Saturday, 25 August 2012

A Small Town Girl Taking on a Big, Big, World: Tips for Those Preparing to Study, Live or Travel Abroad

I've traveled to over 20 countries and 4 soon to be 5 continents. I studied abroad in England for a semester and now I'm living in Vancouver. These experiences have been filled with many wonderful people, places, and memories, but not everything has always gone according to plan. I've decided to put a list together of some of the tips and tricks I've learned along the way as well as some of the tips and tricks I wish I'd known. If you are planning to study, live, or travel abroad, hopefully these tips will make life a little easier for you.

Before you go:

Get all your documents in order. This includes, but is not limited to passports, visas, study or work permits, the address of where you will be staying and perhaps even directions of how to get their from the airport. Now, the first few things I listed seem obvious, but an address and map? When I was in Denmark, I told the taxi driver the name of the hotel I needed to go to. It was an English hotel name. He took me to the wrong hotel. The hotel names didn't start with the same letter. They didn't even sound alike, so it's not like he could have claimed "assonance with rhyme." I knew immediately that we were at the wrong place. He insisted we weren't, so I showed him a paper I'd printed out with the hotel name on it. Then he claimed I never told him that name, that I'd said the name of the hotel we were parked in front of. I'd never heard of this hotel. It was an English name, but it wasn't a chain like Best Western or the Hilton, something I would have actually heard of. I have many talents but rattling off random Copenhagen hotels isn't one of them. Meanwhile the meter was running. He took me to the correct hotel and by the time we got there, the fair was double what it should have been, so I didn't give him a tip. Lesson learned: show your cab driver the written address of where you want to go before you get in the cab. Also, ask how much it will be. In Lisbon, I was told it would take five minutes and cost less than 10 euro to get to my hotel (for more about this trip see my travel woes post). The cab driver saw a female travelling alone at night and decided to charge me 15 euros. He didn't go by what the fair meter in his cab said. He just made up a price. So...ask the cabbie how long it will take and about how much it will be BEFORE you get in. ****And if you have a good cabbie, tip well. When I needed a cab from the airport to my house in Vancouver, the cabbie had a bit of trouble finding the correct house. He knew we were on the correct street, so he shut off the meter, but it took another five minutes to find the house. I gave him a handsome tip, and he not only refused to leave until I was safely inside, but he also helped bring my suitcases up to the front door. I'm not saying you should flash your money around, but especially if you are a female travelling alone at night (abroad or otherwise) safety is your number one priority. Some will try to take advantage as the Portuguese cabbie did, but others will go out of their way to make sure you are fine, like the Vancouver cabbie. Had it not been the correct house, I would have been able to get back in the cab and go somewhere else, somewhere safe. That's a whole lot better than being stranded in a city you've only just arrived in.

Also in regards to documents, scan all your important documents. You'd be surprised how many times you might need a pdf of this or that, especially if you are studying abroad. Have all your documents, study permit, scholarship letters, loan info all scanned and store somewhere where you can access them easily, but also somewhere that is password protected. I'd also consider having your banking or credit card numbers on file somewhere in case your wallet is stolen. I guess you could argue that it would be equally as bad to have this information on your computer in case that is what gets stolen, not your wallet, or what if the information is in your email and it gets hacked, but it's your call. Just something to think about. There are pros and cons to having all your information in the same place, but the important thing, no matter how you choose to approach it, is to have all the necessary information with you.

Do research. My landlord has been amazing thus far. Before I moved, she told me about all the stores within walking distance and gave me the UBC bus info. Take advantage of these resources. Talk to the locals. It also doesn't hurt to do some research before you do though. Find out what activities are in the area. If you're a student studying abroad look into what clubs you might want to join. I did this in Oxford and had the opportunity to network with other creative writers as well as compete for the Oxford University Athletic Club. Plus, doing these activities is not only a way to meet new people, but also a great way to have some semblance of your life back home. If you're doing the things you love, you're less likely to be homesick.

Save up. If you can save your money before travelling abroad, DO. Again, this seems like a no brainer. If you're going on a vacation, you'd want souvenirs, right? True, travelling abroad for a vacation can be expensive and there are always little things here and there that add up, an excursion, a nice dinner, a good hotel, but when you're living abroad or studying abroad, there are other expenses: rent, groceries (which can be more expensive than in the US), a cell phone and plan, gym membership (I joined a gym in Oxford and in Vancouver. It's a must for me, but might not be to other people) and then of course there's bus passes, student fees, international student medical coverage. You can't plan for every expense ahead of time, so give yourself a cushion and be prepared to spend more on certain things than you had originally budgeted for. I house sat and was a nanny this summer before I moved. Part time jobs are a great way to earn a little extra cash and give you a little wiggle room in your budget. Plus, part time jobs are easy to come back to, so when you do return, if you find yourself strapped for cash, look into going back to these part time jobs.

Other tips for before you go:
* know the exchange rate between your currency and the local currency
* know that you may be charged an international fee when you make purchases (if you are living abroad or studying abroad for an extensive period of time, set up a bank account in your new country.)
* know that you will be charged a fee for withdrawing money from an ATM
* know that certain countries have stores that only accept MasterCard or only accept Visa. If you have a DISCOVER card, it might not work, so make sure you have a debit card handy.
* know some basic self-defense. I've already said it's important to be safe, especially if you are a female traveling alone, and I'm not just saying know some self-defense because it looks cool or because I do martial arts. I'm saying it because I believe women should know how to protect themselves. I took a self defense class in college. It's how I was introduced to Grandmaster Han's Martial Arts. Most colleges or cities offer self-defense classes at their gyms or community centers, so find one near you. A girl I went to college with approached my self-defense instructor about lessons. She knew she'd be travelling by herself in Peru and wanted a couple self-defense tips. It was finals week. The WAC (what we call our gym) was deserted except for a few other loyal gym rats, a few pre-med students trying to destress and me. My self defense instructor asked me if I would mind helping him teach this girl a few moves. (And so the calling of being a martial arts instructor began lol) Anyway, we taught her a few moves and she practiced them with me a couple times a week before leaving for Peru. I didn't actually think she would need to use what we taught her. I was wrong. When she came back from her trip, I jokingly asked her if she used self-defense. She did. She was at a party. Things turned south. She wanted to leave. A guy decided to block the one and only door. She proceeded to elbow strike his neck and kick him in the back of the knee so she could get out of there. The funny thing was as she was describing this to me, she stopped and said, "Now, I know that wasn't the exact technique you showed me." Self-defense doesn't have to be pretty. It doesn't even have to be exactly how you learned it in class. It just has to work. She learned the basics and was able to use two moves to her advantage to get herself out of a precarious situation, and so I'll say it again: learn self-defense.

When you arrive:

*Explore! I went for long runs around my neighborhood the first week I was here. It was a great way to get to know the area. I also rode the bus to UBC, so I'd have an idea of how long the ride would take, and I got to see a portion of campus.

*Connect with other students. If you're studying abroad with other students from your school like I did in Oxford, go grab a bite to eat. These people might not become your lifelong best friends, but they are going through exactly what you are going through, so make those connections. If you're studying abroad and don't know anyone, orientation days are a great way to meet other new students, or you can reach out to other people in your program. I had breakfast with a second year grad student about a week ago and learned so much about the program.

*Call home. Skype, tweet, update your facebook status, whatever you do, immediately after you arrive and are settled, let friends and family know you're safe. As time passes, use the aforementioned means of communcation as a way of keeping in touch with what is going on back home and updating others about the exciting things going on in your life.

*Send postcards. Postage in Vancouver is a bit tricky. Apparently you can't just go to a Post Office and have them tell you exactly how much it will cost to send something, so I had to get creative. I bought 10 stamps at a drug store for $6.80. I had 6 postcards to send, so 4 got 2 stamps and 2 got 1 stamp. Hopefully, they will all get to their final destinations okay; if not, it's the thought that counts, right?

Those are all the tips and tricks I can think of for now. Hope that was helpful.

- Beth

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