India – Victoria Larsen (2013)

One of the best pieces of advice I can offer for safe travel, whether it be in a neighboring town or an unexplored corner of the world, is to always have a travel plan.
Books and movies love to romanticize the idea of spontaneity. More often than not, characters jump into extravagant travel adventures on a whim with everything working out beautifully in the end. While the idea is great, the reality is never usually as simple or seamless as what is so readily portrayed.
One of the best precautionary actions any traveler can take is to start with a plan: one should always know exactly where they are going, how they are getting there, who will be going with them, and what things they will need to have with them along the way. Any gaps in a travel plan leave open doors for things to go wrong and safety is usually the first to go.
Understandably, things can always go wrong. I learned this firsthand while in India. Due to miscommunication with a trip organizer, one set of train tickets was cancelled, leaving my group temporarily stranded in a new city with limited communication skills. While we were able to quickly resolve the issue, it became apparent that without our reliable program coordinators, we could have been in serious danger. We were in one of the largest cities in northern India, a city filled with countless situations which could threaten the safety of a travelling group or individual. The point of this story is not to revel in the mishaps of my travels, but to illustrate the importance of proper planning. Had the proper steps been taken to clarify our travel plans, it would have been easily apparent that our final tickets were not officially confirmed which would have led to our making an alternative plan. To be prepared for any travel situations that may arise, the best thing to do is to do a little bit of research, come up with a plan, and come up with one or two back-up plans in the event that something does go wrong.
Besides careful planning, here are a few more travel tips to keep in mind while abroad:
• Whenever possible, travel with a friend, classmate, co-worker, or family member. A second person will help to make travel much safer. If travelling with someone else is not possible, make sure someone is informed of the dates and locations of travel and check in with them every now and then so they know life’s adventures are going according to plan.
• Always carry basic supplies such as water-cleansing tablets, a first aid kit, and clothespins or clips (these can be used countless ways). Think of anything that would be necessary to last a day away from luggage.
• Bring or make multiple copies of important documents including passports, visas, and insurance cards. Store copies in multiple places including in luggage and in daypacks.
• Know weight limits for flying. Overweight bags will mean either paying steep fees or throwing away items.
• Specifically for India and other countries with unsafe tap water, use bottled water for everything – drinking, brushing teeth, washing fresh food – and always check the seal to ensure the bottle is new.
• Make friends with local people (still being cautious as always). It is incredible how kind and helpful people can be, so it is always great to have people familiar with the area being explored to go to with questions and for advice. My group actually had a local bed and breakfast owner chase down our taxi when he thought we were getting a bad rate from the driver. It was nice to know we were being looked after by people who knew the area.

This entry was posted on January 20, 2015, in Asia.

Viet Nam – Lan Ngo (2013)

Travel Tips For Vietnam

1. On three different occasions, strangers have grabbed at my body before. Luckily, nothing else happened. Be prepared to yell back, but I would not advise attacking or hitting anyone if you are sexually harassed in this way, as violence in fights can escalate very quickly in Vietnam.
2. Avoid extravagance. Fancy jewelry, shoes, clothes, bags, will draw unnecessary attention to you.
3. If you are riding a motorbike: 1) Wear a good helmet. 2) Rent/buy a cheap motorbike. If you drive a really nice bike, you are putting yourself at risk at being robbed while on the street. 3) If you live far from the city center, try to make it home before the streets in your area become too vacant.
These are only 3 of my tips. Here are 2 sites to find Vietnam-specific traveling tips:

This entry was posted on January 20, 2015, in Asia.

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.

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.

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.

India – Ericka Schnitzer (2000)

Ericka Schnitzer applied for her scholarship while pursuing a MA/PhD degree at the Divinity School at the Unversity of Chicago. Ericka attended a Hindi language immersion program in Rajasthan, India, during the fall of 2000. While in India Ericka worked with a group of children on art projects aimed at gaining an understanding of their visual conceptions of the gods and goddesses that their families worship. Once back in Chicago, Ericka planned to hold an exhibition of the children’s artwork through the University of Chicago’s Divinity School in conjunction with the Department of South Asian Studies. One goal of the exhibition was tol recognize the contributions of Sara’s Wish Foundation to this project. Ericka’s scholarship totaled $2000 to cover travel costs and the costs of art supplies.

Here are Ericka’s travel safety tips:

Travel by train rather than bus whenever possible. Use mineral water for drinking, brushing your teeth, etc.

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2000, Asia.

Philippines – Jeanette Heinrichs (2001)

Jeanette Heinrichs was pursuing a dissertation in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. The $1000 Jeanette received from Sara’s Wish Foundation helped to defray the costs of her trip to The Philippines where she engaged in field research studying the efforts of Filipina women to combat the global trafficking of women.

Here are Jeanette’s travel safety tips:

Kidnapping happens to tourists in the Philippines. In order to avoid it, never travel alone or ride a taxi or FX alone. Carry a cell phone with you when you travel abroad, even if you don’t normally use one at home.

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2001, Asia.

India – Elizabeth Parsons (2001)

Elizabeth Parsons, was medical student at Duke University when she was awarded a scholarship of $1500, to support her participation in an expedition to bring medical care to a Tibetan refugee population in India this past summer.

Here are Elizabeth’s travel safety tips:

When traveling in the mountains, hire drivers who live in the mountain region. They know the roads and can drive them more safely than a driver from the city.

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2001, Asia.

Thailand – Jaime Moo-Young (2006)

Jaime Moo-Young studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and has a bachelor’s degree from Yale University. Jaime is spending a year in Bangkok, Thailand studying barriers to health care services among the poor. Jaime received a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Jaime’s travel safety tips:

Transportation Safety

  • In Bangkok, the easiest and most convenient modes of transportation are the Sky Train (BTS), the subway (MRT), and taxis. These are all very safe.
  • For taxis, make sure to choose cabs that say “Taxi-Meter” on the top. Although crimes involving taxi drivers and passengers are uncommon, females should be wary of taking taxis home alone late at night. Since some cab drivers do not speak any English, it’s a good idea to have the address/phone number of your destination available, written out in both Thai and English, in order to avoid getting lost in an unfamiliar area.
  • Tuk-tuks are like mini, open-sided taxis that can take you shorter distances and bypass some of the heavier traffic. They’re reasonably safe if taken on a side road for a short distance, but I’d advise against taking them on the highway or picking one up in a very congested area, as the exhaust fumes from heavy traffic are very unpleasant and unhealthy.
  • In all parts of Thailand, motorcycle taxis are a very common way to travel, especially for short distances and during heavy traffic. Try to avoid these whenever possible, as motorcycle accidents are still the leading cause of injury-induced morbidity and mortality in Thailand. If you are in a rural area where motorcycle is the only legitimate means of transportation, make sure to wear a helmet, agree on a price beforehand, and don’t be afraid to tell the driver to stop if you feel unsafe and want to get off. Travelers may also rent motorcycles themselves in certain areas, especially the more touristy ones. Use your discretion when doing this, as motorcycle injuries among Thais and foreigners alike remain very common.
  • As a pedestrian, be very careful when crossing the street, especially in very busy areas such as Bangkok. Whenever possible, use the elevated crossing bridges (“flyovers”) that are available along most busy roads. Crossing at a designated crosswalk is not a guarantee of safety; look both ways thoroughly before venturing across, even if you supposedly have the right of way. When looking out for oncoming traffic, remember that Thais drive on the left side of the road.
  • Unlike in the US , traffic lights and traffic signals are not taken as an absolute in Thailand. It’s not uncommon for vehicles to run red lights or switch lanes erratically, especially when traffic is the most congested. Keep this in mind, especially when crossing intersections.
  • In Bangkok, public buses are the cheapest and most common form of commuter transportation among Thais. They are quite safe, and foreigners may use them as well if they can become acquainted with the various routes and can speak some basic Thai in order to clarify directions/destination.
  • For travel between provinces, there are several private and government coach bus companies that provide safe, reliable transportation. If you purchase your ticket at one of the recognized provincial bus stations, you can feel safe knowing that you’re using a legitimate company. In the past, there were reports of drivers of nighttime buses taking drugs in order to stay awake overnight. Nowadays, this practice is less common, and most companies require 2 drivers per overnight shift who can take turns, thus eliminating the need for drivers to pull all-nighters. If you feel uneasy about this, it never hurts to double-check that there are 2 drivers on your particular tour bus. Or, you can opt to take a daytime bus instead of an overnight one. Be careful of overcrowding and overbooking during the most travel-heavy times of year, such as New Year’s and the Songkran Festival (in mid-April); it’s not a bad idea to avoid road travel altogether during these holidays anyway.

Personal Safety

  • Overall, Thailand is a very safe country, but you should always exercise the same precautions that you would in any large city. Especially in large cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai, keep your money and passport on your body or in a securely-closed bag that you can keep your eye on, and watch out for pickpockets.
  • Especially in touristy areas (like the Grand Palace in Bangkok), be wary of “tuk-tuk/taxi scams,” where a driver offers to take you to a tourist site for a certain price. They often will stop off at a jewelry store, even if you insist you are not interested, and pressure you to buy something there. This is because they have received a commission from the store for taking you there. While personal safety is not typically at risk in these scams, you may get ripped off or feel harassed. In general, always have a specific destination in mind when hailing a tuk-tuk or cab, and feel free to get out if you feel the driver is giving you the runaround.
  • Especially if you are female, don’t walk around alone at night, avoid dark/deserted areas, and try to tell a friend where you are going and when to expect you back home.
  • Lock your doors and windows, especially at night and when leaving your apartment or guesthouse, as robberies are not uncommon. If staying in a reputable guesthouse or hotel, inquire whether there is a safety box at the front desk for valuables. If you feel uncertain about the legitimacy of the guesthouse, it’s better to keep your valuables on your person or locked up and within your sight at all times.
  • Since the government coup in September 2006, violence has been kept to a minimum, but there have been occasional bombings around Bangkok and other provinces since January 2007. Try to stay clear of any political protests or crowded/touristy areas that may be at risk for bombing during festive occasions.
  • Deadly bombings by Muslim insurgents in the southernmost provinces (Yala, Songkla, Patani, and Narathiwat), have become almost a daily occurrence in the past couple of years. Avoid traveling to these areas whenever possible, and be aware of travel advisories.
This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2006, Asia.

India – Rachel Meeker (2010)

Rachel Meeker received both her bachelors and masters degrees from UC Riverside in sociology and religious studies. Rachel worked in India with the Child Leader Project, focusing on higher education for disadvantaged youth. Rachel received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Rachel’s travel safety tips:

When traveling with a group, the most effective safety practices are those that are habitual. Rather than relying solely on a set of safety rules as reference material, it is important that we also create a culture of safety within our traveling community. By creating cultures of safety, we ensure that all members of the group feel ownership of safety policies and a responsibility to the group to employ those policies for the good of everyone. A culture of safety should also enable member feedback on safety policies and procedures so that concerns can be shared, successes celebrated, and that ultimately the traveling community can improve and strengthen its safety guidelines. In other words, safety needs to be a cultural value in a traveling community and, as such, is an important element in daily activities, planning and decision-making processes.

Creating a Culture of Safety

How do we create a culture of safety within a traveling community, such as an education abroad cohort, a collective of international volunteers, or a group of friends or family traveling together?

One way is to create safe spaces for community dialogue, creation, and reflection. A safe space is when every member is allowed a voice in the discussion and no one is censured or judged for their contributions. Through these safe spaces, we can establish consensus on safe practices so that all community members feel ownership. This also ensures that you have the most comprehensive safety practices, expressing the concerns and wisdom of all group members. This is also an opportunity to discuss why certain practices are useful, why members may be more comfortable or uncomfortable adhering to community guidelines, and so forth. Let all voices be heard, be patient, and consensus will be reached.

Practice Safe Community Every Day

Maintaining a culture of safety is a daily endeavor. In your traveling community, there a many ways to cultivate the value of safety on a day to day basis. How you decide to make safety a daily practice is an important part of building consensus early in your journey, so remember to open the discussion before you board the plane, train, boat or bus!

Consider making the following part of your daily routine prior to and while traveling…

  • In preparation for your trip and while you are traveling, hold daily “check-ins” to discuss how we have each practiced our values, including safety as a value in relationship to other community values. This is a great forum for community members to continue the safe space created prior to your trip!
  • Staying in shared housing? Create a “Safety Net” poster in your home, connecting safe practices to your traveling goals, experiences, and memories. A Safety Net poster is an ongoing collage project contributed to by the group that allows all members to chart their travel experiences in light of safe community practices. You can use a web structure, a bubble graph, a timeline, or any other visual structure that is meaningful to your group—pick one together!
  • Think about safety in positive terms rather than negative terms (Ex: Don’t do this, don’t do that); Celebrate a positive practice every day. What do your safe community practices allow you to do in your travels? Do you have greater mobility, are you more comfortable trying new things, and so forth? Make time to celebrate the ways that safe practices liberate your journey by recognizing and exercising the freedoms that safe community ensures!
  • Maintain connection to loved ones at home. Use phone calls, emails, blogs, webcasts, or good old fashioned letters and postcards. Remember that how we define our traveling communities is not necessarily limited to those you are physically with while you travel. Involve family, friends and partners. They are our primary advocates and allies in our daily lives and this does not change when we are abroad. Their contributions and their care are an integral part of creating your safety culture. Consider this as you plan your trip and reflect on how your travel community will actively involve them in your journey.

Safe Communities Confronting the Unexpected

What happens when your travel community is confronted with a safety issue that they did not expect?

One of the benefits of creating a culture of safety in your traveling community is that when you confront a safety issue that your community could not predict in your travels, you already have the mechanisms in place within your community to deal with it. Safe space for discussion allows all voices to be heard, all wisdom and insight to be shared. We all know the adage “two heads are better than one” but how much better is it to have the heads and hearts of your whole community directed towards the group good? Daily activities highlighting safety as a value ensures that all members have practice thinking about safety or using a ‘safety lens’ to reflect on their experiences. With these mechanisms in place, your community will be better equipped to handle the unfamiliar or unexpected. Use these mechanisms to allow the group to make decisions about safe practices together and trust your community. Come together in caring and enjoy your journey!

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2010, Asia.