Travel Paranoia: Is It Worth It?

While traveling through South America, I had an intense, unfounded paranoia that we were going to be the victims of violent crime.


I was convinced that we’d be mugged at knifepoint. Or hijacked on a bus. Or maybe ripped off at an ATM. Or, worst of all, kidnapped on the sidewalk so someone could sell my liver on the black market. (OK, I didn’t really think that last one was going to happen to me, but it was happening to little old ladies in Bolivia. I saw it on the news.)

Quito, Ecuador
Any one of these people could be a knife-wielding thief.

There were so many stories out there, about people who’d been robbed. Sometimes it was covert – they looked away for a second, and their bag was gone – and sometimes it was by force – their bus got stopped and thieves boarded, demanding all electronics.

We do not travel in luxury, but we’re not exactly shoestring travelers, either. I had a laptop, an iPad, an iPod, and my engagement ring. I stopped wearing the ring in Buenos Aires, because I developed this weird theory that someone was going to rob me for it and I wouldn’t be able to get it off my finger, so they’d simply cut off my finger with their monster knife.

I told you. It was unfounded paranoia, but it was there all the same.

The worst was carrying my laptop in what was obviously a laptop bag. After a few weeks we decided that Jared would carry the bag because it was less noticeable on him than me.

Backpacking in South America
I felt like a thief magnet. Now that I look back, it wasn’t so bad.

The one place I relaxed my concerns was once we entered our private room, dumped our stuff, and locked the door. Whether we were in the room or not, I did not worry about our things.

This was a mistake.

While I wish we could have stayed in fancy places, our budget just doesn’t stretch that far. (Someday, though. Someday.) However, we didn’t stay in bottom-of-the-range hostels, either. We were willing to pay a little bit more for a place that seemed clean and secure, in a good location, with available double rooms.

In Guayaquil, we had what we thought was a nice spot. We left for the day. The money belt stayed in the room. The laptop stayed in the room, as did the iPad. The ring was in a pouch in the money belt, along with six twenty-dollar bills and our passports.

When we came back, the computer was there. So was the iPad and the ring. So, apparently, was the money and passports. It wasn’t until Jared was counting out the cash to get a handle on the next day’s budget that things went awry.

“There’s sixty bucks missing,” he said.

We searched the room. We wracked our brains. Did we spend the $60? Did we put it aside for something?

No. We did not.

Cusco, Peru
Thieves. Probably. Maybe. Or not at all.

The money was gone. And all we could figure was that someone had come into the room, seen the money belt, and slipped out with a little cash.

It sounds absurd, but possible. We felt terribly guilty because it meant that we suspected either the hostel staff or another guest, but all signs pointed in that direction.

In South America, sixty bucks goes a long way. It’s hardly the end of the world, but it still sucks.

Getting robbed didn’t feel the way I thought it would. We were both annoyed and disappointed, frustrated from our position of helplessness. Oh, we went over the things we should have done differently – usually, we hid the money belt before leaving the room, but it was the end of the trip and we were getting complacent.

We went down and talked to the hostel owner, who was very sympathetic but couldn’t really do anything. He told us to stay in touch by email, but we never heard from him again.

But after our robbery, the strongest emotion I experienced was relief. This was it – our compulsory ‘I got robbed in South America’ experience, and it had been pretty tame.

Iguanas in Guayaquil
But the real question was: are those iguanas going to try and rob me? It’s hard to say.

As soon as we got to the airport for our flight back to the States, I put my ring back on. I didn’t stress about carrying the laptop, and although I was conscious of those around me, I wasn’t giving a suspicious eye to every man, woman, and child within a 100-meter radius.

When we touched down in Chicago, all thoughts of violent crime melted from my mind. I told this to some family members later that week, and they looked at me incredulously.

“You know this is Chicago, right? A city with one of the highest murder rates in the country?”

And part of me still wanted to be paranoid, but I couldn’t. It’s too much work, and it doesn’t prevent anything in the end.

Best to be aware, make responsible decisions, and remember that you might be missing sixty bucks, but hey, look – all ten fingers!

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  1. Before we left for our own big trip, I was insistent that we get a money belt — I remembered when I backpacked around Europe for 7 weeks in 2005 and I wore that sucker all the time. Since we left in August, we have not used it once. It may be foolish, but at least in Asia, I find myself more concerned about getting scammed than I do about getting robbed or pickpocketed. We try to just be sensible and take the same precautions that we would back home and so far that seems to be working.

    But I totally understand your sense of relief after the robbery you had been dreading finally took place. We were possibly/probably tea scammed while in Guilin, and after that I felt like we had got our obligatory scammed in China moment out of the way and could just move on with our trip!

    1. We have only used a money belt in South America and, I believe, India. Jared always wears it but I get freaked out whenever he went to get money out of it. Made me feel like such a target (though obviously everything made me feel like a target) and I don’t know if we’ll use it again but it’s possible.
      I agree about scams in Asia – I felt incredibly safe everywhere, but not so much when it came to negotiating prices, etc. I hate to be so skeptical of people because that’s not cool, but I like your approach of treating it like you do back home. A little common sense goes such a long way.

  2. Really glad you didn’t lose any body parts! It’s true you have to remember that it could happen anywhere. And one of the reasons it seems like it happens more when you’re travelling is because everyone you talk to is travelling all the time, so there’s more chance for people to nab stuff. I’m sure I’ll relax when I get back to the UK too. It’s human nature I guess…

    1. I think other travelers/blogs/media definitely made it worse – I found myself quizzing everyone I met, asking them how their experiences had been as far as safety. And every time someone had a story, it confirmed my convictions that something was going to happen. Looking back, it was ridiculous, but that’s easy to say from the comfort zone of my parents’ house in Indianapolis! Hope you don’t have any more incidents on your trip!

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