Just imagine you’re in the final stages of the trip of a lifetime. You could be motorbiking from the north of Vietnam to the south with a friend. You’ve spent almost a month drinking in the stunning cliffs, mountains, and coastlines that most tourists don’t get to see, you’ve tasted the unique dishes from each region you’ve visited, and you’ve enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the local people.
Confident in your driving ability, you’re on the final stretch of your journey, looking forward to a rest and a drink after a long drive, when you see a bus swerving to your side of the highway. Next thing you know, you’re sitting at the side of the road with several panicked faces staring at you. Unbearable pain all over. You see your friend and ask: “What happened?” and just catch a thick Mayo accent say: “fuckin’ bus drive..” before things go dark.
This may seem like an extreme example, but these injuries in foreign countries aren’t as uncommon as you might expect, people get injured abroad all the time. Also, issues like language barriers and differences in medical care can make it a lot more difficult to find the help you need.
We’re all old enough to have been warned against the belief of “that would never happen to me”, but, obviously, it can happen to you. Let me counter that cliche with another: “better safe than sorry”.
So, what can you do to prepare? And what can you do if something like this actually happens to you?
The different ways to get injured abroad
Injuries and illnesses abroad can happen in more than one way. They can be incredibly violent (like the sadly true example mentioned above) or they can be reasonably minor, like getting ill due to pollution, or tripping and spraining your ankle on a hike. Here are some different ways that you could end up ill or injured while abroad.
For people who travel within Europe and North America, traffic accidents aren’t usually a major concern since these people tend to stick to public transportation like buses, trains, and taxis. But those who want to travel to less developed parts of the world may find that access to public transportation is a little different. Things like language barriers and lack of tourist information sometimes encourage expats and tourists to find alternative means of transportation.
In Southeast Asia, for example, traffic laws are slightly laxer and most foreigners can rent or buy a motorbike without a valid driving licence. This is reasonably safe in the major cities where congestion means people usually can’t drive too fast, but, when people choose to take a trip into the countryside, accidents are more likely to happen.
This can be due to poorly maintained roads, loosely enforced traffic laws, or a higher number of reckless drivers – this includes expats and tourists, we really can be idiots.
Crime and violence
This depends on where exactly you’re going, for instance, fifteen of Forbes’ list of the 20 most dangerous countries to live in are third world countries, but tourists can be targeted by criminals in any country for various reasons:
- In some parts of the world, tourists (particularly white westerners) are seen as having a lot of money, and tend to be targeted by scammers and even muggers.
- In other countries, xenophobia is a reason for violence against foreigners. This can happen in first world and developing countries. Some white people believe they’re safer from this than other races are, and, to them, I say: get your head out of your arse.
Our advice is to do some research into the part of the world you hope to travel to. Join expat groups on Facebook for example. Or, if you want some more expert advice, contact your embassy.
This is what most of us want to do when we travel. We want to go to a beach and swim in water that doesn’t make parts of your body shrivel that you didn’t even know could shrivel. Any beach destination worth its salt will have a wide selection of water-based fun. From surfing to kayaking to snorkeling, there are plenty of ways to injure yourself, get seasick, or pass out from sunstroke.
The best thing to do to avoid injury is to be prepared. Here are things to do/avoid:
- Wear sunscreen (yes, I know, you think you’ll be fine. You won’t).
- Don’t try to swim if, you know, you can’t swim.
- Most frequently visited destinations will have lifeguards and tour guides. They know their stuff. Listen to them. And no, you won’t be grand.
As common as you think food poisoning is for travellers, it’s more common than that. According to the WHO, 600 million people suffer from some form of food poisoning every year. We in the western world have reasonably high standards in food sanitation and, even so, we still suffer from food poisoning from time to time. In other parts of the world, it is harder to know where the food you’re eating has come from and how it is preserved.
Westerners typically have weak stomachs when compared to those who live in parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. Our systems aren’t used to certain foods and drinks common around the world, even tap water can often cause illnesses.
So, how can we eat comfortably while travelling without the ever-looming fear that everything we eat will come to a violent, smelly end? Here are some things you can do:
- Keep your hands clean. This tip actually predates covid, believe it or not.
- Don’t have ice in your drinks and avoid tap water if possible.
- Be wary when buying meat products from street vendors.
- Don’t be careless, it shouldn’t take an eight-hour bus journey through Laos spent puking in a bag to realise that your stomach isn’t made of iron.
Things to do if you get injured abroad
You can prepare as much as you want, you can take every precaution possible, research every street in the city you’re visiting, even cover yourself in bubble wrap before leaving your hostel, and things can still go wrong.
So, what can you do if the worst happens? In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to keep your head and make rational decisions. Here are some tips and things to remember:
Get to a hospital or doctor
This may require a little preparation. Before going to any foreign country, do a little research on what hospitals are in the areas you’re planning on visiting. This really is worth doing, as some hospitals may not have English-speaking doctors or nurses.
If you don’t have this information, then just get to the nearest hospital. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may have time to do a little research before going, but the most important thing is to get medical attention.
Contact friends or family
This one goes double if you’re alone. Many people are reluctant to contact other people, particularly their parents, when they end up in hospital while abroad. But, while you are in an emergency situation like this, it’s always helpful to have someone to help you with things you might be unable to do, like contacting your insurance or properly communicating with medical personnel.
Doctors will usually try to contact someone on your behalf if you can’t manage yourself, but, for the sake of the mental wellbeing of your old pair, try your best to do it yourself.
Photograph the scene of the accident
Obviously, this only applies if you can, you know, move. But it is wise to document the area after an accident or, if you have a friend with you, get them to do it. This one is not particularly important from a medical point of view, but it may help you from a legal perspective later on.
I know, remaining calm after a serious accident or illness is much easier said than done, but panicking is the worst thing you can do aside from running back out on the road or taking another bite of that raw burger just to be sure it really is what has caused the situation you’ve found yourself in.
Panic causes you to make rash decisions and make everything worse. You really need to try and keep a level head. Take a breath and try to think rationally.
If there’s one criticism that westerners tend to get when visiting the farther reaches of the world, it’s usually something to do with our arrogance and entitlement. Many of us tend to like things to be done a certain way and tend to be ignorant of the fact that people don’t tend to handle things in Phnom Penh the same way they do in Mullingar.
This may be a hard pill to swallow if you’ve turned on the news recently, or ever, but most people are actually pretty decent and will try to help you if you get injured abroad. People just handle these situations differently in other countries and, as much as you might hate it, you kind of just have to roll with it. The last thing you need to do is piss off the people trying to save your life.
Just get hold of that inner Karen and stuff her way down into the depths of your personality where she belongs. If she’s not welcome in London, she’s certainly not welcome in Lima.
Hindsight’s a bitch
If you’re someone who’s suffered through a bad injury or illness while abroad, then you know that there are always things that you wish you had been better prepared for. It may not help to think about it in hindsight, but, for those of you that are about to embark on your own adventures, here are some things we beg you to do first.
Travel with someone
Solo travel is fantastic, it opens you up to experiences and people that you would never have enjoyed otherwise, and we do encourage you to do that if you can.
However, if you plan on doing anything with a whiff of danger, like hiking on unfamiliar terrain, driving on busy or poorly paved roads, or swimming on a rough beach, it is wise to have another person with you.
They can potentially do things that you may not be able to. All of the tips listed above are easier to follow if you have someone with you. They can contact your family, call ambulances, communicate with local people, or even signal for help.
Wear a goddamn helmet
Seriously, this has been drilled into us since we were old enough to ride a bike with stabilisers. It’s understandable to resist when you’re afraid the other kids in primary school will make fun of you, but you’re technically an adult now.
No one thinks you look good with your knock-off aviators and your flowing locks as you speed through Hanoi. Yes, everyone does notice you, but they’re all thinking the same thing: “I hope he crashes”. If you still worry you might not look good in a helmet while on a motorbike, then you should stay home with mommy.
Even in less developed countries, the police may still take issue with you not wearing one and the “my head was too big for all the helmets at the rental place” excuse only sometimes works.
Wear a helmet.
This one is boring, but it can’t be stressed enough. Insurance really could be the difference between life, death, and financial ruin. Things do tend to be cheaper in other parts of the world, but world-class medical treatment still isn’t cheap.
You’ll be glad when you see that your €600,000 medical bill has been handled. It might seem expensive, but it’s so worth it.
If you need more information on insurance, resources like Babylon have the information you need.
The last thing we want to do here is discourage travel. Accidents only happen to a small percentage of us. But it never hurts to be prepared. Arm yourself with information and your trip will be safe as well as unforgettable.