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.

Ghana – Robin Baudreau (2011)

Robin Baudreau - 2011 Recipient to Ghana

Robin Baudreau is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in journalism and political science. Robin traveled to Ghana  in the fall of 2011 where she worked with the program ACT (Alliance for Community Transformation) helping to build an orphanage and teaching in a small school. Robin received a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Robin’s travel safety tips:

No matter how prepared you may be before you leave, you’ll never be completely prepared. Let me explain this in simpler terms: be adaptable. Comparing Ghana to the United States is like comparing apples to… avocados. The only similarity is the seed in the middle. The common ground in communicating to people in such a different situation than ours is that we’re all people. If you start with that, you’ll have no problem. Customs are different; traditions may be stronger and more significant. You should learn them, because something of no disrespect to you may be the complete opposite to them.

Know the currency. Know the exchange rate. Know how much things are supposed to cost and how much you’re actually paying. Despite the majority of good people you’ll come across in your travels, there will be the handful of people that will try to cheat you.

Believe in the good in people. Traveling far away from home can be scary, and especially if you’re traveling alone you need to be aware of your surroundings and keep a watchful eye. But don’t be afraid to believe in the general kindness of people either. Ghana was a place of people helping people, and if you join in on that mentality it will get you a lot farther than your skepticism will.

Know the language. In Ghana the regional language where I was was Ewe, and the first day we got there we bought a tiny notebook at the market and began writing down everything we thought would be helpful to know. It’s important to know what you’re saying when traveling around and especially buying things. It’s also nice when you want to talk to the locals, they love teaching you their language and especially love when you speak it with them. It will just generally make things easier for you.

Go without expectations. This goes back to the first point that I made. I thought I was traveling to Ghana to build something with my hands, but instead I ended up teaching various subjects in a very small, very rural school. I really didn’t want to teach at all, but the joy the children get from having someone new and exciting teach them every day was well worth the inconvenience to me. Plus, either way I was making a difference in some sense.

Always keep a form of identification on you, but don’t necessarily make it your passport. I kept my license and my travel abroad medical insurance card on me ( another thing you should consider getting.) I made sure I always had cash in their currency, as well as an emergency debit card on hand. I kept my passport in a safe place with the rest of my belongings as well as my credit cards and regular debit cards. Make copies of your passport and keep the copies in a separate place than your actual passport. You also want to notify your bank that you’ll be out of the country to avoid them shutting off your bank account. It also may seem silly, but check what type of banks or ATMs are available where you’re going. I couldn’t use my Mastercard in many places in Ghana, and you want to make sure you always have your funds readily available.

Get used to being different. In Ewe, a white person is called a “yevu” (spelling questionable,) and it was yelled at me everywhere I went. I was touched, and poked, and prodded because my skin was white. It was an extremely interesting perspective to be a minority, and I think it’s something that everyone should go through. Don’t be afraid to explore that. It was probably one of my favorite parts of my experience in Ghana.

Don’t do anything that makes you feel like you’re in danger. There’s a distinction between putting yourself in an uncomfortable yet rewarding situation, and feeling like you shouldn’t be in a certain situation. Go with your gut, if something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably because it isn’t and don’t do it.

Learn your options for transportation. Road travel wasn’t necessarily the safest in Ghana, but there was really no other option for us. You just have to be careful and take precautions everywhere you go. If you don’t feel safe, say something, and get yourself out of wherever you are. Nothing is worth getting hurt.

Learn to live without your worldly possessions. For six weeks I had no cell phone, no computer, no running water, and sporadic electricity. I was chewed up by mosquitoes, dirty, and I loved it. You learn to live without these things, don’t let the lack of material things discourage you.

See everything you can see. Meet everyone you can meet. Taste, smell, and breathe everything in that you can. You’re going to miss home. You’re going to miss the convenience of American life, but you’re also going to miss your travels when they’re done so you have to soak up every opportunity that you can.

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2011, Africa.

China – Kristin Johnson (2011)

Kristin Johnson holds a masters degree in public health from Boston University. Kristin worked in rural China with the Pediatric HIV/AIDS Treatment Support Project. Her work included expanding strategies to promote the adherence to life-saving HIV medications and developing community health worker training programs. Kristin received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Kristin’s travel safety tips:

Travel in China is both extremely rewarding and challenging. The people are extremely hospitable, the food selection is vast and delicious, and every corner offers a new adventure. Chinese people tend to be very curious about America, so be prepared to discuss American culture, politics, and economics. Don’t be surprise if you are asked for personal opinions about topics that you might not typically discuss with a new acquaintance. Also, make sure to use these conversations to ask about China, as people will be eager to tell you about their local traditions and culture as well.

Perhaps the most immediate challenge is language. Outside of the major cities most people do not speak English therefore you may want to consider studying Chinese as part of your pre-departure preparations. For me, the population density and the constant attention of being foreigner in rural China was sometimes exhausting. It is not uncommon for strangers to ask to take a photo with/of you, however this is merely an expression of their curiosity; you may be the first American that they have ever met. Also, Chinese cities are very large, generally much larger than most major American cities, so take care to find a map and perhaps plot out your destinations in advance, particularly if your don’t speak Chinese. Pollution in China is also immediately evident by the air quality and the thick layer of smog that covers most cities. While it might not be possible to tackle this problem alone, it is of course best to dispose of trash in proper waste receptacles.

In terms of security, China is generally a very safe country, however that said please take all the standard travel precautions, including making copies of your passport, securing your belongings, carrying some money and leaving some behind, and informing someone of your itinerary. Also, it is always advisable to check in with the US Embassy and to check for updates for the Department of State. Access to certain parts of China may be limited to foreigners so be respectful of these rules. Infectious disease risks vary by region therefore it is best to visit your local travel medicine clinic, but as a general rule always drink bottled water and food that is well cooked. The greatest threat to travelers is automobile accidents; therefore it is best to use China ’s very efficient train system for long distance travel. When purchasing train tickets ask for a “soft sleeper,” which is compartment with a mattress, this will be far more comfortable than the seating. Additionally, take extra care when crossing the street as traffic in China in not likely to stop for pedestrians.

Given all of this, soak up as much local culture as possible. If it is a culinary adventure you seek China will not disappoint you- from insects to a mind boggling assortment of meats, vegetables and tofu the options are endless. China has vastly different culture from region to region therefore your experiences with be most rewarding if you meet and travel with local people. Be safe and enjoy your travels in China.

This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2011, Asia.

Tanzania – Jesse McKenna (2011)

Jesse McKenna received her masters degree in international public health from Boston University. In fall 2010, Jesse spent 3 ½ months in Tanzania interning with the Foundation for African Medicine and Education where she developed and implemented a long-term health education curriculum for its mobile health clinics. Jesse received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Jesse’s travel safety tips:

  1. Never travel on the roads at night. Many drivers do not use their headlights at night, so it is impossible to see what is coming at you. Plan ahead so you are not in a situation where you need to travel at night.
  2. Take the safe option regardless of price! One seat in a speed taxi (from Karatu to Arusha) is approximately $4 while getting the whole car is $28. It may be enticing to take the cheaper option, but you are putting your life at risk. When you purchase the whole car, you can ask the driver to go the speed you wish. When you just buy one seat, you are the whim of all the other passengers who may be in a rush.
  3. Do not take motorcycles if you do not absolutely need to. They are incredibly dangerous, and there is often not a helmet for the passenger.
  4. Do you research on health clinics and hospitals before you arrive in Tanzania. Good healthcare in Tanzania is hard to find but not impossible. Before you go, research facilities that you could go to in case of an emergency. (FAME Clinic in Karatu offers excellent care, and is opening a hospital for in-patient care in Summer 2011)
  5. Be careful walking in the cities. Keep your valuables close to you and do not flash around your phone, camera, ipod, or other objects of “wealth”. Also, be mindful of the traffic. There are cars, trucks, motorbikes, and pedestrians all over the place so be careful when crossing the street. There are no crosswalks!
  6. Always have your phone with sufficient call credit on it. You never know where your car could get stuck or when your plans could change. Your family back home will really appreciate it.
  7. HAVE FUN! Tanzania is one of the most beautiful places in the world with amazing people.
This entry was posted on November 7, 2012, in 2011, Africa.

Cambodia and Ecuador – Tanya Gonzalez (2011)

Tanya Gonzalez is pursuing a medical degree at Howard University.  During the summer 0f 2011, Tanya contributed her medical expertise to under-served populations in both Cambodia (for two weeks) and Ecuador (for six weeks). Tanya’s volunteer work is possible thanks to a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Tanya’s travel safety tips for Cambodia:

I found the Cambodian people to be very warm and welcoming towards tourists – always very eager to practice English and share with foreigners the beauty of their country.

With that said, there are of course safety precautions that should be taken regardless.  As with any other place, traveling solo during the day tends to not be a problem but traveling in groups at night is strongly encouraged, especially for female travelers.  If you plan to cross the border by bus or car, do so only during the day.

The streets of Siem Reap, much like other Asian cities, are chaotic compared to those in the US.  Pedestrians must proceed with caution when crossing the streets as cars/motorcyles/tuk-tuks usually do not give them the right of way.  Common modes of transportation, such as tuk-tuks and motorcyles, are not equipped with basic safety gear such as seat belts or helmets, increasing the likelihood of injury should an accident occur.  Additionally, most modes of transportation are gross polluters so taking a motorcycle or tuk-tuk on a daily basis can greatly increase one’s exposure to atmospheric pollutants – a face mask is highly advised when traveling by such modes of transportation.

Since Siem Reap is largely based around the tourism from Angkor Wat, pick-pockets are abound.  Travelers are warned to be aware of this fact and to only bring small amounts of cash and no flashy jewelry or other electronic items (including cameras and iphones/ipods) when traveling about for the day.  Should you choose to wear a purse, I recommend a purse that has some sort of twist and lock mechanism versus a simple snap or zipper for closure – this makes access more difficult for pick pockets.

The number of street children in Cambodia is truly unfortunate.  It is difficult to not lend one’s heart to these children when they approach you selling items or for money.  Sadly, these children are often part of larger units (I hesitate to call them gangs) run by an adult exploiting them.  Often times, these children work all day long and must turn in their money to the adults, who in turn provide them with meager meals.  Instead of purchasing items from them or giving cash, I recommend donating to or volunteering with a local organization dedicated to removing children from a life on the streets.  To provide them immediate assistance, I would suggest offering to buy a meal for them.  Often times, I saw tourists purchase one item from a child and the other children would become enraged if the same tourist didn’t purchase from the other children as well.

Lastly, drugs are widely available in Cambodia, despite being illicit.  Many locals will bombard tourists with offers to buy drugs.  Please be aware that drug laws are often much more strict in Asian countries and the person offering to sell you drugs could potentially be an undercover officer.  Do not attempt to purchase or use illicit drugs while in another country – remaining drug-free is always the best choice.

Here are Tanya’s travel safety tips for Ecuador:

When traveling  around Ecuador, take caution when in the big cities as crime is large problem.  Avoid taking overnight buses – especially up and down the Andes!  These roads are supposed to accommodate two-way traffic but are barely wide enough for two buses.  Exacerbating this is the dreary weather usually found surrounding the roads of thick fogs and bus drivers that come careening around blind curves.  I would recommend flying if at all possible or taking a day bus, even if you spend the whole day traveling.  Also, be careful when traveling across borders – only do so during the day and take extreme caution if you are crossing the border into Colombia as only one or two border-crossings are currently deemed safe.

Tibet – Nancy Zimmerman (2011)

Nancy Zimmerman is studying to be a nurse practitioner at UCLA. Nancy worked as a nurse practitioner in the Himalayan Health Exchange Program in Tibet this summer. Nancy received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Nancy’s travel safety tips:

  • Do not be hesitant in whatever form of transportation that you choose (car, rickshaw, carriage) to tell the driver to slow down if you feel uneasy.
  • Do your research on the driving company that has been hired. Ask questions such as: how long have these drivers been with the company, what are the company’s driving policies, and are these policies enforced.
  • If driving long distances with a hired driver, inquire as to whether or not there will be night driving. Try to avoid driving at night if possible, since many cars on the roads do not utilize headlights.
  • Roads can be precarious in northern India, so know the kind of rocky terrain that you will be traveling and make sure the car is suitable for such conditions. Make sure that your car has working seatbelts installed, as many cars do not have this safety feature.
  • When in Delhi, wear a money-belt and keep it close to you at all times. Try not to have your passport on you, and instead keep it stowed away safely in your luggage or hotel.
  • Try to pay before getting in a taxi outside of the Delhi airport. You will avoid money scams and unauthorized taxis by doing so.

Nicaragua – Hilary Robbins (2011)

Hilary Robbins is a graduate of Duke University. Hilary spent six months in Nicaragua, performing a research study in an impoverished community to determine health needs, developing a program design for a free clinic, and then applying for monetary grants and medical supply donations to make the clinic a reality. Hilary received a $1500 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Hilary’s travel safety tips:

The following bullet points are pieces of advice that I have about staying safe in Managua and around Nicaragua. Some of them may apply broadly to developing countries, and others may be specific to my experience.

  • First, know your site. While I do think it is useful to learn generic travel safety tips if it is your first traveling experience, be aware that most pieces of advice don’t apply everywhere. Make a point to talk extensively with someone who grew up in the area and has high standards of safety about the best way to stay safe.
  • Take the time to learn the language as much as possible. Do not go to a new place where you do not speak the language and expect others to take care of you, especially if you are going to be there for an extended period of time. I have found that the better your language skills and knowledge of the area, the less likely you are to become a victim of any sort of crime.
  • In Managua, it is usually best to use nicer-looking taxis as opposed to the more dilapidated ones. The number on the license plate should match the number on the side of the taxi, and the driver should have official taxi registration.
  • Get contact information for taxi drivers who are known to be safe and reliable, and use them whenever possible.
  • Though city buses in Managua don’t always feel safe, the reality is that the drivers know what they’re doing and accidents are quite rare. The real danger is at night, as the robberies sometimes occur on the buses at gunpoint or knifepoint. Riding buses is a fine idea during the day, but something I did not do as a rule at night.

The great part about traveling in Nicaragua is that buses are cheap and run frequently all over the country. The troubling part is that the buses don’t always appear to be in great shape and some roads are much less safe than others. That said, I did not hear of any bus accidents while I was there and I am told they are extremely rare. While I did take public buses around the country quite often, I avoided traveling in or through the mountains as much as possible. During one trip I did this by mistake, and was frightened by the speed at which the bus traveled around corners lacking guardrails of any sort. I also avoided traveling at night, as any road is less safe in the dark.

It almost goes without saying that in Managua, one should not walk with any bags or purses and especially not at night. Many of us are accustomed to talking or texting on our cell phones as we walk, but in Managua it is important to keep your cell phone completely hidden if you are carrying it with you. Whether it is safe to walk at night is very dependent upon the area, but as a rule it is not a good idea to walk alone in the dark anywhere.

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I have for people in similar situations to mine – i.e. traveling as an individual volunteer to work with a new organization – is to have a frank discussion about safety before arriving in the country. Each organization has its own standards of safety, and it is important that your organization agree to uphold your standards before you arrive. For instance, in Managua it is extremely common to ride around in the back of a pickup truck – but Managua is a place where traffic laws are often ignored and accidents occur frequently. The members of my organization, including one American, made a habit of riding in the back of the pickup truck as that was the only vehicle they had to transport everyone. This created an awkward situation, as usually the most “important” people took the seats in the front and I did not want to act presumptuously. However, when I made it clear that I wasn’t comfortable riding in the back of the truck because of safety, the organization made every effort to accommodate this. However, I think it’s best that this sort of understanding occur before a volunteer commits to a long-term stay – not after.

Mexico – Sarah Isbey (2011)

Sarah Isbey, a graduate of Dartmouth College, is a medical student at UNC – Chapel Hill. This summer, Sarah worked in several rural villages in Mexico, implementing training programs regarding basic medical emergencies.  Sarah received a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Sarah’s travel safety tips:

  • Travel and work in groups whenever possible!
  • Get to know your area once you arrive
  • If at all possible, buy a cheap local cell phone to stay in touch with your host family or organization
  • Use your common sense – don’t stay out alone late at night, don’t eat food that you don’t see prepared, and don’t drink water/juice from unidentified sources
  • Learn some of the local customs before you go, such as apparel, attitudes, and any common religious beliefs. You will most likely still stick out, but try to assimilate yourself as much as possible!
  • Be friendly to those around you
  • Always wear your seatbelt, and avoid riding in the back of trucks if at all possible

Brazil – Katy Miller (2011)

Katy Miller is a medical student at the University of Iowa. Katy spent the summer working on a human rights project that addresses barriers to care for children with disabilities in Brazil.  Rachel was awarded a $1000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Katy’s travel safety tips:

  • Know the area.  Ask locals which neighborhoods and streets are safe, and avoid the places that seem to be questionable.  If you’re not sure if an area is safe,   to become familiar with the area before going anywhere alone – it’s especially helpful if you can travel with locals or get a “tour” from someone from the area.
  • Get a cell phone and make sure to keep it stocked with minutes!  It can be helpful for calling  a cab or, if necessary, calling for help if you end up in a difficult situation.
  • Be cautious with public transportation, especially at night or when travelling alone.  Try to travel with a companion if possible, and take a taxi after dark.
  • Only use certified taxis – it’s best if you can have a local friend recommend a couple taxi drivers, and keep their cell phone numbers in your phone to call when you need a ride.  It’s much safer than flagging a cab on the street, and you don’t have to wander around in the dark looking for a cab – they can come to you.
  • Find the balance between saving money and being in a safe environment.  I stayed in hostels when I traveled, but I made sure they were in a good neighborhood and that they had good ratings for safety. is a good website to use to find hostels, in part because it’s easy to see where the hostels are located, and it also has scores for safety, cleanliness, and helpfulness of staff.

Ghana – Maria Crossman (2011)

Maria Crossman is working on her masters degree in public administration at George Washington University. Maria traveled to Ghana during the summer of 2011 where she volunteered in an orphanage, teaching and mentoring the children in ways that support both their intellectual and social growth. Maria received a $2000 scholarship from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Maria’s travel safety tips:

  • Do research on the community you are traveling too and pay attention to cultural norms that are important to follow in an effort to not draw attention to yourself
  • Try not to travel after dark
  • Always keep your money in many different locations and bring more than one means to get extra money out of your account if necessary
  • Take time to understand your intuition and gut feelings.  I recommend reading the Gift of Fear to get a better grasp of this.
  • Take the contact information of family and friends while abroad and provide them with a way to get in touch with you if need be