Staying Safe and Sane in Difficult Places

March 9, 2017

By Richard Slimbach, Professor, Department of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL at Azusa Pacific University

Independent travel in difficult places throughout the global South presents a unique set of challenges. Sickness and disease is rampant. Roads are treacherous and buses old and overcrowded. Thieves are ever on the prowl for unsuspecting innocents. Women—especially foreign women—are easy targets for sexual harassment and even assault. Conditions like these give rise to the tragic stories we often hear: of student-travelers being bed-ridden with dysentery or malaria, being robbed of all they have, or narrowly avoiding rape or a traffic death.

I’d like to tell you that these things never happen, but unfortunately they do. The good news is that, statistically, global learning in difficult places, whether domestic or abroad, is surprisingly safe. In fact, an analysis of insurance claims data published by the Forum on Education Abroad (2016) found that college students on U.S. campuses were more than twice as likely to die as students studying abroad. Nevertheless, even one incident is one too many. The following advice aims to arm educational travelers with basic precautions so that they can stay safe—especially in evermore-remote locations—and their colleges and universities can protect themselves against litigation and liability.

First off, it’s important not to confuse a place being theft-prone with a place being physically dangerous. In many corners of the world alleged to be “dangerous” there is actually little risk of being physically assaulted. In fact, most travelers, in most poor countries, feel safe or safer than they do at home—especially if “home” is a US college campus. According to research by Christopher Krebs and associates, one in five undergraduate college women experience sexual assault while in college. Armed robbery is also on the rise in urban America, with both make and female victims. The following incident reported from Azusa, California is representative:

On Saturday, December 5, 14, 2014, at 11:48 p.m., an APU student walked into the Department of Campus Safety to report that he was just robbed at Santana’s restaurant located at 700 E. Alosta Avenue. Campus Safety contacted the Azusa Police Department who responded to begin their investigation. The student reported to the police that as he left the restaurant, the suspect vehicle drove up alongside of him. As he looked at the vehicle, the driver (Suspect #1) pointed an unknown type handgun at him and demanded money. The student tossed some cash into the vehicle and the suspect drove off, last seen heading southbound on Citrus Avenue. The Azusa Police Department deemed the crime to be an armed robbery.

Cases of rape and armed robbery, though increasingly common on campuses and surrounding communities, are nearly non-existent in Thailand, Peru and Tanzania. Common criminals in cities of the South are usually after one thing: money and other valuables (like passport, Smartphone, laptop, or camera). Most thieves are “sneak thieves” with no interest in harming or even confronting others. In some countries, armed robbery, especially of foreign tourists, is actually a hanging offense!

Even in political volatile situations, one of the best protections is actually being a foreign “tourist.” Like gang violence in L.A., most victims of violent crime are those from their own or opposing ethnic, religious, or political group. Foreigners are much safer than the locals in this regard. If a foreign tourist were to find herself caught in the crossfire of political disturbance, she would likely be immediately hustled away by residents and protected by police.

Foreigners are generally not in danger of bodily harm, but they do need to guard against being mugged or pick-pocketed. Maggie, an undergraduate from California, recounts a robbery suffered by an unaccompanied female traveler in Granada, Nicaragua:

The only bad thing that happened (and you can’t tell my parents) is that one of my friends got stabbed in the arm by a robber about half a block from where I’m staying. She’s fine but this has really transformed my attitude and experience, since I’m usually super laid-back and never worry about anything. It’s not like I live in constant fear now, but it’s always in the back of my mind—especially at night. It’s like now I feel less welcome here, less at home. She was a gringa and she was out alone at night. She didn’t intend to resist. Her bag went across her chest and over her shoulder. The thieves just snuck up behind her and tried to take it off her. She turned around, the bag got tangled, the guy went to slash the strap, and got her arm as well. At least he was going for the strap; he could have thought she was resisting and stabbed her arm on purpose.

Braving a world wracked with poverty and gender oppression, especially as an unaccompanied woman at night, can, at times, be dangerous. But Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission asks the question:

“Dangerous” for whom? While the dangers for us are a risk, for the victims we seek to serve, the dangers are a certainty. For the girls locked away in brothels, they will certainly be raped. For the husband illegally detained in prison, he will certainly be beaten if he stands up for his innocence or dignity. For the 19-year old boy held in bonded slavery, he will certainly not go to school today, he will certainly not play today, and will certainly suffer if he doesn’t make his quota of bricks today… unless someone steps into place between the oppressor and his vulnerable prey.

Study and service often takes place beyond the frontiers of what is easily controlled.  When confronted by real risks and reasonable fear, we can respond in one of two ways. We can seek to be safer by staying home or creating socially insulated enclaves abroad. Or we can seek to be braver by assuming the calculated risks involved in living and learning amongst farmworkers, among drought victims, desperate refugees, bonded laborers, trafficked children, and the scores of poor people who languish in jail for crimes they did not commit. Risks must be taken if we are to find freedom from our own fears and support the freedom of others.

Click here to view some resources for facilitating reflection including some of Richard’s ideas on ways to reduce risk, common cons, and how to respond to beggars. These ideas and examples can be used in pre-departure training to start discussion with students. But as Richard reminds us, “statistically, global learning in difficult places, whether domestic or abroad, is surprisingly safe.”


The Forum on Education Abroad (2016). Insurance claims data and mortality rate for college students studying abroad. Carlisle, PA: The Forum on Education Abroad.

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