9 Tips for Traveling in Developing Countries
For those that like to travel off the beaten path with more interest in visiting countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, it’s good to be prepared for the ways that countries are still emerging and developing economically and politically, as well as how many have unique challenges for even a seasoned backpacker. Don’t let that dissuade you, though. Some of the least modernized nations are the most fascinating, beautiful, and worthwhile — and the least recognized. A trip to Italy, while truly wonderful, is a very different experience from a trip to Vietnam or India.
1. Educate Yourself on Cultural Differences
This is a basic rule of thumb for any time you’re a guest in another country, developed or not — be polite. It seems like it should be obvious, but sometimes how to be polite turns out to be more difficult than one might initially expect. The degree to which cultural differences matter is going to differ depending on country, but that’s why a little pre-travel research is a necessity. Reading ahead can only prepare you so much, as people vary no matter where you’re from, and sometimes what you’re told to expect is simply not your experience at all. But it doesn’t hurt to have a little background knowledge of general practices.
For example, in Nepal, head nods and shake gestures referring to yes and no in the United States do not retain their meaning, something that can be eternally confusing. In parts of India — and a lot of Asian countries — saying a direct “no” is not common or comfortable, meaning you have to be prepared to read between the lines more often.
In Japan, there’s an expectation that one will refuse the offer of someone else to pay for something, sometimes multiple times, before consenting to the gift. There are simpler items, such as greetings, bowing, palms pressed together, and prayer wheel etiquette — all easy things to look up ahead of time to feel that much more prepared.
2. Bartering Dos and Don’ts
Depending on where you travel, a lot of countries, developing or not, have more of an emphasis than many western countries on bartering when making a sale or transaction. The first rule you might expect when it comes to bartering is not to get ripped off. Not a bad one, and one worth comment, but the real first rule is more that one should try to keep perspective during the process. No one likes feeling taken advantage of by others, and no one wants to pay more for something than it’s worth. But, at times, it’s important to remember that paying what — after currency exchange — amounts to less than a dollar or euro extra for something is sometimes an okay sacrifice to make on behalf of a struggling street business in a struggling economy.
It’s good to get a local baseline on how much food, amenities, and services cost. This makes it easier to barter with more confidence, and prevents you from bartering past when you’ve already gotten a good deal. You should probably expect to pay a little extra, tacking on a small increase to whatever someone who lives in the area might pay — and that is fair, as you aren’t a local. You are a one time customer, and you will likely not be aiding their business beyond the one experience. If something seems exorbitantly expensive, ask for more than one item for that same price. Sometimes the important thing to the individual you’re bartering with is that they receive that lump sum all at once; the merchandise value is not always the main issue.
If it’s beyond what you can afford, say what you will pay, or a little bit less than what you’d be willing to pay — and if that doesn’t work out, leave. Don’t show interest if you’ve no intention of buying something though — this only leads to a long interaction that’s bad for both parties. It’s also important to note that not everyone is out to rip you off. There’s politics around pricing in other countries as well as in your own. For example, countries without metered cabs where bartering the price of your ride is the norm, may have cab drivers who are not able to support themselves on what locals are willing to pay. The tourism industry may be a necessary subsidy to make up for the payment they receive from other customers.
Whether you think this is fair or not, judging how much you should pay based on someone local may not be the best method, and may even make it hard to get rides — or lead to getting dropped off in the wrong location by annoyed cabbies with their eyes on petrol prices.
3. Prepare for Limited Toiletries
As with anything, it depends where you’re going, but it’s good to know ahead of time that a lot of the remote areas — and sometimes even city areas — of emerging nations have different bathroom habits, personal hygiene preferences, and amenities. Bring a roll of toilet paper in your backpack. Maybe even two — don’t expect that other countries will have it conveniently provided, especially in rural regions.
Bring wet wipes and deodorant, as well. You’d be surprised how many places carry mostly bleaching deodorants meant to lighten skin, and showering isn’t as regular or as comfortable in some areas, especially ones where temperatures or water availability make the process more difficult — for example, the Gobi desert in Mongolia, with its dry climate and sometimes painfully cold weather. But hey, just remember — it’s all part of the adventure.
4. Drinking Water
It’s an old, but accurate warning — drinking water in a lot of countries with different or lacking water sanitation practices will lead to you getting sick. But depending on how long you’re staying somewhere, or how far away it is from other options, you may need to drink the water you have access to.
Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy way to force your stomach and digestive track to adjust to what locals have had their entire lives to acclimate to. Here’s where iodine tablets and water filters come in handy — as does back up medication. There’s are a lot of water filtration options out there, from the life straw, to water bottles that filter river water, to simple iodine tablets with instructions included, and so on.
It’s also always a possibility to drink hot beverages as often as possible, requesting that the water be boiled for a time before it’s served. This is especially useful in colder regions. Hiking in the mountains is a perfect example of this. There may be no other water sources reachable, but because of the cold, it makes sense to boil water — maybe even put it in a metal water bottle that will conduct the heat to your cold hands, feet, and bed.
5. Medical Concerns
It’s always smart to get your medical preparations in order before you go to any foreign country, no matter where. However, it becomes even more important to be prepared when traveling somewhere that doesn’t have the same medical resources and treatment options. This means getting your vaccinations taken care of ahead of time — including things that may not be required, like rabies.
It also means bringing any vital prescriptions with you, rather than depending on there being a convenient pharmacy close by. Check ahead of time to see if your traveling in a malaria zone, and bring preventative medication if that’s the case — its expensive, but worthwhile, because treatment options may be unfortunately poor depending on where you are, possibly necessitating an expensive early flight out.
Lastly, make sure to bring some back up medications in case you do get sick unexpectedly. Most doctors are will to prescribe back up medication for diarrhea and stomach illnesses, or other things you may encounter while abroad.
6. Time Might Be Different
I’m not talking about the time change — though you should obviously be prepared for that as well — but rather, the way that time is dealt with differently from culture to culture. Western cultures tend to heavily emphasize being on time for things, doing things quickly, and committing and following through on the stated time. Other countries — not necessarily solely developing countries either, but especially certain Southeast Asian cultures — have very different cultural expectations for this.
Just because a meeting is set for three o’clock does not mean that someone might not be an hour late. Part of this, at least some places, may be due to the unreliability of transportation. If your bus could break down at any point with no hope of repair or a second ride, and this happens often enough, it’s understandable that a “c’est la vie” attitude eventually becomes necessary. It’s better not to fight it or get frustrated, but to take things as they come.
7. Traveling as a Woman
It may feel like a pain to be told you have to worry more as a female traveler, but the aware and educated traveler is the safest kind. Countries in the Middle East and parts of Asia especially are important to read up on.
It’s not that you can’t travel there or that the experience won’t be great. It’s just smart to conform to modest dress when deemed appropriate, or to at least know when you’re deviating and how that might affect your experience and change the way you are perceived by those you are surrounded by. Sometimes, cultural differences go beyond simply dress, extending to behavior and speech. Again, understanding, even if you don’t choose to imitate the norms, is an important step.
8. Plan for the Infrastructure and Technology Differences
There may be electrical outages or no electricity to begin with in certain cities and countries. Cities with limited infrastructure may have scheduled power outages you can plan around if you know about them ahead of time, so it’s good to look into this kind of thing before your phone dies, or your laptop, or you’re suddenly cooking dinner in the dark.
Hot water is another luxury that people often take for granted, but if you know it may be limited ahead of time you can always bring wet wipes and dry shampoo — you’ll probably eventually suck it up and shower in the cold, but this may make it easier to go longer. Finally, it’s good to recognize that GPS and digital map directions are a luxury that hasn’t always hit some of the emerging nations, especially if roads are less dependable and often not paved.
9. Poverty and Begging
Particularly in countries with a low GDP or large income gap, you’re bound to be approached for money, sometimes by elderly individuals, sometimes children, sometimes by persons with disabilities. The important thing to remember is that you may not understand all the factors in a simple situation where you’re being asked for money. There are times when you may hurt the people you try to help, especially if the money they garner from you is actually given to someone else — which is why it would be wise to listen to the advice of those more familiar with an area.
One example would be children who beg in Kathmandu. Tourists unsuspectingly give these children packaged toothbrushes or toys, thinking that these are safer gifts than money, and in some ways, they aren’t wrong. However, locals will explain that many youths, even surprisingly young ones, will sell anything packaged — including food — and use the money to huff glue, a street epidemic in certain places. That doesn’t mean this is always, or even necessarily usually the case, or that you can’t donate toothbrushes, toys, clothes, food, ect. — but it does mean you’d be smarter and more helpful to do so through a legitimate organization. Having said all that, there’s a comfortable sort of culture of sharing, so eating cookies next to anyone means you can always pass them around.