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The secret to becoming a smarter—and more open-minded—traveler? Self-defense training.

I love traveling: It’s my work and my passion.

But as a woman of small stature, I’ve found myself in situations on the road where I’ve felt vulnerable. Not too long ago, I was tired of feeling powerless in these scenarios: Did I really have to limit the kinds of travel adventures I took because I’m a woman? What life-changing experiences was I missing because I was scared of getting myself into a bad situation with no exit plan? I set out to change all that at Unlimited Martial Arts, a school that opened in Brooklyn in 2017.

UMA teaches Jeet Kune Do, which originated with the late Bruce Lee, one of the biggest badasses of the last century. I had visions of unleashing Enter the Dragon–style moves in sketchy alleyways in New York City or Shanghai. What I didn’t realize was that while I was learning to throw punches, I was signing up to become a more confident and open-minded traveler as well.

Phil Cruz, the cofounder of UMA, told me he started his martial arts practice more than two decades ago in order to defend himself in his own neighborhood. “I was bullied a lot, so I wanted to learn to fight back,” says Cruz, who spent the first 15 years of his life in a tough Bronx neighborhood in New York City. “After I began training, I noticed it wasn’t even about winning a fight. I now had the tools not to get into altercations in the first place.”

Bruce Lee founded Jeet Kune Do in the United States in 1967 and saw it as a philosophy rather than a system. JKD encourages students to train simultaneously in various martial arts, from Wing Chun and Muay Thai to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Each practitioner develops a unique set of skills by taking aspects of each martial art that works best for them. “Here we are all artists,” says UMA cofounder Anthony Fontana. “We don’t say, ‘This way is the best way, and you must do this or that.’ You’re allowed to absorb what’s useful to you.”

A memorial statue of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong. The martial arts legend brought Jeet Kune Do to the United States in the late 1960s.

Cruz and Fontana focus on mimicking real situations so that students can be more effective under pressure. Foam knives and other practice weapons are handled like real ones. We’re also taught that techniques we learn can often be replicated using such pedestrian items as house keys, water bottles, even chapstick. 

The whole idea is to fine-tune your neuromuscular reflexes to react quickly through practice and repetition. According to Cruz and Fontana, you don’t need to have a black belt to be effective, but practice is key. “There are two different types of people: trained and untrained,” says Fontana. “Most people are untrained. You can be more lethal than a lot of people out there, knowing just basic stuff.”

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Even that extra boost of confidence from self-defense training can be enough to steer travelers out of harm’s way. “How you present yourself is important,” says Cruz. “You want to be seen as someone without fear: ‘I am not nervous, I am not scared, I am not a victim.’” Cruz recalls a trip to Jamaica where he met pressure with pressure. A local vendor tried to push his wares on Cruz and began acting offended and using aggressive words to bully him into buying something. Cruz recalls calmly telling him, “Listen, I don’t want anything you have. I’m good. Thank you so much, followed by a three-second stare that indicated Cruz wasn’t joking around. He recalls the vendor quickly backed down.

I’ve replayed my own unpleasant experiences in my head, ruminating on how I could have avoided them by using my newfound instincts and training techniques. There was that time when I discovered I was being followed all over Palermo by an American traveler. And that other time in Marrakech, when my friends and I were led into the maze-like souks by a new “friend” who demanded money before taking us back to the main square. It made me realize the extent to which these incidents had chipped away at my trust of strangers—especially as a solo traveler. As my self-confidence waned, I became less like the fearless traveler I aspired to be. 

As I train in martial arts, I’ve realized the biggest benefit isn’t my killer Muay Thai kick. I’m fine-tuning my instincts and situational awareness so I can embrace the unknown more wholeheartedly. Like Cruz explained, a self defense practice better equips you to stay out of trouble in the first place, because you're training to sense trouble before something happens. But my new confidence has also helped me to seek out and attract other open-minded people on the road who are just as curious as I am. I’ve found more pathways to experiences that both inspire and change me. I’m taking a cue from Bruce Lee’s philosophy to “be like water”: I’m flowing with situations and learning to adapt.

My new confidence has already helped me to seek out and attract other open-minded people on the road who are just as curious as I am.

In the last year alone, I’ve mingled with hip Parisians in the City of Light. I’ve bonded with Costa Rican cowboys while riding on horseback through the rain forest. I’ve gone way off the beaten path in order to get a glimpse of local life in Mexico City and San Francisco. I’m considering more solo trips than ever to exotic destinations, from Rio de Janeiro to Rwanda. 

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I am better equipped to responsibly leave my comfort zone—and most importantly—to embrace new people and places with a more open mind and heart.

 

Phil Cruz (right) and Anthony Fontana, cofounders of Unlimited Martial Arts in Brooklyn, New York.

I asked Cruz and Fontana for their top tips on how to stay out of harm’s way when at home or while traveling. Read on, and then consider adding a regular self-defense practice to your travel toolbox.

1. HANG OUT WITH LOCALS.
Seeing a new place through the eyes of a local doesn’t just enrich your travel experience. It also helps you learn the lay of the land much more quickly—including warning signs for what to look out for. “We travel outside of our comfort zones . . . to understand our world better,” says Fontana. “It changes you when you do that. But you need to build your awareness about a new place through a local. At your hotel, talk to the concierge—that’s still a local.”

2. DON’T INVITE UNNECESSARY ATTENTION.
Don’t be flashy if you don’t need to be, and be respectful of the traditions and norms of the place you’re visiting. “Cover up your tattoos if they will invite unnecessary drama in a particular culture,” says Fontana. “Morocco is a liberal country in a lot of ways, but the fact that I had visible tattoos caused all these people to come up to me and say 'you’re crazy.’”

3. TRUST YOUR GUT
The more you train in self-defense, the more you develop intuition, according to Cruz, whether it’s becoming more aware when you’re being followed or sensing when someone is intoxicated and looking for trouble. “It seems like such a small thing, but if you know what to look for, you can see it,” says Cruz. “You can move away from the situation before anything happens.”

Jennifer Flowers is AFAR’s deputy editor. She’s traveled to six continents and is always looking for that next great adventure. She’ll be taking her killer Muay Thai kick with her.