Gap Year Travel Safety

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Traveling safely is no joke. In all honesty, half of our lists here have been learned the hard way – so please take our word from it that if the fire is hot, there’s no need to burn yourself to be sure.

International & Domestic

Check the medical situation

Does the region you’re visiting recommend certain vaccinations or medical supplies be on hand before you arrive? Do you have any personal medical concerns that need to be addressed before you travel? Keep in mind some medications (like malaria pills) will need to be taken weeks and sometimes months in advance.

Know where you’ll be staying

Especially for the first few nights. Youth Hosteling Association (YHA), or Hosteling International (HI) are great resources to find yourself in safe living situations. They have high standards and safety is paramount for their good name.

Communication

If you’re traveling alone, get a cell phone and know your emergency phone numbers. As well, check for relevant apps such as the State Department one that lists embassy phone numbers and addresses. Have regular check-in times with family. Partially so that they can live vicariously through you and your experiences, but also as a safety measure to make sure in case something happens they’ll know ASAP.

Take care of yourself

If you’re sick, don’t waste time wondering how bad it is. For many Gap Year students health takes on a secondary-import because they’re used to having a parent there to tell them when something is bad and when it’s just healing normally. If you’re not sure, call home or go to a doctor!

Driving

If you’re going to drive, make sure you have proper insurance and know the rules of the road. Stay off of motorcycles. We know it’s tempting, but in the Peace Corps they’ll send you home even if they suspect you rode one… they’re that dangerous! Also, in EVERY case, the time you’re most at risk is in a motor vehicle. Make sure you at least have a short conversation with every driver to make sure they’re awake and sober: and wear a seat belt (if there is one).

Keep up with your street smarts

Before you go out, ask the locals what areas are safe and which aren’t. Even in New York city, there’s areas you just don’t go at night alone!

Look before you leap

If there’s a crowd of people, don’t let curiosity get the best of you . . . stay away until you REALLY understand what’s going on.

Let it go

Nothing in life is certain, but, if you’re mugged, the best thing to do is usually just give up what you have. Whether it’s drugs they’re after, cash, or your passport, all are easily enough replaced and in every case will be cheaper than a hospital bill if you resist. But, the one thing that we can assure you of is that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton in gratitude: pay attention; if you feel uncomfortable, go somewhere safe; and reserve a little skepticism about everyone and their intentions.

Prepare for everything

It never hurts to get certified in wilderness medicine through WMI, WMA, or SOLO. These are some of the most reliable ways to make sure that you can take care of yourself in an emergency.

Alcohol and drugs are dangerous

In cases of rape while traveling, there’s almost a 90% correlation with alcohol. Even marijuana, in some countries can carry a death sentence. The bottom line is that if your goal in your Gap Year is to party, then you’re not taking a “Gap Year.”

International Only

1. Know your Embassy’s phone numbers.

2. Visit the State Department website for any travel warnings, and WATCH THE NEWS.

3. Visit the State Department website to see what areas you need a visa for and which ones you can get ‘on arrival.’ Every country you travel to will have an immigration department, and without adequate preparation you may not even be able to enter the country!

4. Register with the State Department’s Smart Travelers Enrollment Program.

5. In questionable situations, if you can’t boil it, cook it, or peel it, don’t eat it.

6. Scan your passport and email a copy to yourself. This is just in case yours gets lost, stolen, or a tiger eats it… in this way you have a digital copy so that you can more easily prove you are who you say you are to the embassy when you’re trying to get a new one.

7. If you lose your passport, contact the embassy immediately – delaying this call will only mean a delay in getting a new one as they now have to check to see if your passport has been used illegally and thus taking more time for them… oh yeah, and more time for you!

Let us know if you have any other essential travel safety tips to know before you go!

Healthy Ways To Deal With Homesickness On Your Gap Year

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aloneHomesickness might be a new phenomenon for you if you never did the whole sleep-away camp thing in your younger years, but it’s inevitable. It’ll sneak up on you when you least suspect it: a photo shared online of your friends back home at one of your favorite annual events, a familiar smell of homemade cooking, the softness of a couch. The lack of a couch. Homesickness crops up in all shapes and sizes.

It may be hard to believe (or admit!) but you actually miss your kid brother, you actually miss your mom’s Tuna Surprise, and you actually regret not packing blankie for your trip.

But instead of admitting defeat and giving into temptation to scroll back through your Instagram feed or send whiny “I miss you” texts, you can face your homesickness head on. It is perfectly healthy and normal to feel homesick, just don’t t let it become a crippling part of your Gap Year.

Ways to Combat Homesickness

There are healthier ways to acknowledge, deal with, and move on from these longings.

Get Involved in New Interests, Clubs, or Adventures

Rather than sitting in your room and isolating yourself, venture outside and connect with new people in new ways. Feign confidence, approach that group of teens playing frisbee, and ask to join. Better yet, ask your contacts if they know of any cool clubs or activities to get involved in. Be proactive in seeking these outlets. They’re not only a ton of fun, but they’re usually a good distraction (and means for making new friends); the perfect antidote to homesickness.

Call Friends & Family

If your immediate surroundings offer few releases from your hometown-hankerings, don’t be afraid to dial up your old standby’s for support. Mom and Dad want nothing more than for you to feel happy; after they shake the shock from the late-night phone ringing, they’ll be sure to provide those warm-fuzzy feelings that parents have a way of doing. Friends are fair game too, especially those ones who are unwaveringly on your team.

Get a Taste of Home

What can we say – sometimes you just need a cheeseburger or a coffee from Starbucks. Even something as simple as using a credit card can sometimes make home feel less far. Find a way to revisit any activity or food or experience that reminds you of home and can bring comfort. Be warned, though: sometimes your favorite things “abroad” aren’t close to the real thing back home, which can end up making you feel doubly homesick

Story time: I had an overbearing longing for delicious Mexican food, so I caved and ordered chips and salsa at a local restaurant. I was given potato chips and ketchup. It was hilarious and also horrible and did nothing to solve my temptations.

Self-Awareness Activities

Now’s as good a time as any to start tapping into your inner-self in a mindful way. Practicing yoga, meditation, or self-reflective journaling can provide a healthy outlet for your wistful wanderings. With the internet providing many free resources for classes or guided meditation, the only thing stopping you from enlightenment is wallowing in self-pity or scrolling through your Instagram feed all the way back to your first post.

Physical Fitness

You’ve never been a “runner” before, and you actually think of it as punishment rather than a pleasant release. But all those endorphins can do you good, and Gap Years are for trying new things anyway, right? Lace up and head out for a spritely jog. No one’s telling you to blast your PR with a 5k – start short (5-10 minutes top) and work your way up. It won’t be long til you’re addicted to the “runner’s high” like we are.

Talk to Other Students, or Expats

Relating to individuals who are sharing in your experiences of homesickness will not only make you feel less alone, but will also help you realize you’re not going crazy. Your immediate network can be a positive outlet for discussion and support. Joke about the hilarity of your lives and help remind each other of the big picture: short-term discomfort is such a small price to pay for the wonderful memories, clarity, and experiences you will walk away with.

No matter what, DO NOT escape to the internet every time homesickness strikes

Longing for home is natural while studying abroad, some days will feel incredibly challenging, and it seems the only antidote is escaping into laptop for an old fashioned Netflix binge or Snapchat selfie sesh. However, using your computer or smartphone in these circumstances is actually counterproductive and feeds your feelings of homesickness. Be sure to avoid spending hours on end perusing Facebook or your other favorite social media websites.

Tap into your resilience, pull up your big-kid-pants, and don’t use the internet as a crutch for comfort. We mean it when we say that seeing so many photos of your friends and family can actually exacerbate your homesickness. The internet can be a helpful tool and communication strategy, but it can also detract from your overall experience and ability to be present. You might feel bored or uncomfortable sitting in the living room with your homestay family now, remember: the shared experiences between the fun are what makes relationships concrete. You need to be there, physically AND mentally, to make good on your gap year goals and soak up the experience for all that it is worth.

Tell Those Voices to Shut Up!

There are a number of ways to quiet down the loud voices in your head reminding you just how far away from home you actually are. Some ways are easier than others (it doesn’t help when they’re in your back-pocket or always less than 3 ft away from you). But just because it is an easier strategy doesn’t mean it is helpful OR healthy #realtalk. Stick to the productive strategies above, and your homesickness will soon transform from a hindrance to yet another amazing Gap Year experience that lead to increased self-awareness.

Photo Credit: lee Scott

Article contributed by: Megan Lee

Health & Safety on Your Gap Year

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safetyAmidst all your day dreamings for the amazing adventures you are going to have on your gap year (picture it: breakfast picnicking in front of Angkor Wat at sunrise, making a tangible difference in a small Tanzanian community, tracking wombats and other wild animals in the Outback…) it is easy to skim over preparing your mind and heart for potential disaster, or serious safety issue.

But let’s be real. Being proactive in ensuring your safety is downright SEXY. Here are a few tips to ensure your gap year is as safe as can be:

Medical Preparations & Response

Few people like to deal with health issues in their own country, let alone when in a foreign country, completely isolated from your support network, or without a Chipotle burrito to ease the pain. Nonetheless, gap year students should be mentally prepared to handle medical emergencies as smoothly as possible while abroad.

Health

The Delhi belly, dehydration, hard-to-pronounce viruses, the common cold, strep, the flu. You’ll be exposed to a lot of new germs while traveling on your gap year, and if you can make it the whole year without getting a little bit sick, you’re basically superman. Here are some general health-related safety tips to ensure gap year success.

Before you go:

  • Find out if your travel destinations require any specific medication or immunizations prior to entering the country.
  • Get travel insurance! It does add to your overall program cost, but it can save you when you’re in a bind. Have digital and physical access to your policy.
  • Create digital copies of your medical records and share them with your immediate family. Print a copy for your pack.
  • If you have specific allergies or diet restrictions, memorize how to communicate those in the language(s) of your destination(s).
  • Save the emergency response number into your phone or commit it to memory.
  • Ask your mom and dad to help you create a credit line specifically for medical emergencies that happen as you travel.

If something happens:

Depending on the level of your illness, you may opt to visit a doctor or clinic in-country. The good news is that medical care is typically (much) more affordable in foreign countries. The bad news is you usually have to pay for your medical expenses up front (and get reimbursed later from your insurance). If you have the credit card handy, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue!

Let your program director, or coordinator, know of your illness, and ask them what the best means for letting your family know is. (Parents understandably tend to freak out when they know their precious baby is sick and they can’t do much to help them. It’s important you tell parents tactfully, otherwise they might presume you got bitten by a shark).

Medicines might look different than you’re used to – new brands, new methods of administering, weird colors, etc. Be open to using local methods of healing (it can be a really neat cultural learning experience!) but don’t rely on it if you’re not comfortable. Most places have a foreign hospital ($$$) where you can get more familiar health care.
Stay positive! This too, shall pass.

Dealing With Injury or Accidents

No matter how prepared you are, sometimes things just… happen. Much like back home, it’s important to stay alert (and try not to make dumb choices that increase your likelihood of danger) as much as possible.

Before you go:

Again, insurance is key here. Unnecessary medical expenses = the worst.
Ensure you have a chain of emergency communication in place and that it is understood. For instance, you might have to deal with the incident directly with your program provider before alerting your parents. Understand the steps.
Save the emergency response number into your phone or commit it to memory.

If something happens:

Get yourself to a doctor! Your #1 priority is your health and safety. Seek medical attention immediately. Call the emergency dial number or hop in a taxi to the Emergency Room.
Alert your program leaders or on-the-ground site staff of your situation as soon as possible.

General Safety Tips

Not all dangers are confined to what’s going on in your body.

Be Cautious When Solo Exploring.

It is perfectly fine for you to strike out on your own while doing your gap year (duh!). But keep your wits about you. Whenever possible, be sure to let someone else know when you are off to do some independent exploring. You don’t need to give them your entire itinerary or a projected play-by-play, but giving the individual a general time frame to expect your return is helpful (and can keep you safe).

For our intrepid female travelers, additional precautions are unfortunately necessary. You will want to be extra vigilant whenever you are going solo, including actively avoiding sketchy areas, dark walkways, or individuals who give you a bad vibe. Don’t tell strangers the specifics of where you are staying. You might even consider enrolling in a self-defense course prior to your gap year. Even if you don’t travel, it’s empowering!

Regardless of your gender, it is generally advisable to avoid wandering alone in unfamiliar areas at night (especially in the wee hours of morn’). Be aware of your surroundings at all times and always remain alert. Try to dress modestly to draw less attention to yourself – now’s not the time to be flashy with smart phones, fancy jewelry, or fat wallets.

A quick recipe for not losing your valuables:

Take one backpack full of valuables
Add one part padlock
Mix in two parts physical copies of your important documents (insurance, passport, address)
Sprinkle in one part digital copies of your important documents
Add 4 parts organization
Separate cash, credit cards, and ATM cards into multiple places

And voila! Your belongings are much more likely to start AND end the trip with you.

Booze Responsibly

You might end up imbibing in a little international drinky-drink while on your gap year abroad. As with any time you indulge in booze, you should be smart about it.

If you do decide to drink alcohol while on your gap year, do it only legally and with people you and trust. If possible, have one member of your group stay sober (or to drink significantly less than the others). Just don’t get too drunk. Once you’re wasted-face, you become an easy target for crimes of all kinds. You might get robbed, raped, sexually assaulted. Kidnapped. It’s not a joke, and gap year students should opt to not drink heavily while abroad.

Besides, it’s usually counter-productive to accomplishing your goals, expensive, and can leave you with a headache (and sometimes regret).

Write Your Address Down!

It’s always handy to keep the address of your hostel, project placement, or accommodations in your wallet – written in both English and the native tongue. While relying on a photo from your phone or a Maps app sounds like a good idea in theory, it can quickly become moot if your phone can’t keep its charge.

Oftentimes, it is easier to hand over a written-version of your address versus stumbling and mispronouncing it to your transit folks, anyway.

So there you have it…
Safe as safe can be.

Photo Credit: Jayakumar Ananthan

Article contributed by Megan Lee