Being Safe in Botswana: Lessons from a Young Traveler
When I learned that I would be spending the next six months studying cervical cancer in Botswana, my brain was bombarded by questions. How would I get there? Would my patients like me? How would I pack for frigid nights and frying-pan hot days? What food would I eat? All of these questions would be answered in time. One question that did not immediately come to mind was “How will I stay safe?” As a young Caucasian girl from America, there are always increased risks when traveling abroad, especially to a non-Western country with a very different culture. Although I had previously spent a few weeks each in India, China, and South Africa, this was going to be my first long-term experience living abroad and the first time I was living and working alone. I was extremely fortunate to find Sara’s Wish Foundation not only to help me fund my travel to and from Botswana but to help me remember how important it is to plan ahead in order to be as safe as possible in the unfamiliar environment I was about to encounter.
My first step was making sure that I had contacts both in Botswana and the US that could help in case of emergency. I registered with International SOS, the emergency medical and security assistance provider for the University of Pennsylvania as well as their Global Activities Registrar. Additionally, I downloaded the International SOS app on my phone so it would always be in reach. I also made a point to reach out to the in-country coordinators at the Botswana-UPenn Partnership so that they were well informed of my travel plans. The second step was contacting a friend who had just returned home from a year-long fellowship studying at the University of Botswana. She was able to tell me about transportation, housing, and general cultural norms I should be aware of. This vital information helped ease me into everyday living in Gaborone, the capital, when I finally arrived a few months later. I felt more confident about how to interact with locals, navigate the public transportation (and gauge when it was a good idea to use it or not), and also allowed me to find a safe living situation in a homestay with a wonderful retired couple.
In addition to the specific advice from my knowledgeable friend, I also gathered advice from locals during my first few weeks. For example, when my Batswana friends would caution against riding in a mini bus after sunset, I heeded their words and would always get a cab. And of course, I always used the seatbelts! I also learned about cross-country travel. After hearing how crowded buses could get, I made a distinct effort to arrive early at the bus station to secure a seat instead of having to stand. Finally, I found that transportation in a foreign country isn’t so hard if you can make friends that you trust. I was able to connect with many other expatriates like myself who had personal transportation that was safer and more reliable than public transport. These friends were a lifeline to me and definitely reduced my travel risk during my stay. Being safe isn’t just about finding safe means of transport, it is also about making relationships with people who will help you, know your whereabouts, and even be lifelong friends.