The West is known for its predictability and safety. Thus, one of the first things that you discover when you venture outside the West is that the rest of the world is less organized and less predictable. As a result, the feeling of safety diminishes and, with that, the feeling of danger increases.
There are various degrees of danger. I’ve lived in dangerous countries. I’ve lived in countries that didn’t seem dangerous on the surface but could become dangerous any moment. Last, but not least, I’ve also lived in very safe countries where the chance of someone breaking down your door in the middle of the night was as remote as winning a Powerball lottery.
A country’s level of danger can be deceptive. For instance, if you’d ask an average person living in America or in another Western country, if Eastern Europe is dangerous, the answer would almost always be “Yes.” Everyone has heard a thing or two about the various killings happening in countries like Russia or Ukraine. But, in fact, my experience has been that Eastern Europe is actually safer than the rest of Europe and the West in general (except Scandinavia).
On one extreme, you have Scandinavia which is extremely safe. Denmark is the safest country I’ve ever lived in. Denmark is the only place in the world that I’m aware where you could leave a bicycle on the street without attaching it to something, go to some store and still have it waiting for you when you return. When you walk around Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, you see parked bicycles everywhere. Sure, I’ve heard stories of people stealing bikes. Whispers. Unsubstantiated rumors. Perhaps if you have a very expensive bike, it might get stolen, but a regular bike that I bought for $100 or so was never stolen.
Do the same in most places around the world (even if you chain it to some pole), and there’s a good chance it won’t be there when you come back. In Brooklyn, NY, where I grew up and lived for many years, leaving your bicycle outside—chained or not chained—is an automatic “donation” to your community.
There are two main reasons that explain Denmark’s stellar safety. First, Denmark is a relatively rich country. Unlike in other developed countries, that wealth isn’t just concentrated at the very top but is distributed across its population. It’s simply not worth the hassle to steal someone else’s bike when an average person can earn the money needed to buy one in just a few hours of labor.
The second reason has to do with the mentality of the population. Denmark is an extremely meritocratic society. Danes’ favorite word is “fair.” I’ve done business in the country, and most of the agreements and resolutions were hinged on whether something was fair or not. Thus, it’s no surprise that, to the majority of Danes, it wouldn’t be “fair” to steal someone else’s bicycle.
The rest of the world, however, isn’t so “fair.” The world isn’t made up of Denmarks; things are much more complicated. Latin America is a good example. It’s a continent of colorful countries with proud people, but also a home to some regions that can become super dangerous very quickly. The best word that comes to mind is unpredictable. Of course, I’m lumping up many different countries together, and the regions do vary in their danger levels: Venezuela is more dangerous than Colombia; Brazil is more dangerous than Chile. But there are very few Latin American countries that are as predictable as its European counterpart: Spain.
I spent several years living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is one of the most picturesque cities in the world; indeed I can’t think of a single place that matches it in terms of raw natural beauty. When I first moved to Rio de Janeiro, the safety advice I’ve received was simple and effective: blend in. That meant I needed to mimic the locals and not try to stand out too much. And that’s exactly what I did. I bought Havaianas flip-flops, a cheap T-shirt, and some cheap shorts. No Prada or Armani apparel. Apart from the fact that I was a bit too light-skinned for a Carioca (a native of Rio de Janeiro), I didn’t look that much different from locals.
Rio de Janeiro can seem fairly safe one minute but can get very dangerous the next. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise many as the city is surrounded by favelas (shanty towns) that are so enormous that some of them have their own McDonalds and Post Offices. Staying away from the favelas and walking around the city’s main neighborhoods, you really don’t get the feeling that something bad might happen. Nevertheless, there’s always a chance. It’s as though something is always bubbling below the surface.
Many of my good friends were robbed. Naturally, some of it happened at night. But, a couple of good friends were also robbed in broad daylight. A good friend was once walking around the busy center at noon and a man approached him with a knife and demanded all his valuables. Another friend was robbed while relaxing on the beach during the day while surrounded by other people. I’ve also heard of several hostels in an affluent area getting robbed by an armed gang.
Rio de Janeiro was the only city where I never left my apartment with things I was willing to lose. My expensive iPhone, my watch, my credit cards, and everything except just the minimum cash needed to pay bus fare was always securely stored in my apartment. Come to think of it, it always just felt strange carrying around a phone in your pocket that a local would need to work for three months (or more) just to be able to afford. Thankfully, I was never robbed, although I did have close calls when a large group of favela kids ran towards me just as I was walking back to my apartment at three in the morning.
In Colombia, a good friend was robbed of all his belongings when two guys on a motorcycle approached his taxi while he was en route home. These occurrences are so common that drivers are advised to not stop at red lights when driving at night.
From Russia with love
Eastern Europe operates under different unwritten rules. When I first came to Ukraine and rented an apartment, my host spent about fifteen minutes explaining to me the neighborhood, pointing out the shops in the area and the hidden food joints. He then proceeded to tell me about the safety aspects of the country. He told me that, unlike in other countries, the chances of getting robbed on the street were low, I just had to watch out for petty theft and street hustlers.
His advice was prescient: about four months later, someone entered my place (it was a different apartment) in a nice part of Kiev and stole my luggage. I say “entered” because there were no signs of forced entry and the door was locked the same way that I left it. They must’ve had a copy of the keys. The previous night I left Kiev and took a night train to another city for business. When I returned the next day, I experienced one of the biggest shocks of my life when I noticed my entire suitcase was missing.
In this sense, what can happen in Brazil (and other parts of Latin America) doesn’t often happen in Eastern Europe. You probably aren’t going have an armed gang descend on some beach in Odessa in southern Ukraine, or a bunch of armed robbers break into a hostel in the center of Kiev. Theft happens in a more subtle way, usually without you noticing or being present altogether.
The safety situation in Asia is closer to Eastern Europe than to Latin America, although it’s much safer than both. In Thailand, the things you should really watch out for is avoiding getting ripped off at the various markets and other annoying situations. On one of my first trips to Thailand in 2004, I hailed a cab and instructed the driver to take me to a travel agency. Unbeknown to me, the driver purposely drove me to a completely different travel agency. Upon arriving, I smiled at the driver and pointed out that this wasn’t where I wanted to go. The driver smiled back and then shook his head as though he had no idea. It wasn’t a big deal as I ended up buying my tickets there anyway.
In Bali, I rented a small house just outside of the central city of Ubud. It was a remote part of town without any other houses around. Around my house, young kids liked to stay up late night, relaxing on their scooters and listening to music. One night, the lights in the house went out. I panicked, my Eastern European instincts kicked in, and I thought I was about to get robbed; the equipment I had in the house was easily worth several thousands of dollars, enough to cover many months for a typical villager’s salary. Nothing happened. Five minutes later, the lights went back on, and I continued working.
Thinking back to that experience, I realize just how much I overreacted because the chance of an armed robbery on a Buddhist island of Bali was extremely remote. All the villagers know each other. So, if something happened, there would be a good chance everyone would know who did it and punish them appropriately. And, besides, why would they do it in the first place?
This partly explains why you could rent a really nice scooter for the entire month without needing to leave a deposit. If you want to rent a scooter almost everywhere else around the world, you must leave an arm and a leg as the deposit. After all, how are you going to steal that nice scooter if you’re located on one big island?
Of course, keep in mind that I’m talking about the developing countries of Southeast Asia and not their super-rich East Asian cousins such as South Korea, Taiwan or Japan. In Japan, there’s so little crime that the bored police force doesn’t know what to do anymore.
Predictability and freedom
I’ve noticed an inverse correlation between safety and freedom. In Denmark, the chance of a street attack or an armed gang swooping on your apartment is pretty much nil, but on the other hand, Denmark is an extremely boring and plain country. The standard of living is high, but that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly enjoyable place to live. And, indeed, when I lived there, I couldn’t really break into Danish society; I was always a foreigner and all my friends were foreigners. The moment I finished the project, I caught the first flight to Bulgaria where I immediately felt at home.
America may not be the safest country in the world, but it’s easily one of the most predictable countries in the world. If you’re attacked or your house is broken into, police will do their best to find the perpetrators. There are laws and regulations and everyone is expected to follow. There are courts that work (at least better than other courts). If someone steals money from you, you can sue them in small claims court and get your money back. And, say what you want about “free speech”, but America’s freedom of press is the envy of the majority of the world’s citizens.
But, like in Denmark, all this predictability and stability comes at a cost. The US government is involved in all of your affairs, from the moment you’re born to the moment you die. Things like privacy are being eroded at an alarming rate in the name of terrorism, national security or some other buzzword.
People perceive a country to be less organized and more dangerous usually because of a weaker government and nonexistent rules and regulations. Eastern Europe is the perfect case study. Why is Eastern Europe different than Western Europe? Because of the weak and ineffective government. The police are a joke. The courts are a joke. The legal system is a joke. The tax system is a joke. The infrastructure is a joke. The “anti-corruption committees” that seem to be in fashion in Ukraine and Russia’s parliaments these days are the biggest joke of all. Everything is a joke.
So, what happens when you have a weak and an ineffective government? First, increased corruption by moneyed interests (oligarchs, etc). When the government is weak and broke, private money nicely greases the wheels of power. Second—and this is crucial—the day-to-day functioning of the country falls back on its citizens. Citizens are forced to rely on one another like never before. The fact that you can walk around in a “third world” city like Kiev, Bangkok or Medellin at midnight without the risk of being jumped by a bunch of hooded guys means that society is somehow held together by certain values.
When the government is ineffective, people are forced to become more resourceful. They need to take more responsibility for themselves. I’ve written before that one of my most interesting observations when I was in Russia$ was the fact that people don’t hold you by the hand and explain everything to you like what happens in America or Western Europe. That’s because Russia’s government is weak and ineffective, forcing people to fend for themselves.
That’s also why there’s a strong sense of masculinity in places like Russia. It’s not because men read self-improvement blogs all day, it’s because there’s no other option for survival.
The price of safety
Safety, predictability, self-reliance move in tandem. The safer, the more predictable the country, the less exciting and free it is. Unless I’m stealing lots of money from some oligarch or stirring up some revolution (I have to be an idiot to do either), I feel pretty free in Ukraine. Same for Thailand or Bali. I’m free to do things that I could never dream of doing in the West. The government has bigger fish to fry than to worry about small fish like me.
Ultimately, safety, at least outside truly desperate and failed states (e.g., parts of Africa, Middle East) where you don’t even have the basic infrastructure in place, is more of a psychological notion. Often times, people want to “feel” safe than to rationally understand that one country isn’t more dangerous than another. Because safety is intimately tied to your well-being, a big component is based on emotions.
In order to feel “safe,” you have to give up certain aspects of your lifestyle. In countries like America or Denmark, you give up predictability, excitement, and self-reliance. Since the government is stronger and more organized, you give up various personal freedoms that the government now assumes “for your protection.”
That explains why my two and a half years of living in Brazil was also one of the most memorable times in my life. Even my endless writing about Brazil barely does the country any justice. Brazil isn’t the safest place on the planet, but living there was one of hell of a ride. Comparing to other countries where I’ve been, Brazil is truly in a league of its own.
My current sojourn in Eastern Europe has gone on much longer than I initially anticipated. Initially, it was a bit difficult to get used to such a traditional society where everyone needs to assume a responsibility for their actions. Now, I can’t imagine living any other way. It’s sure a far cry from the psychological straightjacket I experience whenever I return to an increasingly evolving police state called America where freedom is something a politician recites and not something one experiences.
Life is a series of tradeoffs. If you’re willing to accept a certain level of personal responsibility, become more self-resilient and learn how to fend for yourself, you automatically grant yourself access to a wider world and, along with it, far richer and more colorful experiences, all combining into a great quality life at a very steep discount. From a personal development standpoint that might not be such a bad thing.