If you’re a woman traveling in Muslim countries don’t run around the streets in a bikini. In Zanzibar, during Ramadan no less, I’d met an American girl on the beach. When we strolled off to grab some fruit at the local market, a woman—a sort of emissary versed in basic English—warned us (well, me rather) that if we wished to take one step off that beach I better cover up my wife, that or she’d get beaten.

Did we stick up for women’s rights? Human rights? Blast down prejudices and tell them all that we had just met, we weren’t married, and #DontJudgeUs? No, we assimilated and had a good time—bought-fruit and all. Not long after, however, and despite the Western-centric tabloids trying to make the story something bigger than what it was, two British girls in the same area didn’t follow local norms, showed some skin despite multiple warnings, and eventually had acid splashed in their faces.

Understanding how the locals think and how you dress as a result of it can make big differences while traveling abroad. But while the above info is common knowledge to most of us who trot the globe, there are some pretty cool tricks to be learned that aren’t always as obvious. Some of them have been picked up by complete accident. Here is one them that I find is worth passing on:

Many citizens of the Third World are a mix of two things—two things that are to your distinct advantage; superstitious and thoroughly brainwashed by bad Hollywood clichés.

One excursion in rural Kenya, due to a disastrous laundry incident, I had only two sets of clothes. The first was black pants, a black t-shirt, and a coal windbreaker jacket. The second ensemble was what you’d expect to see in some security-contractor recruitment poster; khaki pants and a bone-white blouse.

On the days I wore all black, I noticed that nobody approached me. I could sit at a table for twenty minutes before having to flap my arms like a chicken to finally get a warm beer. The streets were mine, alone, and only the bravest of the curious bare-foot boys would come briefly to walk beside me.

Light clothing, by contrast, table service was normal. I was hassled to buy things at every street corner, and the faces were the happy placid ones; rather than the startled looks and menacing glares I’d received the day prior.

Perception is a powerful thing, especially in places where many people still assign values to colors and appearances that carry old world magic, religious, and cultish suggestions. And understand this; every advantage comes with at least one disadvantage. You want to avoid being thoroughly annoyed by aggressive vendors and beggars? Wear a lot of dark clothing. But then don’t expect the warm and fuzzy from the locals either. Tired of clerks and taxi drivers avoiding you? Take off the vampire attire and don some khakis. Don’t believe me? Try it next time you’re in rural Africa, rural Central America, or the Florida panhandle.

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David Rose (AKA Mr. Blonde)
David Rose is the author of No Joy, From Sand and Time, and Mulgara: The Necromancer’s Will. He holds a postgraduate degree in applied uselessness—a.k.a. philosophy—from the London School of Economics. He lives all over the place.