Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Stay Calm. Don't Panic. Look for Solutions.

Sometimes, the most horrible things can happen when you're traveling. And by horrible, I do mean horrible.

However, that's the price you pay with travel. You risk that things will not go the way that you plan them to go, and that things will go wrong at any moment. And while most of the time, travel is exciting and rewarding, it's better to be prepared for when disaster strikes than not.

I have learned about disaster striking the hard way several times throughout my travels, and so here I hope to divulge some advice for if or when these things happen to you while traveling.

1.) Don't Panic. Just like in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy recommends, don't panic. This is rule number one for a reason. If you panic, that's when things get even worse. Panicking only leads from disaster to more disaster, because it means you aren't thinking straight and you are being progressive in finding a solution to whatever the problem should be.

How I learned this lesson: When I was in Costa Rica this past summer backpacking the country with my best friend from high school, someone broke into our hostel room while we slept and stole majority of anything with value from me and two other guests. I'm talking passports, cameras, wallets, credit cards, phones, IDs, ATM cards, money, iPods, purses, etc. This guy made out, literally, like a bandit, because he easily took off with probably $4,000 worth of items. Upon waking up that morning to catch an early bus to another part of the country, I discovered that my stuff was gone, and silently began panicking. My mind clouded up, and all I could do was cry and breathe entirely way too fast. However, I quickly found that that was not helping matters, calmed myself, and set to work in fixing the situation as best I could, which consisted of alerting the hostel owners, calling my mom on Skype to have her cancel my cards, submitting a theft report to my travel insurance company, and reporting the incident to the police (regardless of how unhelpful they were). No, it wasn't easy. No, it wasn't fun. But it was necessary to stay calm and reasonable so that I could do my best on solving the problems at hand. So don't panic. Just get to work in finding the best possible solutions.

2.) Buy a substantial amount of traveler's insurance. This one is important. Because if you do run into a problem, insurance will help cover whatever monetary costs you accrue. It may not cover everything, but it will help to cover at least some of the costs, which will help lessen the burden when disaster strikes. Oh, and be sure to get enough insurance. When it comes to insuring yourself, it's better to pay the extra $10 for the next level up in coverage than risk not having enough coverage.

How I learned this lesson: Again, the theft in Costa Rica helped me learn about the importance of not just having traveler's insurance, but having enough insurance to cover the damage. Unfortunately, I opted for a lower coverage plan when I purchased my insurance before Costa Rica. Instead of spending the big bucks and paying $60 for the high coverage, I went with the $47 lower coverage plan. And I regretted it less than a week into the trip because of the theft I mentioned above. Instead of getting a reimbursement check from Travelex, I received $500, which covered about a third of the items I had stolen from me. It was better than nothing, but I was still out $1,000. This was a hard lesson to learn.

3.) Theft proof yourself as much as humanly possible. There's no way to completely ensure that you will have nothing stolen from you while traveling. The fact of the matter is that you risk having your things stolen when you travel. Some countries are riskier than others. But no matter where you go, whether it's New York City and Los Angeles, Tokyo and Hong Kong, San Jose and Mexico City, Rome and Paris--they all have people looking to pick pocket you and steal your camera, money, phone, wallet, etc. But the best way to avoid getting something stolen is to either don't bring it with you when you travel, leave it in a secure place when you go out for the day (like a safe in your hostel, in your apartment/place of residence, locked in a closet, etc), or keep it in a safe place on your person if you do decide to bring it with you (like an inside zippered pocket in your purse or a breast pocket in your coat).

How I learned this lesson: No surprise here, but this also applies to the theft I experienced in Costa Rica. However, it also applies to just the other day here in Rome when I was riding a crowded bus into the city center with my small point and shoot camera in my front jeans pocket instead of in my purse where I usually keep it. This was a bad choice on my part, because after exiting the bus at my stop, I found that I had been pick-pocketed. I thought I was going to be able to make it 4 months in this city without having something stolen from me, but I was careless and let my guard down, and was once again reminded of why it is so incredibly important to never let your guard down and become careless with your belongings if you want to maintain possession of them, especially when riding crowded busses.

4.) Be cautious of the water and if you decide not to be, then have medicine ready. If you're like me, you would rather risk drinking the water when you travel than rely on purchasing bottled water every time you're thirsty and need a drink. While this is an extremely foolhardy way to live, bottled water is expensive, and I've found it's just much easier to just drink the tap water when I travel. This choice, however, is one that carries severe consequences with it. All sorts of nasty things happen when you drink unclean tap water, so if you choose to drink it anyway, make sure you have some kind of medication like Cipro with you to relieve your distress.

How I learned this lesson: When I was in Tanzania two summers ago I suddenly came down with a violent illness about a week and a half into the trip. I was unsure as to why I was getting so sick, only to realize that my choice to drink the tap water was paying its toll to my stomach. I had gotten sick of relying on the bottled water several days earlier, and began to brush m teeth with and drink small amounts of the tap water. It led to 12 excruciating hours which were relieved only after taking Cipro and sleeping for an extended amount of time. Since then, I have continued to drink the water when I've traveled to places like Costa Rica, Honduras and Argentina, but it is a conscientiously decided risk that I take because I know of the consequences and just how un-fun they truly are.

5.) Get your shots and take your meds. This one, I think, is self-explanatory. If you're going to be traveling to countries that have medical risks, like typhoid, yellow fever, malaria, TB, etc then please, please, please go prepared. This means scheduling a visit to your local travel clinic and getting your shots and prescriptions for malarial pills.

How I learned this lesson: Before I traveled to Tanzania with the group of students and advisors we all went to a travel clinic to get our shots. We needed to be guarded against typhoid, yellow fever, and Hep B. We also needed a prescriptions for Cipro (the all-mighty stomach guard!) and malaria medication. Thankfully, the shots guard you for about two years, so when I went to Honduras I scheduled my own visit to a travel clinic for my Hep A shot and to get more malaria medication and Cipro. When you travel to places that are in danger of these things, you need to get your shots. There's no way around this one. Just do it. It's much better to be safe than sorry. Plus, you don't want malaria. Malaria sucks.

6.) Be prepared to see something gruesome, especially if you're budget traveling in poorer parts of the world. You can't stay naive about the goings on in countries all around the world. Some cultures have certain practices that are pretty awful, disheartening and upsetting. Some people live extreme poverty. Some foods will make your stomach churn. It's part of what you experience when you travel, so it's better to be prepared to see or hear about these things than to be ignorant and then shocked if they do happen.

How I learned this lesson: While in Tanzania a group of students I was traveling with had the unpleasant experience of being shown a video of someone being stoned to death for stealing. The stoning had taken place around the corner from the school where they were working, and their bus driver had been present at the stoning and video taped the entire thing with his cell phone. They students had heard about what had happened from some of the boys at the school, but never expected to see it. Unfortunately, the bus driver showed two of the students the video he took, which I can only imagine must have been one of the most terrifying things they'd ever seen. This wasn't a movie like Hotel Rwanda where you could feel removed, even if the violence in the film was graphic. This video was real life, and had taken place only blocks away from the school. But however sad and upsetting it is, that kind of practice is part of the culture in Tanzania when someone steals and is caught by the public instead of the police.

I don't want these things to deter you from traveling, but I do want you to know that travel, while absolutely incredible most of the time, comes with its downfalls, as well. It's better to be prepared for these kinds of things than it is to be unaware about the dangers of traveling, especially in cities or poor areas. But if you're prepared, you're less likely to experience these problems, and will therefore have a much better time during your travels.

What are some things you've learned about traveling in order to avoid disaster? Share them here!


  1. Wow, I thought I had some rough travels!
    I guess one I learned would be to always bring a second, smaller backpack with you. I got stuck with my single huge rucksack in the Kansai area and had to lug it around for daytrips out from the hostel because I had just enough stuff I wanted to bring around where it made sense I needed a bag. It was during the summer too with incredibly hot, humid temperatures.

  2. The title to this post could be well suited to life in general as well! Good post!

  3. @Fred - It's so true! Definitely taking along a smaller pack is a great suggestion. Being hot and exhausted is one way to quickly becoming unhappy in your travels. Thanks for sharing :-)

    @Joyful Sparrow - It can definitely be applied to life! I say this to myself all of the time!


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