Health & Safety
This Travel Guide offers practical information about health and safety issues related to traveling abroad. While most students go abroad without incident, travelling overseas has its risks. Whether your destination is low-risk or high-risk, this guide can help.
No set of guidelines can cover everything related to going abroad. Likewise, regardless of the preparation and care you take, your safety cannot be absolutely guaranteed. However, by identifying many of the risks involved and developing strategies to deal with common problems faced overseas, you can reduce your risks and minimize potential hazards.
If you have a tip or piece of advice that you’d like to share with other students, please forward it to email@example.com.
Inherent to the success of any international program is the health and safety of the students involved. Whatever the destination, all students can benefit from developing a health and safety risk management plan. To this end, the Safety Abroad Office has compiled this Health and Safety Travel Guide for you and your students.
Program Sponsors of overseas programs should have students review this Travel Guide early in the process of preparing to go abroad. This will allow them to ask questions and participate fully in the mandatory Safety Abroad Workshop.
Please contact the Safety Abroad Office with any questions or to find out about other pre-departure orientation assistance.
A general packing checklist
When travelling, be sure to plan ahead and bring the items that you will need.
For general travel and low-risk countries:
- Airplane tickets
- Different ways to access money
- Local currency and US currency
- Receipt of hotel or hostel reservation
- Letters of introduction or program acceptance
- Emergency numbers (safety abroad, bank, health insurance provider)
- First Aid Kit
- Computer (with current adapter for local voltage and plug style)
- Money belt
- Small gifts for your hosts (if applicable)
For high risk areas:
- Records of your vaccinations
- Water purifying agent (if applicable)
- Mosquito net (if applicable)
- Activities to keep you busy at night since it may not be safe to travel past dark
- Duct tape (for high risk areas; to secure documents in discreet places within your room)
- Shoes that would be appropriate for roads with garbage or broken glass, and bathrooms that are not well maintained
Do not take for granted that all countries will have medicine for headaches, allergies, motion sickness or the flu – bring your own basic medical kit. Keep prescription medicine in your carry-on, but ensure that your name is on it so that you are not suspected of bringing medication illegally.
Sunscreen, insect repellent and moisturizer
Not all products are created equal. Sunscreen or moisturizer may not be available at all or meant for people with skin types quite different from your own. Similarly, insect repellent can have different levels of toxicity in foreign countries and it may be safer to bring some from home.
Carry appropriate luggage
Remember that as a tourist, you may be a target for theft. As such, it is important to consider the effectiveness of your luggage. The general rule is to always travel so that at least one hand is always free. The obvious vulnerability one has when occupied with luggage makes a tourist more susceptible to pick pocketing, theft and other crimes.
Passport and visa
All Canadian citizens need to have a valid passport before they can take up residence abroad. Should your passport be lost or stolen, report this immediately to local police and to the nearest Canadian Consulate. The request for a replacement passport can be made in Canada or at a Canadian mission abroad. However, before the document can be replaced, Canadian authorities will conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident.
A replacement passport may be valid only for a limited period and authorized only provided strict requirements are met. Requirements include the following:
- Completed application form
- Two identical current passport photos
- Processing fee
- Documented proof of Canadian citizenship (e.g., birth certificate)
- Completed form: "Statutory Declaration: concerning a lost, stolen, inaccessible or destroyed Canadian passport or travel document"
All governments require foreigners to obtain a Visa or work permit in order to reside, work, study, and in some cases, visit their country. Contact the Embassy or Consulate of your host country for specific visa requirements. Visas should be obtained before leaving Canada and you should apply well in advance of your departure date, as the application process can be long and time consuming.
Some countries require foreign nationals to complete a registration card, obtained either before or after arrival. This should be carried at all times.
About dual citizenship
We recommend that anyone traveling with dual citizenship contact the consulate before they go abroad to get advice about which passport to travel on or the laws associated with their specific situation.
Having dual citizenship does not necessarily mean that you can work in the other country of which you are a citizen. Contact that country's embassy for a definite ruling.
Also consider that acquiring Canadian citizenship may lead to the automatic cancellation of other citizenships without your prior knowledge. In applying for dual citizenship, there are other factors to consider as well, such as compulsory military service and the potential loss of your right to protection and assistance from Canadian consular officials while you are in the country of your other citizenship.
Travel can be tiring and stressful, and can even trigger mental health issues. If you are currently seeing a counsellor we recommend that you talk to them about your upcoming trip and talk to the CIE to get extra support for your mental health and wellbeing. Health & Wellness and the CIE can work with both University and non-University services to provide you with a wide range of support. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about mental health and wellness.
Be prepared, be knowledgeable and stay safe. Familiarize yourself with any dangers specific to your new host culture, or even any areas you are just passing through.
Are there any existing medical warnings for the area? Does the area have any specific geographical problems? What medical facilities are available to you?
Consider your own state of mental and physical health. Travel will always involve some strain and stress. Consult with your doctor to discuss how existing conditions may be affected by your overseas experience.
Cross cultural communication skills
Explore new cultures and communities while you’re still at home. This will not only teach you about other cultures but will also assist you in developing new communication skills. Think about what it will be like to not speak (or not speak very well) the main language of your destination country, or to not understand simple social cues such as non-verbal communication.
Read more about intercultural communication.
Culture shock is the reaction you face when confronted with a new cultural environment – the effect of going from culture to another. By the time you begin orienting yourself, you could be experiencing the first signs of culture shock.
The four states of culture shock
This is the initial state of culture shock, which tends to blend in with the highs of planning a trip and starting off on an adventure. Like a new love, we tend to overlook some of the host country's shortcomings and delight in all the new pleasures of being abroad. A 3-hour walk to the closest market and source of food is a quaint representation of how to enjoy the simple things of life. Enjoy this initial state but prepare for a come down.
A growing amount of anxiety can develop during which the traveller may feel helpless. The difficulties of living abroad, such as language barriers, absence of social cues and familiar geographic references can come to the surface. This can develop into frustration, anger and sleeplessness. Not knowing where and when to cross the street or even how to find your way back to the market can result in a physical discomfort.
3. Rejection of the new culture
This is where that once quaint 3-hour walk becomes an unbearable nuisance. You find yourself thinking in terms of things being “wrong” and “backwards.” Commonly travellers in this stage start to withdraw themselves from the local community, preferring to surround themselves with other foreigners. Beware the 3:00 a.m. impulse to suddenly call a family member or friend back home.
With a bit of luck and advanced preparation, you enter the adjustment stage. At this point you can recognize some of the perceived shortcomings of your host culture without rejecting everything. The 3-hour walk becomes just a necessary inconvenience.
Minimize the effects of culture shock
While all travellers go through some form of cultural shock, there are ways to minimize the effects.
1. Prepare, prepare and prepare some more
The more mentally and physically prepared you are, the better suited you are to combat culture shock. Pack the right items from home, but don’t overwhelm yourself with too many things to carry (or things better purchased in the host country). Bring a photo. Remind friends and family of the importance of writing and keeping in touch. Most of all, get familiar with as many customs and cultural trends as possible. The more familiar you are with the host country the less strange or shocking it will appear.
2. Be open to the experience
Try to recognize culture shock as part of the travelling adventure. By recognizing it, you can see through some of the emotional states that culture shock puts you through and also relieve some stress. Know that given time, you will reach the adjustment stage.
Culture shock does not have to be seen as a bad thing. Difficulties adjusting are part of the fact that you are truly entering a new culture. The more you dive into the culture (versus skimming it as some tourists do), the stronger the cultural differences will affect you.
3. Keep mentally and physically fit
Observing a healthy lifestyle is important to combat some of the physical and mental strains of travelling. For instance, try not to cut costs by eating fast food all the time. Instead, save money by cooking for yourself at home. Try to take time out for yourself. Exercise. Read a book.
4. Keep a journal
Try keeping a travel journal, or even start a blog. By starting it at the earliest conception of your trip, you can remind yourself of the reasons why you decided to go abroad. A recollection of goals can put some of the hardships into perspective. This can also help you recognize the signs of cultural shock and see it as a series of phases.
Budgeting and estimating cost of living
It can be difficult to estimate what the costs of living abroad might be, especially with foreign currency or if it your first time travelling there. To start this process, research the “cost of living” in the country you will be traveling to. Compare various estimates, ask friends who may have travelled there, or inquire with the institution you are affiliated with if they have a cost of living estimate already.
The cost of living can vary greatly depending on where in the world you are and what your plans are while you are there. Try using the website Numbeo to calculate your cost of living in terms of food, accommodation, transportation and entertainment.
If possible, carry some local currency with you while you are travelling to your destination. If you arrive during a holiday or after business hours, it may not always be possible to exchange money at the airport, and credit cards may not always be accepted. So bring enough cash to cover your ride into town, your accommodation, and any minor expenses along the way.
In some countries, Canadian currency may be exchanged at a poor rate or may not be accepted at all. However, by changing money into American dollars and then into the local currency, you are incurring an extra transaction fee.
Accessing your money
Before going overseas, plan ahead and consider how you are going to access money while abroad. Will you set up a local bank account? Bring traveller's cheques? Access your home bank account through an ATM? Here are a few ways to access money, but we recommend that you do research into each option to find out if it is a viable option for the country you are going to or if there any extra costs associated with it.
Find out if your bank has an overseas branch in the city where you will be living. Service charges will apply to each transfer you make from your home bank account and as such you may wish to transfer large sums at the beginning.
More and more these have become difficult to use overseas. Many places do not accept them and it can be a hassle to try to find a bank or a hotel that will accept them. However, traveller's cheques tend to be a secure option, as they are guaranteed against theft and are recognized in most places in the world.
In most major cities PLUS or CIRRUS systems are available at ATMs, giving you access to your accounts at home. However, smaller cities do not always provide this access, and there is a risk that your card will be damaged. Keep in mind that each time you use your convenience card there may be large processing fees.
Credit cards tend to provide easy access to your money and give good exchange rates. If you can keep a negative balance by putting extra money on your card ahead of time, you will be able to avoid the high interest rates. Used in this way, credit cards can be a very economical option.
The drawback of credit cards is that despite what the TV commercials promise, they are not accepted everywhere you want to go (like budget hotels and hostels). And of course, if you do incur a positive balance, the interest rates on your debt will exceed any transaction fee you would incur using the ATM or exchanging traveller's cheques.
Be careful when travelling at night
When possible, try to avoid arriving in a new city at night time. Attempting to orientate yourself at night can pose a serious risk. Consider the first time you arrived in Toronto. How well would you know which streets were safe at night and which were not? While you are getting adjusted, ask the advice of locals living in the area.
Withdrawing money at night – not a great idea
If you need to take money out of a teller, try to do this only during daylight hours. Either way, try to go with someone you know so that they can watch your surroundings while you are occupied.
Use a money belt
A proper money belt (as opposed to a fanny pack or purse) is a good defence against pickpocketing. A money belt only works as well as you use it. If you are going to keep valuables in your money belt, then keep your belt hidden under a layer of clothes. Do not open it up in public areas, and always keep spending money in a separate, convenient location. If you do need to get money from your money belt, do so in a changing room or private place.
The fake wallet
While travelling, consider using a "fake" wallet. The fake wallet can contain a few dollars that you won't mind losing and other items (i.e., the photo that the wallet came with, old, unusable convenience cards). Should you be targeted for a pick pocketing or mugging, they will mistakenly think that your wallet is where you keep valuables. To make it more realistic, in high crime areas you may want to place a few higher denomination bills up front to avoid suspicion. The wallet can even come in handy should you be overwhelmed by aggressive beggars: you can simply toss the wallet and make an easy escape!
Scams and bribery
Dealing with local scams aimed at tourists is a problem at most destinations. Travellers often carry more money, are less familiar with their environment and are less likely to press charges. This makes us a prime target for many local scams, from having your backpack stolen on the train to being sold a useless trinket at a high cost.
If you are unsure if someone is asking to be bribe, inquire indirectly. Is there a tax I must pay for here? This is especially necessary as not to offend the many people who are in fact not looking for a bribe. You may also bargain most bribe charges. Is there a way I can pay a smaller fee? If you do not pay the bribe, it is best to remain polite and if possible, act confused by the request. And never appear to be in a hurry!
When considering accommodation there are several things you should keep in mind:
- Choose a room that is not on the ground floor, if possible
- If you are travelling alone, avoid letting people see your room number on your keys or having the concierge announce it loudly
- Choose a hotel or hostel that has fire exits and an emergency evacuation plan
- Avoid taking the stairs when you’re alone
- Rather than use a portable lock provided by a hotel, use your own
- When signing into a hotel, use the first initial of your first name only
Staying in budget accommodation like a hostel is a great way to stretch your dollars and see more places. We recommend that you research the neighbourhood of the hostel before arriving and write down the addresses of two or three different options. If you arrive and the hostel seems unsafe you will have two other options at hand. If you are arriving late, book a hostel or put a deposit down in advance so that you do not have to worry whether or not they are overbooked.
Travel standards are different around the world, especially in developing countries where road conditions, car care and driving culture may vary. In some regions there may not be reliable public transportation, for this reason it is recommended that anyone going to high risk destinations have a budget for registered taxis.
Unregistered taxis sometimes overcharge customers, do not maintain vehicles or bring you to a completely different destination then you asked. For these reasons, use registered taxis, but always do a small risk assessment before climbing in the cab. Is the vehicle in good condition? Is there a meter or should you negotiate a price? Has this driver been drinking, or do they look overly fatigued?
Food and drink
For better or worse, the food you find abroad may be quite different from what you are used to at home. Be curious, and do some research! You should be able to try foods from almost any country at one of the many international restaurants in Toronto. Know in advance what typical meals consist of and the customs regarding dining.
If you have any specific dietary needs, you need to be able to communicate them in the local language. If you are vegetarian, learn to clearly explain what that means to you. If you have an allergy, be very specific about the dangers that this food may have for you.
Be sure that the food you are eating is safe. Raw food, unpasteurized milk, fish and seafood can be dangerous. Generally any fruit that you peel is safe.
Beware of water contamination!
In many parts of the world, special attention must be taken concerning drinking water. If there is a warning advising travellers not to drink the water, take it seriously.
In areas that have a warning or poor sanitation, drink only water that has safely been brought to a boil. This generally means drinks like tea are safe for consumption, but be wary. The water needs to be brought to a vigorous boil. Chemicals such as iodine may also be used to treat water. If you are unsure whether the chemical is effective, consult with a travel health doctor.
Don't drink the water also means:
- Don't drink ice (unless you know it has been treated)
- Don't eat raw vegetables
- Ensure that cutlery and plates are properly dried before being used
Climate and geography
Getting away to a warmer climate can be a major reason to go abroad, but it's important to take some necessary precautions.
Sun damage is a common problem for many travellers. There are many contributing factors, including increased photo sensitivity caused by travel medicine (i.e., malaria prophylaxis) and lack of availability of sunscreen. Bring sunscreen lotion with you, apply properly and try to stay out of the sun all together during peak times.
Keep yourself hydrated! This is very important, especially in countries where drinking water may not be so easily available. A general rule is that by the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated – so drink regularly before you get thirsty!
Beware of heat exhaustion. If you begin to feel dizzy, have a slight change in your temperature, headache, thirst, nausea, skin becomes pale, cool or moist, move yourself to a cooler spot and try to replace your fluid by drinking a lot of water slowly.
Mosquitoes can be a health hazard in many countries, spreading serious diseases. When necessary, cover as much skin as possible by wearing long sleeves and pants. The use of insect repellent on exposed skin is strongly recommended. Of the insect repellents registered in Canada, those containing 'N, N diethyl-m-toluamide' (DEET) are the most effective. Although the concentration of DEET varies from product to product, effectiveness is largely equivalent. There is some concern about using DEET repellent on children and high concentrations on adults. Please consult with a doctor. For more information, visit CDC Traveller's Health website.
In many parts of the world, one of the most unavoidable hazards that travellers face is pollution. In cities such as Mumbai, Mexico City, Beijing and Jakarta you can almost taste the pollution in the air. For those with asthma or emphysema, you may wish to keep your exposure to cities with high pollution to a limit. You will definitely want to bring an adequate supply of inhalers and other medicines. Consult with your doctor. Even those without any respiratory problems can feel the effects of air pollution in a short period of time. You may wish to avoid much outdoor activity during smog advisories.
Students may find themselves in locations at altitudes that they are completely unaccustomed to. Climbing to high altitudes poses specific risks and students should consult an expert before setting out. Use only reputable guides and do not rush yourself. Generally it is necessary to rest every 3,000 feet or so. Carefully monitor yourself for altitude sickness, exhaustion, dehydration and hypothermia.
You may be at a higher risk of danger if you have had trouble with altitudes in the past, recently scuba dived (last 24 hours) or have other health problems. Consult with your doctor if you might be at risk.
It is important to understand the political culture that you will be living in. Consider what the attitudes towards foreigners are, and toward Canadians in particular. Historically, what relationship exists between the two countries? Canadians tend to enjoy a favourable reputation in most parts of the world, although this is subject to change.
Are there any specific dangers arising from the local political situation? Research your destination carefully to be aware of the risks.
Political demonstrations happen throughout the word, prompted by a variety of reasons. As a traveller, you may not be able to fully comprehend the politics behind the demonstration. Equally important is to remember that as a foreigner, you will not always be welcomed by protesters or government agencies. If you encounter a demonstration, it is best to leave the area. Keep in tune with local radio and check in with DFATD or your country's consular affairs to stay informed of the situation.
Race and ethnicity
Your race and ethnic background can radically influence the experience that you will have going overseas. Consider in advance how you might have to deal with issues of racism or prejudice – and privilege. Find out how race and ethnicity affected past participants with similar backgrounds.
Other students that travel to parts of the world that are similar or appear to be similar to their background find different challenges. Many people from the host county may mistakenly assume that you know the language and culture, thereby not pardoning the student from making social mistakes as they would for an obvious foreigner. Some students report regrets about not fitting in, expecting to be better suited to fit into a culture from their heritage.
For more support visit the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office.
Travelling internationally can be a radically different experience for a woman than for a man. Attitudes to gender vary greatly across the world. Women should be aware of these differences when considering how to travel safely and when immersing with a host culture.
When possible, book advanced reservations for overnight accommodations. Knowing exactly where you are heading when you leave the airport terminal will help you establish a sense of purpose. Try to appear confident, and to look like you know where you are going. Avoid looking at guide books in heavily populated areas.
Try to avoid rooms with easy access, such as rooms with a balcony, rooms on the first floor, or near stairwells or exits. Consider purchasing a travel door-stopper that can easily be installed on any inward opening door. There are many brands available, and CIE does not endorse any one in particular.
Making contact with women and children
In many countries there are myths or unflattering stereotypes about North American women. One way to break free of these opinions is to have people recognize and associate the commonality between you and women from the community.
If you are in areas where you don’t see any women or children, especially at night, it is a good idea to leave that area immediately.
If you walk about in an area filled with high aggression or you’re receiving unwanted attention, attach yourself to a local woman by walking a few steps behind her. Whether you make yourself known to the woman or not, many men will be less likely to make comments if it appears that you are travelling together.
Other advice to minimize unwanted attention includes wearing sunglasses or keeping your eyes down to avoid eye contact, making exchanges more difficult.
Be aware of cultural gender restrictions
While you might have to suppress the feminist within, sometimes it may be necessary to follow social and cultural customs that discriminate against women. For example, in some places of worship women will not be admitted. Ignoring the rule could put you in jeopardy. Generally, following cultural rules will eventually open more doors for you as well as offering more opportunities to speak and be heard on differing opinions.
Familiarize yourself with the sexual attitudes of the host country
What are the norms of male-female relations? Inadvertently, you might be sending misleading signals and cues regarding your intentions. Things like direct eye contact and overt friendliness on your part can be misperceived as advances. Accepting a dinner invitation might be tacitly consenting to be placed on the matrimonial track!
By familiarizing yourself with the norms, you can also demand the same sort of treatment that they would extend to women within the community. If accepting a dinner invitation with someone you don’t know that well, inquire about having a female “chaperone.” You can also demand the same rights to privacy and personal space.
Dressing the part
In some counties you might need to dress more conservatively than what you are accustomed to. Be aware of local customs – what is the appropriate dress for casual wear? For entering a religious site? Carry a scarf in case you need to cover your head. In some countries an exposed shoulder will spark more unwanted attention than wearing nothing would cause in another. Be particularly cautious regarding bathing suits. It is advisable to match yourself with the local standards versus what other tourists are doing.
Immersing into the host culture
Your ability to immerse yourself in a host culture can be greatly affected by your own gender and the role of women in the country you’re visiting. Read on for advice on how to manage some of the challenges you might face.
Canadian women enjoy a certain amount of equality and freedom that is not found everywhere. Being treated as separate citizens, with rules and obligations distinct from those enjoyed by men, is a common complaint from the international women traveller.
Changing to fit into the culture of another country is particularly difficult when their system may oppose your own beliefs and values. Ignoring customs, however, can put you at risk. Familiarizing and adjusting to local conventions will give you a better opportunity to understanding the cultures. This will also challenge myths and pave way for a better future for female travellers.
Remember that many gender related issues apply to men. Men travelling with female companions might have to get used to hearing unwelcome comments directed towards their travelling companion(s) and other female tourists. Learning how to deal with odious remarks can be a trying part of one's journey.
Meeting other women
Bring with you referrals from back home
In some countries you will be less likely to casually meet women in public areas. As such, it is necessary to have more personal connections. Bringing names of contacts obtained from home or through other travellers can assist in meeting other women on your journey.
Learn (at the very least) a bit of the language
In countries where women are more likely to stay home than enter the workplace, there is less likelihood that they will have had means or opportunity to learn another language. As such, being able to speak at least a bit of the language is even more important. If you are unable to pick up the language and are finding it difficult to meet older women who speak English, try to meet teenaged girls who often will have taken English classes at school. This can help broaden your experiences with both genders and you might be able to learn a little more of the local language along the way.
Check online or at the embassies for women’s clubs
There might be local groups or organizations in the area that you can join to meet women. Embassies might also have listings of women expatriate groups to meet other female Canadians travelling in your region.
Her Own Way - A Woman’s Safe Travel Guide, published by the Government of Canada
www.journeywoman.com, advice for the woman traveller.
Sexual orientation can have unique implications for the cross-cultural traveller. Consider these aspects of LGBTQs' experiences:
A community without borders
LGBTQs transcend borders and nations. Regardless of which country or city you might choose to visit, chances are you will meet up with LGBTQ people. Having shared common experiences, many travellers report feeling a strong kinship with fellow LGBTQs. Tales of when “one first knew,” coming out to friends, and concerns over family often provide immediate familiarity and open up topics for discussion. People will sometimes have more in common with other LGBTQs then they have with people from their own country. Similarly, the existence of the gay "village" in cities across the globe means that for some LGBTQs there is always a home away from home.
Coming out! (the first time)
Some travellers take advantage of the personal freedom associated with travelling abroad as an opportunity to contemplate their sexuality. When returning home, it is important to consider the implications of your experience. Feeling less secure about your freedoms and having to reanalyze your orientation is a common experience associated with re-entry. Dealing with these issues can further complicate the re-entry experience.
Be prepared for family and friends to question the sincerity of your orientation. Some will quickly dismiss your orientation as a phase, expecting you to “go back to normal” when you adjust to life back home. Indeed, many travellers themselves will need time to adjust to their orientation once again when arriving home.
Coming out! (again)
Regardless of how “out” you are before your journey abroad, most LGBTQ travellers experience a similar second “coming out.” Comparable to the first coming out experience, you must decipher how much information you want to share with fellow tourists and people from the host country. This can cause the same angst and apprehension as before, as well as similar feelings of freedom and exhilaration.
The experience of travelling together as a gay couple can vary depending on the region. In many Western European cities, gay travellers can find themselves in communities and establishments that are known to be gay positive. On the other hand, there are cities where homosexuality is not only condemned socially, but criminally outlawed.
Outside of recommended gay-positive communities and establishments, getting a room can at times be difficult. Many a clerk, concierge, and landlord have been left confused by a request for one bed by two women or two men travelling together. Reluctance may be based on bigotry, but other times it may just be a misunderstanding as to the purpose of your request.
In many countries there is little to no protection against discrimination. Hence, there is little recourse should you be blatantly refused accommodation. To find gay-friendly establishments, search for advertisements in gay bookstores for information on long- and short-term accommodation.
When deciding whether it is a good idea to come out in the new host country, it is best to acquaint yourself with the laws and understood social mores surrounding homosexuality. In some countries it might be illegal, but socially acceptable. In other countries, although homosexuality may be legal, it can be dangerous to be “out” in general society. The place where you are living might have different rules for westerners then local nationals. If there is any possibility of being "out" when abroad, questions of the politics surrounding orientation should be a part of your pre-departure orientation.
Social and cultural norms
Whenever one enters into a new environment, discovering social cues surrounding personal interactions is a part of the travelling experience. This is equally true for the LGBTQ traveller.
In countries where gender divisions exist socially, homosexual activity can take place, to a certain extent, under a cloak of invisibility. Similarly, some activity that one may perceive as having homosexual content can readily exist within the paradigm of typical heterosexual lifestyle.
Relying on “gaydar” is not usually advisable until you have had a chance to acquaint yourself with the specific nuances between sexes. For example, in India it is a common sight to see two men holding hands without any homosexual connotations. Similarly, styles and manners associated with one gay community may not be found in others or popular in mainstream society.
Politics of identity
In many countries, the politics of identity has become a recent phenomenon. Many people in other cultures live what would be perceived as a gay lifestyle in the West, without ever defining themselves that way.
A “Western phenomenon”?
A common misconception in many countries is that homosexuality is a western phenomenon and "problem." Despite huge evidence to the contrary, many national leaders suggest that homosexuality does not exist in their countries. This can have both positive and negative consequences for LGBTQ travellers.
In areas that have a homophobic attitude, there might be more tolerance and interest in your sexuality, when viewed as a Western phenomenon – people might find your orientation non-threatening to their own culture. However, it is important to note that problems may arise should your orientation have an effect (real or not) on a member of the local community. If it is perceived that your homosexuality “infects” [sic] a local, the consequences can be severe.
In some cases homosexuality, as defined by the West, is a Western identity. The primacy in which many LGBTQ define themselves by their sexual preference and the political concerns that surround them do not always translate to other cultures. In many societies, LGBTQ lifestyles can be observed by the Western LGBTQ, but not perceived that way by the societies themselves. More often than not, some assemblage of gay society can be found in most major cities among upper middle class populations. In rural areas, this is not as easy to find. This can create invisibility for both the rural community and the traveller in identifying the existence of LGBTQ. Similarly, it is important to note that the dominant concerns in the west are not necessarily part of other countries’ political agendas. Being respectful of your host culture, despite limitations that you may perceive, is an important part of the journey for all travellers.
Finding a queer positive environment
Finding a place to meet gay or gay-positive people can be relatively easy or nearly impossible depending on the social and legal culture of the area that you reside in. Chances are, however, that there will be some form of gay culture to be found.
Gay, lesbian & transgender publications
In some cities, gay newspapers are available. These make an excellent source to familiarize one with the local culture and norms.
Gay, lesbian & transgender organizations
Various directories and websites offer a wealth of listings for local gay, lesbian groups and organizations.
Women’s bookstores tend to be a great resource for finding information regarding gay and lesbian communities. Check to see if they have an announcement board for local events.
Dealing with homophobia
Sadly, dealing with homophobia is also an experience that knows no borders. The implications of how one deals with it may vary from country to country. Where homosexuality is either illegal or frowned upon, there will probably be little support for dealing with blatant abuses of homophobia. To take the matter public can even be dangerous.
Leaving the social and safety net back at home in Canada, dealing with homophobia can be a very alienating process. Before entering into an atmosphere that has known hostility towards homosexuals consider how you will deal with aggressive acts.
Dealing with sexual assault is further problematic when travelling abroad. Unfortunately, travellers are often targets for sexual assault. This can be due in part to the fact that travellers can look out of their element while adjusting to a new culture. Equally, the assailant might perceive a traveller as an easier target, perceiving the traveller as being more open to the aggressive act and less likely to being believed should the act be reported. Removed from his or her own culture and community, there is less likelihood that a traveller will report the attack to friends and family of the perpetrator.
In countries that have poor records dealing with homophobia, discretion should be used when reporting a hate crime. When it is your word against another, you could be putting yourself in a compromising position. Consult the Canadian Consulate or Embassy for advice.
Amnesty International provides up to date information on human right issues and country to country contacts.
Wasn’t coming back home supposed to be the easy part?
Have you just returned from abroad? Do you feel like you’ve grown and your “old” life doesn’t fit like it used to? Do you just want to go back?
Most people have heard of the term “culture shock” – the idea that immersion in a new culture can be emotionally demanding and lead to a range of negative feelings over time. Some people feel it strongly, some people don’t feel it at all, and others are in between.
What many people don’t expect is that culture shock can hit just as hard when you return from your time away. You’ve changed and suddenly what was “normal” doesn’t feel right. Some call it “reverse culture shock” or “re-entry” shock. It can cause feelings of depression, social avoidance, frustration and a general longing for the way things were in your host country.
You’re not alone – U of T, Ryerson and York are here to help!
Every fall, U of T, York and Ryerson host a re-entry conference which brings together students with recent international experience to network with each other and explore how to translate international experiences into professional and personal assets. The conference features sessions on re-entry adjustment, resumé building, interview skills, future international opportunities and more.
A fantastic way to feel like you’re travelling the world again is to engage in U of T’s vibrant multicultural community! The CIE is a hub of interaction between people from all over the world, and we want you to get involved. Cultural events, parties, arts, workshops, clubs and courses are held regularly. Check out our news and events page as well as our International Students page to see what’s going on and how to be a part of it.