STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

 

As a Canadian having now lived in Costa Rica for 7+ years, I often get asked by expats on smooth(er) integration and immersion into a new culture. With some cultures having an innate dislike for foreigners relating to “stealing” jobs from nationals, losing unique elements of culture, cultural disconnects and the like, it can at times make one a target that stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. This article is the result, though not limited to the list itself as this is just the tip of the iceberg. Some conceptual ideas on survival and safety when living abroad as an expat:

  1. Be aware. Situationally aware. Yes, it’s a broad general term but it simply means noticing things that stand out, that don’t seem right, that set off your intuition, that can be perceived to be a potential issue: strange people hovering in the neighborhood, cars parked in areas for extended periods of time, items left in places you don’t recall leaving them. Smoke billowing around corners you have limited vision. Shadow reflections of oncoming unseen individuals. Mirrors to see people’s actions/body language/tells without them knowing. Movement inside a car you thought was uninhabited. Silhouettes in the dark. It can be as basic or as diverse as you want to make it.
  2. Accept the fact that you’re a stranger in a strange land and act accordingly. Whether you fall into this category or not, you are perceived as being “American/North American”, having money and, oftentimes correctly, not being part of “their” world (meaning the criminal). The more you showcase this in public and draw attention, the more you’ll likely receive.
  3. Fit in as much as is possible, even if it means learning a little Spanish and attempting to speak to the locals with it. Get to know your neighbors. Support local business. Talk to people. Be friendly.
  4. Accept the fact that you, too, could be a victim and, yes, it COULD happen to you. Oftentimes people who live scared and pray that it couldn’t happen to them transmit this through body language in public. Be confident, act like a hard target and carry yourself like you know the territory and are comfortable in the culture.
  5. You don’t need a pitbull or Rottweiler. Simply something that makes a lot of noise and draws attention is a) enough to make them go to another house, b) make your house a potentially harder mark than is worth their while and c) give you enough time to clear your head (if in the middle of the night) and take the appropriate steps. (eg. escape, call 911, get to your gun/weapon.) I like the dog idea as much as the alarm idea. This is a loyal friend/family member and if you treat them right they instinctively protect their owner in various ways. If your dog is barking at-length there may be a legitimate reason for it, don’t brush it off. Remember, everything is contextual. If it ends up being the neighborhood kids having a mahenga in front of your house, no harm no foul. It took 10 seconds to find this out.
  6. Weapons are a great force multiplier and are far more effective than anything someone can do without one, which I realize is a moral issue for many…or the majority. That being said, to go heavily along with what Paul said at the meeting, if you have the intention of using one, get training. The last thing you need is a criminal taking it away from you and using it against you. Improvised weapons are everywhere around the house and it takes someone who can envision how to use them, how to handle them and what kind of damage they can do. (flexible, bladed, penetrating, projectile, impact, shielding, etc.) If you have the will to use a weapon, use it with intent. We have a catchphrase: “He who hesitates, meditates…horizontally.” Use it with commitment and visualize what you’re protecting. What’s important to you and what are you willing to fight for. Could you move on having lost them or they you. Be feral and vile if you need to survive. Mindset is far more important than physical skill (But, remember, training enhances this although I realize not everybody can or is able to partake in training nor has any inclination to fight.) Here’s a cold truth most people are not able to accept: the only way to defeat violence (when all other avenues are spent) is utilize greater violence. Be brutal. Self-defense implies that there are 4 elements present: ability, opportunity, intent and preclusion. Your first 3 have already been passed by context, the 4th isn’t required. It is you or them if you decide to act with aggression. If you’re not able to come to terms with this…remember, for those who haven’t delved into this arena, it is not a walk-in-the-park – the pre-, during and post- parts are traumatic and life-changing. Another reason to get proper training on the whys/hows/whens.
  7. Yes, some are expensive but they are a great deterrent and if they work only once they will have justified their cost. (You don’t want to find out AFTER you’ve made the decision that they’re TOO expensive that it was worth the investment. Too late.) That being said, pick someone reputable as there are many offering this service that will immediately in turn pass on the knowledge to their burglar friends of how to trip the alarm. I would recommend going through a reputable security company. Oftentimes, these companies actually monitor through remote CCTV, will let you see the footage and take their business seriously as it’s extremely competitive and losing a client is not something they want, nor the bad reputation that’ll come from taking the above route. (Independent companies may not often care, remember, you’re a Gringo to them and they predominantly work with and in their community)
  8. Pretending to be asleep can sometimes work (as the adamant gentleman insisted at the meeting) and, like the story I mentioned, can save lives. But, remember, from this story, they were actually fully asleep and there were no physiological anomalies needed to be controlled. If the burglars want money (and think you have it), want to kidnap, be violent and take their resentment out on the homeowner for whatever reason, it can backfire. There is no one right solution and a catch-all response to every scenario. Home invasions are always contextual so plan accordingly. (And “pretending” to be asleep is often easier said than done with adrenal dump/tachypsychia-heart pumping 250 bpms, perpetual shaking, uncontrolled breathing, fearful wife or kids beside you, involuntary responses, etc.) Ever tried it with an angry wife/husband after a fight and they’re not quite finished? How’s that worked for you? (If it doesn’t work on her/him it just might not work on them)
  9. Do a quick scope of the house upon return (and upon leaving). Don’t get caught off-guard. This goes for car safety as well. Before getting in your car, look underneath the car, backseat, vehicles beside/behind/in front of. Don’t stop too close to the car in front of you. Lock your doors while driving. Put your seatbelt on after you’ve locked the door and take it off before unlocking to get out. Pay attention to strange cars following you and don’t lead them to your home where you’re isolated. (A better idea is to lead them to the police station or a populated public place you’re familiar with. Act like you’re calling someone to report them WITHOUT getting out of the car. Never get out when challenged or pull over to a place of their terms. Everything regarding safety should always be made on your terms. It’s your life and only you are in control of it.)
  10. Check for escape routes and safe(r) hiding places if needed, both in the house, in the yard and through neighboring land. In a pinch this saves you decision-making time under the effects of adrenaline if the proverbial shit does hit the fan. (And remember, if you can get out of that exit, someone can also get in) The last thing you want is to make new decisions while under intense pressure for your life. Which leads me to my next point….
  11. ….Visualize situations in advance and come up with a plan as to how you would act if…

(eg. Burglar comes in through the back, catches you off-guard in the night, alarm goes off, you hear someone fiddling with the window) Have that reaction hardwired by the time it happens. It takes no time at all and puts you in a state of constant vigilance. Preparation, not paranoia.

  1. With what’s happening in the U.S. right now with law enforcement “profiling” certain races, there’s been a negative stereotype, whether justifiably so or not in certain cases. But profiling can be an extremely effective tool for a civilian/citizen. What have the invaders done in previous home invasions? Were there more than one? What’re the common qualities of the burglar? (lower-class, multiples, from in-town/from out-of-town, poor upbringing, expose to violence at a young age, are they violent, could they be, do they have a history of violence) This is infinite but always better to know what you’re looking at than being caught off-guard by it. What places are populated by this type of person, where are they in accordance to your residence. Criminals are different in every place. A home invader in the U.S. may have different strategies and tactics than in Canada. Canada different than in Costa Rica. It’s not a universal phenomenon. It’s location-specific.
  2. Change routine. Take different routes to work, go to different restaurants, change your activity patterns at home. The more you act in patterns the easier it is for criminals to predict your behavior and take advantage of it. (“Bill goes out for supper with his wife every Tuesday to ChiChi’s at 5:00pm” – they watch and pick-up on these things.)
  3. Learn to think like a criminal. I call it the “Predator-Prey Reversal”. If you were a home-invader/mugger/kidnapper/car-jacker..hell, sociopath, killer, mass-murderer, active shooter, violence-driven individual…what would YOU look for in a victim? Don’t be that. Be specific and be extreme, it doesn’t make you a bad person to get in touch with your inner animal, you’ll find you can relate that much more to how others operate and make yourself less of a victim.
  4. Learn to “people-watch.” I have at times taken students to the mall for class. Just to watch people. Who hypothetically looks like a potential problem, interaction between people, notice suspicious behavior, who’s watching you, why.
  5. The modern criminal. There are two types of violence: social and asocial. Social is at the bar over a spilt beer, two men cockfighting over a woman of vice versa, demonstrations of physicality and an agreement to “settle things.” These rarely turn really ugly as they’re over pride. Asocial violence has a completely different dynamic: it’s to benefit one of the two people/groups involved. It’s not a fight they’re looking for but a victim and they have a profile too. Body language: fearful, slumped, short steps, looking down/only straight ahead, meek, submissive. Don’t be these things. Even if you can’t authentically, ACT persuasively like this in public, when there may be eyes on you. (And, yes, these actions can follow you home so it pertains more than a little to a home invasion, without a doubt)
  6. OC sprays, homemade/improvised sprays, tasers, stun guns. It’s not a guaranteed problem-solver. Know your weapon always if you’re planning on using it and NEVER bluff. If you’re called on it, the ensuing damage could be greater and more personal to the criminal as you’ve aggravated him/her. Practice how to use your tools: accessibility (where do you carry it, can it be deployed rapidly, do you know how to use it, what obstacles need to be overcome to utilize it-locks, switches, Velcro openings, etc.) What are the advantages and disadvantages of using it. (A spray is far more effective in the house than outside with a 30km/hour wind blowing against you) If you think you’re armed simply because you’re carrying a weapon, let me assure you that without this pre-emptive planning, it is a decoration, nothing more.  I haven’t seen many tasers here in CR with the two extendable prongs. The majority being sold are of the stun-gun variety which means what? You have to be up-close and personal with your aggressor to use it. Close-range. If you have no training and have inner doubts that it may get taken away from you, it will. And some sprays don’t work on everyone. They do testing where some people (not many but this goes to pain tolerance, skin resistance, drug/alcohol usage, your accuracy, the volume of spray that actually hits intended targets and other intangibles that you will not know at that moment)
  7. Internet safety. DO NOT post your activities on Facebook or other social media. After the fact is one thing but to do so before invites the criminal to find out when’s the best time to invade your home. “My wife and I are going to the Juanes concert tonight! Can’t wait, it starts at 7!” Not a wise idea, in fact, pure stupidity. And for those of you that say Facebook is safe and you’ve put all the necessary precautions up, you haven’t. It’s free so that means ANYBODY and EVERYBODY is on it, including the criminals. Be cautious of accepting people on your friend’s list that you don’t know, don’t completely trust, just met or are simply friends of people you know somewhat.
  8. Police take in the U.S. an average of 11 minutes response time for home invasions, from what they’re announcing recently in the U.S. and Canada. (ADT advertises in Canada for 33 minutes before police arrive through their monitoring) How much more do you think it’d be here?? Significance? You can’t rely solely on this element to protect you and keep you safe. Most home invasions will be solved, one way or other (if you get what I’m saying) long before the 11-minute mark, if you even have time to put this train in motion. And, remember, police here aren’t always your friend as this is a small country and they may have grown up in the community along with many of the people who have intent to rob you.
  9. Get in habit of “proofing” your house to the extent you’re able…daily. This is one pattern that is a good one for both yourselves and onlookers. Lock windows and doors before leaving. Skylights. Check for other openings that you may not have thought of where they can get in. Are there weak points in your property that open themselves to unlawful entry? Points where the CCTV cameras don’t hit? Areas with poor visual acuity? Blind spots? Be prudent.
  10. Post-incident. Here’s one that doesn’t get enough respect: learn basic 1st You simply never know regarding the aftermath of violence. Loved ones may survive who’ve been left for dead or are dramatically injured, including yourself. A little damage control goes a long way.
  11. Post-incident. Never chase after your aggressor if you’ve managed to survive the initial robbery in-tact. A) Its no longer self-defense. B) You are re-initializing potential violence and C) could end up 6-feet under.

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