Adapting to challenging environments

Grant Rayner
Apr 3, 2020 · 10 min read

How to rapidly adapt to new and challenging environments so that you’re able to get up and running as quickly as possible.

The back streets of Old Damascus. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Frequently in your life as a traveller you’ll find yourself entering and having to navigate entirely new and novel environments.

While this is always an exhilarating experience, it can be more problematic in higher-risk environments, where there may be a real threats to your safety and security. If you’re not completely familiar with the environment, it will be difficult to determine whether or not you are actually at risk. As a result, you may under or over protect. Both approaches can reduce your effectiveness and diminish your experience.

How can you rapidly adapt to a new environment so that you can quickly get to work, and so that you can effectively identify potential threats to your safety?

In this article I’ll share a few of the approaches you can take to rapidly calibrate to new environments, while at the same time ensuring you don’t over expose yourself to risk.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. This article is part of a series called “The Basics”, where I’ll explore some of the fundamental concepts of personal security while travelling. I hope you find it useful.

Dealing with culture shock

When you enter a new environment, everything is novel. There are so many new sights and sounds (and often smells) that if you try to process it all at once you will be overwhelmed. We call this “culture shock”.

In my experience, it’s more “difference shock”, and it can happen to different degrees in a range of contexts. You can experience this same effect in our own country, for example if travelling from a rural town into a dense urban city, or vice versa.

Part of this feeling of discomfort is because your brain is scrambling to make sense of what you’re seeing and, somewhere inside your amygdala, your fear receptors are telling you to be more cautious. It’s a natural response that’s designed to keep you safe. The problem is that these same feelings may end up keeping you in your hotel room.

The good news is that you can proactively manage culture shock so that you can operate successfully without it impacting your performance. It will take planning, as well as a significant amount of self awareness.

As you start to immerse yourself into your new environment, and start feeling the effects of culture shock, there’s a few aspects of self-care to consider:

  • Recognise when you’ve had enough and head back to your accommodation for some quiet time to relax and reflect.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed or frustrated. Let the environment wash over you, and understand that you’re moving through a process.
  • Don’t have any of your own pre-conceptions. This will create unecessary cognitive friction and you’ll end up fighting the adaptation process. Simply accept things as you find them.

Most importantly, recognise that it’s completely normal to feel culture shock when moving between different environments. In fact, after spending time in a complex or higher risk-environment you’ll almost certainly experience a form of culture shock when you return home.

Sights and sounds in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2019.

It takes time to understand a new environment

Don’t expect to be able to enter a new environment and understand it immediately. It will take a few days to even orientate to the layout of the streets, let alone to understand the ebb and flow of daily life.

When you arrive in a new environment, plan a sequence of immersions that enable you to progressively build your knowledge of the area and the social patterns. Don’t rush the process. If you do, you will not only compound existing levels of stress, but you will place yourself at risk because you don’t know the environment well enough to identify potential threats.

When you’re planning a project, you’ll need to allocate at least a few days after entry to calibrate to your immediate environment. It will take a week or more of planned activities to build your understanding understanding and awareness. This isn’t wasted time, and it will pay dividends later.

Toy store in Bourj Hammoud, Beirut. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Set yourself up for success

Effective adaptaton is only possible if you’re in the right frame of mind. If you are stressed, the process will be difficult, if not impossible.

To set yourself up well, take it easy on the way in. Pack your gear ahead of time, arrive at the airport early, and give yourself plenty of time for flight transfers. When you arrive, make sure there’s someone at the airport to meet you and take you to your accommodation.

When you get to your accommodation, quickly orientate yourself to the building, grab a light bite to eat, have a shower, and go to bed. You’ll wake up well rested and ready to go.

Consider staging in

If you’re going into a higher-risk environment, you’ll need to have your wits about you from the get-go. In such cases, you should consider staging in.

Fly into a similar but lower-risk city, spend a few days on the ground, then move to your eventual destination. This gives you time to orientate to a similar culture, reducing the eventual shock of transitioning between two completely different environments.

I’ve done this on several projects, for example spending time in Karachi before heading to Quetta and other parts of Balochistan, and spending time in Lebanon before heading into Syria. I’ve found it’s a highly effective way to ease into an environment.

Streetside fruit sales in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2019.

Create a secure base

When you first enter the country, you’ll be more effective if you can ease into things. If you rush the process of adaptation, you’ll create unnecessary stress for yourself. You’ll also unnecessarily expose yourself to risk.

One approach is to book a decent hotel for the first night, or the first few nights. Hotels are generally a home away from home (they are pretty much the same everywhere). They’ll provide you with a sense of normality, and will help ground your initial explorations.

Once you’re more used to local dynamics, and have a better idea of the various options available to you, you can start to look at guest houses or apartments. If you are not familiar with the operating environment, and you try to do this too early, there’s a high likelihood you’d select a poor location, which may even increase your exposure to risk.

Live local

Of course, the process of adapting to a new environment is broken each time you step back into your fancy international five star hotel.

Staying in a hotel may be ok at the start, as part of a deliberate process to ease yourself into the local environment. But to increase the velocity of your social acclimatisation and area familiarisation, the best thing you can do is live in a guest house in a normal suburb, away from the international hotels and diplomatic enclaves.

A private residence in Damascus. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Dip your toes in the water before diving in

A new location can be overwhelming at first. Start slowly in your immediate area, and gradually extend your reach.

If your work is in specific areas, focus your time in those areas initially. You can explore further afield later to expand your experience (some aspects of your area of interest may differ from other areas — it’s good to be able to isolate what those differences are).

You can take the same approach with other aspects of your immersion. For example, try a popular and reasonable quality local restaurant before trying out the street food scene.

Consider your objectives

Not every project requires an intimate knowledge of every aspect of society. Consider your objectives, and how much knowledge of the local area is actually required to achieve them. This will allow you to tailor your immersion activities and make the best use of your time.

Back streets of Jabal Mohsen, Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2019.

Build familiarity with your immediate environment

Once you’ve settled down in your accommodation, your first step is to orientate yourself to your immediate environment. This is not only as part of the adjustment process, but also because your life may depend on it.

Building familiarity with your immediate environment enables you to extend that feeling of “home ground”. As you build familiarity, you will build confidence. This reduces stress, and allows you to direct your energy towards your work or other objectives.

Do this in a planned in disciplined way, by walking down each street. Pay attention to the mix of businesses and residences. Look where the police posts are, or where the military checkpoints are. Identify pharmacies and clinics. Identify the restaurants that are popular (tables are full and/or people are queued outside) and the restaurants that are consistently empty.

Without being too manic about it, occasionally ask yourself “if something happened here, where would I go”? Are there shop fronts you can step into? Or alleys that join streets that would provide a quick escape route?

I’ve shared more techniques for learning to read the street and building situational awareness in other posts.

Building your own map

Staying orientated and knowing where you are at all times can be difficult in new locations. But it’s a highly important skill and one you need to develop for your own safety.

One technique I find useful is to try to map an area from memory. This is a real test of whether you actually understand an area or not. Start with just streets and key landmarks, and over time include more information.

You can also use this techniques for major routes you follow when driving, marking key intersections and points of interest. This helps you stay orientated as you’re moving around town.

Small shop stalls along the back streets of Homs, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

High-payoff activities

There are a few activities that I will generally do early on. I find these to be high-payoff activities, because I get a lot of insights out of them without spending much time or effort and without expending too much emotional energy. Here’s several high-payoff activities:

  • Spend time in a static position observing activity. This could be a street side cafe, however try not to be to prominent.
  • Take a local taxi or ride share. If the driver speaks English, you’ll find they are a potential wealth of local information. Accessible intelligence.
  • Visit a local market (not the local tourist market).
  • Spend time at a major transport hub, such as a train station or bus depot.

These will give you some good insights into daily life and will help you to understand your environment.

Sometimes it may not be safe to loiter in places for an extended period. If that’s the case, take lots of photos and video. Once you’re back in your accommodation, you can review these to gain additional insights.

Purchasing bread first thing in the morning in Damascus, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

A note for frequent travellers

For those of you reading this who travel a lot, you may think that you don’t need to spend much time adapting to new environments.

It’s true that the adaptation process may take less time, but I do recommend that you go through a planned process of calibration each and every time you arrive in a location.

Don’t automatically assume that observations in one location will apply equally to another. If you’ve been to one city in a country, don’t assume that other cities in the same country will be the same (as a simple example, people in Tokyo and Osaka in Japan stand on different sides of the escalator). There can be significant differences between provinces, driven by a range of factors, including ethnicity and climate.

A useful exercise is to challenge yourself to set out to explore what these differences are when you move between ostensively similar locations.

Adapting to new environments can be challenging, but if you plan the process and take specific actions to enable you to ease into the enviroment without exposing yourself to unnecessary risk, you’ll be able to quickly adapt.

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

For additional information and insights, read The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments and browse through our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.

S9 The Basics

Fundamental skills for operating in higher-risk environments.