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Self-Defense My Way
From bar brawls to street scraps, our man on the scene rolls with the punches.
By Robert Young Pelton

Illustraion: Robert Young Pelton
FEELING LUCKY PUNK? Robert Young Pelton knows when to fight or take flight.

Four in the morning in a Mexican bar: A dozen of my new "amigos" have convinced the bartender, who is angrily waving a baseball bat, that I'm the one picking up the tab. Three thirty in the morning in a grungy Seattle alley: A man in the shadows wants to stop me for a cigarette. Two in the afternoon in rural Mali: A stark-naked African man stomps 400 yards (366 meters) up from the Niger River to insist, quite forcefully, that I was taking pictures of him in the nude. Each of these scenarios has a common denominator. It seems yours truly is about to get a royal ass-kicking. Thankfully, that's not the case.

Confrontation is a part of life. And though it can crop up anywhere, conflict seems to happen more often in foreign environments—whether that's overseas or just across town. When it does, you need to be prepared. Now, that doesn't mean you should pack an AK-47 on your next trip to Paris or Vancouver. On the contrary, learn these few tried-and-true tricks, most of which are nonviolent, and you'll likely dodge that dicey situation with the mug, the thug, or the angry naked man.

The Mugger: These guys want money, plain and simple. So you know what? I give them what they're looking for. If I have a false wallet filled with expired cards and worthless notes, I'll hand them that (for more details on the decoy wallet, see my September 2004 column, "When All Is Lost"). If not, I'll fork over whatever I have; it's cheaper than my life. Either way, my goal is to get out of the situation before an even more dastardly idea occurs to my assailant.

How? Even the most focused thieves can be distracted. A quick wave of the hand to a bystander or, even better, a loud "Don't shoot him!" to an imaginary friend with an invisible 9-mm may befuddle your perp long enough to employ Pelton's first principle of self-defense: Run like hell. If your attacker has a knife, hoof it and don't look back. If they've got a gun, sprint, bob, weave, and get around a corner fast. Also, keep low; shots fired in haste tend to go high. Chances are you won't be followed.

The Psycho: Unfortunately there are some folks out there—sociopaths, violent gangbangers, Manchester United fans—who just want to beat the crap out of you. Though I'm loathe to say it, in a situation where serious physical harm seems unavoidable, you need to fight back. The question is, how?

Don't wave a .44 magnum (it could land you in jail) or try the monkey fist from your long-forgotten martial arts class. Instead, most self-defense gurus fall back on a street fighter's secret weapon: one move, practiced to perfection, that's dirty and utterly incapacitating.

My favorites? The arch stomp for rear attacks. The groin kick for forward grapples. The ink pen in the armpit (I prefer the old Montblanc refills). And best of all: the eye attack. Slap, gouge, thumb stick—it doesn't matter. Go for the eyes and even the most hardened fighter will usually flinch, giving you a chance to make your break.

To learn these, I suggest a basic self-defense course. Sure, you can join a fancy dojo or an Israeli Krav Maga class, but the YMCA or your local community center will do fine (and cost less). Most classes are taught by law enforcement officers, martial arts instructors, or ex-security personnel and focus on real-life scenarios and real-life escapes. They may not be part of some thousand-year-old tradition, but sometimes it's a fast bolt, not a black belt, that separates the quick from the dead.

The Macho: You should have known before you winked at his girlfriend that the guy with the neck tattoo was not in an open relationship. Now he wants a fight and is pressing pretty hard for you to join him. Don't give in. Instead, gag back that raging alpha-dog instinct (better to swallow your pride than your teeth), take two steps back to clear the personal space, and apologize.

Sounds remarkably simple, but acknowledging your beer-tainted aggressor's perspective will knock the adrenaline right out of the situation. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget that a little courtesy is the least painful way to get out of a bind.

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Illustration by Asaf Hanuka

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, June/July 2005

• Great Parks 2005: Super Tours, Spectacular Lodges
**Win a Safari: Find out how you could win a safari for two by participating in the Muddy Buddy race or attending the screenings of Emmanuel's Gift.
Steroids on Everest: Some climbers are using them to cope with altitude sickness, but at what price?
Guns 'n' Butter: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Philip Caputo talks about his new novel, Acts of Faith.
Pelton's World: Our man on the scene tells when to fight or take flight.
Croatia By Sea: Contributing Editor Jon Bowermaster's dispatches from sea kayaking along the Dalmatian Coast.
"Life's an Adventure" Reader Photo Album: See readers' photos and submit your own.


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More from Robert Young Pelton

Come Back Alive
Get the latest information about Pelton's books, tours, and news clips at his site.

Living High on the Hog
A modern-day Easy Rider lays down the rules of the road.

Life in Iraq's Green Zone
The world's most fearless traveler fears for his life.

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June/July 2005

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