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Look Before You Leap

Panic! The end of term is almost here and for many of us this marks a nearing of the golden years of university life. The shackles of a ‘real job’ are rapidly creeping upon us when 20 days holiday a year will stifle all possibility of freedom and adventure!… Dramatic, I know, but a sentiment shared by many of us final year students who are planning to take some time out after university to explore the big wide world.

According to official UCAS figures, there were 28,856 applicants in 2007 who opted for deferred entry, in order to take a planned year out before commencing university in 2008. With the existence of facebook groups such as ‘I am legally better than you: I took a Gap year’, it seems that these Gap year types consider themselves a cut above the rest. But when your housemate is smugly recounting the tale of how they single-handedly rebuilt a Zambian village or raved 10 weeks away on a beach in Thailand, there are usually some other stories they’re a little less proud to tell. Touring the globe isn’t always constant fun in the sun and saving the planet. We students are notorious for blindly strolling off into the sunset armed with little more than a bottle of factor 15 and a packet of Imodium, often finding ourselves ill-prepared and in very hot water.

Every year the Foreign Office deals with thousands of UK citizens in need of its services abroad. According to the most accurate figures, the period April 05–March 06 saw 1,368 Britons arrested in the USA; 955 hospitalised in Greece; 376 British citizens died in France and 6,078 lost their passport in Spain. The student population are amongst the most unprepared, often finding themselves victims of crime or injury and in need of consular assistance.

According to Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister, Meg Munn, “although some of the incidents people face are unavoidable, many can be prevented with a little planning and careful preparation. Simple precautions like researching your destination, getting comprehensive travel insurance, checking out medical requirements and taking copies of important documents could help avoid common travelling traumas.”

Research Your Destination:

Wherever you’re going the best way of keeping out of trouble is by not breaking the law. This may seem like a no-brainer but if you’re not aware of local laws and customs you could well find yourself in serious trouble. Checking the Foreign Office website is the best way of to avoid unwittingly breaking the law as Jessica Elgot (3rd year English) discovered for herself whilst planning for a trip to Japan:

“I was browsing the Foreign Office website to see if I needed any injections to go to Japan, and spotted that medicines like Vicks Vapor inhalers etc. are banned because of Japan’s ban on stimulants. It also said that claiming ignorance of this law wouldn’t be a defense. My friend suffers from sinus problems quite frequently, so I’m glad we knew about it.”

Wherever you go, taking photos of military sights or even important installations like dams, airports and railway stations should be avoided. Buying local crafts and souvenirs could land you in further trouble no matter how good your intentions. If you unwittingly purchase something made of endangered animals or plants you might well encounter problems when trying to leave the country or upon returning to the UK.

Whilst breaking the laws could land you in serious trouble, it’s also important not to disrespect local customs. Dressing appropriately and being aware of religious rituals and traditions is vital for any traveller. Whilst working is an orphanage in Thailand last summer, Rebecca Walls (3rd year Sociology) had to learn to quickly adapt her behaviour in order to respect the beliefs and customs of the people she was working with:

“The children in particular were very conservative and kept pulling up our tops which they thought were too low. I couldn’t believe what prudes they were! We also had to be very careful not to touch them on their heads as despite being an affectionate gesture in our country in Thailand it is actually quite offensive to do it. You also have to remember to cover up when visiting temples and be careful when taking pictures as you can get in to a lot of trouble if you take them inside certain ones.”

The best way to avoid offending local people, or worse, getting yourself thrown into jail is to be as well informed about your destination as possible.

Weird Customs:

• In Russia and Central Asia vodka plays a part in most social rituals – expect many toasts and a headache in the morning.
• In Madagascar it’s considered taboo to point with an outstretched finger.
• The Popular Afghan sport of Buzkashi involves men on horseback battling for the carcass of a headless goat.

Health:

Getting ill whilst away can be one of the most frustrating problems you might have to deal with. Throwing up (from both ends) whist stuck on a crowded, overheated, Bolivian bus, somehow doesn’t fit the bill for the picture perfect, travelling adventure. Whilst on his gap in 2005, Ian burns (3rd year Politics student) and his friend Harry discovered the perils of falling foul to illness as they attempted to travel from one end of Bolivia to the other:

“Dysentery is a very nasty water-borne disease involving horrible diarrhea with blood and vomiting. We both picked it up somewhere in Bolivia drinking dodgy water and had to spend a week travelling (about 50 hours of buses) on Imodium, generally feeling disgusting. This was not helped by the fact that Bolivia is a very smelly country filled with very smelly people and food. Eventually, we got back to La Paz, the capital and found a US trained doctor and went to hospital. Harry was worse than I was and lost almost a stone and a half in 8 days. I lost just under a stone. So if you’re trying to diet, go for it, but I suggest you buy bottled water.”

Those wise words ‘prevention is better than cure’ certainly apply here as most of the diseases travellers worry about can be prevented by basic hygiene precautions. Many of the more serious risks can be reduced by sorting out your vaccinations before you go. A trip to Cripps about six weeks before you travel is a must, so that one of those lovely nurses can inform you of what jabs you need or other medicines such as anti-malarials.

Insurance:

“The most common problem students encounter is pick-pocketing and general petty theft” (Alison Oliver, STA, Nottingham). Adequate and appropriate insurance therefore; is one of the most essential factors to remember before you jet off. Whilst you may take every precaution to prevent any travelling traumas, you never know what’s around the corner and accidents do happen. For you adrenaline junkies out there, be aware that any spur of the moment extreme activities you decide to dabble in, may not be covered by your policy. Unlucky traveller Ian learnt the risks of these extreme activities the hard way whilst cycling down the world’s most dangerous road:

“The World’s most dangerous road is in Bolivia; it’s very thin and has an 800m sheer drop on one side and a cliff on the other. You can see the ruins of Lorries and buses that have fallen off as you go down. Despite hearing that 12 people had died doing it we willingly paid $50 to hire a mountain bike and cycle down. The road isn’t paved so you have to deal with big rocks, and waterfalls falling on it making it wet and slippery as well. The incline is really deceptive so you go much faster than you realise. I ended up skidding and flew off the bike landing just one and a half meters away from a 900m drop (basically certain death!). I grazed both my hands, both my knees and my shoulder. My knee was bleeding everywhere. I had to be dragged to the side of the road so I wasn’t run over because Bolivians have things to do and can’t be waiting for bodies in the road. My eyes started rolling and went into the back of my head. I had a fit and blacked out. When I came round I’d lost my memory. 1000mg of Ibuprofen sorted me out for the short term but I couldn’t remember recent events for two weeks afterward!”

Think ahead about any unplanned holiday activities such as extreme sports or hiring a vehicle. Foreign Office research revealed that 2 out of 3 18-35 year olds went bungee jumping on the spur of the moment without checking that their insurance covered them. This was 1 out of 2 for jet-skiing, scuba diving, mountaineering and rock climbing. If you end up needing hospital treatment for an injury not covered by you insurer, you may find yourself seriously out of pocket. A weeks hospital stay in Greece would set you back between £4-5,000 and treatment for a broken leg in the USA comes to around £24,000 – not really the sort of addition you want to make to your already mounting loan repayments.

To keep you out of trouble this summer, here’s a heads up on the most up to date Foreign Office advice for the top five Nottingham student destinations according to STA Travel.

Australia:
– There remains a general threat from terrorism in Australia and attacks cannot be ruled out.
– Since Australia is such a vast country you should plan your journeys carefully.
– Australia is prone to seasonal natural disasters. The Cyclone Season normally runs from – November to April and bush fires are common in the summer months from November to February.

New Zealand:
– Weather conditions can quickly become treacherous, especially in winter.
– The majority of cases for which British nationals required consular assistance in New Zealand in 2006 was due to difficulties encountered whilst enjoying outdoor activities i.e. hiking, climbing and canoeing.

Bolivia:
– The political situation in Bolivia is very tense and there is the risk that demonstrations and confrontations might break out at short notice.
– The Bolivian Government has declared a national disaster in the country because of the rains and flooding in many parts of Bolivia.
– There is a risk of “express kidnappings”, short-term, opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim.

Thailand:
– All but essential travel to, or through, the far southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla is not advised. There continue to be frequent attacks, including bombing and shooting, due to insurgency and civil unrest in these areas.
– The King endorsed the new Thai Government on 6 February 2008 but the political situation in Thailand remains uncertain.
– Penalties for possession, distribution or manufacture of drugs are severe and can include the death penalty.
– Outbreaks of Avian Influenza (Bird Flu) in Thailand have resulted in a small number of human fatalities. The last fatality was 2006.

Fiji:
– There remains a potential for civil unrest following the military coup. You should avoid all military or political rallies and large gatherings of people, and avoid openly discussing political issues.
– The penalty for possession of any amount of marijuana is a mandatory prison sentence.

TOP TIPS:
• Take out comprehensive travel insurance
• Research your destination
• Stay in touch with friends and family
• Consult your GP six weeks before you travel
• Ensure your passport is valid for a minimum of six months from the date of your return.

For the most up to date and destination specific advice available, check out the Foreign and Commonwealth office website before you travel at www.fco.gov.uk/travel and make sure you ‘Know Before You Go’.

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