was midday, and there was a lot of people around, as well as curious bystanders (all of them Vietnamese, none of them really interested in helping either of us, but most seemed to sympathize with the driver). At that point I basically tended him the equivalent of $5, which is still hugely overpriced, and walked away, never looking back.
Lesson learned that day: always agree on a price before taking a taxi/rickshaw ride.
"I rarely eat junk food, but when I do, it's after I had a brush with extreme danger."
Thanks for being so honest about your experience. On the rare occasion that something like this happens to me, I tend to overcompensate with ego and make myself out to be more of a hero than I was at the moment. In truth, I was always small as hell and scared shitless.
In Kolkata, India, I encountered a similar situation when I was backpacking three years ago. I was naive and wandered into the commuter rail tracks where a shantytown was set up along the active railroad tracks. I started photographing a child and her sisters when I noticed a crowd started to gather around me. An older gentleman walked up with an elderly man in a badly infected leg cast. He pushed his hand out aggressively in a begging gesture and demanded in English that I take his older cousin with the bad leg to a restaurant for a meal or give him rupees. I firmly said no, but he got into my face and I can smell his breath. He called more men from a shack behind him and at this point I was causing quite a scene.
At that moment, with all of my fancy gadgets and machine gun shutter cameras with wide angle lenses I never felt more vulnerable in my life. I realize that even as a college educated US citizen with my youth and yearning to change the world, I still have a soft belly as anyone for a quick jab with a knife. These men can easily overpower me and leave me without my passport, gadgets, and my life. I said firmly that I won't give anything to anybody and then ran as quickly as I can. Luckily, a busy commuter train passed by with people hanging out the doors. I hoped that the sight of the commuters would discourage any acts of violence towards me. I ran down towards the track until I saw a commuter station and disappeared into the crowd. This was my first and last experience looking for poverty-porn in the developing world.
It seems logical to conclude that they wouldn't do anything to you if you just stayed there, displaying unshakable confidence.
It might not be easy to pull that off though, I'm not sure if I could do it.
That's a risk mate, if you just stand there you've giving them a chance to surround you.
Maybe the three of them will be intimidated by your manliness.
Or maybe one guy shoves you in the back, you drop your shit, another guy pushes you over when your off balance, they take all your stuff and maybe kick you in the head a few times.
I'd rather run and see if I an get a better position.
I'll reread the post, but I'm a bit unclear on what an alternative approach could have been? Fighting a large group is impractical, running makes them chase - so what else can you do? In retrospect it seems like your approach of "run till you can tackle one or two at once" was the best after all :S
What areas did you visit in the Philippines? If you have the time take a trip to Boracay or Cebu. Both are absolutely beautiful.
Thank you for sharing this. I see the value in the self-affirming stories people tell about their struggles, but I relate more to your dispassionate style, as I myself often frame things as "That was a shitty thing that happened but it's going to make a great story/provide a valuable lesson". When I was younger I was in a borderline abusive relationship. Whether it sucked or not is neither here nor there -- the suckitude is subjective and varies heavily with my state of mind.
But what I noticed for myself was how quickly I submerged my own personality in order to make his weaknesses less apparent. I though of it as a compassionate gesture at the time, and I'm reminded of it every time I'm tempted to cut someone some slack-- by not drawing attention to whatever it is, weak spot, blind spot, inability to measure up, whatever, the choice I make to not draw out the poison weakens us both.
There is a tendency nowadays to make allowances for people for what seem like good reasons, because it's a compassionate or humane thing to do. But from that relationship, I feel like I have a crystal clear understanding of when that's *actually* a humane thing to do, or if it's a characterless thing to do.
So it was worth it, I think. All my shitty experiences have been.
In 2006, I quit the vast majority of intoxicants. I don't drink, I don't use recreational drugs, I don't smoke tobacco, I don't drink soda, and I am working on quitting all sweets entirely, and largely succeeding. I am not one for fine dining, and not frequently one for other forms of hedonism.
I usually do not advertise this - I might write about it for people who wish to know what I do, but I do not bring it up in conversation unless it comes up. But occasionally it does come up, and a common reaction is someone saying, half-joking, "Then why bother living?"
I think I understand. Many people do jobs they dislike for causes they feel nothing about. This must wreak havoc on a man's spirit. Most people spend more of their waking time on their work than any other thing - I can only imagine what spending the bulk of my time on something I disliked would feel like. Or worse, not even something I disliked - but something I felt very neutral about.
If a man's occupation becomes a slow crushing of his spirit, then of course he would need high energy, and high impact to free him from it. He needs to fit all of his leisure into his remaining waking time - from 6PM at night to 10PM when he is home from work, on the two days of his weekend, and his vacation time each year. Of course, not even that time is all his own - he still has to commute, run errands, do admin, do necessary little things. The reality of the situation is far worse - most people don't live bad lives, they just move slowly and quietly through things they don't particularly care for.
Of course, if a man only had 5% of his waking time to himself, he would want to maximize this time in the easiest, most surefire way of producing pleasure and relaxation. Who could blame this man? I don't. If I was suffering through a soul-killing occupation and had very little time, I would want to make sure that the time I did have was very enjoyable.
A year ago, when I decided to go raw, I bought a cookbook recommended to me by a friend called Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow. At first glance it looked like a hippie book, but if the food tasted half as good as it looked in the glossy photos, it would be worth it.
The book is written by the founders of a restaurant in New York City called Pure Food and Wine. I made a healthy ice cream recipe from it which was absolutely delicious. However, my friend Elisia tried it and said that it wasn't nearly as good as when they made it in the restaurant. And so my desire to eat at Pure Food and Wine was sparked.
When I heard that we had a trade show to go to in NYC for work, I was excited - I would finally get to go to Pure Food and Wine. My coworkers could tell how excited I was, and most of them agreed to go with me on Sunday night, the first of three nights in New York. I made the reservations, and off we went.