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.

Ecuador – Emma Coates-Finke (2010)

Emma Coates-Finke is a graduate of Northampton High School and a student at Vassar College. Emma worked in Ecuador teaching English and running a culture and arts-based summer camp in a small indigenous agricultural community. Emma received $1000 from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Read Emma’s travel safety tips:

1) If possible, travel with a buddy or a group. This gives you company and makes you less vulnerable, and two or three heads are always better than one when it comes to making decisions about when to take a risk and when to stay on the safe side.

2) Travel with as few valuables as possible. I always travel with a cheap point and shoot camera, as little cash as I think I need, and a copy of my passport rather than the real thing.

3) If you´re traveling with a large suitcase, you can send it in the luggage compartment under the bus, but keep any valuables with you in your seat. Keep an eye out the window when the bus stops to make sure no one´s getting away with your suitcase.

4) Travel during the day if possible. If you have to travel at night, make sure you know where you´re going when you arrive, and try to group together with other passengers to get there.

5) Look up some numbers of taxi companies if you will be spending time in Quito. Not all taxis that run the streets are legitimate, and calling a company to order a cab is a way to ensure a safe one. They usually only take 5-10 minutes to arrive.

6) Trust your local friends and acquaintances and ask their advice about travel safety. Hostal and restaurant owners, host families, guards at the bus terminals, travel company offices, etc. are all good sources for information on the go. If you aren´t sure, ask! Don´t let your concerns about travel safety inhibit you from experiencing the country.

Guatemala – Jen Bishop (2010)

Jen Bishop is a medical student at the University of Colorado. Jen traveled to rural Guatemala where she educated community health workers on improved nutritional practices, early childhood health interventions, etc. Jen received $1500 from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Jen’s travel safety tips:

Guatemala is an unbelievably beautiful place with many volcanoes to climb, lakes to visit and some of the most incredible Mayan ruins in Central America. Unfortunately, among all the natural beauty, there is a significant amount of poverty and need. Although the other countries in Central and South America continue to make progress against stunting (poor growth and a marker of chronic malnutrition), Guatemala has not followed suit. There are a multitude of NGOs working to combat this tragedy and many opportunities to volunteer and lend a hand. As well, Antigua Guatemala is home to a myriad of Spanish language immersion programs and a wonderful place to learn the language.

Guatemala has a rich history and blend of Mayan and Spanish culture, and unfortunately a relatively recent history of political turmoil. Its civil war ended in 1996, and although there are is not a present risk, the aftermath of the war still permeates the western highland region. Many of the indigenous Mayans are skeptical of outsiders and also the military. For that reason, it is important to know where you go, especially if it is a more rural region because there are many small communities that are closed to outsiders. Finally, Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America (since Mexico technically is not part of Central America, but rather North America). This title comes with the associated risks of urban high-volume living including significant danger/red zones (parts of the city that are not tourist appropriate). Check the state department website before travel around the city (see link below).

Although there are certain dangers to travel in Guatemala, that is not unlike other developing nations. It does not prohibit travel to this gorgeous place, but does make smart decision making a priority. Here are a number of things to consider so your trip is fantastic and problem free.

1) Prepare before you leave, know the circumstances of where you are going.

Educate yourself about the location you will be staying. Also, make sure you have a plan for when you arrive. Since most arrive to Guatemala City, it is important to have safe and reliable transportation arranged ahead of time. Try to speak with your local contacts if you are going to be working or staying for longer about safety concerns, so you can prepare accordingly. Spanish is the national language of Guatemala, but many of the rural regions speak different dialects of Mayan languages. Although English is understood by many people in the tourist locations, there are definitely areas where Spanish is needed to communicate.

2) Sign-up with the State Department so they know where you are.

The US State Department website has good resources about their warning regarding travel to any region or country in the world. Although this is a conservative perspective, it is good to educate yourself on their perceived risks. They also provide an online registry to put your contact information, duration of your stay and where you will be staying in case of emergency or natural disaster. It is called the “STEP”- Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.

3) Have emergency contacts in the US who know where you are.

Although you are an adult, it is always good to have people in your life who keep tabs on you. Have a number of emergency contacts in the US, or your home country, who have your itinerary and know where you are. Make sure you provide them with a means of contacting you and vice versa. They will be able to help in case of emergency.

4) Get Your Vaccinations and medications.

Vaccinations can be expensive, but they are one of the best investments you can make. Many of the developing world, especially if tropical, have a number of different risks and diseases. The Center For Disease Control (CDC) website has country specific recommendations for vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. Although Yellow Fever is not required for Guatemala, the customs agency will look for it if you have traveled to other countries in Central America with endemic risk. Therefore, it is also a good idea. Finally, Guatemala is home to many wild dogs, and if you are planning to be somewhere off the beaten path, the Rabies vaccinations are important. Malaria is endemic in some parts of Guatemala, so check the CDC recommendations regarding prophylaxis.

5) Visas:

Currently, there is no visa required for travel to Guatemala from the United States if you stay is less than 3 months. If you are planning to stay for longer than three months there are some options. First, you can apply for a one-time extension for a second 3 month period. This can be a little cumbersome and require trips into Guatemala City, and it is not always reliable. A second option is to leave the country for 72 hours. After this period, there are no restrictions on re-entry and the 3 months begin again. The one caveat to this is that Guatemala participants in the Central American 4 (CA-4) in border control. The CA-4 includes Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Therefore, exit for 72 hours must be to a country outside of the CA-4.

6) Make smart decisions when you travel, this sounds simple, but is not always so.

The best way to make a smart decision is to educate yourself about risks and options. Be aware of your surroundings and your belongings, you do not have to walk around in fear, just an added awareness. The most dangerous part of the abroad experience is the travel between destinations. So, when going places, look at multiple options for travel. Sometimes the cheapest is not the safest or the best. Look around at the people selling you deals, and use your common sense. Travel on Guatemalan roads is dangerous by day, but night adds another level of danger for both accidents and crime. So, do not travel at night. Also, make sure the road conditions are passable because the rainy season can add another level of difficulty. Finally, listen to your intuition. If something does not feel right, make a change, your gut is your friend.

7) Get a Cell Phone.

In Guatemala, like many developing countries, cell phones are EVERYWHERE. You can buy a very cheap phone from any of the carriers, TIGO, CLARO or MOVIESTAR. The minutes are prepaid, so just pay as you go. This will allow a way for you to stay in contact with others, and how your emergency contacts can find you. Also, these phones usually have a very cheap rate for international calling to the US.

8) Don’t assume that you understand the cultural context, or the risks, even if they seem irrational.

If you are staying in a small community, especially in the western highland region, it is important to orient yourself with the cultural context. As mentioned in the introduction, many of the communities hold some fear of outsiders and their method of dealing with conflict may look different than what you are used to. At times a misunderstanding can turn into something greater quickly, so make sure to be respectful of the cultural context and educate yourself about the community before assuming that something normal in your home, would be acceptable there. For example, many families are very protective of their children and staring at, touching, pictures or excessive attention to a child can be perceived as a risk to the family. Baby stealing, although it sounds irrational, is an actual fear for some of these families.

9) Don’t assume your travel book or guide is up to date on the safety circumstances.

Especially in the western highlands, the season can take a road that is safe and turn it into a landslide waiting to happen. The rainy season is from about May through September and the land just soaks up the water and then the water carries the land tumbling down the hills. The roads toward the tourist destination Lake Atitlan are notorious for these dangers, so check the current condition before you leave on a trip to this region.

10) Have a Safety Plan:

It is always good to have a safety plan, health plan or an exit plan in case of emergency. There are private travel and health insurance companies that can provide these services. Sometimes they are combined, and others are separate. Regardless, if something occurs, you will have something in place to help you manage your circumstances. Also, know the emergency call number to the embassy and put it in your phone.

11)Don’t ruin your trip with worry, HAVE FUN!

Although there is risk associated with international travel, there is no need to ruin your trip with worry. An international experience is a phenomenal adventure and unique way to build independence, character and open your eyes to a whole new way of living. It is the best experience of my life, and worth every challenge in the journey. So make wise decision, create a safety net for yourself and enjoy the adventure!


– Guatemalan/US Embassies
– US State Department Website
-Center for Disease Control Website
– INGUAT Centers (Centers for Tourism in cities throughout Guatemala)
– Ask Locals, usually they will tell you the truth about the circumstances. The key is to ask more than one so you can gain multiple perspectives, and not the tour guide who is trying to sell you something and does not have your best interests in mind.

Kenya – Jackie Mroz (2010)

Jackie Mroz is a graduate of the University of Oregon. Jackie is spending the academic year (2010-2011) in Kenya, interning with the Foundation for Sustainable Development. Jackie received a $2000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Jackie’s travel safety tips:

  • Follow your gut. If something feels unsafe or “not-right”, leave or seek a safer spot.
  • Register with the U.S. Embassy and do some research before you leave. The US government puts travel warnings online for countries that they feel are unsafe or unstable for citizens to travel too. It is important to be aware of any of these warnings. Registering with the US Embassy is important in the case that an evacuation or information about your whereabouts is necessary. Also, getting to know the culture, language, and transportation options will reduce the number of surprises a traveler is faced with when in country.
  • Get to know people in the community. Getting to know the local people is not only respectful to the community in which you are staying, but is a safely measure that should be taken. Finding people you trust and can go to in a dangerous situation is key to staying safe. Also, your new friends will be able to help you navigate the community in the safest manner. You wouldn’t want to find yourself in a situation that could have been avoided had you just talked to a neighbor or friend about its safety or reliability.
  • Matatu’s are individually owned and operated vans that are used for traveling longer distances, such as from one community to the next. Unfortunately, the drivers often pick up up to 21 passengers in order to make larger profits. Often, you will find people sitting on top of each other or hanging on to the side of the van while it is in motion. If you must use a matatu, sit near an unbarred window, preferably next to a door or in the front seat. If it gets overcrowded, get off and get on another, less crowded one.
  • Pikipiki’s are individually owned and operated motorcycles. They are very common in Kakamega for getting quickly across town. If hiring a pikipiki driver, find one that will allow you to use his helmet. I would not suggest riding one in the rain. Lastly, when negotiating price, check the driver’s ability to drive. If he is under the influence, do not get on the back of the bike. I suggest finding a pikipiki driver that you know and trust, exchange phone numbers, and call him when you need a ride (like a taxi).
  • Boda boda’s are bicycles. They are relatively safe and cheap. The same travel tips for a pikipiki apply however. Remember, most boda boda drivers will ride on the side of busy street where cars, taxis, and vans zoom by. A bicycle ride may seem innocent, until you find yourself fallen off because a person walked in front of you, or the driver was not paying attention to the pothole he just hit.
  • Don’t go out at night alone. In the US we generally say this rule applies for women. However, in Kakamega, I would say this applies to everyone. Most locals don’t even like to be out at night alone. Follow their example and go in a group, if necessary.
  • Always have contact information on you. If you live with a host family, memorize their number and make them aware that you plan on using them as an emergency contact. Keep a notecard with you agency/program contact information on it. If an emergency were to arise, you would not want to have to think about what phone number to call. Having a quick reference list will ease the stress of the situation and get help to you faster.
  • Don’t carry valuable or any more money than you will need during your time out. This will help you feel less nervous about being out and about. Pick-pocketing is common. In the unfortunate event that you are a victim of it, you may need to call for a ride, or not be able to buy your lunch, but you will still have the bulk of your money and valuables in order to enjoy the rest of your trip.
  • Blend in. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Try to learn some key phrases, buy some local garb, and make friends. But remember you don’t know the area as well as the locals. Don’t be afraid to be assertive when it comes to your safety.
  • Keep as many valuable in your carry-on baggage as possible. When packing your bags, remember your checked bags will most likely be searched. It is not uncommon for items to go missing after these checks. Keep as many valuables as you can with you when flying into or out of Kenya.


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

Kenya and Uganda – Katie Fiorella (2010)

Katie Fiorella is a UC Berkeley PhD. student in environmental science and public policy and a Princeton University grad. Thanks to a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation, Katie worked in Uganda and Kenya, exploring the implications of human-wildlife interactions, specifically as they relate to the transmission of disease.

Here are Katie’s travel safety tips:

1. Medical – Visit a local pharmacy and doctor prior to leaving the island to obtain deworming medicines, treatment advice, and anti-malarials. These clinics will be infinitely more experienced with tropical diseases than even the best travel medicine specialists in the US and the medicines available in-country are generally the correct ones to fight local strains of parasites. Thus, the antimalarial drugs specific to your site will work best for you. You can develop malaria for several weeks after returning to the US, so it’s always a good idea to come home with anti-malarials, which can be tricky to get in the US.

2. Consider what activities you’ll be engaged in and what safety provisions will be available. For example, would you expect a life jacket to be provided on a 3 hour boat ride? Yes. It’s always possible to bring these things along, and/or to ask for them – sometimes they’re just sitting in the office. The power that talking about the need for safety precautions has can be very influential.

3. Emergency First Responder – Consider taking a course that helps you be prepared for first aid in remote locations. I plan to take this course before I head to a rural site in the future.

4. Emergency phone numbers – As soon as you land, enter key phone numbers in your cell phone, these include the embassy, someone with a car/boat depending on your location, the nearest clinic/doctor, and your medical insurance. Probably a good idea to carry around a list of these numbers as well.

5. First Aid Kit – Pack one sufficient for where you’ll be. This needs to consider both the stomach illnesses you may encounter and, critically, first aid.

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