International Service Learning Study Abroad Handbook/Safety
Safety is whatever makes you comfortable. In this section we will be discussing different aspects of safe travel. There are many ways your can reduce the risk you will be exposed to while traveling, from blending in to following your instincts. It is important to do research about safely in the place you plan on traveling to before you get there. But don’t let it scare you! Have a plan for when you get to a new place and let people know where they can find you. Many people encourage using the buddy system when traveling, but don’t let that stop you from traveling on your own.
The best way to stay safe when you’re in a new place is to follow your instincts! Sophie Geist, a student from UC Santa Cruiz, came back to Seattle after traveling on her own for 7 months in India doing service learning and independent travel. These were some of her insights into staying safe. While living in our familiar surroundings we don’t realize that intuition is always working for us, letting us know when something is safe or not. When we are out of our comfort zones those feelings of intuition get much stronger and that can be disconcerting. But follow those feelings, if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, there is probably a reason for that.
One great way to know if you are truly putting yourself in an unsafe situation or not is to get to know the people around you and to ask them what is safe and what is not. In some countries, foreigners are targeted for their assumed wealth. Depending on the country you choose to visit, you can certainly be perceived as a potential target. Being aware of the local conditions (i.e. how much things cost, necessary safety precautions) and customs, you can work to avoid being taken advantage of while abroad. Minimally, a tourist might experience this when they are charged substantially more than the market price. By being aware this and having a sense of the appropriate costs of things, you might be able to avoid being overcharged. Furthermore, having some knowledge about local customs can aid you in avoiding unacceptable behavior that could offend or further make you a target. A story by Monique Kerman, a Liberal Studies Professor at WWU, is an example of dangers you may not anticipate when you are in an unfamiliar environment.
"I was visiting Johannesburg and arrived at the Art Gallery about 30 mins before it opened at 10 or 11am. I figured since it was day and in the middle of downtown it would be safe. However, Sonnyboy, my cab driver whom I hired to drive me around all day, told me I should wait in the car rather than alone on the gallery steps. He said, "Take a look around. Can you see how much you will stand out?" This implied, of course, that I would be a target for mugging."
Sophie, as a woman traveling alone, would often get to know the women on the bus or in the market. They gave her great advice and then kept an eye out on her to make sure no one was bothering her. This is both a way to stay safe and a great way to make new friends!
To reduce your risk of being unsafe it is important to learn and educate yourselves about where you are going. Understanding the customs, traditions, religion, and language of where you will be visiting can improve your “street smarts” and keep you safe. Foreign countries have very different laws and regulations to be aware of. You should become familiar with local conditions and laws so you know your rights and remain safe.
Learning the basics of the language of where you will be traveling can be very helpful. Words such as hospital, water, pharmacy, yes/no etc. also, look up emergency numbers. All of this information can be found in traditional guide books. Guide books can be expensive, if you cant afford them look at used book stores. Some of the information will be different in the older books you find there (like hotels or restaurants) but safety, language and culture will be the same.
Per-planning for a trip requires you to… It is a good idea to create an itinerary that you can leave with your family members or friends. This could include a loose schedule of daily/weekly activities, cell phone numbers or local contact information (e.i. hotel/hostel number), arrival times, and flight information. Before leaving you should copy you passport, Visa, birth certificate so you can be contacted in case of an emergency. We suggest signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program so the State Department can better assist you in an emergency as well. This is a free online service that the government offers so that if there is an emergence were you are visiting they know you are there and can help.
Check out each countries description (but don't let it scare you!) and register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) http://travel.state.gov/
The buddy system is a logical way to stay safe. Be aware of the safety concerns in the areas of the country that you are traveling to. Where is it safe to be alone versus places that are not? Having another individual with you reduces the risk getting lost or getting into an unwanted situation. There are times and places that are safe to be alone but it is the travelers job to research those places beforehand.
Traveling with someone especially someone who knows the language is also a benefit. If you are traveling alone, leaving your contact and information about where you are going at the front desk or with a roommate is smart and will increase your safety if something were to happen.
Traveling on your own can be an extremely empowering experience. Again, Sophie Geist had some interesting insights into the benefits of independent travel. “people feel terrified of being alone in a a foreign country where you are constantly second guessing yourself and your choices. It is very nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. On your own you learn to trust your instincts and you find that you are capable of making good, safe decisions. All the decisions are based on how you feel, you get to do and go where you want and you have to make it happen. Traveling alone gives you freedom from the security of someone from your culture; it pushes you to be more engaged in the culture you are visiting.”
When you start by traveling on your own you often don’t end up that way. The desire to not be alone often pulls travelers together. Sophie did not end up traveling on her own nearly as much as she thought she would. She said "I always met people on the bus. Its random but you meet them and share your life story and become great friends. Its a beautiful thing". In her experience travelers often help other travelers.
A student who went to Kenya and took part in the buddy system explains, "It was always nice to know someone was watching my back and making sure I was present and comfortable during the trip. I would always make sure she was present, okay, safe, and happy while she would do the same for me. Though it is sometimes okay to be out on your own, you always need to be aware of your circumstances, the people around you, and your surroundings as a whole. Even if a situation may seem safe, be sure to examine it from all angles and question your surroundings. Watch out for your fellow travelers and always keep your eyes open." During adventurous trips or excursions, there is improved safety when people take part in the buddy system. Both of them can prevent the other from getting hurt and rescue them in a crisis. It is important to introduce the buddy system to a group of travelers before the trip.
The first step to staying safe in different countries is becoming familiar with the foreign area and customs. Become aware with the similarities and differences of what is and is not tolerated between your mother country and the foreign country. It is important not to travel alone, especially in high risk areas. Keep a low profile and try not to stand out as a foreigner or a tourist. Aim to blend in. Observe the local standards of dress and try to speak the native language of the community members. Pay attention to your surroundings while you are in your host country.
References and Further Reading
Planning you trip http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/tips_1232.html
Look up specific information about the country you are traveling to http://www.travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_4965.html
CSA International, Inc. Safety tips for Traveling Abroad http://www.centerforstudyabroad.com/safe-travel-abroad/
Language guide http://journals.worldnomads.com/language-guides
where to stay http://www.hostelworld.com/