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“If necessary you should choose to disguise yourself as a shukke [monk], yamabushi [hermit], merchant or anything else that you feel is appropriate to the situation. Pilgrims have a good reason to move around shrines and temples. For this purpose, which is different from other cases, it may be better for you to move as a company of two or three people. In such cases, the technique of dakkō, to understand all the local customs and dialects, is used.” — Quote taken from the Shoninki, as written in 1681 by Master Ninja Natori Masazumi
I recently found myself standing on a corner in downtown Tijuana, waiting for the light to change so I could cross the street, when I saw a man walking a donkey painted as a zebra. He was on his way to work at one of the famous picture stands on Revolution Avenue. Anywhere else on the planet, a man walking down the street with a donkey covered in zebra stripes would certainly draw attention. But the famed “zonkeys” of Tijuana have been a familiar sight in the tourist districts of this city since the 1930s, when gambling was outlawed in Mexico and the industrious local track owners had to find a new way to procure American dollars from tourists.
No one batted an eye at this spectacle, no one took a cell phone picture, no one looked and pointed. No one except an American standing next to me, that is. This zonkey was in its natural environment. It was part of the baseline normal and no matter how outlandish, the majority of the people around me didn’t even acknowledge it.
Certainly, nobody noticed the man leading it — and this is the way of the zonkey.
What can people know about you from the clothes you have on? From brand names and fabrics, to wear patterns and the detergent you use, every piece of apparel has a narrative to it. This is especially true when you’re abroad — the story your clothes tell can speak volumes when you travel. Blending in with tourists and blending in with the locals are two very different things, but it has been my experience there’s a midpoint between the two that’s worth trying to find. Rather than being single-minded in your approach, realize there’s a time and place for blending in and for sticking out. Both can deliver you from bad situations.
Above: Clothes are usually a product of their environment and the season. Pick local colors.
No matter which path you choose, deception is always a factor. Remember to keep any white lie or fib within the reality of your knowledge base or your ability to produce evidence of its truthfulness. For example, if you decide to play the part of a Canadian tourist without knowing a few basic things about that country and the region you claim to be from, then you’re setting yourself up for more questions and deeper inspection. Don’t lie if you don’t need to — this includes lying with your clothes. If your clothing is going to be a conversation starter, you’d better have good answers at the ready.
Adapting your outward appearance to fit in with the local population is difficult if it isn’t your own culture you’re trying to meld with. There are major things like skin color and morphology, and small details like your personal odor and dental work, that make being a “gray man” a truly difficult thing to pull off in a completely alien environment.
The first question to ask yourself is: Am I truly trying to disappear into the background noise?
Start by realizing that becoming gray or just plain boring and unremarkable isn’t something everyone can do everywhere. By this I mean there’ll be factors that determine if this is a viable approach. Is your morphology, ethnicity, sex, and skin tone common enough in the environment to make it easy for you to blend into the crowds? This takes some honest self-assessment. and realistically, all the mute colors and common brands of clothes won’t help much when you’re a 6-foot blonde in the middle of southern Mexico. Zonkeys blend in well on Revolution Avenue, not in the middle of Ooltewah, Tennessee.
Above: One of the layers of urban camo are cultural. Don't use any of these layers without knowing what they communicate.
Another thing to consider is that the environment itself sometimes has different crowds in it. For example, some places will be littered with pedestrian tourists as well as locals. What crowd are you trying to blend into? Tijuana’s Revolution Avenue, for example, will have at least three distinct sets of crowds moving through it at any given time:
1) The locals: A mix of people from Tijuana passing through on their way to work, or to grab a cab, or some of the locals joining in the nightlife and preying on the tourists. Is it possible to blend in with this group? A local soccer team jersey could do more for you than a gray T-shirt without any branding on it. Small elements like how to hold a cigarette, what cell phone brand you use, what you order to eat, and how you smell can make people skip taking a second look. It’s an art not many can credibly pull off, but it’s possible. Look around and get these details down, then gradually infuse yourself with these specifics. Want to smell local? Wash your clothes with locally sourced detergent, shampoo, soap, eat local, and avoid exotic perfume or deodorant. This may be hard to believe, but subconsciously, people will smell you before they look at you at times. Anything out of the normal may cause an observant local to examine you more closely.
Above: It's about the crowds, not the background. We can wear whatever narrative we want to communicate.
2) The labor: People who work the shops and bars or have a work-related reason for being there. They’ll look exceedingly comfortable, as this is their daily environment, and project confidence in having a reason for being there. That’s something hard for many people to replicate, especially if you have a language barrier. Projecting confidence and acting like you belong in an alien environment is a skill set in and of itself, but it’s not impossible. For example, wear black pants and a black polo shirt at some of the bars in this tourist district and watch how many people try to give your their order.
3) The travelers: Not all tourists are made the same, so try to spot those who don’t belong next time you’re in a heavy tourist area. They may share a few commonalities as far as marveling at the sites and sounds that locals don’t even acknowledge. But other things might be different, such as clothes, diets, cell phones, and accents. American passports are not as popular as they once were in some places. Blending in with a non-American tourist crowd might be a lifesaving skill in some more inhospitable parts of the world. However, don’t forget the previous point about background knowledge before you claim to be a Canadian, Aussie, or Brit.
Try to focus on what’s possible. Some call this a baseline, but I like to think of it as endemics. What’s natural in the space you’re moving in? What will attract the least amount of attention? Or what will attract attention but can be used to your advantage? Wearing a construction vest near a major worksite will cast your unfamiliar face into an easily discernible narrative to any locals you may encounter. Social engineering techniques such as tailgating, pretexting, or diversion can help you avoid attention or redirect it elsewhere.
Keep in mind that small elements like local sport team apparel can change the narrative you give off to the casual observer. Nuanced things like using a locally sourced clothing detergent, eating local cuisine, and using a more common deodorant in that area will help you avoid turning the heads of more attentive individuals.
Above: There is such a thing as overdoing it. Usually the evasive individual will stick out in the unaware crowd.
To start with, lay your clothing out on the floor. Go to Google Street view or look up recent images from the places you’ll be moving through on social media. Look at the crowds in the area and note the most common color palettes you see. What are the people there wearing at various times of the year? Will your Hawaiian shirt stick out in the middle of Oaxaca?
There are people who talk about being a gray man, completely invisible to the common observer through selection of discreet clothes in plain colors. While this seems advisable on the surface, careful consideration will reveal that this two-dimensional approach isn’t always the optimal tactic. The aforementioned characteristics — the color of your skin, the quality of your dental work, your taste in food, and the language you speak will quickly betray your toned-down presentation, no matter how drab your fashion choices are.
I train people to manipulate the narrative they present through their appearance. Rather than blending in, I teach students to think more along the lines of being aware of what they’re wearing and the story it tells — it’s the difference between how a zebra hides in a group of zebras and how a chameleon hides in the leaves. Both need to be options in your toolkit.
Above: Planning and education starts before you even pack. Go on Google maps and start building your pallet.
If you’re planning to carry around something for offensive purposes, try to use the same thought process in choosing your weapon(s). Carry something that’s at home in the region you’re moving in. Not being allowed to carry something isn’t the same as not being able to. Stack the odds in your favor where you can. South Africa? Get an okapi knife, it’s very affordable and the most commonly available knife in the region. Carry what the locals would carry — it’s a good idea on many levels. And if you do have to cut some cheesecake in the middle of the Cape Town Flats, your knife won’t make people question you further.
Avoid wearing anything with logos or text on it that can tell an observer something about you, like where you’re from or where you went to school. Remember that all of these small elements, especially when combined with social media, will give someone a very deep insight into your life unless you scrub your physical and digital persona continuously.
Above: Normal is fluid. Find the normal baseline for wherever you are and learn what's considered out of place. Look at how the locals react and use them as a reference.
Capabilities, training, skills, and prior military experience should be kept to yourself. Avoid wearing anything tactical or mil-spec when out in the world. I’ve had student traveler’s come back with horror stories about being questioned by local police or criminals over something as simple as carrying a tourniquet on a belt or tactical branded pants. Do an honest self-assessment of your clothes and the bags you are going to carry before you go.
If you’re going to lie with your appearance, be educated in that lie. If you’re running around with a soccer jersey, know what the score of their last match was and the names of their main players. Don’t dig yourself a hole you can’t climb out of.
And remember, none of this will work if you’re traveling with a group that isn’t in on the planning — the entire entourage should endeavor to present a cohesive narrative in everything they do. Using numbers and strategizing as a group, including having a backup plan for anything and everything that can and will go wrong, will greatly improve your odds if things go sideways. Stillness is death.
For over a decade, Ed Calderon worked in the fields of counter-narcotics, organized crime investigation, and public safety in the northern-border region of Mexico. Learn more about his survival courses at edsmanifesto.com.