Europe – Tanyaporn Wansom (2006)

Tanyaporn Wansom is a 2002 graduate of Swarthmore College, now studying medicine at the University of Michigan. Tanya received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation so that she could participate in the Global Health Fellows Program (a health policy internship program) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Here are Tanyaporn’s travel safety tips:

Although Europe is generally safe, if you’re traveling alone on a train, try to sit near other young women traveling alone – they’ll likely be happy that you sat down in their compartment/area rather than somebody else. Talk to a conductor if someone is bothering you.

Stay in well-lit areas while you’re waiting for a train (or other public mode of transportation). If you have a long time to wait for a train, try reading a book at a cafeteria/public restaurant rather than waiting at the platform

You often get asked for your passport if you are traveling in Europe since you’re crossing borders often. Keep copies and important information somewhere safe in case you lose your passport.

When staying in hostels, men often come and sleep in ‘all-women’s’ bunk rooms at night. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, splurge on a more private room, as it may be hard to notify hostel staff late at night.

Register with the US embassy wherever you are if you’re going to be abroad for some time (It’s easy to do on their website). By doing this, you also get emails from the local consulate/embassy about State Dept warnings as well as local events (like 4th of July celebrations) going on around town.

If you don’t have a cell phone, keep calling cards with you at all times. It’s good to have a credit card in case you get into an emergency situation so that you can call who you need to from an international phone.

If you’re going to be abroad for any significant amount of time, get a cell phone. It’s cheap to buy a SIM card and you can pay-as-you-go. Although most cell phones from the US don’t work abroad, most cell phones from abroad work everywhere (I used a cheap phone I had previously from Thailand in Geneva ).

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2006, Europe.

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.

Kenya – Jodi Sebso (2006)

Jodi Sebso completed medical school at the University of Arizona in 2006. Jodi used her $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation to support work in a community clinic in Kenya.

Here are Jodi’s travel safety tips:

Traveling in Kenya is definitely not for the faint-hearted or those with back problems! Before you go, register with the US Embassy, which you can do quite easily by filling out an online form. Kenya is listed on the State Department’s list of locations with travel warnings, so keep this in mind when planning a trip there. Places in Kenya such as Nairobi and the coast (Mombasa and Lamu), are typically considered slightly higher risk because they are more tourist-oriented. In addition, be sure to get your travel immunizations—typhoid, a polio booster, yellow fever, and meningitis vaccine, the only one that is optional. Overall, if you do your research and use common sense, you will find Kenya to be quite safe.

When flying to Kenya, there are a number of airlines which you can choose from. British Airways, KLM, and Kenya Airways all service Nairobi. You will fly into the Jomo Kenyatta airport. You must have a visa to enter the country, and you can either get this before you depart by sending your passport and other required items to the Kenyan embassy in Washington, D.C., or by waiting in line at the airport once you arrive. All information can be found at I had my visa before I left home, which made customs take only about ten minutes. Be sure to leave plenty of time before your flight when you depart Nairobi, as the security is very tight (3 separate X-ray machines and several bag checks), and takes anywhere from 1-2 hours just to get to your gate. Once in Nairobi, you can either be met at the airport or take a taxi into town. While in town, there are a number of buses and matatus (small Nissan vans) that shuttle people around the city. Do not travel in one of these vehicles at night if you can avoid it. The streets become pretty unsafe at night, and there is a reason that the city’s nickname is “Nairobbery!” Always keep money and other important items in a money belt. There have been incidences lately of buses on the way to the coast being held up by robbers who are savvy to money belts that hang around your neck or wrap around your waist, so the best kind to use would be one that you can attach around your leg.

I spent the majority of my time in western Kenya near Lake Victoria and in southern Kenya near the Maasai Mara reserve. In order to get from Nairobi to Kisumu, the largest city in the west, there are several buses and matatus. I would recommend the Easy Coach bus company. While it is not the fastest way to travel, it is safe. It costs 700 Sh ($10) for a one-way ticket on a fairly comfortable bus that may have air-conditioning, if you are very lucky! The roads are in extremely bad condition, and the majority of your 7-hour trip will be spent bumping around due to huge potholes. But you will spy zebras, baboons, gazelles, and other animals as you drive through the Great Rift Valley.

Once in Kisumu, you can catch a matatu or boda boda (a bicycle taxi) to get around the city. Boda bodas should cost you between 10-20 Sh per ride. Always take a taxi if you are traveling anywhere at night, or to get back to your hotel if you are at dinner or the like. A good safe hotel is the Sooper Guest House. (No, that’s not a misspelling!) If you are traveling to any location along the lake, you will need to take a matatu. These vehicles are supposed to only hold 14 passengers and drive 80 km/hour, but this is rarely what occurs. I found that the best seats were in the very back by the windows. In this manner you get fresh air and are the least crowded when people are getting in and out during your trip. There are also sometimes small buses that travel to larger villages, and these afford more room but a much rougher ride once you hit dirt roads. There were several instances when I was literally flying out of my seat! A matatu ride of up to 2 hours should cost 150-180 Sh, max. Matatu drivers will charge based upon what they think you can pay, so be firm on your price. All matatus leave from the matatu stage in Kisumu, which anyone can easily point out to you. Nearly everyone that you meet is very friendly and wants to help however they can. Your smile will always be the best tool you have to approach situations. Have a great trip!

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2006, Africa.

Uganda – Kelly Grafing (2006)

Kelly Grafing was a medical resident in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota in 2006. Kelly used her $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation to support her participation in an elective program in Kampala, Uganda where she provided inpatient care to children with extreme malnourishment and rare diseases.

Here are Kelly’s travel safety tips:

  1. Make two copies of your passport prior to leaving. Leave one behind in your home country after telling a trusted person where it is located. Take the other copy with you storing it in a different location than your passport. This is to have documentation of your passport should it become lost or stolen.
  2. Carry your passport and money in a travel safety pass to prevent getting your pocket picked.
  3. Registering with your local embassy either prior to leaving or upon arrival is a good idea.
  4. Malaria prevention is key. Take your anti-malarial medications as prescribed daily. Also prevent bug bites with bed nets and bug repellant. A recommended bug repellant would be Ultrathon Bug Repellent lotion or Sawyer Extended Release Bug Repellant. The key is the extended release of the DEET component. These products are available at camping stores.
  5. Protection from the sun is also important. Have a sunscreen with you always for frequent reapplications. Drink plenty of safe water. Bring a hat and long sleeved clothing to block the sun effect.
  6. Ugandan currency is the Ugandan shilling. As of spring of 2006, 1800 Ugandan Shillings are equal to 1 US dollar. To ensure the best exchange rate, bring $100 or $50 US dollar bills that are new, crisp, and dated after 2000. Many places will not accept bills printed before 1999. ATMs are available but having your own US currency is recommended.
  7. If working in the hospital, open toe shoes are acceptable but otherwise dress is very formal. You will be expected to wear a white coat daily. Men are to wear a shirt and tie.
  8. Shower shoes are a must.
  9. Transportation around Uganda comes in many fashions. Private cabs are safe, often provide seatbelts, but are more expensive at about 5000 shillings. Matu Matus are minivans that function as taxis for the general public. These are safe and cost considerably less at about 300 shillings. Boda Bodas are motorized scooters that you can ride on the back of. I would not recommend this mode of travel, as it is unsafe and known for many traffic accidents.
  10. Walking is safe in Uganda, but should be done in pairs and during day light hours for maximum safety.
  11. Women are safe to travel in Eastern Africa , but should not travel alone. I would recommend that everyone travel in pairs regardless of sex.
  12. It is important to keep up to date on the news occurring in the country you are traveling to or in. Many countries in Eastern Africa are currently not safe to travel in due to political situations. This information should be checked prior to travel as well as while there.
  13. Water from the tap is not safe to drink unless boiled thoroughly. This means it is not to be used for brushing teeth, cooking, or accidentally swallowed in the shower unless treated first. Tap water can be made safe to drink either by boiling it, filtering it, or adding iodine tablets which are available at camping stores.
  14. A flashlight is a must as the power is very unreliable. I would recommend having one that can be carried on you at all times.
  15. You can keep in touch with your friends and families via email that is readily available at many Internet cafes taking into mind the power is working while you are there. Cells phones are cheap to purchase in Uganda , and your family can call you on your cell phone after purchasing an international phone card in the US for about 8 cents per minute. You will need a SIM card if you purchase a cell phone so that it can receive calls. You can call internationally from payphones in Uganda but will have to purchase a local phone card at a rate of about $1 per 30 seconds to 1 minute.
This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2006, Africa.

Venezuela – Azita Jacobson (2006)

Azita Jacobson is a graduate student in Public Health at New York Medical College. Azita received a scholarship of $1500 from Sara’s Wish Foundation in order to support her study of the effects of harmful household environmental pollutants on pregnant women in Marcibo, Venezuela.

Here are Azita’s travel safety tips:

Maraciabo is blistering year round, so plan to take hot weather appropriate clothing. Most of my long distance travel in Maraciabo was by car. If you are the type to get out and see as much as you can, then I strongly suggest using registered taxis as opposed to unmarked taxi services. There are phone numbers for registered taxis published everywhere. Usually from public places, like a shopping district or tourist attractions, there are always registered taxis waiting. From other areas like residential areas and areas less traveled, you can call up a taxi. Registered taxis have clear published fares and radio their assignments to their headquarters.

Local bus travel can be particularly dangerous. This is not because of theft or violence, but instead due to the extreme over crowding. In the mornings I had to ride the bus from my home to the clinic in which I worked. People literally would hang on to the open windows panes from the outside of the bus (formally a school bus) because there were so many people squashed in the seats and aisle.

Most of my case studies and house visits were during my study were reached by walking.

By caring a calling card you can ensure a way to make a phone call in emergencies at the payphone booths. You can buy them online for a fraction of the cost that they are sold for on the streets. You can also access international calling from any of the numerous convenient phone kiosks/news stands around the city. These kiosks have multiple cell phones chained to a table, you can call anywhere locally for an extremely reasonable price.

During my time in Maraciabo, the metro train system was not up in running in my area. So I have no experience with this mode of transportation. However, I rode the Metro train in Caracas. There are subway maps around each train station and the individuals at the information desk are very helpful. In Caracas, most of the taxis in the city center are registered. So I highly recommend taking a taxi, indefinitely, during late, dark hours. I would strongly recommend investing in ground transportation, such as a shuttle or a taxi service to get to and from the airport as soon as you land in Caracas. This will ensure a return trip to the airport. I failed to do this and when the major bridge connecting Caracas to the airport (approximately a 30-45 minute drive) fell due to the rain waters, I had no way to return to the airport. Unregistered taxis will solicit their services for ridiculous amounts of money. What they fail to tell you is that their “alternate” route is though the extremely sketchy neighborhoods along the “Caretera Vieja” or the “Old Highway.” This is an area that not even the military will go without being highly armed. So try to confirm your way to and from the airport in advance if possible.

If you plan on traveling outside of Maraciabo via airplane, plan on paying with cash or with a credit card of a resident from Maraciabo. Most travel has to be arranged by a travel agent and they usually do not accept US credit cards. In my experience, travel agencies that were more lenient with accepting more forms of payment were more stringent in travel restrictions.

Most importantly, make sure that even though you may think as a pedestrian that you have the right away…think again, pay close attention, and be ready to run when crossing streets by foot.

Ecuador – Stacy Sprando (2008)

Stacy Sprando graduated from Stanford University in March 2008. Her $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation supported her work providing primary health care services as well as psychological and educational support services to young women in Ecuador over a ten month period beginning in September 2008.

Here are Stacy’s travel safety tips:

Ecuador is a beautiful country, with incredible biodiversity. It is separated into four regions, distinguished not only by their geography but by their culture and rhythm of life. The four regions are: la costa (the coast), la sierra (the sierra, which includes the Andes mountains), la Amazona (the amazon) and las Islas Galapagos (the Galapagos Islands). Traveling throughout Ecuador, as in any developing country, can be a bit of a challenge and often involves long bus travel, but it is well worth it. Most travelers fly into one of the two biggest cities: Quito or Guayaquil and then take a bus to see other parts of the country. It is common for locals (and foreigners) to take overnight buses when traveling long distances (more than 6-8 hours). However, if you are traveling alone it is best to take the bus during the day. It is tempting to travel at night as it keeps you from losing a day to bus travel, but your safety is more important and taking the bus at night, especially alone, simply is not as safe. Regardless of when you travel by bus, be sure to keep your belongings with you (preferably in your lap). If you have any valuables do not put them in the compartment below the bus or in the overhead compartment as you will be at risk of having them stolen. Also, do not travel around with your actual passport. Leave your passport in a safe place and travel with a copy of it. Try not to travel have too much cash on you at any time. When you need to withdraw cash it is safer to find an ATM that is inside and try not to withdrawl money after nightfall.

I spent the majority of my time in the capital city, as I was volunteering at El Centro de La Niña Trabajadora, located in the south of Quito. So here are some tips for staying safe specifically in Quito. It is best not to walk alone in the city after nightfall. Even if you are only going a few blocks, it is safest to take a cab, get on a city bus or take the Trole (public transit that runs on tracks, from the North to the South of the city). The Trole gets very busy and oftentimes you are completely pushed up against other people, especially during peak transit times. When riding on the Trole, always be mindful of your belongings; hold your backpack in front of you and do not leave cash or valuables in your pockets. In terms of traveling in cabs, most of the cabs in Quito are true licensed cabs, but before you get in make sure you see a “licensed cab” sticker on the windshield. Quito has some very beautiful parks which are full of families, couples, travelers, etc. especially on the weekends. Be sure to enjoy the parks during the day, but do not walk through them at night. In general, it is important to never have your cell phone out in public. If you need to make a call, go inside a store. Cell phones are very sought after and you have a high chance of it getting stolen if you are talking on it out in the open. I would also recommend not bringing or wearing expensive jewelry. If you have a wedding band, I would suggest leaving it at home and finding an inexpensive band to wear while you are traveling.

These are just some of the tips I have after spending 10 wonderful months in Ecuador. It is an incredible country, with generous people and a rich culture. Enjoy your travels, but remember that your safety comes first!

Bolivia – Caitlin Daniel (2006)

Caitlin Daniel graduated from Smith College in May 2006. Caitlin was granted a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation in order to volunteer in La Paz, Bolivia for six months where she worked in a children’s home.

Here are Caitlin’s travel safety tips:

  • Avoid traveling at night. Sometimes this is simply not possible because some bus routes only run at night, but wherever possible, travel by day.
  • When traveling by bus, sit on the side opposite where the driver sits – especially on narrow roads where crashes can occur due to oncoming vehicles scraping against each other. By sitting on the side opposite the driver’s side, you will not be on the side of the bus that scrapes against the other vehicle.
  • If possible, avoid road travel during rainy season. Roads, especially dirt ones, become much slicker and harder to navigate in the rain.
  • Because you will not necessarily be familiar with the conditions of particular roads in a foreign country, you need to research the safety of a route prior to traveling on it. Look for this information in guidebooks. If these texts do not include such information, ask people to tell you; the people who live in a place will often be familiar with the conditions of their roads.
  • Unfortunately, it is sometimes almost impossible to guarantee safe travel conditions, despite one’ efforts to be careful. In Bolivia, bus drivers in the countryside almost always drive drunk because they think it helps them stay up. Consequently, if one travels in rural Bolivia, she is basically forced to do so in unsafe conditions. While a traveler cannot realistically avoid this situation, she can try to pressure local authorities to put greater controls on bus drivers and bus companies. I recommend writing municipal governments, saying that unsafe travel conditions deter tourism. I would also suggest writing the country’s Bureau of Tourism to make the same point; this institution has a vested interest in promoting tourism and with enough feedback from travelers, might actually say something about abysmal travel conditions.
  • It is crucial to not only avoid dangers related to vehicular accidents, but also to be extremely aware of other people while traveling. Be aware of your belongings and avoid contact with anyone who offers anything or tells you that you have to go to another place with them. These scammers might actually be what’s putting you in danger.

Nigeria – Stephanie Borden (2006)

Stephanie Borden received a Masters in Public Health degree from UC Berkeley. Stephanie was awarded $1000 from Sara’s Wish Foundation in support of her work on a field study in the area of family planning in Benin, Nigeria in 2006.

Here are Stephanie’s travel safety tips:

While in Nigeria, many of the people I met described their country as “rugged.” After 3 moths of living and working there, I came to understand what they meant. I spent the majority of my time in Lagos and Benin City. Based on these two cities I found Nigeria to be fast-paced. There are few (hardly any in Benin City) stop signs or stop signs and traffic is congested much of the time during the day.

The safest way to travel is by taxi. They are relatively inexpensive and will take you exactly where you need to go. Another option is the bus. They are generally full, especially if you are traveling in the morning or late afternoon. However, unlike other places I have been, everyone has a seat so you will not be forced to stand up. Although it is very likely that you will find yourself sandwiched with four others in a seat made for three. Be sure you know the final destination of the bus before you board and try to find out the correct price ahead of time. There are also commercial motorbikes, but these can be quite dangerous depending on the driver. I will pass on the advice given to me: “Do not ride the motorbikes.” However, I had to take one once because nothing else was available. If you find yourself in a similar situation be sure to communicate with your driver. They are extremely receptive. If you ask them to slow down they will respect your wishes. When traveling between cities, avoid traveling at night. I was told repeatedly that this is not a good idea and most locals prefer daytime travel. If you have the option of taking the “Edegbe Line,” take it. These buses are well maintained, regarded as safe, and for a little extra you can get air-conditioning.

As long as you use good judgment you will be fine traveling in Nigeria. Do not do anything you feel uncomfortable with and be aware of your surroundings… SAFE TRAVELS!

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2006, Africa.

Ghana – Rachael Bonawitz (2006)

Rachael Bonawitz is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College. Rachael received a $1300 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation to support her work as a laboratory researcher in Kumasi, Ghana.

Here are Rachael’s travel safety tips:

– Try to arrive in daylight – the airport is not necessarily near downtown Accra and trying to charter a taxi/get transportation might be difficult unless you’ve made arrangements prior to your arrival

– If you will be in the country for a while, try and purchase a cell phone/buy a card for your own cell phone. Most systems (such as Areeba) are pay-as-you-go, so it’s not a huge financial commitment and it may be useful to have a means of communication.

– When traveling by taxi, set the fare before getting into the taxi.

– When eating out, clearly specify that you want drinks without ice, as ice is often not made with bottled/boiled water.

– Prior to leaving, make sure you have a travel health consultation- bring malaria prophylaxis, bring some antibiotics as prophylaxis if your physician will fill a script, and bring some over the counter medications (ibuprofen, immodium). In large cities you can find pharmacies where most medications can be dispensed (and it’s unclear to me what meds require a prescription in Ghana), but always better to come with some.

– Bring a mosquito net, even if you think where you will be staying will have one. Also bring some mosquito/insect repellent, and be conscious of what you’re wearing – long sleeves and long pants help keep bugs off.