I've been known to travel to a few places that some people [ed note: 99 percent] think are dodgy. I went to Iraq in 2011, was at the Essakane Music Festival outside of Timbuktu in 2012 (in my defense, Bono was there too), and hung out with a few "former" cocaine dealers in Colombia.
At this point my family has given up. Daddy (a right-wing, born again Tea Partier), now just shrugs and says, "God Bless and Hallelujah - I'll call the prayer group." Mom (a left-wing liberal Jew) just says, "Ah crap. Fine. Whatever."
Over the years, I have developed a system that works for me in almost every country. Oddly enough, I've found people should be even more vigilant in "normal" places, because your guard is down -- you just expect everything to be super fine and fun and cool -- whereas in say, Cairo or Kirkuk, you are naturally on guard.
So I created a by-no-means-cohesive list of How To Stay Safe. Or Alternatively, Paula Froelich's Paranoid Guide To Travel.
Included on the list are:
* If checking into a not so nice place, turn off the lights in the room, shut the door and check for peep holes (it's happened). If there is one, slowly get your mace and spray through hole before leaving (easy way to tell who has been peeping).
* Never get a hotel room with a door that enters into another room. Even if its locked. Don't get me started on that one time in Baghdad when some psychos walked into my room from the adjacent room via a door that I had checked was locked before I went to bed. Thanks to a very heavy object and my extremely loud voice, it didn't end well for them.
* Remember -- what you think as friendly (hugging, touching, etc.) is a come on in many places. Its okay to be aloof. I once sat down next to a guy in Karbala and that apparently meant I wanted to be his side piece (I, in fact, did not).
* If someone makes you uncomfortable -- even if it's something as silly as "I don't like the way they hold their tea cup" -- get up and walk away. Your gut is almost always right. I ignored my gut once in India in 1997 and had my shoes stolen and was locked in a room for 3 hours. True story.
Read the complete list here and please add your own tips -- anything that makes my life easier and safer on the road is a-okay with me.