It’s a bit of a boring topic isn’t it? But we’re going to have to go there because the number one thing that’s going to mess up your life as a digital nomad is being mugged, shot, kersplatted in a car accident or losing your vulnerable bits to a crocodile somewhere in the Australian Outback.
Having been chased by a man with a machete and being nearly run off the road by an irate taxi driver doing over 150km an hour in Saudi Arabia, bitten by a redback spider and concussed by big waves in Australia and confronted with a gun toting dude while having my morning coffee in Pennsylvania I’ve got a couple of opinions on safety. Most of them revolve around repeating the lectures I got from Tony (The Kraken was in fine form) on how I could have prevented each of those situations with a couple of basic precautions. And he was right.
When we decided to go full-digital nomad, the very first thing we considered was how to do it safely so that we could live our best lives. With Tony’s engineering background and my career as a somewhat over-organised writer, you can bet we wrote up lists. Ohhh there were lists. With dot points and even different coloured pens.
And to save you the trouble, I’ve amalgamated all those lists here for your reading pleasure. The topics are ordered by the priority that we placed on them, but we’ve got no idea what your particular situation may be, so feel to take from this what you will!
Of all the things that can and will go wrong, your health is most likely going to be the one that smacks you between the eyes first. Here are the rules we follow when it comes to medical:
Have good, reliable travel and medical insurance. This is not negotiable. Your home country may (or may not!) have great medical care, but when you’re overseas you have to be covered for any scenario. At the moment we’re going with a combination of private health insurance in Australia and a travel insurance package through Allianz that came highly recommended. It’s not cheap, but having lived in over 30 different places over the years we’ve seen where no medical insurance can leave a person.
Be vaccinated. Know what countries you’re going to and understand the disease risks. You should be up to date on all your basic shots, including all your hepatitis vaccinations, measles, mumps, tetanus with all the necessary shots for the country you’re going. And definitely have a current yellow fever vaccination if you’re traveling anywhere it’s present. Working as an engineer, Tony’s been to a number of countries that would have extorted an exorbitant fee from him at the airport to give him the injection themselves. He saw those needles being used on multiple other people. We also recommend you don’t be like the woman who turned up to our Australian travel doctor and asked if he could give her advice on how to avoid tetanus, measles, encephalitis and hepatitis homoeopathically. The man almost snorted his very generous hipster beard up his nose when he told us the story, and no one wants to see a man suffocate on his own beard.
Carry a basic medical kit. It doesn’t have to be complex, but we always make sure ours includes the following:
Contraception. (This includes condoms or enough of a filled pill prescription to last at least three months just in case we end up in countries that may not stock my brand.)
Paracetamol or Iburoprophen because you never know when you’ll end up having to pay crazy money for 8 tablets in Zurich that would have cost you a pittance anywhere else.
Imodium, Pepto Bismol or their equivalent because who knows when you’ll eat a dodgy meal. For some reason I can eat street food in Vietnam or Cambodia with narry a problem, but the minute I go to the Shangri La for a birthday treat I get food poisoning. (The moral here may be eating more street food!)
Blister plasters and Band Aids. (Self explanatory)
Cold and Flu medication. You don’t need more than three days’ supply but it’s worth having. No one wants to have to head out to find a pharmacy if they wake up feeling miserable and snotty.
A simple antiseptic ointment.
Any medication necessary for your wellbeing and survival. Never assume you’ll be able to get your regular medication in any given country without prior research. Always carry spare just in case there isn’t any. We’ve been in countries where the local pharmacies were all temporarily out of insulin and others where they didn’t stock our friend’s epilepsy medication and couldn’t get it in for months.
Travel is the other high-risk area where you are most likely to encounter safety issues. Sure, plane travel on the whole is safe, but what about taxis, tuktuks, trains, or even when walking?
This was really brought home for us when we arrived in Saudi Arabia a while back and read a Lonely Planet Guide that said bus travel in the Eastern Province was safe. Bus travel in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is definitely not safe for the average visitor to the country. If fact, if you were a woman traveling alone, it could be disastrous.
As far as driving, we’ve been in countries where it was assumed you would slow down if someone was oncoming from the other direction in your lane to prevent them front-on colliding with you… just because. We’ve also been in countries where you have to pay blood money if you have an accident with someone or risk jail. It pays to know your destination.
Location and Environment
How well have you researched the place you’re going to? Have you assumed that everywhere in France, for example, will be safe because of all those travel programs featuring croissants and the Eiffel Tower?
There are parts of almost every country or city in the world that the locals would look at you wide-eyed if you said you were headed there for a holiday, make sure you don’t get that look any time soon. I had this happen a while ago when I told friends in New Orleans that I’d walked seven kilometres from my hotel to the French Quarter. According to my local American friends, I’d been lucky to not be mugged at the very least.
So you too can avoid that look from the locals that says you’re a couple of lettuces short of a salad, here are the general safety rules we came up with before heading off on our epic mission around the world:
Minimize risk: It’s good, basic advice given to us by a trusted friend and a seasoned expatriate in Saudi Arabia and we live by it. Whichever country you are in, whether considered safe or not on global standards, don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in a rougher part of town in your own country.
Do your research: always check the location of your accommodation on Google Maps and Google Street View. Check out the crime stats for that area, including any forums about crime in the area and news reports in the local language—translated with Google Translate if needed. By using due diligence we recently worked out that a rather delightful looking house sit in North Carolina was in a town that was up to its eyeballs in a heroin epidemic and that the crime rate—including gun violence deaths—were through the roof. (The homeowners had neglected to mention any of this in their house sitting profile.)
If house sitting, always, always, always talk to your hosts on a video call: Get them to give you a tour of the home if possible. If there are any red flags in this call, consider calling the sit off. And while we’re at it, make it a point of requesting to meet all the adult residents of the home. To be slightly flippant, the wife might be wonderful but the husband might be a nightmare with a murder shed. Yes that’s an exaggeration but if you approach every sit with that mentally being a possibility, you’re going to be more careful and only end up with well-researched, enjoyable house sitting experiences.
Check who has a key to your accommodation: If it’s people in addition to your hosts i.e. a poorly paid security guard, make sure that person is security checked. There was recently an awful example of this in Costa Rica that really brought this home.
Have a Questionnaire: If housesitting, make sure you send your hosts a comprehensive questionnaire that asks about things like black mould, broken asbestos or any other health risks in your environment. That way you’ll avoid the situation we once ended up in, having arrived at a house with broken asbestos all over the place, a caved-in ceiling covered in black mould and over thirty instances of cat pee both fresh and old throughout the home, including on the kitchen counter tops, the couches and every other surface imaginable.
Know all the emergency numbers for the country you’re in. Have them somewhere safe and accessible. If you don’t speak the local language, think about having a couple of phrases written down phonetically to explain the seriousness of the situation.
When looking after pets and livestock, our general rule is don’t offer to look after animals you have no experience with. Consider the size of the animal and remember that pound for pound animal muscle is stronger than human muscle. Do your research, know your beastie. Someone might love their pet sheep Lambert and call him a cupcake but he may have a thing against men and charge you, breaking your ribs the first time you enter his pen.
If housesitting on a farm, remember that there are multiple hazards you may not even think of if you’re a city person. Farmers frequently assume you’ll know how to handle heavy machinery like generators, wood fired boilers, quad bikes, tractors… you name it. You may be expected to chop wood or to do basic fencing repairs. All of these things could be unsafe without prior knowledge or without being taken through how to handle them. Be aware that they may be an issue.
Know Your Native Critters: Do you know how to behave when sitting in Australia? Do you know to check under every surface for spiders? How about Canada? If you’re sitting there, do you know how to deal with a bear in the garden? The locals will know all this stuff, but they may just assume you do too. Make sure you do your research, check and ask. If you’re not careful you may end up with numerous bites and lacerations from an enraged macaque who’s come through an open window in your kitchen, ripping it to shreds and leaving you with an expensive medical and renovation bill. (Yes, this didn’t happen to a friend while we lived in Brunei.)
Water, hygiene and toilets. As a rule we carry hand sanitiser everywhere as well as spare tissues for toilet paper. And we always boil the water if we’re unsure of the drinking water situation, after we’ve made sure the location doesn’t have lead pipes. In general, when it pays to be extra cautious.
Illicit Substances: Our rules is that if something’s illegal in the place we’re going, we don’t do it. Sure, pretty much all the expats in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait drink home-made moonshine like fish but they’ve got companies who’ll get them out of the country if something goes wrong. If you’re just visiting, you might find yourself in a horrific situation if caught drinking, doing drugs, or pretty much anything illegal, with little recourse. As a general rule, don’t do anything dumb just because other foreigners are doing it too. We’ve seen this go very wrong a bunch of times. The most memorable was when an American teenager tried to hide a bunch of weed under her dreads when she was going into Saudi Arabia. The women at customs were curious about the dreads but the minute they touched them, the girl started raining baggies of weed! I’m not sure how long she spent in a Saudi jail until her parents got her out and fled the country, but it wouldn’t have been a fun experience and definitely not worth it.
For all our lists and precautions, the main thing to remember is to follow your gut. If something doesn’t feel like a good idea don’t do it. It’s as simple as that.
Stay safe and good luck! And if you see us around, we’ll be the guys wearing the bike helmets while cycling, checking for spiders under every Australian surface, driving defensively and not walking through gang territory in Louisiana.