How Religion Can Help Keep Your Backpack Safe

Derek Travel Tips & Advice 25 Comments


When it comes to protecting our stuff while traveling, such methods as chaining our backpack to our train seat, using a PacSafe when leaving our bag in our hotel room and hiding our valuables in random places, go a long way in easing our minds. We certainly don’t want to take any chances as the thought of having our computer, camera, favorite sandals and boxes of extra contact lenses stolen remains permanently in the back of every traveler’s mind.

Just like home owners who don’t want their property broken into, the above tactics of travelers are the equivalent of those “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” and “Private Property, Keep Away” signs.

And those signs and those chains do tend to scare some would-be criminals from thinking about stealing something from us. “Don’t even think about it”, is the message we’re trying to send and to an extent, it is effective.

But is there another way to deter people from wanting to steal our stuff?

A VIRGIN KEEPS THE TROUBLEMAKERS AWAY

A few months ago, during my stay in Mexico, I was invited to spend a week on a beautiful 1000-acre ranch in the Mexican state of Queretaro. The property was amazing, with endless rows of Paulownia trees, hills covered in Agave, free-roaming horses, creatively designed cottages and offices, an intriguing worm manure operation, endless fruit trees and more. But in terms of security, what surprised me was that the only thing separating all of this from the outside world was a simple chain-link fence bordering the property. None of the buildings were ever locked, the horses were never tied down and the fruit trees were in plain view of everyone walking by.

Yet despite being surrounded by a poverty-stricken, rough and tumble village, according to the owner of the ranch, nothing had ever been stolen and nobody had ever been caught trespassing. In fact, quite the opposite had occurred. Despite the massive gap in wealth between the ranch and the village, the two existed in incredible harmony.

This confused me as it just seemed impossible that nobody would be tempted to jump a fence and grab a handful of oranges or peaches instead of having to spend a good chunk of their monthly salary to buy the same fruits from a shop.

And it was not until I embarked on an extensive walking tour of the ranch that I began to understand what was happening. Scattered all throughout the property, on fences, on trees and on posts stuck into the ground were a variety of colorful signs. But these signs did not issue the familiar stern warnings of “Keep Out” and “Stay Away”. Instead, alongside such positive statements as “Thank you for respecting our property” and “Love your friends and neighbors” was always a large picture of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, an image of the Virgin Mary that is widely cherished and celebrated among Mexican Catholics.

While the owner of the ranch is far from being a religious man, the people living around him are devout Catholics. And so he forms a connection with them through religion. Unlike a “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” sign, which creates a division, the pictures of the Virgin of Guadeloupe combined with the positive sayings, creates an all-encompassing community. And when people feel as if they are a part of a community, they tend to avoid wanting to create any problems.

HOW DOES THIS HELP TRAVELERS?

After pondering the above concept, I realized that I often use a similar method while traveling. For example, you’ll never find me in India without a large sticker of the Hindu god Ganesh slapped onto my backpack. Likewise, whenever I’m in a Muslim country, I tend to always carry around a small book of sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. And whenever I leave my bag unattended, I place that book right on top. I also tie Buddhist prayer beads to my backpack when I’m in Thailand and often times I’ll put a sticker of the country’s flag, as I did when backpacking around the Czech Republic, on my backpack. (That last one doesn’t have to do with religion, but it works in the same way.)

Why do I do this? To create a connection with the people around me.

And then I hope that such a connection, no matter how tiny and seemingly insignificant it may be, will dissuade the infamous pickpockets of Prague from stealing from a fellow Czech citizen or someone in Mumbai from grabbing at my backpack while Ganesh is closely watching their every move.

Now, does the fact that I’ve never had anything stolen from my backpack during 11 years of travel have anything to do with these tactics? I have no idea, but I’m quite certain that they have helped dissuade at least a handful of people from trying.

Think about this. If you were wandering around your home town and you suddenly stumbled upon two backpacks leaning up against a wall, would you steal the one that had a picture of Buddha (or any other religious figure that is important to you) on the front or the one that didn’t? Sorry, that was a trick question as I know that you wouldn’t steal either! At least I hope that’s the kind of readers I have! But let’s imagine, for a brief moment, that we could commit this crime. In that case, given my fondness for the Buddhist religion, I would take the Buddha-less backpack, as the picture, and the connection to my life that it creates, would make me think twice about taking the other one.

Of course, there’s plenty of people out there who don’t care at all whether or not they are connected in any way to the owner of the goods they want to steal. And they’ll just ignore the prayer beads or the Ganesh sticker, grab what they can and take off. But I’m willing to bet that such methods are effective to the point where it’s worth putting them into action.

Besides, there’s also an entirely different reason to try this out…

THE EXTRA (AND MORE IMPORTANT) BENEFIT

Even if this attempt at creating a meager connection with a particular country and its people doesn’t reduce the risk of running into any problems, it will undoubtedly become the starting point of many interesting conversations and experiences. As silly as it may sound, such a simple move as placing a sticker on your backpack does make a statement, telling local people that you have an interest in their country and in their culture. This small act will pique the curiosity of those you come into contact with, enticing them to not only ask questions, but to provide you with a rewarding opportunity to interact with the local population, to be a part of that community.


What are your thoughts? Do you do something similar when you’re traveling?

Photo credit: J-Cornelius

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Comments 25

  1. Dina

    Hey Earl, I think the trick works at least for some degree. There are many of petty thefts that are not conducted by serious/organized criminals, but by regular people when they are given the chance. These people steal by impulse. They could be religious in some degree, or afraid of God’s punishment. Those religious figures I think will decrease the impulse they have to steal.

    Along the way when I’m traveling, I am often curious with local tradition, and sometimes I buy their religious/cultural souvenirs/items and wear it. Maybe I won’t do it if it’s not coming from real interest though, and this is why:

    I was raised as a minority (ethnic, culture, and religion, which are all linked into physical appearance), so since I was small I had to deal with being different, danger (crime target), discrimination (even in bargaining) and difficulty to enter friend circles. Wearing attributes that were not mine would be considered as a fake gesture. I used to have to pretty much strip off attributes that identify me (religious symbols especially), but not going as far as putting up other’s attributes. Going plain. I still looked different by physical appearance though. I had to be comfortable being different and tried to get accepted that way.

    Great post, Earl, thought provoking 🙂
    .-= Dina´s last blog ..Friday Photo: Amazing Mud Volcano Eruption in Java, Indonesia =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dina – Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I can perfectly understand not wanting to wear other people’s cultural items when you are faced with such a difficult situation as a minority. I guess using anything that makes you stand out could potentially result in problems and especially when you’re growing up, it is important to be accepted by those around you.

      Traveling, on the other hand, is a different story. I’ve realized that when we seek interaction with a foreign culture, we are often the outcasts and ‘strange’ people in the eyes of the local population. As a result, using other group’s religions or cultural symbols in even the slightest way has often acted as a bridge that provides the connection I seek on my adventures. Of course, I’m only talking about placing a sticker on your backpack or putting some prayer beads on your wrist and nothing else that might be considered insulting or seem just plain ridiculous. Travelers walking barefoot throughout the streets of Delhi while wearing the clothes of a sadhu come to mind!

      1. Dina

        Hey Earl, maybe those barefoot travelers are actually converted! 😀
        Yeah, I behave differently before and now. Traveling change me a lot. Between before and now, I feel like having different roles in the community. Before I was a part of the community, which belong to the smaller group within it. Now I’m a newcomer in the community as a traveler. I am now curious and having the desire to emerge myself in what I find. Before there’s a sense of being defensive, now it’s more like jumping in (That’s including trying new stuff including culture).
        I hope this make sense 🙂
        .-= Dina´s last blog ..Friday Photo: Amazing Mud Volcano Eruption in Java, Indonesia =-.

        1. Earl

          That does make perfect sense! And that’s the beauty of travel, it’s about jumping into new circles without worrying about whether or not we ‘fit in’.

    1. Earl

      Thanks Ash. It’s always good to know that you’re out there keeping a watchful eye and making sure I don’t stray!

      And now I get to look forward to meeting you in person in a couple of weeks!

  2. Jennifer Barry

    This is an amazing story about the Mexican ranch. Naturally there are a ton of Mexicans in Texas so I know of their love for the Virgin. However, I didn’t know it was that powerful!

    I can see that definitely your Mohammed book was a better choice than the US flag when hanging out with the Taliban. 🙂
    .-= Jennifer Barry´s last blog ..Chile: Land of Contrasts =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jennifer – The book was undoubtedly a better choice than the US flag! I certainly won’t argue with that. As for the Virgin, she’s absolutely everywhere in Mexico. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a religious figure in any country plastered all over the place as much as much as the Virgin.

  3. Dave and Deb

    The first time I put something local on my belongings was like you in India. I had a Ganesh sticker on my journal and people loved it. It instantly gave us a connection to each other and it was always a conversation starter. Everyone loves Ganesh. I didn’t really think about it before, but I think that I will start putting something culturally significant on my backpack when I travel to the next place.
    .-= Dave and Deb´s last blog ..Cinque Terre’s Five Villages Hike =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Dave and Deb! I’m starting to think that Ganesh would be a conversation starter in almost any country. But it really is amazing how a simple sticker can bridge what would often otherwise be a challenging cultural gap. I’ve found that this tactic leads to more rewarding interactions than only putting our home country’s flag on our backpacks.

    1. Earl

      Hey Raam – Well, I apologize for this next question then…how do you like your Vibram FiveFingers? I’m currently contemplating buying a pair myself but am not quite convinced yet.

      1. Raam Dev

        I love them! 🙂 It’s really incredible feeling the Earth underneath your feet, feeling the shape of those cobblestone streets and the rocky dirt.

        Eventually I will get around to reviewing the FiveFingers on my blog, but I need to use something for a long time before reviewing it. I’ve been wearing them for almost a month now, but today I discovered something unexpected while visiting the Lotus Temple here in Delhi: No shoes are allowed, so everyone needs to put their shoes in a bag and leave it with these people underneath the walkway (they give you a ticket in return). I honestly didn’t feel safe leaving them there because they’re so unique.

        I ended up stuffing them in the two cargo pockets on my pants and hoping nobody stopped me and said I can’t even “bring” shoes in. (No one stopped me.)

        My best advice is find a local store that sells them (this can be difficult, as they’re relatively new and sell out quick!) and try on a pair. When I went to NYC to get my Indian Visa, I found a store that had them and tried them on. I was instantly hooked. I ordered a pair online, had them shipped to my parents house, and then had a friend bring them to India on his trip over.

        I ditched my hiking boots a few days ago, so now all I have are the FiveFingers. It should be interesting hiking in Nepal with them. 😀
        .-= Raam Dev´s last blog ..Sustainable Distribution of Abundance or Why I Don’t Haggle in the Third World =-.

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  5. Ashley

    So interesting! I never thought of putting local items on my bag, but it’s a great idea. Besides become a nice souvenir, it is a great way to connect with the place you’re in. And if I saw a lonely bag with a sticker of say my favorite hockey team on it (San Jose Sharks!), I probably stand guard and make a new friend when the owner returned.
    .-= Ashley´s last blog ..Travel Memories Monday – Delta, Utah =-.

    1. Earl

      Hey Ashley – That’s the general idea. And now I know what sticker to put on my backpack if I’m ever in your neighborhood!

      New friendships are made and interesting conversations are had just because of that one connection. And of course it doesn’t have to be a religious item either, just anything that might be a common denominator with as many people as possible.

      Actually, your San Jose Sharks mention reminded me of when I put a sticker photo of a famous Indian cricket player on my backpack. But I removed it after one day because I was exhausted from all of the conversations that took place as a result!

  6. Andrew

    The correct answer of which pack to steal: That with the image of the Buddha; for a true follower of the Buddha would never own a backpack.

    I can’t help but question the sincerity of a religious person who needs a last-second visual reminder to not steal. What does it say that I also don’t doubt the efficacy of this tactic?

    Oh this is too much fun, I’ll stop there. 🙂

    1. Earl

      Wow! I’m just happy to see that your still out there. I thought you had vanished for good!

      So let’s see, since a real Buddhist would never be found in a situation where they are contemplating which backpack to steal, only a misled Buddhist would be capable of thinking that choosing the backpack without the Buddha picture would be a more religiously-beneficial option. And so the tactic works.

      There are many a god-fearing criminals out there and if they have the choice of committing a crime, let’s say stealing a car, under the ‘eyes’ of a Jesus air-freshener handing from the rear-view mirror, I would bet they’d tiptoe away, not wanting their crime to be ‘noticed’. This is actually a real example and is a common tactic used in Mexico and Central America. Many non-religious people I know who live, work or frequently pass through some of the more dangerous areas of these countries use religious air-fresheners and put religious bumper stickers on their cars as a deterrent to would-be thieves. And as far as they’re concerned, it works.

      On a separate note, have you begun your around the world journey yet??

      1. Andrew

        I was thinking (in jest) merely about a thief who knew something about Buddhism. Yes, it would be a moot point if the agent in the scenario was a Buddhist.

        The next paragraph reminds me of when Christopher Hitchens talks about the emptiness of religious (monotheisms generally) claims to morality. The typical premise being that if the omnipresence of the eyes of god or the eyes of its agents can’t see it, there is no fundamental moral underpinning in the character of the individual that would prevent an act. This would be a reflection of the totalitarian aspects of such religions and subjects would behave like one living in a totalitarian regime. The real dissuasion becomes the fear of the gestapo rather than morality. Now, whenever I see the image of one of these “virgins”… instead of assigning kitsch value, I’ll be hard-pressed not to picture her wielding a billy club.

        My journey around the world is always in progress, but the path rarely follows the arc of a great circle.

    2. Liz

      Hi Andrew and Earl,

      Actually, according to the statistics in Mexico, it has been proven that the houses and cars with a religious signs or images (such as the Virgin of Guadeloupe) tend to be robbed less. I find it very interesting, and honestly, very helpful as well. 🙂

      I havent used it for my travels, but probably, after this post, I will… it’s a great idea!

      1. Earl

        Thanks for the info Liz. Given the sheer popularity of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, I have no doubt that it works!

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