5 tips for Travel Safety

Safety is an important factor in picking one’s travel destinations. You don’t want to put yourself at risk when planning and taking your dream holiday. Whether you are a seasoned traveler with many trips and destinations under your belt or a first-time adventurer… safety is always key.

For myself, I don’t always think about if a destination is safe or not. I personally feel with a little common sense you can make a great holiday in even the most “dangerous” cities or countries. In my travels, I have experienced some of my fondest memories in places that the “First World” would label as dangerous.

If you follow my twitter or have read my blog in the past, you will know that I currently live in Bogotá, Colombia. In the past, I have spent time in Culiacan, Mexico and Cairo, Egypt. These three places have made a name for themselves for violence, and/or unrest. I am here however to say that the perception of danger is perpetuated by media and the so-called “First World.”

Here are 5 tips on safety that I can share from my experiences around the world.

  1. Do your research

It doesn’t matter if this is your first trip or your 100th… read up on your destination. Use materials from more than just one outdated guide-book. Use the internet. Read personal experiences from fellow travelers. Meet people from the location you are wanting to go. Become acquainted with the local culture and customs.

  1. Be aware

Like any place, you should always be aware of your surroundings. As an American, I generally feel safer in a foreign country than I do in the nearest big city in the USA. Keep track of your belongings: Money, Passport, Phone, Laptop, etc. Nothing is worse than losing one or more of these important things… I know this from experience.

  1. Travel smart. Travel light

Before you leave, decide what you absolutely cannot live without for the length of your trip. I prefer to travel as light as possible. I don’t like to be over encumbered with bags and unnecessary things. I like to just wake up and go. Not only is it easier to move with less… it’s also less you need to keep track of. Less likely you will lose something you treasure.

  1. Talk to locals

While you grew up being told to avoid talking to strangers, I find that the best way to learn about a city is by talking to locals. They know the city better than you ever will. They know where to go and where not to go. They can be your safety net. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or directions. Usually people are a lot more willing to help than you would think.

  1. Enjoy yourself

Instead of filling yourself with panic and fear… let go and enjoy yourself. You’re going on the vacation of your dreams. Why waste it fearing the unknown. Embrace it and learn from the vast world around you. There is so much to see and learn that you can’t learn from a guide-book. Take it all in and have fun!

Colombia: First Impressions

In an interesting turn of events, I have found myself living in Bogota, Colombia. This is a stark contrast to what my life plan was. But who needs life plans anyway? I am all about going with the flow… Just taking life one day at a time and seeing where I end up.

I have moved to Colombia for several reasons. The first and foremost being that I want to learn Spanish. It is high time that this gringo becomes fluent in a second language. So here I am living amongst an amazing culture and beautiful people.

I thought it would be interesting to share my first impressions of Colombia based on the interactions that I have had with locals in Bogota over the first 2 weeks that I have been here. In my first 2 weeks, I have met people from all over Colombia as well as Europe and the USA. My first four days were spent couchsurfing at the home of a local guy. He welcomed me at the airport and took me to his home and proceeded to take me to the historic center of the city and tell me a little bit about the history. He shared meals with me and made me feel at home.

It is always a great way to get to know a culture by staying with locals who share your passion for cultural exchange and travel. So here I will share a few of my first impressions.

  1. Colombia has a beautiful landscape:

Nestled high in the Andes Mountains, Bogota is surrounded by picturesque views. A mix of tropical and mountainous forests lay on the fringe of the city. A beautiful lake offers the perfect weekend relaxation at Simon Bolivar Park. Here you will find Colombians taking in the sun and enjoying food, family, and a friendly game of football. Bogota is a green city with parks interspersed throughout the busy streets and skyscrapers.

  1. The locals are friendly and helpful:

My Spanish is not very good at the moment; however, I am here to study and become fluent. The locals are very patient and willing to speak slow to me so that I can understand their Spanish. People are very excited and eager to speak with me and happy that I am trying to speak with them in their native tongue. Here English is not widely spoken so it is necessary to try and speak Spanish and I have found that people will try very hard to understand and make themselves understood even with my broken Spanish. I have been met many locals who introduce me to their friends and family. I have also had the opportunity to speak with some local merchants who are thrilled that tourism in Colombia is on the rise. They are happy to see foreigners coming and enjoying the culture and family atmosphere that is so ingrained in this society.

  1. Bogota is a city filled with history and culture:

Bogota is rich with culture and history. IT has many music festivals, street performers, artists, and musicians. History in Bogota stretches back to Spanish colonization. This city has seen fighting from the War of Independence to the Guerrilla fighting and insurgency by the likes of M-19. This is a resilient city that keeps moving forward despite its past. Plaza de Bolivar offers insight into a brutal history. Here you can see old cathedrals as well as modern government buildings rebuilt. To one side you can also see the extravagant presidential offices and residence. Just a short walk from the plaza you can find the Gold Museum and Botero Museum.

  1. On a budget? Come to Colombia.

Bogota is an economical city. Here you can find entrance fees, public transit, and food prices quite low in comparison to other popular destinations. This is a city easy to navigate by the Transmilenio (bus system), Taxi, Uber, or bike. Walking is also an effective mode of transportation here.

My final thoughts… My first two weeks have been outstanding. I have been welcomed to the country and shown great hospitality. It is well worth the visit. My advice is to not let the historical violence and unrest of Colombia deter you from coming and enjoying this beautiful country. No matter where you travel in the world, there will be some issues… come experience true Latin hospitality and culture in Colombia.

The Great Wall Adventure

China. Perhaps the most iconic image of Ancient China is the snaking Great Wall, built to protect a nation from invasion. As a foreigner living in China currently, it is my duty to see as many quintessential Chinese sites as possible. After three months of living in Beijing, I finally ventured out of the confines of comfort, crowds, and pollution to the vast wilderness and mountains that lay just 150 km north.

I had the pleasure of making this adventurous day trip with a Russian couchsurfer that I had been hosting for several days. We both decided that we needed to walk the Great Wall before we left China. So with that goal in mind, we set off. This trip was not planned perhaps as well as it should have been. We took a quick glance at several online guides which suggested we take a bus from Dongzhimen Bus Terminal in Central Beijing.  Easy enough- I knew this station well as I live in Beijing and use the subway daily. Our guide told us to take the 980 express bus to Miyun for 1 hour where we could then pick up a minibus that would take us the rest of the way to Jinshanling.

Total Cost: 30 RMB (without a transport card)img_0504

Little did we know, our guides are a bit outdated or filled with wrong information. There are no minibuses to be found at the stop. Instead, there are private drivers who prey on tourists who make the mistake of taking this bus. Thankfully, Alex (the Russian) and myself are stubborn and cheap. After speaking to two different drivers, we were able to negotiate (if you can call it that) rides for as low as 300 RMB round trip. I vehemently refused and walked away determined to find another way to the wall.

Instead of giving up and going back to Beijing, we tried our hand at hitch hiking. What did we have to lose? Our efforts of getting a free car ride to the wall failed, but we did manage to get help from a kind older man. He spoke to us through pictures and hand gestured. From him we learned that bus 51 and 52 would take us to the Great Wall. He even was kind enough to show us the nearest bus station. As he drove away, we thought it best to confirm with another local passing by of the direction of the bus.

After speaking with her for a few minutes through my translator app, she took us to Bus 25 and spoke to the driver for us. She had us going to the wall and told us the bus driver would tell us when to get off the bus. It would be another 1 hour and a half on the bus but we were going. As we watched the Chinese country side fly by, we wondered where exactly we were being sent. I followed our location on a Chinese map app, but still had no idea where exactly we were going. We passed a number of small towns and villages as we wound our way through the hills. We passed lakes and rivers which provided for dramatic landscape views from the passing bus.

After 1.5 hours on the bus, the driver came to a stop in a small town which as it turns out was the last town before leaving the Beijing Region. We got off and walked in the direction the drive pointed. However, we didn’t have to go far before we saw the imposing Great Wall of China spanning both sides of the highway. With no map, no idea of where we were, and no plans on how to get back to Beijing, we set off to find a bridge to cross the river blocking us from reaching the nearest section of the wall. Turns out that we walked 20 minutes in the wrong direction. No problem though, we eventually found a bridge and began our short hike up into the mountains.

Reaching the wall and touching it filled me with the same sense of awe and excitement I felt when I first laid eyes on the Pyramids of Giza. Thoughts of who built the wall, what it must have looked like centuries ago, and who walked on it before me flooded my mind. We wasted no time in climbing the nearest watch tower. Excitement. Joy. Success. We made it to the Wild Wall. It was brilliant. Awe Inspiring. A wave of enthusiasm rushed over the two of us. We stood in silence overlooking the rest of the wall that snaked before us for miles in both directions. We hiked for a short distance before the sun went down behind the nearest mountain peaks.

It was about this time we began to realize, we still had no idea where we were or how to get back to Beijing. As it turns out, we were in the village of Gubeikou… quite some distance north of our destination. So what did we do? We put our hitchhiking thumb out and hoped for the img_0499best. To our surprise, the first car to stop gave us a lift. The guys, both 25-year-old construction workers from Miyun spoke no English but were kind enough to take us to their home town and drop us at a bus station which would eventually take us back to Beijing. We spent the hour listening to American pop legends, laughing, and communicating through translation apps.

The kindness of strangers will never cease to amaze me. We would not have had this amazing adventure had we decided to pack up and go home after the first misstep. Travel is all about the experience. A smile goes along way, just give in and let go. Let the trip take you where you are meant to be and enjoy the ride life is giving you.

Happy Travels!