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Gap Year Safety – Advice & Guidance from Projects Abroad Staff

With around 30% of our volunteers being either on their gap years or of gap-year age, gap-year safety is a subject we take very seriously. We have over 17 years of experience dealing with volunteers from this age-group and our overseas staff are thoroughly trained to be aware of the dangers posed to young volunteers. It is their responsibility to keep volunteers as safe and well-versed in these dangers as it is possible to be, for the duration of their time away with us and beyond.

It is natural that parents want to ensure that their son or daughters knows as much about the risks involved as possible before they leave home, which is why we have put together this handy resource – a bank of advice, hints, tips and guidance from the staff of Projects Abroad – for our Gap-Year travellers. We have all been in the same situation at some point (although for some of us that point feels like an awfully long time ago!) and have also seen successive years of Gap-Year travellers going away with us, so we hope this will be of some help.

Gap-Year Safety: Before you go

There are a vast number of gadgets and pieces of equipment that are geared towards traveller safety, but you cannot pack them all, and therefore it pays to take a little time to really think about what you are going to need.

  • A medical kit is always going to be at the top of your list; there are all manner of different ones available and you should look to purchase one which includes the type of equipment and medications which suit the areas that you are going to – for example if you are planning on travelling to more remote locations then you should ensure that your kit contains some sterile syringes.
  • Padlocks are another wise purchase. Smaller ones can be used to keep your rucksack secure; by threading them through the loops of your zips. Larger ones can come in handy when securing rooms in many shoestring budget hostels.
  • Money-belts should be considered as a means of keeping cash and important possessions safe and hidden away. They are usually worn around the waist, under clothes. It can be awkward withdrawing money from them so it may also be a good idea to keep a small amount of cash in a more accessible location, such as a small purse in a pocket.
  • Personal alarms should be considered by everyone, not simply lone females. When activated they simply draw attention by making an incredibly loud, piercing noise, which is bound to deter any would-be criminal.
  • It is always a good idea to have a torch handy; apart from the fact that you are likely to find yourself in poorly lit areas far more regularly, the electricity supply will probably be a lot less reliable in the locations you will be visiting. For our conservation projects a head-torch is a particularly good investment.
  • You will probably already have a mobile phone but it is a good idea to purchase a local SIM card when you get out to your destination country, as this reduces costs, both for yourself and for other volunteers calling you. For this reason we ask that all volunteers check with their mobile service provider that their phone has a roaming service available. Local staff will then be able to help you buy a SIM card during your induction.
  • Malaria is one of the biggest killers in a number of our destinations and protecting yourself from being bitten by mosquitoes is vitally important. While your doctor can advise you on the type of medication that you might want to be taking (prophylactic pills are available which can be taken on a daily basis), you should also consider a good quality spray. In addition to this, a mosquito net should be considered; even though most hostels in malaria zones will have their own nets, they are often old and of poor quality.
  • Whilst it is generally advisable to drink only bottled water, or at the very least water that you completely trust as having been thoroughly purified, you may find yourself in a situation where you do not have access to either, in which case it is a good idea to have water purification tablet with you. These may often be sold as part of your medical kit.
  • Protection from the sun is very important, as a number of our destinations can be very hot at certain times of the year, if not all times! A high protection factor sun-cream is the very least you should be arming yourself with; you should also consider taking some sort of hat to protect yourself from the effects of sun-stroke, which comes on quickly and can be very dangerous. After-Sun lotion or moisturiser will help sooth any burnt skin.

Gap-Year Safety: In Destination

The vast majority of crime suffered by foreign travellers is non-violent crime, such as pickpocketing. Potential criminals are unlikely to want to have face-to-face confrontations and for this reason they will tend to go for easy targets. Unfortunately, in most destinations you are going to stick out like a sore thumb, because you are a) young, and b) clearly not a local. For this reason it is important to take certain simple precautions.

  • Look like you know what you are doing. Okay so this isn’t the easiest thing to do in an environment which is completely alien to you, where you want to soak in as much as you possibly can, but one of the clearest giveaways is when people walk around whilst continually scrutinising a large fold-out map! Try to avoid this by working out a route before hand, drawing out or finding a smaller map, or simply checking your larger map in quieter, more discrete moments.
  • Do not show any signs of wealth. Expensive watches/jewellery/sunglasses; unsecured wallets or purses; MP3 players; large obtrusive cameras – these all draw attention to you and mark you out as a potential target for thieves. For this reason it is advisable to not bring very expensive items with you on your trip abroad, let alone have them on your person on a daily basis. You should ensure that any money and photographic equipment you carry with you is as discrete as possible.
  • Be careful of crowded areas. Pickpockets tend to strike in busy areas, where they can get what they want without being seen, even if their victims become aware of what is happening. For this reason a good precaution is to move your day-bag round to the front of you if you happen to find yourself in a crowded place, and make sure you keep an eye - or a hand – on possible places where people might try to gain access to your valuables. Also do not have your valuables readily accessible if you can possibly avoid it; at the bottom of your bag, underneath clothes and books is ideal. And obviously do not leave your bag unattended at any times.
  • Avoid being alone on the street at night-time. Places change when the sun goes down, and even your most well-trodden street can become unfamiliar and potentially dangerous. It is advisable to use public transport or private taxis (but only those recommended by local staff) and to make sure you are part of a group as much as possible. If you have to walk alone, stick to well-lit areas as much as possible and carry a personal alarm with you.
  • Look out for other volunteers and ask them to look out for you. We try to encourage our volunteers to work as a team as much as possible, ranging from keeping an eye on each other’s bags when using public transport during the week, to making sure that everybody is accounted for if you go travelling at the weekend. We particularly request that lone female volunteers are seen safely to their door by other volunteers, and are never the last person to be dropped off from a taxi ride home at the end of a night out.
  • Be wary of people’s motives. It is a great shame, but it is a fact of life that you simply cannot blindly trust strangers. You are likely to approached by a great many people while travelling abroad. Some of these people will be merely curious about you, your language and your culture. Some of them will want to try to sell you something. Others will be begging for money. And others still will have more sinister intentions, often involving extortion of money by some means or another. There are all manner of scams which people run, from short-changing tourists in shops (always be sure to check your change), and unwinnable games played by people out on the streets (often played with playing cards or balls in cups) to scams involving “precious” jewels and fake art exhibitions. In short – don’t act like a fool or you risk being fooled!

  • (In the case of begging, it is not our place to moralise on the rights or wrongs of giving money to people who ask for it, but it is worth noting that not all beggars are as destitute as they appear to be, and giving money is only going to make you a greater target for beggars in the future, either from the person who you gave to, or others who witnessed the act. More important, perhaps, is the notion that you should not feel obliged to give money simply because somebody less well-off than yourself asks you to, and – if you really feel like you want to help them – giving them an item of food is probably a better way of helping in any case)

  • Always make sure somebody knows where you are. This is important on many levels; your parents back home will want to know where you are in a general sense – say the city you are in, or the area you are travelling to at the weekend – so be sure to let them know via email, telephone call or text. More locally you should let Projects Abroad staff know if you are planning on going away on a trip out of town and it is important to ensure your fellow volunteers are aware of your plans too. For this reason we strongly recommend buying a local SIM card or phone after you arrive.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is enough just to get you thinking. Essentially the best advice we can give you is to use your own common sense and then everything should be fine. And remember that - despite the stories you may hear – the vast majority of gap-year travellers get through their time away without any trouble whatsoever. If you have any more questions or concerns however, then please contact one of our advisors on +44 (0) 1273 007230.


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