Going to a foreign country is always an exciting experience. It will also be a little daunting to begin with, as you learn to adapt to your new surroundings. To make the most of it, you need to know how to make sure your adventure abroad is a safe one.
You might be surprised to learn that many TEFL destinations have lower crimes rates than most western cities. Most people would actually feel safer walking through Hanoi in Vietnam than in London or Manchester, for example. However, there are certain key ways that you can minimise the risk of things going wrong.
Over 50% of TEFL teachers are female and the great majority of them embark upon their new adventure alone. However, nervous women will be glad to know that it is normally very easy to make other female friends – both expatriates and locals from similar backgrounds. It is also quite common for you to be encouraged to become part of the school community in a manner that makes you feel safe and secure.
Register with your Embassy when you arrive. They will probably have a mailing list so that all the expats from your country will be informed in the event of any political upheavals or major demonstrations. They will also provide assistance to you in the unlikely event that you need to return home due to political instability, for example.
Be alert at all times and be aware of your surroundings. Is someone trying to distract your attention or sitting a bit too close to you? Different cultures do have different concepts of personal space and you will probably attract a lot of attention simply because you are a foreigner but you should be able to tell if someone has an ulterior motive.
If someone appears to be behaving a bit too friendly you are right to be suspicious. Lots of scams begin this way. A local person says he will be your free tour guide or that he wants to invite you to meet his family. Be very careful of accepting offers which seem suspicious, especially if you are on your own.
In addition, do not pass on private information to strangers or talk loudly about your plans so that others can hear and possibly use such information to their own advantage. Most people the world over are pleasant and well-meaning and it seems a shame to have to be so cautious. But when you are in a new country it takes time to adapt and learn about the typical behaviour of local people and what is and is not expected or unusual.
Do not flaunt your relative wealth. Showing off gold chains, expensive watches and the latest iPhone is a recipe for disaster in poorer countries. It is asking for trouble and really does increase your chances of being a target. In some countries the cost of a new smartphone is equivalent to three months’ wages. Be aware how appealing it might be for someone to try to snatch it off you and sell it on.
Keep your money and important documents in a very safe place at home. Make a note of all the important document numbers and send an email to yourself with that information so that if you do lose anything you have the details to hand to get replacements or make cancellations on credit cards.
When you are out and about in the town or city, do not keep all of your money in the same one place. Have two different wallets and remain aware of them both so that if you are unfortunate enough to have one stolen, you still have some money left afterwards.
Some people use a ‘dummy wallet’ and a real wallet. The dummy wallet is in the obvious place such as your front pocket. Inside the dummy wallet is a few coins and an expired ID card but nothing of great value. Enough to shop at the local market but not enough to cry over if you should lose it or, horror of horrors, be mugged. Mugging is actually pretty rare in most popular TEFL regions except Latin America where you really have to watch out – especially after dark.
Make a note of local emergency services and embassy telephone numbers so that if an emergency does occur you are ready and prepared. If you have time before you leave your home country, consider studying for a First Aid qualification. These skills really can be the difference between life and death and you never know when such invaluable knowledge might be needed.
Behave in a confident manner. If you look lost or disorientated then it increases your chances of becoming the target of a scam. Even looking at a map or guidebook in public places such as a train or bus station can be seen as lacking awareness of the surroundings. If you need to read your guidebook, do it in a restaurant or when you are already on the bus or train. Have a plan ready before you venture out so you are not meandering aimlessly.
Travel with others, if possible. You are less likely to be the target of a thief or a con artist if you are part of a group.
Where possible, do not leave your bag unattended or with a stranger you have only just met. Most people are very welcoming but it is vital to exercise caution when meeting new people anywhere in the world.
If you enjoy a glass or two of wine or beer in the evening, be very careful that you do not overdo things. Not only is public drunkenness frowned upon in many countries, it will also make you a target for thieves or con artists.
Ask local colleagues for advice. Members of staff at your school will probably be full of wise words about how to stay safe in their country. They are the experts with years and years of experience and will usually be glad to pass on their tips to you about public transportation and going out after dark, for example.
Use the internet to do some research about crime in the city that will be your new home. Are there areas to stay away from at night, or particular scams that are common in the city? There may be some particular scams that occur in specific tourist areas and, even as someone who will be living there for a year, you might appear like a tourist to many local people. Are there certain religious communities which would expect you to behave in a certain way to avoid offending them? If so, remember the details when planning trips around the city. Remember, knowledge is power!
Finally, if your contract does not include heath insurance then you are advised to look into purchasing it before leaving your home country. Indeed, even if you are covered to some extent as part of your employment package, you may still want to purchase a ‘top-up’ for any risky pursuits such as skiing or rock climbing that you are planning to do in your leisure time. This is especially important if you are planning to visit neighbouring countries because any insurance you have with your employer will only cover any activities within that single country.