After roaming (mostly alone) in the cities and towns of over 17 countries, I considered myself a pretty savvy traveler. But things changed on Christmas Day, 2015, abroad, almost 10,000 miles away from home.
3 ½ years ago, I had a crisis.
Part of my crisis involved having my identity stolen, and used in a way that involved me personally. And as someone who’s had my identity, and money, stolen twice before (yes, what luck I have)… this time was different.
It was in an undesirable, almost impossible position to maneuver.
And trying to convince another country’s police officers that I was not a sex worker in what could have been a large crime syndicate, was the scariest experience I’ve ever had.
It all started with my Couchsurfing host in Malaysia. He had over 600 reviews in less than 2 years, the majority of them were excellent. And now that I think about it, I don’t remember reading one bad review.
Unfortunately in my case, those good reviews didn’t pan out. The host took my name and used it with a stolen credit card number to make purchases, most likely online. And now I’m willing to bet, my name wasn’t the only one of the over 600 guests he took advantage of.
I often think about the young British couple who was in the apartment with me. Backpacking after graduating from college. Or the 3 jovial Canadian guys with a stopover for the night. And the woman from Singapore. Maybe he used their names as well… went through our things while we were all out sightseeing?
Well, back to the police…
They told me that my passport was fake and wanted me to admit what country I was really from (they thought Nigeria).
Despite the fact that I had been traveling for almost 7 months in 6 different countries with photos to boot, nothing could convince them otherwise. And they definitely didn’t believe I was a nurse.
So… since I didn’t give them the right answer…
They took my passport.
And with that, I was trapped. For 19 days in Malaysia, a country I had truly enjoyed prior to this incident, with one last stop to Georgetown that I never made. I couldn’t go anywhere.
But after those long agonizing 19 days, the minute I had my passport in hand, I booked a flight home to the U.S. that night.
I felt different.
Things changed for me, internally especially. I turned off any emotion and stopped writing, blogging and creating.
And decided to get back to “normal”…. whatever that meant.
Once back in the States, my former supervisor found out and eagerly offered my job back (I left just the year before).
And I loved the work…. In fact, it’s still the most meaningful work I’ve done to date.
Note: Never leave your employer under bad circumstances, if at all possible.
Soon enough after being home and getting back to what I thought was normal, I forgot all about traveling, blogging, and the time I spent being in my true element. I put those things on a shelf and never even thought about the possibility of doing it again. And for a brief time, I felt disheartened, depressed, and defeated.
But I was extremely lucky.
I had friends and family in my corner that helped me make the transition. And I even managed up enough strength to get interviewed for a project I agreed to participate in weeks before, despite my ordeal overseas. But I was emotionally and physically shot.
Honestly though, even now (although rare) I still might experience:
- Triggers of that trauma from regular, everyday events.
- Still not want to leave my apartment on some days, mustering up enough strength because of work and other obligations.
- Blame, and not forgiving myself for the situation “I put myself in.”
Even now, I look at my Instagram feed and will always be drawn to one the last two photos I posted right before this incident happened… 3 ½ years ago at the time of this writing.
But despite the occasional trigger, I’m no longer feeling hindered by my trauma as much as I was before. I’ve learned many valuable lessons from that time, and can now look back and laugh (somewhat) at parts of what happened.
I thought it would finally be good to write a bit about my experiences, the lessons learned, and tips for others who are planning trips abroad.
1. In an immediate crisis, ask to speak with someone at (or find) the U.S. Embassy.
I put this tip first because I feel it’s the most important. Grant it for me, even with the Embassy’s help, I still couldn’t leave Malaysia for 19 days, but it could have been a lot worse.
In the event you find yourself in a compromising situation, especially with local police, ask to speak with someone at the U.S. Embassy. In my situation, the officer already had the number saved into his phone. Also, make sure to have the information saved in your phone, or be able to locate the contact information easily for each country you visit.
If you have questions about diplomatic presence and relationships between the U.S. and other countries, that you plan on visiting, see this link.
2. Never travel without extra cash that’s readily available.
I’m talking about at least $2,000 – $4,000 in the bank. I preferred my checking account because you may not have internet availability to transfer cash (i.e., from savings to checking) when you need it immediately. Or, if you prefer credit card, make sure to keep it way below the limit when traveling.
You never know when you have to leave a country right away (as in my immediate desire)… And a one-way ticket at the last minute will cost you!
3. Carry your UPDATED passport or passport card on you at all times.
I now have a passport and a passport card. When I remember, I leave my passport in my hotel room or where I’m staying– not always secured in a safe, I admit.
I got the card as secondary proof of official U.S. citizenship to carry with me while sight-seeing at all times. However, the card cannot be used for international air travel, but it is a handy U.S. official document.
If you only have your passport and would like to leave it in a locked safe in your hotel room, always carry a copy with you. Also, consider taking a picture of it to have on your phone. Or, even email the picture to yourself or save it to a cloud-service so you’ll have access to it in case you lose your phone.
If you’re worried about being pickpocketed, carry your passport/card on another area of your body besides your wallet or purse. I have a friend who had sewn hidden pockets inside of her clothes because she had to carry tons of cash abroad.
Don’t worry, it was legal…
Also, always travel with at least 6 months left on your passport before the expiration date. Plus, you may need at least 2 empty pages to navigate through some countries.
Fortunately, the U.S. passport carries with it some privilege, and it’s helped me tremendously in some sketchy situations, but unfortunately, not in this case.
4. Know the numbers to the equivalent of 911 and the name and location to the nearest hospital and police station.
5. Always keep local currency on you, no matter the length of your stay.
If you’re backpacking like I have, you want the ability to hop on a quick bus, take a cab ride, Uber, Lyft, Go-Jek, or unicorn to your next destination or when you’re in a bind for a quick ride.
The equivalent of 100 dollars may be more than enough to have on hand, depending on the part of the world you’re in. In some areas of SE Asia, this can cover as many as 10 bus rides from one city to the next. In Indonesia, an almost hour long car ride cost me a little over $1 USD. (Yes, one US Dollar).
Luckily, I’ve never been held up while driving my scooter around Bali a few months before my excursion in Malaysia. But, a few friends I met through travel were stopped plenty, and only avoided being arrested (not wearing helmets) by paying bribes… all the cash they were carrying they “had” to give it to the cops to let them go. Now I’m in no way telling you to pay a bribe, but…
Another reason to always have local currency on you— if you’re only in the country for a brief trip/layover– food. I remember once being stuck in my gate in Moscow for a 12-hour layover without the ability to roam around the airport… and my card would not work at the only open cafe that late at night. I had no Rubles, and they didn’t accept the Euros I had. Luckily the staff felt badly for me and offered me a free tea.
Note: If you’re traveling to a region for a few days or with an extra-long layover, get the currency before you get there. It may be well worth the conversion/transaction fees! And don’t change the currency until you’ve left that country. You never know the snags you’ll hit trying to leave along the way.
6. Let the U.S. know where you’re traveling ahead of time, and register for STEP.
S.T.E.P. is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It allows you to inform U.S. Embassies or Consulates of your presence in their region. If there is an emergency, you can get updates on any events surrounding your ability to make informed and safe travel plans in that country and warn you of any natural disasters, civil unrest or family emergencies back home.
7. If you’re on social media, follow and allow notifications from @TravelGov (same handles on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram).
It’s the official Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs. If anything is happening in a foreign country that can affect U.S. citizens as they travel, they’ll let you know about it. They’re a great source for travel advisories; security, demonstration and weather/natural disaster alerts as they happen.
And they have a pretty cool Instagram page.
8. Get an Unlocked GSM Phone (SIM card phone)
If you’re stuck without wireless, this phone can be your best friend.
You’ll find that most phones (and cards) are LOCKED to the carrier that supplied it, meaning your SIM card will only work on a device sold by a particular carrier (like Verizon).
If you get a GSM (UNLOCKED SIM card) phone, when you move from one country to the next, you can swap out the SIM card for another SIM card that you buy in the next country and use the phone (calling, texting, internet etc.) within that country usually with no issues.
And all of your data will be on the SIM card, which you can put into another SIM phone and still have the same phone number, contacts and storage. If you’re traveling back and forth between a couple of countries, get a dual-SIM phone.
I bought a SIM phone in Greece for about 50 Euros once I knew I would be there for months and had huge travel plans ahead. But, just like local currency, I recommend getting it before you need it. Get one in the States before your trip.
If you’re adamant about only using your iPhone or “insert your fancy Android version here,” remember to use Wi-Fii for calling, texting, and internet as much as possible, especially if it’s free! And make sure you’ve turned off your international roaming when using Wi-Fi if you elected to get international service with your carrier.
There are always services you can pay for (like calling apps or your carrier’s international service), but why do so when you have many free to lower cost options (Wi-Fi, SIM card).
9. Download a messenger and voice calling app (e.g., WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Messenger, etc.), especially if you plan on NOT getting an international calling/texting plan with your phone carrier.
And make sure you allow the app to access your contacts before you begin your trip, which can be done when you’re setting up the app once you’ve installed it. Research which app is best for your needs.
More importantly: Remember to verify/update your app if it’s asking you to do this before you travel. I remember trying to use a calling app through Wi-Fi in another country and found when opening the app that I needed to update it before I could use it. So I entered my phone number to verify the app. Well guess what… I couldn’t get the text message to verify it because I had decided NOT to get international phone service before I left! I couldn’t use the app, and I didn’t have a SIM phone at that particular time.
Actually, that’s when I decided to buy my unlocked phone in Greece.
10. Text, call or message a friend/family member when you leave or arrive at a new city.
I was horrible at this!
11. Travel Insurance
Get it. It can help cover things like luggage loss or even emergency medical transport back to the States when you need it.
12. Staying with Strangers while Abroad
Although I had a horrid experience with my Couchsurfing host… along with some other pretty shifty characters along the way (and a possible story for another blog post), I still think hosts who open their doors to travelers (whether it’s Couchsurfing or AirBnB or another similar service) make for a great immersive experience. As with #10 above, let your family or friends know where you’re staying once you get to your destination. And let your host know that you’ve informed friends/family where you are.
You can never be too safe…
So, what do you think about these tips? Do you have any to share? Please let me know in the comments below. Lots of readers may benefit!
Want to know 9 Secrets Nurese Need to Master for a Healthy-Work Balance? Download it here.