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Your Safety Abroad
Understanding Your Destination
It is extremely important for you to educate yourself about the risks associated with traveling to your overseas destination. In addition to official reports issued by organizations such as the State Department (www.travel.state.gov), you should:
- Research your host country using resources such as travel guides, newspapers and magazines from your destination, and online information from tourist information web sites and the local embassy (see bibliography for suggestions).
- Talk with study abroad alumni, OIS staff, Wellesley faculty and international/exchange students who have studied or lived in that country. (A list of students who studied abroad previously is posted on the Study Abroad Conference in the Program Alumnae sub-conference.
- It is important to understand that the possibility for non-violent and violent crime exists everywhere. Use your best judgment to avoid situations that may put you in danger.
- Some countries or areas may have political and/or social instability. Avoid demonstrations or large political gatherings.
- Pay close attention to all health/safety information given by your host university or study abroad provider.
- Keep in mind that values that are generally accepted in the U.S. (such as political correctness) may not be similar in your host country. Behavior that is considered racist or sexist in the U.S.- like catcalls, suggestive remarks or touching- are a fact of life in many other countries.
- Expect to encounter smoking and pollution that is excessive by U.S. standards and difficult to avoid (don't count on non-smoking areas, even in public buildings).
- Make sure you know what to expect by asking about things like:
- Natural phenomena that can be dangerous (like surf at beaches)
- Dangerous animals or plants
- Environmental hazards (like air quality or drinking water)
- Common crimes (like purse snatchings)
- Necessary traffic and transportation precautions
- Street-smart behavior (where can you go safely and at what times? if you're alone? only in a group? only if you're in a group that includes men?)
- Who can be trusted (for example, in some places the police can't)
- Norms governing dress and behavior (for example, are assumptions made about the morals of a woman who is alone after a certain hour?)
- What documentation should be carried at all times versus stored in a safe place
Maximizing Your Personal Safety
Below is some general advice about safety that applies both at home and abroad:
- Always be aware of your surroundings. Stay in populated, well-lit areas.
- Be a smart and careful pedestrian. Be mindful about which way traffic circulates in countries where drivers stay to the left.
- Walk confidently as if you know where you are (even when you don’t).
- If you feel nervous or lost, walk into a café or shop and check your map there, rather than on the street.
- Avoid eye contact with strangers.
- Always travel with a companion at night.
- Keep your belongings close to you; use a purse with a zipper.
Being an American Abroad
Given the current political climate, Americans abroad should be especially vigilant and prepared to face some form of anti-American sentiment. Please keep the following in mind:
- It is best to maintain a low profile as an “American” abroad.
- Blend in with the local culture in terms of dress and behavior. In foreign language destinations, try to use the local language as much as possible in public.
- Avoid moving around in large groups of Americans.
- Avoid places that are obviously American - American Express, McDonald’s or other American restaurants, Hard Rock Cafés, clubs or any other areas where Americans are known to hang out, as well as diplomatic areas; war memorials.
- When dealing with a U.S. embassy/consulate, try to do as much as possible by phone or online.
- Spend as little time as possible at airports and train/bus stations. Once you get your ticket, do not linger near ticket offices; go quickly to your destination.
- Limit time spent in religious buildings that are highly visited (synagogues, churches, temples, mosques).
- Be prepared for interaction with locals who will want to talk about politics. Engage in friendly and intelligent dialogue, and try to avoid arguments and confrontations.
- Try not to take anti-American sentiments or opinions personally.
- Do not participate in any political demonstrations.
- Watch/read the national, local and international press to stay informed about international events and perspectives, and local events in your host country.
- Inform yourself about U.S. local & foreign policy before you arrive in your destination. Often people in your host country will be very well informed about current events in the U.S. and abroad.
Try to keep your home and your surroundings secure by being aware of suspicious activity/persons. During times of caution against terrorist activity, the U.S. State Department urges travelers to be aware of those around them - and to report to the local police anyone who seems to be following them or who seems to be hanging around the same place repeatedly. Any odd or suspicious activity near American vehicles, workplaces or hangouts should also be reported. Students studying in foreign countries are innocent targets for terrorists seeking accomplices. Terrorist activity is often planned months in advance, so be careful and smart when you meet new people.
- Do not give out your address, phone number or the location of where you study.
- Do not look after or carry any suitcase or package for anyone you do not know.
- Do not borrow someone else’s suitcase - be aware that someone could plant something in your luggage. (Remember that a few years ago a bomb was found in the bag of a young woman in the Heathrow Airport in London that been planted by her boyfriend she had known for over a year).
- Never agree to drive a car for someone - especially across national borders.
- Stay alert in public places - look up and observe those around you. Stay away from any abandoned bag or package and report it to a police officer or nearby employee.
- Do not leave your own luggage unattended; bags may be stolen, of course, but police have also been known to blow up abandoned luggage.
Safeguarding Your Belongings and Valuables
Non-violent theft is the most common crime directed at travelers. Please become familiar with the following tips.
- Handbags, backpacks, coat/back pockets are most prone to theft.
- Wallets should be carried in front pocket; purses should be slung over one shoulder and under the opposite arm; backpacks should be carried in front of you in crowded places (such as subway trains)
- Be aware of groups of people (even children) who work together to distract or confuse travelers in order to rob them.
- Keep alert for ploys to distract your attention. Always watch your belongings.
- Money belts or neck pouches are best to use when traveling. Never count your money in public. Be careful with credit card numbers and receipts.
- Leave your passport in a secure place when you are not traveling, and carry a copy with you at all times. Don’t leave passport, money, tickets and other valuable belongings in a hotel room when you are not there.
- Don’t wear expensive jewelry.
- Travel by bus, train, local transportation, or car - but DO NOT HITCHHIKE.
- Try to avoid traveling in large groups. It will be much easier to meet local people and will be less of a hassle (in terms of plans for sightseeing) to travel in smaller groups.
- Always carry a small amount of local cash. Keep the equivalent of $50 in a hidden reserve while traveling. It is always better to have an extra cash supply in case of emergency.
- If you are mugged, do not struggle – your safety is worth more than the loss of your belongings.
While it is widely recognized in our society that women are equal, capable and independent, and that it is their right to do anything and go anywhere, this American attitude is not necessarily found or accepted worldwide. Attitudes toward women vary tremendously, and awareness of this is an important aspect in preparing to enter a new culture. Before you leave the U.S., you should speak with others who have lived in the country you will visit to get an idea of how women are viewed at your study abroad destination, particularly in terms of safety or harassment issues. Here is some very basic advice:
- Women alone can encounter harassment. Pretend you don’t hear or that you are preoccupied.
- What you may perceive as harmless chatting can be interpreted as sexual or inviting; be mindful and take nothing for granted
- Dress conservatively, and never sit in empty areas.
- Be as aware when traveling abroad as you are when you travel at home. Be aware of yourself and your surroundings, and make smart decisions.
Please see the attached bibliography for some recommended reading for women traveling abroad. Also, check out the website by Marybeth Bond, author of Gutsy Women: Travel Tips and Wisdom for the Road at www.gutsytraveler.com, or www.journeywoman.com.
The risk of sexual assault exists abroad just as it does at home. Your program provider or host institution should inform you both of ways to minimize your risk of being assaulted and also the procedure to follow in the instance that you are the victim of assault. If you are the victim of any type of crime you should immediately:
- Go to a safe place
- GET HELP
- Get a friend or someone you trust to be with you
- Call your program provider or the international officer at your host university.
In addition, in the case of sexual assault, you may wish to request advice from individuals at Wellesley College who have appropriate training and skills to help you:
- The Health Service @ 781-283-2810
- The Stone Center @ 781-283-2839
- The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center @ 617-492-RAPE
- If you can, write down everything you can remember about the rape, or have a friend write it for you.
Thinking About How You Will Be Perceived Abroad
One of the most surprising and difficult aspects of culture shock is dealing with how you are perceived abroad. Already, Americans are viewed differently in different countries; young Americans traveling as a group are almost never thought well of! Please keep that in mind. In addition, depending on your destination and your ethnic/racial background you might be treated differently. African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans all have special issues abroad, as do women with light skin and blonde hair or red hair and freckles or people who are disabled or are overweight. People who are gay, or Jewish or Catholic or Republicans or Democrats! The list really goes on and on. It is essential that you make a point to talk to other students who have studied or lived in the region you will be going to get a feel for some of the issues that might confront you and to reflect together on strategies for how to deal with situations that might arise. It is possible that you will face some unpleasant experiences during your semester or year abroad, but you need to be prepared for them and to view them within context so that they will negatively impact your overall experience.
Safe Road Travel
Driving customs vary a great deal, and pedestrians are frequently not given the right of way. Find out which roads are safest and whether it is safe to travel on overnight trains and buses. Inquire about the safety record of various modes of transportation. Avoid renting a car unless you feel very comfortable with the driving habits of the locals. For more information on international road travel contact the Association for Safe International Road Travel (www.asirt.org).
Registering With the Local Authorities & the US Consulate
In many countries, you will be asked to register with the local police; please make sure to follow your program or host institution’s instructions in this regard. In addition, you should register with the U.S. Consulate. You can do this on-line at www.travel.state.gov. It is also extremely important that you share all of your contact information including your mailing address and local phone numbers and e-mail with the following individuals/organizations:
- Your family or close friends at home
- Your study abroad program and/or host university
- The Office of International Studies at Wellesley
- Your major department
- Anyone else you can think of who might need to reach you
Obeying Local Laws and Customs
As a U.S. citizen in another country, you are subject to that country’s laws. It is your responsibility to learn about the local laws and obey them. Be aware that local customs regarding alcohol and drugs are different in other countries. Local laws controlling alcohol and drugs may also be stricter than those in the U.S. (and the penalties for disobeying them more severe). Laws and practices will differ in terms of arrest, court and punishment procedures, and conditions may be harsh in many countries. You could face stiff fines or sentences if found guilty of a crime. The U.S. government can do absolutely nothing to get a U.S. citizen out of jail overseas when he or she has been convicted of a drug offense.
Traveling During Your Program
- Research your destination and check the U.S. State department website (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_1764.html) and/or the British Foreign & Commonwealth website (www.fco.gov.uk) for travel advisories.
- Always notify on-site staff and your family when you plan to travel.
- Take your passport with you if leaving the country, and leave a copy in a safe place at your residence in your host country.
- Use only sturdy luggage that locks and be sure it is easy to identify. Avoid carrying expensive luggage.
- Never leave your bags unattended. Always put your arm through the strap of your bags while using public transportation (make sure your bags are secure if you decide to sleep).
- Use caution when driving or riding vehicles.
- Buy a travel guide before you leave. Often they are difficult to find or more expensive abroad.
Preventing and Handling Emergencies
- If you find yourself in a potentially bad situation, try to walk or run away. If you cannot, try to seek assistance or distract attention to yourself.
- Know how to say ‘help’ in the local language, or try another word such as ‘fire’ in order to attract attention.
- Familiarize yourself with the local telephone system. Know the local emergency numbers.
- Notify your local on-site contact.
- Provide your family (and any others who may need to know) with emergency contact information. Keep them informed of your travel plans.
- Always have an emergency plan – e.g., letting someone know where you are at all times; arranging to call a specific person in an emergency; having a pre-determined rendezvous point when traveling with friends in case of separation.
- If an emergency, politically volatile situation, or natural disaster occurs where you are traveling, be sure to contact a friend or family member as soon as possible to let them know whether or not you are safe.
- In an emergency, you can also call the Citizens Emergency Center in the U.S. (202) 647-5255.
Staying in Hotels and Hostels
- Always try to have your accommodations in advance, often you can book online.
- Lock your suitcases when you leave your room and do not leave valuables lying around your room. You may want to pack a combination lock if you plan to stay in hostels, as most offer cabinets or lockers.
- Be aware that most hostels have a lockout period during the day when you will not be able to access your room or any belongings left there.