Jeff Blumenfeld shares an excerpt from his book, Travel With Purpose: Inspiring Stories of Everyday People Who Travel the World to Make a Difference … And How You Can Too, how you can stay safe while traveling:
Excerpted from “Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism” (Rowman & Littlefield 2019), travelwithpurposebook.com
By its very definition, voluntourism often takes you to places far off the grid, far from reliable medical services, and far from the safe sanitation and food handling practices you’ve come to expect in the U.S.
Don’t I know it. During my last trip to Nepal I was a good boy: drank only bottled water, used Purell hand sanitizer by the gallon, and ate only food that was hot, hot, hot – cooked completely through and through. But I let my guard down.
During literally the last hour in Nepal, at the Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport, I convinced myself that the fruit plate in the VIP Executive Lounge could be trusted. Big mistake. In about 20 hours, during the final flight from New York to Denver, digestive distress kicked in, alleviated only once I arrived home and downed some DiaResQ, a natural diarrhea relief aid made with bovine (cow) colostrum. Sounds awful, but it worked. Eating that last snack in Nepal was a rookie move on my part as I realize during my eighth trip to the tiny airplane lavatory. Too much information. Ok, let’s move on.
There are certain measures I employ that have worked well for me and might also be appropriate for you.
• Depending on the destination, 22 to 64% of travelers report some illness – generally they’re mild and self-limited, such as diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin disorders. But some travelers return to their own countries with preventable life-threatening infections, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.[i] Consult with a medical professional prior to departure, and ensure that your inoculations are current.
Before my first trip to Nepal I became a human pincushion after I decided to get trued up after years of lapsed vaccinations. Your needs may be different, for sure. For me, it took doses of Tdap, Typhoid, hepatitis A and B, meningococcal meningitis, poliovirus and a good old flu shot before I was ready to face the world.
Travel health precautions are available from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC),[ii] and World Health Organization (WHO).[iii] Additional information on vaccines in the form of Vaccine Information Statements (VIS), is available for download.[iv]
• Whether traveling with a tour operator, or alone, eat foods that are fully cooked and served hot. Stay away from the salads and tuna fish sandwiches and that tea house cheese plate dotted with house flies that were previously dancing the Alley Cat on some yak dung.
• Drink beverages that have been bottled and sealed, and forget the ice. While you’re at it, squeeze the bottle first to make sure it hasn’t been resealed (remember the scene from the 2009 Academy Awards Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire, where a water bottle is refilled and the cap was super-glued for resale?). Carbonated beverages are much safer than non-carbonated – flat water drinks can be diluted with local tap water.
• Fruits and vegetables are always questionable, unless you wash and peel them personally.
• Don’t let your guard down in the bathroom. That means rinse toothbrushes only in bottled water and no singing in the shower lest tap water gets into your mouth. Practice for a week before you leave home. It is incredibly easy to slip up and find yourself using tap water out of force of habit.
• Hand sanitizer is your best friend. Use it frequently and avoid putting your hands anywhere near your eyes or mouth. Let that hangnail wait for a proper pair of nail clippers.
• Pack some energy bars for sustenance if you arrive late, the restaurants are closed, and Oreos are your only choice in the hotel vending machine. I especially like Bobo’s Oat Bars,[v] which, according to its website, is an artisan hand-baked alternative to the over-cluttered snack bar aisle riddled with over-engineered bars made with unrecognizable ingredients. It’s best to take a hard pass on those snacks.
• Now for something fairly cringey: check for bedbugs. You can thank me later. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises that bedbugs can be found around the bed, they can be found near the piping, seams and tags of the mattress and box spring, and in cracks on the bed frame and headboard. They can also be hiding in the seams of chairs and couches, between cushions, and in the folds of curtains. These are nasty buggers.
Look for rusty or reddish stains on bed sheets or mattresses caused by bed bugs being crushed, dark spots about the size of a period pencil point, eggs and eggshells, which are tiny (about 1 millimeter or about the size of a period on this page), pale yellow skins that nymphs shed as they grow larger, and live bed bugs themselves.[vi]
• Make a mental note of what to grab in case of earthquake or fire. It happened to me in southern California. I grabbed my laptop, pants, shoes, and wallet; other guests in the lobby were shivering barefoot in their tighty whities. False alarm, but still.
• Before you leave, set up an international package for your smartphone, or buy a local SIM card so that if you have to use your phone in an emergency, the call doesn’t cost dozens of dollars.
• Carry an inventory of the contents of your checked luggage. That way, it will be easier to file a claim afterwards.
• Avoid looking too prosperous; leave the real Rolex home and buy a $20 Timex instead. Keep money in three different places on your body and create a throw-down wallet – something with a few dollars that looks like you’re handing over your real wallet in case of trouble.
• Be situationally aware. Stay alert and forego the use of personal headphones when you’re walking about. Avoid wearing flashy jewelry and designer clothes. Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is a city with a myriad of hazards. There are wild dogs, five lanes of traffic on two-lane streets, a rat’s nest of wires hanging from utility poles, open conduits in the sidewalk, and strange locals approaching you to strike up chatty conversations or seeking money for “baby milk” or similar. It pays to know what’s going on around you.
[i] David O. Freedman, M.D., Lin H. Chen, M.D., and Phyllis E. Kozarsky, M.D., “Medical Considerations before International Travel,” The New England Journal of Medicine, July 21, 2016, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMra1508815
[iii] World Health Organization, “World Health Statistics,” accessed May 28, 2018, http://www.who.int
[iv] Centers for Disease Control, “Vaccine Information Statements (VISs),” accessed May 28, 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/index.html
[v] Bobos, accessed May 28, 2018, https://eatbobos.com/
ABOUT JEFF BLUMENFELD:
Jeff Blumenfeld is founder and president of Blumenfeld and Associates PR, LLC, a public relations and adventure marketing agency based in Boulder, Colorado. In 2013 and 2017 he served as communications director for Dooley Intermed International’s “Gift of Sight” Expedition to Nepal – an effort to deliver badly needed quality eye care to 700 impoverished villagers. In 2020 he won the Iceland Exploration Museum Leif Erickson Award for History.
I met Jeff at the 2022 Scuba Show!