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Haiti – Jane Park (2012)

 

Jane Park, .

Here are Jane Park’s travel safety tips:

First off, general safety tips.  Register with the American Embassy.  You can do this online or by fax.  Travel with at least one other person when possible, or at least let people know where you are when you’re out.  Plan in advance, including for lodging and transportation.  Get a phone (Digicel has an awesome line of cheap phones starting at US$12), make sure it has minutes, and keep important phone numbers on you along with your passport photocopy.  Keep up with local news, including during big local holidays/festivities.  While I was there, several demonstrations broke out in Port-au-Prince and Carrefour, which affected travel and local safety.  There was also a heightened level of security during RaRa, the annual festival in Léogâne.

Now, here are some more specific suggestions.  I looked for statistics on the most common reasons for morbidity and mortality among foreigners in Haiti, but because this information was not available, I’m basing these tips on known information and personal anecdotes:

Road traffic accidents

A quick overview of public transportation, focusing on Léogâne, Haiti. For longer distances, buses (the nicest of which are called ‘Obamas’) are super cost-effective and relatively comfortable.  The 1.5 hour bus-ride from Léogâne to Port-au-Prince is only 30 gourdes (US$0.80).  Then there are the colorful taptaps (or, trucks designed to seat 10+ passengers) that drive designated routes within and between cities.  This is the cheapest way to travel, and because there are so many, it is not difficult to find a taptap during daytime hours. For door-to-door service, moto-taxis are ubiquitous, particulary in Léogâne. 

That said, the US embassy website discourages use of public transportation, especially in Port-au-Prince.  It was not too long ago that security in Haiti was much more unstable, and vehicles were subject to kidnappings and theft.  Most international organizations based in Haiti have vehicles to ensure safe transport and internal transportation rules.  All forms of transportation have their risks, with the moto-taxis having the highest risk.  But unless you have a personal car or plan to do a lot of walking, you will most likely have to take public transportation at some point and in that case, ways to minimize risk:

  • When I take the bus from Léogâne to Port au Prince, I make sure that someone knows what time I am leaving and that someone meets me at my destination (which is located in a not-so-nice neighborhood of Port-au-Prince).  I always have my phone handy and keep my contact in Port-au-Prince up to date on where I am by phone.  I only use the bus during daylight hours.
  • I try to exercise discretion when riding tap taps.  The minivan tap taps are nicer and feel safer than the open-air tap taps.  I don’t take ones that appear overloaded or unsafe (i.e. suspicious noises as vehicles are approaching, if the tires look uneven/worn, etc).  And the most common sense piece of advice: Don’t ride on either the roof or on the last seats in the back!
  • I would not recommend taking mototaxis unless you have a helmet, and even then, unless it is driver that you or your organization knows well.  If you absolutely have to take a moto, don’t take it for long distances, try to use only drivers you trust, and never hesitate to say, “Dousman” (slow down).  I kept a list of trusted drivers on my phone.
  • Hitchhiking in Haiti is not recommended (!)

Non-motor vehicle accidents

Last summer in Léogâne, a volunteer at a neighboring organization died when he fell off of a roof while intoxicated. Although I didn’t have any serious accidents, I cut my finger badly enough to need a few stitches while cooking during a power outage this January.  

  • Make sure to have travel insurance
  • Bring a basic first aid kit and a sufficient supply of the medications you normally take.
  • Have a plan of where to go for medical emergencies and non-emergencies.  For example, there are two main hospitals in Léogâne which have different services available.  Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) takes all urgent cases, including trauma and pregnancy-related.  Sainte Croix Hospital and several local clinics handle non-urgent cases, e.g. diarrhea, malaria, mild-moderate dehydration.
  • There are lots of bars and lots of alcohol in Haiti, and it’s a common way to decompress among ex-pats.  If you’re going to get drunk, make sure someone’s looking out for you and that you’re in a safe environment.
  • Money.  There are people who will exchange American dollars for you on the streets of Léogâne, but there are also Western Union branches that are better secured and have a better exchange rate.  There are also ATMs in Port-au-Prince.  It is smart to get a safe ride to and from these locations.  If you bring a large sum of cash, lock it up or alternatively, it is easy to open up a bank account if you’re planning to stay for a longer time.
  • Be extra careful!  Haiti’s medical resources are very limited.

Theft

Risk is overall low, but this depends on your conduct.  I had a friend who was attacked while she walked home alone late at night—her purse was stolen and thankfully, she was left physically unharmed.  Also, friends next door were robbed 2 months ago.  They left their valuables unattended in their home, with guards who were ‘contracted’.  The thieves made off with several thousand dollars in laptops, ipods, and cash. 

  • Safe housing.  I stayed at houses that had 24 hour guards.  Even if you don’t have guards, you’ll be safer with good locks, good lighting, good neighbors, good access to roads, reliable amenities, protection against the elements (e.g. earthquakes, floods).
  • Never, never walk alone home at night.  Léogâne has the semblance of a peaceful, sleepy town, but safety should never be taken for granted.  When I needed to walk home at night, I always had a friend and my flashlight (conveniently located on my phone).
  • Even in the daytime, take care when walking/jogging—depending the situation, partnering up is smart.  At the very least, make sure people know where you’re at and carry a phone.
  • Keep valuables locked up, including passport, cash, laptops.
  • Be kind to your neighbors.  People are much more likely to look out for you if they know/respect you.  On the flipside, try not to be the ugly American and invite trouble, e.g. flashing wealth, showing disrespect of local culture…

Infection

Gastroenteritis, malaria, respiratory infections, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, sexually transmitted infections— again, most of these are avoidable with proper precautions. But I’ve had friends who contracted typhoid despite having been vaccinated, and friends have gotten malaria despite taking prophylaxis, diarrhea despite good hygiene.  That is no reason to grow lax.  Definitely, those who take precautions are much less at risk of getting sick.

  • Vaccines!  Check the CDC website and make an appointment for vaccines at least a month before you go.
  • Take appropriate prophylaxis, including for malaria, even if you’re planning to stay for a very short or long time.  There is minimal resistance against Chloroquine in Haiti and it’s cheap to buy in Haiti.
  • Beware of street food.  In Léogâne, there are a plethora of street vendors who sell everything from fried plantanes to fried pork (griot) to potpourri juice (a cocktail of natural fruit and vegetable juices and pasta).  Even if food is cooked, dust is ubiquitous.  Be careful of eating non-cooked foods and be wary of food that isn’t covered.
  • There’s lots of diarrhea in Haiti, and the risk of water-bourne diseases goes up during rainy season.  Because of the ongoing cholera epidemic in Haiti, there is a relatively high level of awareness and water hygiene.  You will find plenty of vendors selling plastic baggies and bottles of treated water, which are generally safe.  You already know to drink only boiled or treated water.  Know that you can also get chlorine or aquatabs in Haiti.  At the house where I stayed, we added chlorine to our water at the point of use, despite the fact that the well water went through a sand filter before being pumped into the house.
  • Bring a bednet or make sure that the place you will be staying has bednets.  They’re not as easy to come by as you’d think.
  • If you’re doing any medical work, make sure to bring some fitted N95 masks to protect yourself against tuberculosis.
  • For all kinds of reasons, sex is not something to take lightly in Haiti.

One other note:  You will frequently encounter kids and adults who will ask for (or, rather demand, as is the language/culture) money or a personal item.  Try to keep perspective and not let it get to you.  Most of the time, if you respond with humor or a “Pa genyen” (I don’t have), you’ll meet with a simple shrug or reciprocal humor.

Peru – Anna Kirsch (2012)

Anna Kirsch

Anna Kirschis a medical student at Georgia Health Sciences University.  Anna (Mariah) worked in Peru during the summer of 2012, leading a research team that is assessing the impact of cancer initiatives by a local clinic in the Andes.  Mariah received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Anna’s travel safety tips:

Peru has become a popular destination for many travelers of all ages.  Although relatively safe, when traveling to anywhere in the world, I would advise taking certain precautions in the unlikely event something unexpected happens while abroad.  In addition, it is important to remember basic awareness and common sense to keep you safe while traveling to ensure your health and safety.  Based on my recent travels to the Andean region of Peru, I have written out a few guidelines below to help ensure health and safety while enjoying your trip to Peru.

I.             Before you leave your home country:

A.             Vaccinations and Health Consideration

If you will not be traveling to the jungle on your own, yellow fever vaccination will not be necessary.  Antimalarial prophylaxis is also not necessary if you remain in the Andes Mountains (Cusco) or Lima.  However, if you will travel to Iquitos in the jungle region, malaria prophylaxis will be required.  Hepatitis A vaccination is suggested.  It is given in 2 doses spaced 6 months apart. It may be a good idea to bring:

  • Diamox (acetazolamide)- Altitude sickness: You may choose to take Diamox (acetazolamide) to help prevent acute high altitude sickness.  Diamox 125- 250mg every 12 hours should be started at least 24 hours prior to departure for Cusco.  This medication causes an increase in urination and respiratory rate.  The side effects include numbness, tingling, or vibrating sensations in your hands, feet, and lips, also an alteration in taste and a ringing in your ears.  Diamox should be continued until the second or third night at altitude.  If you are concerned with acclimatizing, talk to your doctor before you leave.
  • Ibuprofen: An anti-inflammatory and pain reliever wonderful for the first few days when adjusting to altitude!
  • A decongestant: High altitude and dry air make it very easy to get a respiratory infection (a cold) that is hard to kick.  A decongestant combined with hot, steamy showers is a wonderful relief in case you happen to catch a cold while on the trip.
  • Ciprofloxacin: Common anti-biotic for traveler’s diarrhea… something unfortunately not too uncommon while bouncing around developing countries and adjusting to the local cuisine.
  • Sunscreen/repellant: Peruvian sun, especially at altitude, is intense and sunscreen can be expensive in some touristy destinations.  Repellant is also great for Manchu Picchu, although other highland areas do not have many biting insects.  Both can be purchased in country, but may be more expensive than simply bringing a bit from home.
  • And any medications you normally take, including extra contacts/glasses.

Bring your medications in your carry on luggage.  Although most medications can be purchased in Peru, it is always better to be prepared.  You may access the CDC website (www.CDC.gov) for further information about precautions for Peru and South America.

B.             Travel and Health Insurance

MEDICAL EVACUATION INSURANCE: Call your medical insurance and ensure what is covered while traveling abroad.  In some cases, your medical insurance may not be valid outside of the US.  Consequently, it is smart to purchase short-term medical insurance from an external source, such as

  • Cultural Insurance Services (CISI) (800) 303-8120 or (203) 399-5132

Although accidents are unlikely to happen, medical evacuation insurance is strongly suggested just in case.  Short term plans are easy to sign up for and can be purchased on a trip-by-trip basis by a variety of services, such as:

Medical evacuation from Peru could cost more than $50,000 without evacuation insurance.  Although it is not something many of us like to dwell on before traveling, having insurance is a good safe guard against much hardship if an emergency does unfortunately occur.

Bring all insurance information with you, and leave another copy with someone you trust at home in case of an emergency!

C.             Political Security

Before traveling to any foreign country, it is good to know a bit about the current political security of where you are headed.  Check any news reports, upcoming election dates, and any US Dept. of State warnings, which for Peru, can be found at: http://www.state.gov/p/wha/ci/pe/

D.             Personal Documentation

  1. PassportAll travelers are required to have a valid passport (http: //travel.state.gov/passport).  If you do not have a passport, get one quickly. Check the expiration date to make sure your passport is valid at least 6 months beyond your return date to the US and that there are blank pages available for entry/departure stamps.  Be sure to have your passport with you during travel to and from Peru, although a Visa is not necessary.  Extra copies of your passport should be made prior to leaving and stored either electronically, and/or in an area separate from where your actual passport will be stored while traveling.
  2. MoneyCredit cards and ATM cards are also good to have access to funds while traveling.  Make sure you notify your bank of travels before you leave, and make a copy of all your cards to store with your passport copy while traveling.  Also, include any international numbers for the appropriate banks with this documentation in case of theft or loss of a card.  Bring an extra ATM card!  I’ve had an ATM eat my card more than once while traveling, and in many small shops/towns, credit cards are a bit harder to use and will be harder to use as a primary means of currency.Also, it is a good idea to leave copies of such important documents with someone you trust at home in case of emergency.

E.             Emergency Contacts and Itinerary

Always good to have at least one person expecting to hear from you and have a rough idea where you are, no matter where you are in the world.  Leave a rough itinerary with someone you trust at home, and keep in touch with them throughout your trip.  In addition, bring a list of emergency contacts names, phone numbers (with international calling code), emails, etc. in case someone needs to help you reach home in an emergency abroad.  Put this information in your day bag and an extra in your main pack at the start of the trip, that way it will be there if you need it.

II.             Arriving to PERU!!!

A.             Lima

Getting to Cusco can be difficult, and most travelers will first arrive in Lima, Peru in route to Cusco.  Due to flight schedules, it is likely you may spend a night, or at least several hours in this airport.  Hanging out here isn’t always fun, but Internet is available at Starbucks as well as the bar in the hotel across the street from the airport can help pass the time.  Some people chose to sleep waiting for their connection, but you are not allowed thru the security line until much closer to your flight time, so if you are solo, take care to be aware of your surroundings and keep your luggage close by.  Anyone, traveling or not, has full access to this area of the airport.

B.             Cusco and Sacred Valley

Many travel agents will be overly friendly offering tours and hotels upon arrival, sometimes rather aggressively.  Although I cannot say much for the deals they offer, know that it is extremely easy, and probably more relaxing and cheaper, to find tourists offices all around Cusco and in most tourists towns throughout Peru.  Collect your luggage and head into the parking lot to escape.  There, taxis will be waiting.  If you walk to the back of the lot, you will find bartering goes a bit further and you can get a decent price into town.  If you do not know where you are staying for the first night, the Plaza del Arms is the center of Cusco’s touristy area and an easy place to find a coffee shop with tourist’s maps that will mark several hostels and restaurants to help get you oriented for your first night.

  1. High Altitude:If you choose to fly into Cusco from Lima, the first thing most travelers will notice is the effect of the high altitude.  Cusco is situated at 11,151 feet above sea level.  High altitude sickness is characterized by a headache with associated loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, fatigue or weakness, dizziness or light-headedness, and difficulty sleeping.  The best treatment of acute high altitude sickness is rest, fluids, and mild analgesics such as acetominophen or ibuprofen.  Symptoms will usually resolve in 1-2 days.In consideration of the effects of high altitude, please remember to take it easy, rest, and drink plenty of fluids.  It will be difficult to exercise at this altitude until you acclimate.  Normal physiologic changes in every one who goes to high altitude are hyperventilation, shortness of breath during exertion, changed breathing pattern at night, awakening frequently at night, and increased urination.  Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills (Diamox can be used as a sleeping pill, take upon arrival).Medication Options:   Diamox (acetazolamide)- Altitude sickness, Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills (Diamox can be used as a sleeping pill, take upon arrival). Coca tea or leaves: It is said that the drink helps reduce symptoms of high altitude illness.  However, please remember coca leaves are also used to make cocaine.  Ibuprofen –anti-inflammatory: Ibuprofen can be used to help reduce swelling of mucus membranes due to the altitude change.  In plane terms, it can help you regain your appetite and reduce any sinus pressure you may feel upon arrival.
  2. Food borne Illness and PrecautionsThere are many bacterial and parasitic food borne illnesses in Peru.  Please be very careful what and where you eat and drink.  DO NOT DRINK WATER FROM THE FAUCET OR SHOWER.  ONLY DRINK WATER FROM A SEALED BOTTLE OF PURIFIED/TREATED WATER.  Do not eat ice cubes.  Take precaution when brushing your teeth to not drink tap water.  The Peruvian tap water is not purified.  Keep your mouth closed when you take a shower.   Only eat food that has been cooked or boiled.  Do not eat food prepared on the street.  Also avoid vegetable and fruit salads and cold vegetables as they may have been washed in the local water.  Fruit that can be peeled is safe to eat.  Be extremely careful when eating at buffet type restaurants.  Do not eat raw seafood such as ceviche.Medications: Ciproflaxacin 500mg (#14) In case of acute gastroenteritis (fever, vomiting and diarrhea), you may want to bring a 7 day supply of Ciprofloxacin 500mg tablets #14, 1 tab orally twice daily) with you.
  3. Attire:Cusco is in the mountains and the average temperature during the daytime is 60° F and 40° F during the nighttime.  You can check www.weather.com for an idea of Cusco temperatures before leaving. We suggest that you bring a warm jacket or sweater for the evening.  A raincoat may be a good idea, particularly if you are there during the rainy season (November-March). If you will travel to Machu Picchu, consider bringing a short sleeve shirt and shorts or jeans.  The temperature will be warmer than Cusco with considerable humidity.   Because this region is known for warm alpaca clothes, you may want to purchase these items while in Peru.Hiking in Peru is amazing, but good quality hiking boots/clothes are a bit harder to come by if you are looking for normal US prices.  If you enjoy hiking, make sure you bring sturdy shoes and a few very warm layers in your pack along with you.
  4. Pickpockets:Although Cusco is a relatively safe part of Peru, common sense and awareness always helps keep you safe.  Be particularly cautious for theft of money, cell phones, laptops, cameras and documents.  Do not wear expensive jewelry or watches.  Be especially cautious if visiting local markets or downtown Lima.  A hidden money belt or pouch worn beneath your shirt may help prevent theft, and be sure to keep all zippers on bags securely closed, especially in crowded streets. Pickpockets: Walking around the tourist areas are rather safe during both day and night.  However, always be aware of pickpockets, especially during festivals.  Keep your bags/purses zipped up and if in crowds, in front of you so somebody cannot reach in and remove any of your valuables.San Blas: funky little artsy part of Cusco that is well worth a trip.  However, this area can get rather quiet and is known to be a bit more notorious for muggings and pickpockets.  Don’t walk around this area at night solo, and just be aware of your surroundings.
  5. Electricity:Because Peru uses 220 volts instead of 110 volts and a different electrical plug, an electrical adapter and voltage converter (transformer) will be required in Peru if you bring an electrical device from the US.  Some electrical devices, such as your laptop, have this built in and will not need an electrical adapter.
  6. Transportation:Taxis are relatively inexpensive in Cusco.  However, if traveling independently, always take secure taxis or call one if late at night.  Settle on a price to your destination before leaving or entering the taxi, most are slightly negotiable.  Locals generally are willing to tell you the appropriate price.  If taking a taxi from a hostel, ask the front desk owner to point out a secure taxi if it is late at night, and if possible, travel with a friend.  Carry bags with you instead of in the trunk if possible, a friend of mine had a taxi driver drive off before she was able to unload!If traveling to a more remote hostel/club/whatever at night, take a taxi in place of walking.  Don’t be a target for muggings, and if you talk to those that have lived in the area for a while, a traveler walking around in a quiet part of town at night is a great way to make yourself a target!Buses/collectivos: Vans and buses frequently make loops around the city.  Each one has a name on the top, and follows a set route.  Overall, they are pretty safe and cheap.  However, finding out the routes is sometimes a process of trial and error, or simply asking the locals.  Many are happy to help.If taking a bus or van to a near-by town, such as Pisac, try to find one in good repair, as these roads are rather full of twists and turns.  I often asked if I could sit in the front to avoid motion sickness and have the rare opportunity to buckle up for the journey.  However, I warn you that this is not the seat for the faint of heart- sometimes seeing the narrow mountain road can be rather, well, thrilling, by itself.  I recommend scheduling plenty of daylight on either end of the car journey to not only be safe on the road, but also allow you not to arrive in a strange new town or drop off location at night.
  7. Alcohol:Remember you are at altitude in a dry climate: this means not only will you become dehydrated quicker (think hangover), the alcohol will actually absorb faster into your bloodstream than at lower altitudes (think drunk faster).  If your choose to drink, which many do due to the wide array of nightlife offered here, go slower than you normally would at home and try to find purified water to sip in between beverages.Girls: some bars/bartenders, like in any location, are known to slip drugs in girls drinks out at clubs.  Try to always go out in groups, watch your drink being made, and never leave it unattended while you go off to dance or socialize.
  8. Drugs:Any street drugs such as cocaine and pot are offered fairly frequently on the streets of Cusco.  Remember that these drugs are illegal and penalties for foreigners can be harsh.  Use your head, and remember that staying in a foreign jail probably isn’t on the top of your to-do list.
  9. Money:You may exchange money in Peru, but it is easiest in larger cities like Lima and Cusco.  Bank ATM’s offer the best rates.  Hotels can exchange money, but the rates are generally not as good.  Credit cards can also be used in the major cities, but beware you may have to pay a fee or percentage for using the card abroad.  If traveling to rural settings, be sure to have some cash in local currency (nuevos soles).  Do not carry a large amount of cash.  Avoid changing money on the street, as there is a chance of receiving false currency.  Have CLEAN, NEW bills ($20s) for exchange only!!!!  Ripped or crumbled bills will not be accepted for exchange.
  10. Phone:Your cell phone may operate in Peru; however check with your service plan to assess charges.  Otherwise, calling cards or Skype (if you have internet) may used to call home.   Local cell phones can be purchased quite cheaply in most markets in Peru, and you simply purchase minutes, as you need them.  If staying in the country for a few weeks, this may be a great option not only for safety (sketch cab? Get lost? Dark sooner than expected? GREAT to have a phone at those moments), but also to keep in touch with friends along the way!

Last of all, have fun!  Staying safe while traveling mostly involves common sense, and building a few routines (extra document copies, making sure you have medical/evacuation insurance, keeping someone posted on your whereabouts, etc.) into your travel routine to keep you safe in case of the unexpected.

Nepal – Briana Cranmer (2012)

Briana Cranmer

Briana Cranmeris a medical student at the University of Arizona.  During the summer of 2012, Briana worked in Nepal, providing direct health services in small villages as part of the Village Volunteer Program.  Briana received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Briana’s travel safety tips:

Preparation to leave:

  • Register with the U.S. Embassy
  • Schedule an appointment with your local travel health clinic to determine appropriate immunizations and necessary medications.  Malaria coverage is a necessity.  I recommend a few doses of ciprofloxacin to cover any episodes of severe diarrhea.  The travel health clinic will likely give you azithromycin instead of ciprofloxacin, claiming the ciprofloxacin does not have good coverage.  This is not completely accurate and I suggest taking both medications with you.
  • Obtain international health insurance.  I used STA Travel Insurance.
  • Make multiple copies of your passport, credit cards and all other important information.  Give a copy to someone at home that you trust.  Also, take a couple copies with you.
  • Book your flight.  I highly recommend Suraj at Zen Travels (he is a local Nepali with U.S. training).  He speaks English, is easily accessible by phone and email, and I personally met him while in Kathmandu.  No extra charges for commission and he can book domestic flights.
  • If you have a smart phone, bring it.  Otherwise I recommend buying a cheap phone while in country.  For 100 rupees (a little over $1 U.S. dollar), you get 30 minutes of talking time.
  • If you are unsure about water safety bring a water filter and water purifying tablets.
  • Shower shoes!
  • Have a back up plan for all situations.  Have a hotel name, address and number to go to in case you are lost or your ride does not show up.  Have all contact information for U.S. and international program directors you are working with.

In-transit and in country:

  • If you fly through Doha Qatar and have a layover >8 hours you will receive a free hotel voucher.  I was skeptical, but I met four other people with the same layover so we all went together.  You have to pass through customs/immigration to leave the airport and immigration on the way back into the airport, but there is plenty of time.  If you are still concerned about leaving the airport or your layover is <8 hours, the Oryx lounge costs $40 and offers showers, clean bathrooms, coffee and drinks, food and internet.  Highly recommended.
  • Domestic flights only allow 20kg or 44lbs per bag, so pack appropriately.
  • Domestic flights require payment of an airport tax +/- 200 rupees.
  • Don’t ride motorcycles, head trauma is severe!  Also, passengers rarely have helmets.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings and actively participate in your safety.  I actually felt very safe in the city and villages, but I still wore a money belt and only carried part of my money.  I spent most of my time in the village so I cannot comment on other forms of travel throughout the country.  When I did travel it was with a group and we used a local taxi driver.
  • Be friendly and make friends with the local people.
  • DO NOT EAT food from local people.  They do not know how to prepare food for the American belly.
  • Avoid going out at night.  If you do go out at night, always take a local person with you and go in groups.
  • Dress appropriately.  Nothing revealing ladies.

Ecuador – Gwen Niekamp (2012)

Gwen Niekamp

Gwen Niekampgraduated from Vassar College.  Gwen volunteered this summer at the summer camp in Ecuador founded by another SWF recipient,   Emma Coates-Finke.  Gwen received a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Gwen’s travel safety tips:

Before you go, learn as much as you can about your destination—both the country as a whole and the specific city, neighborhood and/or community where you will be staying.

The travel I did with the help of Sara’s Wish brought me to San Clemente, Ecuador for the second time. I was fortunate because I could draw on my firsthand experiences from my previous trip in terms of bus schedules, accommodations and other things like local dialects. If you are preparing to travel somewhere new, look at blogs, travel guides and maps. Ask your friends or professors for recommendations and pick up key phrases in the local language (if you are headed to Ecuador, that means Spanish and Kichwa). If you are a big adventurer, you won’t be satisfied with only hearsay. Still, listening to the positive and negative experiences of other travelers is valuable, if only to help you build a list of must-sees and should-avoids. You can hit the ground running when you arrive in your host country and if a problem should arise, you will be familiar with effective coping strategies.

Register your travel information with the United States embassy.

This tip, like the first, isn’t specific to travelers to Ecuador. The U.S. State Department offers a free service called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. You can enter your travel information about your trip abroad and subscribe to Travel Warnings and Alerts for your destination country, which can help in an emergency. You can enroll online.

Be prepared for traveler’s sickness.

At camp inauguration, Emma and I performed a skit for the campers in which we poked fun at ourselves and other travelers. We used a gallon-size ziploc full of pills, lozenges, sunscreen, bug spray and our other pooled toiletries as a prop, and the skit got a good laugh from the kids who are familiar with over-prepared tourists.

I didn’t use much of the first-aid baggie that I had packed, but it wasn’t useless. Advil and Tums can help you cure common traveler’s sicknesses or at least treat them until you can reach a doctor. Some toiletries—notably tampons and contact lenses/solution—aren’t as widely available or cheap in Ecuador as they are in the U.S. Stock up on your prescriptions before you go.

Most importantly, make a note of the nearest hospital, doctor and pharmacy. Keep the doctor’s number at hand. Hopefully you won’t need it, but it’s a relief to have if you do.

Familiarize yourself with domestic transportation and travel safety in Ecuador.

I stayed in Quito by myself for a few days so I could meet camp volunteers at the airport. While in the city alone, I joined with other independent travelers for sightseeing, cab rides and walking at night. To avoid being thought of as “easy targets” by pick-pocketers in the Centro Histórico and other tourist areas, we tried to travel in small groups and use as much Spanish as possible.

Taxis are widely available in the northern cities of Ecuador where I traveled. Hoy, a newspaper based in Quito, printed an article in 2010 claiming that about a third of the city’s 15,000 taxis are unregistered and illegal. Only travel in cabs that are marked (the side doors should display a company name and a registration number). If a cab doesn’t have a meter, negotiate a price with the driver before you get in.

If you are traveling around the country by bus, buy tickets in the terminal before you board so that you are guaranteed a seat. At departure there might be a dozen empty seats, but as the bus fills, passengers holding tickets can and will kick you out of your seat. That means a long bus ride standing up or sitting in the aisle, which is uncomfortable at best, dangerous at worst.

Especially if you will be visiting the mountains, engaging in adventure tourism or hiking, bring a headlamp. Even Andean villages that are frequented by eco-tourists don’t have street lamps. With a flashlight or headlamp, you will be more visible to the drivers of cars and motorcycles that wind up mountain roads at top speeds. (I also found that my headlamp minimized my stumbling during nighttime trips to the outdoor bathroom!)

Be especially cautious when banking.

Due to service charges and exchange rates, using ATMs in other countries can be expensive. To avoid the expenses that add up after multiple transactions, I often withdrew larger amounts of cash at a time. If you are doing the same, do be cautious. Don’t take out cash in unfamiliar neighborhoods, when you are by yourself or after dark. As soon as the ATM spits out the cash, divide it and hide it in several different secure pockets. To do this as discreetly as possible, I recommend using ATMs that are inside banks and not in view of the passersby on a crowded city street. Needless to say, if you are out running errands, stop at the ATM towards the end of your trip so that you can minimize the amount of time you are walking around with large amounts of cash on your person.

Petty theft and pick-pocketing comprise the bulk of crime in Ecuador, especially around the city of Ibarra where I spent the summer. Thieves usually seek cash (again, do be conscious of those around you when you are banking), but the bright side is that identity theft and cybercrime are much less common. If your wallet is stolen, contact your bank and cancel your banking card, but don’t panic; your card has probably been tossed without a second look.

Seek immersion, but remove yourself from situations in which you feel unsafe.

Definitions of safety and security differ between Ecuador and the United States. I grew up accustomed to security cameras in stores, but in Ecuador I was followed up and down aisles by teenage security guards with machine guns. As another example: Ecuadorians, especially near Ibarra, tend to travel in the beds of pickup trucks without the slightest thought to buckle up, which has always been second nature to me.

Travel demands that you challenge yourself to adapt to a new culture. This could mean trying new foods, eating meals at new times, wearing clothes that do not automatically label you as a tourist, among many other examples. Seeking immersion is admirable… but trust your instincts when it comes to your safety.

If your cab driver seems to be drunk, get out of the car. If your host family mistreats you or if a member of the family does or says something inappropriate, switch host families. If a stranger offers to give you a ride to your destination while you are waiting for a bus, say no, gracias and wait the few extra minutes.

By all means be an open-minded adventurer, but your safety should never be a compromise.

Malawi – Kelli Wong (2012)

Kelli Wong

Kelli Wonggraduated from Colgate University and received her medical degree from Tulane.  Now in her residency in pediatrics, Kelly spent a month in Malawi providing medical care to HIV positive children.  Kelly received a $1500 scholarship from  Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Kelli’s travel safety tips:

  1. Always let someone know where you are going, how you are traveling, when you are leaving and when you should be expected to return. Also give your phone number to a trusted person if you have a mobile phone. I always told my lodge my travel plans, and it was nice to have someone check in with me to make sure I am safe.
  2. It is always nice to be social when in public places (e.g. restaurants, bars, hotels), but be wary of the information you tell others about yourself and be cautious that others may be listening. Because of the fuel crisis in Malawi, I was frequently trying to meet people (other international visitors) who may want to travel with me on the weekends. While at a restaurant, I was arranging a meeting point and told a friend where I was staying. Apparently a local overheard my conversation, mentioned to me where I was staying, and this made me feel very uncomfortable. As a consequence, I changed rooms within the lodge.
  3. When you travel abroad, always bring both a mastercard and visa with you. Some countries’ or cities’ banks may only accept one to get out money. For Malawi, most ATMs take visa only.
  4. When taking a taxi, always set your price and drop off point outside the car before you trip. Whenever possible try to share a cab with others going to remotely the same area. If you get a taxi driver you trust/like or even a car with functioning seatbelts, ask for the drivers mobile number and use him/her whenever possible.
  5. Know what time it gets dark at night, and never walk alone at night. Your lodge watchman may be willing to come pick you up and walk you back to the lodge, if you are not too far from your place of stay.
  6. Carry a headlamp on you at all times. Especially in Africa, because you never know where you will be when the power goes out.

Argentina – Kimberly Ellenson (2012)

Kimberly Ellenson

Kimberly Ellensonis a graduate of Cornell University.  Kimberly is living in Argentina for six months, where she is volunteering with the Foundation for Sustainable Development and focusing on increasing access to health care for impoverished citizens.  Kimberly received a $1500 scholarship  from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Kimberly’s travel safety tips:

The Argentine Northwest is replete with breathtaking landscapes, soaring mountains, and vertigo-inspiring scenery. If you are fortunate enough to travel through the region, there’s a lot to see within hours of each other – the Atacama Desert in Chile, the colonial city of Salta, the marketplaces and jungles of Jujuy, and mountain pueblos throughout the provinces steeped in tradition and culture of the indigenous people. The proximity of these wonders means that travel throughout the region is frequent and possible. Unfortunately, this also means that common and not-so-common travel awareness is necessary.

  1. Common travel tips: don’t carry large sums of money, make copies of your passport and put them in different places, travel with someone whenever possible, ensure others know of your travel plans and destinations.
  2. Read Lonely Planet or other travel books/blogs to familiarize yourself with the area before you go. Often you will find location-specific safety tips that will heighten your awareness and make you a savvier traveler.
  3. Prior to arriving in a larger city, find the number for the local remis (taxi) service. These remises are required to register their pick-up and drop-off points. Never enter an unmarked taxi, even though they will frequently stop if you need a cab. If you cannot access the remis number, only enter marked taxis, and be sure others know of your whereabouts.
  4. Always carry an extra phone card on you. Local cell phones operate on credit, and at times I would find myself out of credit but needing to call a taxi or friend. I always had an extra 30-peso (about $5) phone card on me just in case.
  5. Speak Spanish if and whenever possible. Locals will appreciate your efforts.
  6. Wear darker or subtler clothing. Argentines are conservative dressers and well-dressed, from blue-collar to white-collar individuals. Clothing with loud or bright patterns will peg you as a foreigner.
  7. If someone begs for money, respond with a polite “no gracias”. When you are courteous, the person simply turns around or stops asking; if you ignore them, they are more likely to follow you.
  8. If you are unsure about a destination or bus stop, just ask someone! Argentines are very friendly and love to help foreigners, and often times they will “have your back” and make sure you get to your final destination safely.
  9. Try not to engage in political talk. A common sentiment found in Argentina is that Americans have an Imperialist mindset and act entitled. The best approach is to remove yourself from such conversations or comment that your government doesn’t define your thinking.
  10. Stay away from plazas at night.

Traveling through Argentina is a life-changing experience. Be open to the wonderful people you will meet, things you will see and learn, and delicious food you will eat. Just use common sense and familiarize yourself with the places you’re going, and you will experience all the wonders this beautiful country has to offer!

Kenya – Mariah Hennen (2012)

Mariah Hennen

Mariah Hennenis a student at Kalamazoo College. Mariah spent the summer of 2012 in Kenya where she is worked with The Umoja Project, developing a palliative care program for vulnerable children.  Mariah received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Mariah’s travel safety tips:

Kenya touched my inner-soul and left there a mark that I wasn’t expecting.  I went to Kenya preparing myself for a more professional experience; centering myself on the idea that I was there to intern and my learning would be focused around that experience.  However, I left Kenya with more personal and heartfelt experiences, rather than entirely professional.  My memories of Kenya are grounded on the people I met, the stories I heard and the times I shared with others.  I came expecting to develop professionally; I left having developed as a human-being.

For me, I will always remember Kenya as a time full of joy.  As result of the people I met and the work I was fortunate to complete, in Kenya I felt so free, alive and joyful.  Kenya supported my growth and challenged me in exciting ways.  I attribute my growth primarily to one of distinguishing characteristics of my time in Kenya: the people.  In Kenya the tradition of hospitality is genuine and generous.  Coming from the United States, a place where the welcoming of strangers is much less common, at times the Kenyan hospitality was overwhelming.  Often, it was also humbling; as those who had little offered me whatever they could, sometimes a cup of tea or several avocados harvested from the tree behind the house.  No matter where I was, at a school, visiting a home or walking down the road, the happiness to receive visitors was inspiring.  These experiences challenged me to think about the way I treat visitors in the U.S., causing me to question whether I am as grateful for the presence of a stranger, as I am happy to welcome a friend.  In Kenya I was received joyfully into communities that respected me as person and treated me as friend.  Together we celebrated the pleasure that comes from creating relationships and through these relationships I learned about a different culture and about myself.

The Kenya that is portrayed in the media is commonly one of horrible sadness and despair.  This is not the Kenya I experienced.  While there are terribly difficult situations, there is also so much good occurring.  Kenya is filled with incredibly dedicated and truly decent people, who are devoting their lives to creating a better future for all Kenyans.  Every day I was inspired by the people I worked with; their abilities to be visionaries of a better world, to empathize with those in their communities and to channel their emotions into productive work.  The guardians, the teachers and the religious leaders, who tirelessly dedicate themselves to the orphans and vulnerable children in their communities, taught me about just how positive change occurs when communities come together to work to solve an issue.  As I interned in Kenya I was often reminded that related challenges also exist in the United States.  Here there are also orphans and vulnerable children, here there are addicts and street children, and here there are people who go to bed hungry.  Reflecting upon this, I am challenged to examine whether I am dedicated enough to work to change big issues not only in Kenya, but in the United States.  Despite the difficulties around the world, my time in Kenya, being part of an incredible organization and seeing amazing work being done, gave me hope.  Change is possible, it just takes commitment.

My time in Kenya was full of personal growth.  It provided me the space to reflect on where I have been, where I perceive my life to be going and decide if I was taking the correct steps forward.  There was professional growth, too – I did learn an incredible amount about how international partnerships work and the struggles of grassroots work that come along with working directly with communities.  Most importantly, I left with a better understanding of if this type of work is my future.  It is an unclear answer and I still have much to ponder, but this summer left me with incredible ideas and models for what my life might include.  This experience challenged me to contemplate about what healthy lifestyles are, to think critically about U.S. involvement in international NGOs and to reflect upon my remaining college years.  This summer opened up new doors and reaffirmed my passion and excitement for the future.

I left Kenya with family, friends and a place to go back to in the future.  Kenya embraced me and I am honored to be a part of communities there.  My time is colored by the incredible people I met, by the scenes of joy I experienced and by the times of fellowship I shared.  Kenya is a blur of color and smells, a mixture of sweet and sour, a combination of sadness and joy, and full of an overwhelming sense of hope for the future.  I am eternally grateful for the support I received from Sara’s Wish Foundation.  Without the support my time in Kenya would not have transpired and I would have missed an amazing experience.  Kenya changed my life, inspiring me to continue forward and showing me hope for the future.

Specific Safety Tips

  • Learn and follow local traditions and customs, especially regarding dress, gender relations and hospitality.
  • If possible, always travel with a partner or partners.
  • Avoid harassing/pestering individuals by evading eye contact, ignoring comments, moving away or engaging in conversation within your group.
  • Learn some words in the local language.  These might include thank you, please, hello, how much, no and yes.  Even speaking a little of the local language opens up possibilities for relationships and such relationships help create a safety net around you when you’re in the area.
  • Treat everyone with respect and openness; such behavior provides you better treatment and allows you to further enter into the community.
  • Use common sense when traveling by public transportation.  Never enter overcrowded matatus (buses), examine motorcycle drivers and their bikes carefully, and always determine the price of a ride before you get on.
  • Don’t stay out after dark.
  • Never tell someone where exactly you are headed.  Instead when asked, answer “around” or “in the area”
  • Trust yourself.  If you feel uncomfortable then remove yourself from the situation.
  • Don’t travel with valuables.
  • Use a bag that crosses over your body and that you can keep close.  Especially when in crowded areas stay aware of the position of your bag.
  • Keep a contact list for yourself while in country and provide a list of contacts for family and friends back in the US.  Set times when you will call back to the US just to say you’re okay.
  • It really helps to have a local cell phone, even if you only use it for emergencies.

India – Olya Clark (2012)

Olya Clark

Olya Clarkis a doctoral student in public health at UMass/Amherst. Olya traveled to India where she worked at an educational center, focusing on creating a program for abandoned  women.  Olya received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Olya Clark’s travel safety tips:

My first travel tip would be to read the tips posted by the other Sara’s Wish Scholarship Recipients.  They contain much sage advice and here I will try to add to the list, rather than duplicate the excellent advice that has already been written.

My advice is simple to say, but hard to do: study the history of the places you are going.  Every place on earth has its own unique history: wars, imperialism and colonialism, exploitation and so on. That past creates the present into which we enter when we travel, and to be oblivious of that history puts us at risk. For example, it would be very hard for a foreigner visiting the United States to understand contemporary race relations in this country if they knew nothing of America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  Yet, the legacy of that oppression and struggle for freedom is with us every day, and every person is situated somewhere with respect to it by the color of her skin, even if they are “just visiting.”

Sometimes the history one needs to be aware of goes back hundreds of years, and sometimes it is much more recent than that. Unless you are the first outsider to visit a country, there will be a history created by those tourists’ actions that can also affect you.  For example, in India, where I spent my time, many outsiders travel to places like Goa. There, they seem only interested in the beach, in drinking, and in obtaining drugs.  Heedless of local social mores, many women sun topless on the beach.  These actions form a history that creates a climate in which women – particularly white women from the United States and Europe – are seen as morally loose and sexually promiscuous.  The narrative of this history puts all women who come after them at risk.

So my advice is to get yourself some books – preferably written by the people from the country itself, not other outsiders – and learn the history. It will make you safer and it will deepen your understanding of, and appreciation for, the country you are about to visit.

Malawi – Yuen Ho (2012)

Yuen Ho

Yuen Ho, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill, where she majored in economics.  Yuen worked in Malawi this the 2012 summer, interning with a non-profit organization to help develop leadership programs for youth.  Yuen received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Yuen Ho’s travel safety tips:

First and foremost, Malawi lives up to its name as the “Warm Heart of Africa.” In general, people are incredibly friendly and helpful. During my travels throughout Malawi I felt safe and welcomed. However, there are still safety tips to keep in mind to ensure that your experiences in Malawi are the best possible.

Public Transportation: Public transportation just might be the most dangerous thing you encounter while in Malawi. In general, the public “minibuses” used around cities are old and in poor condition, and they are always crammed full beyond capacity. Instead of taking the minibus, opt for taking a taxi or shared taxi. While it’s a little more expensive, it’s safer and usually quicker as well. For longer distances, it is worth it to choose a private coach bus over the public buses. Again, public buses are usually in poor condition with extra people crammed down the aisle. In comparison, private buses will only travel with one to a seat and each seat comes with a seatbelt! The AXA Bus Company is a great pick, and tickets are usually only $4-$8 more than the public option. Also, if a driver is driving too fast, don’t be afraid to tell them to slow down.

Traveling at Night: In general, it is best to avoid traveling at night. The roads rarely have working streetlights and drinking and driving is a major problem. Also, walking at night makes you an easier target for muggings and attacks. If you have to travel at night, always do so with other people or a group and only take private cars or taxis.

Respecting Cultural Norms: As is the case with traveling to any foreign country, respecting the local cultural is important. I found that norms in Malawi can differ drastically between rural village areas and urban cities. For example, in villages, traditional wear is very important and women especially should wear appropriate clothing such as long skirts and shirts with sleeves. However, in the cities, it is normal for women to wear skirts and shorts at knee-level as well as pants and tank tops. Respecting cultural norms is a good way to prevent drawing attention to yourself.

Communication: It’s a good idea to check in with your country’s embassy when you arrive in Malawi. The embassy can keep you up to date on safety issues and events in the local area. Also, when traveling, keep in contact with family and friends and let them know what your plans are.

Health/Food: At least in Lilongwe, there are no water sanitation facilities in the city. Never drink tap water, make sure to always purify it before you drink (boiling, UV light, iodine tablets, etc). Some places, especially in rural areas, will sell you “home bottled” water that has not been treated, don’t drink the water unless it’s been treated. Also, Schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) is a parasite found in Lake Malawi. In some popular tourist areas, such as Cape Maclear, transmission rates can be very high due to the population density. To avoid contracting Bilharzia, don’t swim in the water. However, if you do swim, Bilharzia is easily treated and medication is available throughout Malawi. Just make sure to get checked by a doctor and take the appropriate medicine. Finally, especially in the wet season, Malaria can be a big concern while in Malawi. To prevent contracting Malaria, you should take anti-malarials during your trip. You should also sleep under a mosquito net and apply bug spray when going outside.

India – Ruju Rai (2011)

Ruju Rai - 2011 Recipient to India

Ruju Rai, a medical student at Boston University Ruju, spent six months in India volunteering with the “Unite for Sight” organization which works to eliminate preventable blindness among people who live in extreme poverty. Ruju was awarded the Inga Tocher scholarship for 2011 in the amount of $1750 from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Ruju’s travel safety tips:

  • Whenever possible, do not travel after dark
  • Always travel with trusted local staff members of the organization you work with since they know the language and the area well.
  • Buy a phone and SIM card upon arrival. Store local and US emergency contact numbers on the phone and always keep it loaded with at least 100 Rs.
  • Give family and friends from home your phone number as soon as you get a phone.
  • Never carry large amounts of cash or other valuables on you. Always keep your money close to your body and hold your purse in front of you with a hand on it at all times. Keep different amounts of money in multiple different locations (an envelope with a smaller amount of cash in the front of your purse, an envelope with a larger amount of cash deep inside, etc). Do not let others see how much money you are carrying. Keep your money organized so that when buying something, you can turn away from the vender to discreetly and quickly take out the amount you need.
  • Keep locks on your luggage at all times and always lock your door when you step out.
  • Dress conservatively, speak softly in the streets, and do your best not to draw attention to yourself.
  • Avoid areas where you see man or a group of men loitering (drinking, smoking, staring at passersby)
  • Use your gut instincts. If a situation doesn’t feel right to you, it’s probably a red flag. It’s better to be safe and exit the situation ASAP.
  • If ever put in a situation where you must deal with dangerous individuals, stay calm, composed and pleasant. Do not argue and always have an exit strategy.
This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2011, Asia.