There are surely enough travel blogs out there, but given how much travel I do and my recent hiccups getting home from Benin (eg., 5 day total delay), I thought I’d throw together some of the things that keep me sane and somewhat prepared when I’m on the road…. I normally travel to Africa and Latin America, so these ideas may not be useful to people traveling to other places. I have geared them towards women, though they might be useful to men also…. Ladies, add your tips to the comments section!
Breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. Do a little internet research before you leave. Observe what local women where you will go are wearing in pictures or on other people’s blogs. Especially notice the attitude towards breasts, shoulders, thighs, knees and ankles. In many places, for example, breasts are not a big deal, but thighs are. Keep that in mind when you pack and in your behavior when you arrive. Don’t wear tank tops/spaghetti straps if you don’t see local women wearing them. Same goes for shorts and capris or tight clothing. This may be different if you are a teenager and traveling with a group, but I still recommend against a lot of thigh action if you want to be taken seriously and to be respected. There may be different dress codes depending on urban and rural, so observe that and be respectful, be smart. And if you are not, don’t be surprised if you get unwanted attention. Maybe not the most feminist thing to say here, just being realistic. People will often cut you some slack knowing that you are foreign, but when I travel, I tend to go for respecting local customs over my right to self-expression in my attire.
Sweat – Not a nice topic for many of us, but if you are someone who sweats (I always envy those people who don’t) it’s a fact of life when traveling somewhere hot. You’ll often be advised to wear clothing made out of lightweight fabric, however this kind of fabric shows every drop of sweat. Skimpy underwear does not absorb sweat and that fact will express itself on your clothing, especially when you are forced to sit in a hot car, meeting or community for several hours. Not attractive. Cotton boy shorts are a good alternative to the sexier variety of under things, as is clothing made out of thicker fabrics.
And speaking of undergarments – I get really annoyed when I see young women who, in the name of modesty or fitting in with local culture or just being hippy backpackers wear long flowing skirts without realizing that they are completely see through when walking in the sun! Do us all a favor and invest in a slip.
Tattoos. You may get stared at for having visible tattoos. You’ll want to decide how you feel about that. I normally keep mine covered until people get to know me a bit so that any judgment comes later in the relationship. Since a lot of Americans have them these days, it’s also kind of fun to explain that tattoos are part of our coming of age ritual.
Packing – If you’re a frequent traveler, keep a second set of travel stuff right in your suitcase. I keep a plastic Ziploc bag with less than 3 oz. quantities toiletries in it and just refill them before I leave and stash them on the top of my carry on for easy removal at security check points. I keep all my favorite warm weather travel clothes in my suitcase. I have a checklist that I run through before I go to add anything that’s missing. Makes for much easier packing.
Luggage – Put some identifying marks on your luggage so you can spot it when you arrive. Assume it might be delayed by a day or so, and be prepared in case it is. I do this by always packing any equipment, a change of clothes, and any essentials in my carry on. This includes a small quantity of any printed materials I need if I am presenting at a workshop, just so that I won’t be left hanging. I always take my laptop.
Travel socks – They are dorky but they keep your ankles from swelling and you from looking like you have tree trunks for calves upon arrival. They also help prevent a potentially fatal condition (deep vein thrombosis) where blood clots form due to long flights.
Shoes – If the climate is hot your feet may swell and your shoes will be tight, especially if you are walking or standing a lot. This is most pronounced in the evenings. Bring shoes that are a bit loose to be more comfortable.
Flip Flops – I wear them whenever I can get away with it, but sometimes they are seen as a sign of disrespect. If you’re on any kind of trip where you need to do business or represent at any kind of function, or train a group, bring some sandals that don’t look like flip flops, at least for the first couple days. Do bring the flip flops for sketchy showers.
Sarong – Pick one up somewhere next time you see one. They double as a scarf for freezing plane trips, and a skirt for when your luggage gets lost, you want to visit a pool or beach, or you need a cover up in a pinch, like if you have dinner in your room and want to throw something on to cover your shorts/your thighs when your meal or beer arrives.
Coffee press – If you are a coffee addict and are traveling to a country that produces wonderful coffee, rest assured that you will be served none of it. You will get Nescafe. I bring my own travel coffee press (pick one up for cheap at REI) and some ground coffee. You can almost always get boiled/hot water.
Food – If you are vegetarian, pack granola bars, a jar of peanut butter, some chocolate, and some of those little cheese hunks wrapped in red wax… they last up to a week or 2 without refrigeration (if you’re not squeamish), and taste really good after a few days of full-on starch meals (eg., vegetarians often get a plate of bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and green plantains for lunch and dinner and some more bread for breakfast). Try to make friends with your hotel or workshop venue cook and ask if they could make you some beans or cooked vegetables. Make sure you don’t refer to yourself as a vegetarian without giving some suggestions of what you do eat, or you may get raw vegetables and salad which often lead to amoebas and giardia. Buy some fruit when you see it. Bring a knife from home to cut it up and be sure to wash and dry it well before digging in. Fancy hotels will often have no idea how to feed you so look forward to a lot of French fries and omelets. Local hotels or hosts will usually make an effort using what they have available. Don’t assume that your fancy hotel food is safer than other food. Different bacteria is different bacteria and your system just may need to adjust.
Bottle opener – Light, easy to pack, and a life saver when you have to buy your beer in advance or want to drink it in your room on a hot evening.
Ziploc baggies –Freezer size zip lock baggies seem to always come in handy for something.
Flashlight. A small flashlight is useful for frequent power cuts. Especially for visiting bathrooms outside your sleeping area at night.
Towel – Often small hotels will not provide towels, or will give you a non-absorbent hand towel. If this is a problem for you, bring your own towel.
Mosquito net – You can never count on a mosquito net. Do yourself a favor and purchase your own. I bought my own self-standing mosquito net (a “travel tent”) which has been a life saver. Light weight and convenient, it sets up on any single bed or even on the floor. It means you get sleep without being woken up by mosquitoes buzzing in your ears, and you can avoid taking malaria pills (well, unless you’re working for an organization that makes them mandatory….)
Laundry soap/clothesline – I usually pack a clothes line to string up in my hotel room, and a baggie of powdered laundry soap. You can also get these when you arrive. You can pack lighter if you wash things out in the evening. If you’re in a hot climate they will dry in less than 24 hours. When Air France lost my bag in Togo, I made it through 9 days by washing in the evening and re-wearing in the morning.
Water – If you see a bucket in your room, it is a sign that the water goes off. Keep it filled or you may be in for an unpleasant surprise when you go to take a shower. There’s quite a talent in toilet flushing with buckets. Experiment and soon you will learn how to economize on water use and keep the bathroom area clean as well. I got through each day in rural Rwanda on one jerry can by being smart about re-using my bathing water for the toilet, etc. Get a plastic cup at the market to make it all easier.
Candles – Same as a bucket – candle in your hotel room means that the power goes off fairly often – be prepared. Charge up all your stuff whenever there is available electricity.
Electricity adaptors – Often your room will have only 1 or 2 outlets, (if at all when you’re out somewhere really rural). A 3-plug + an adaptor are handy for charging up 3 things at a time instead of juggling them one after the other. Google “electricity converter” or “electricity adaptor” something like that before you leave and get some plug adaptors of your own. It gets annoying when people are always asking to borrow yours, and your hotel will not have them unless you’re traveling in high style.
Check in – Check in on-line if you can. If not, get there early enough to get a window seat on long flights. Don’t expect any special attention unless you are wearing a fancy suit and a big watch.
Airport pick up – Assume that no one will be there to pick you up from the airport. Maybe this is just an issue with my organization, but it happens quite often. Before you leave, be sure that you write down the address and phone numbers of your office, any contact persons, and your hotel. (I once arrived in India without this information…. not wise). This is also helpful to keep handy when filling out paperwork at the airport upon arrival.
Flight delays and ticketing – Be aware that once you purchase your ticket, Orbitz and the like won’t help you much as they transfer the ticket over to the airline systems. I found out last week when stuck in Benin for 4 extra days that your ticket will not have a phone number on it, or it will be an 800 number, which only works in the US. Try to get a non 800 number before you leave in case of anything. When in a real pinch, send out pleas for help on Twitter and the community will get you the phone numbers you need.
Cash – Some places only change $20 bills or less. Other places give a better rate for $100 bills. Do some research. Change money in the airport when you arrive if the agencies are still open. Assume you may not have access to an ATM when you arrive. Assume your hotel may not have cash to change money for you when you need it. Assume you will wait for 2 or 3 hours at a bank to change money, and will need ID to do it. Know that every time you ask your organization’s driver to do these types of things for you, you are probably ensuring that his day is that much longer. (Drivers in my experience have the worst rap, always having to arrive before everyone and leave after everyone’s all taken care of, and they don’t get any recognition for their work).
Communications – Get an unlocked cheap phone and buy a local SIM card and some airtime on arrival. Check before you go which network has 3G or Edge if you plan to use it for internet. Download the software to connect your phone to 3G internet before leaving. If you travel often, it can be worth the money to invest in a phone that connects to internet. If you are a Twitter or Facebook freak, install Snaptu for Twitter/Facebook on your phone. Outlook doesn’t work on all phones, so I do an out-of-office reply giving people my phone number for emergencies. I create a rule to auto-forward my work email to my gmail. If you use an i-phone and want to get some extra mileage out of it on the plane/before you jump into local phone/local SIM mode, Duracell makes a $17 charger that gives you an extra 3 hours.
Medications – I don’t like taking medicine. I do however have a prescription for Ambien for sleeping on flights. That means I can sleep all night on a plane, get some coffee when I arrive, and get straight to work, and I can avoid arriving a day or so early to acclimate. Never take a sleeping pill before your flight is in the air in case you have to deplane! Get a prescription for Cipro before you go. Take it if you have a bad stomach w/fever for a couple days. Then eat lots and lots of yogurt when you get back home as Cipro depletes your good stomach bacteria. (*Note – I’m not a doctor and am not giving medical advice here, just telling it like I do it!).
Malaria – I never take malaria pills. They make me tired and nauseous which means I can’t work, so what’s the point? And the pills prescribed by your doctor at home may not be effective for the zone or area that you are traveling to because of how the disease evolves. Decide for yourself, but if you are careful, you can get by without them. (Again – I’m not taking responsibility for this if you follow my advice and you do get sick). I prefer using my mosquito net, wearing long pants/long sleeve shirts in the evenings, and using hard core bug spray on exposed skin. Beware that many bug sprays will eat through nail polish. My toenails normally look like there is chewed up gum residue on them by the time I get home. Dark clothing attracts mosquitoes so be aware of that. Don’t be surprised if sometimes there is a cloud of them swarming over your head if you have dark hair….. Never take Lariam. I know of a couple cases where the side effects caused permanent psychological damage to colleagues. I don’t really know why it’s still prescribed actually.
Marriage proposals and unwanted attention – I could write a whole book on this, but in an effort to be succinct…. Ladies, if you are under, say, 30, don’t be surprised if you get your fair share of suitors. If you are over 30 and divorced or single, expect some attention from 20-something young men who imagine you to be desperate and lonely. If you’re interested, by all means, go for it, but protect yourself just like you would when you’re at home. Don’t take any excuses. Condoms are readily available just about anywhere, or better yet, always travel with some. If you are American, you will likely have a reputation for being loose (thank you Hollywood and MTv) [note: adding “and all the ‘Western’ women who have helped confirm that stereotype“). If you are divorced, people may pity you. If you are married or in a relationship, some men will still try to pick up on you. (In El Salvador when I’d say I was married, men would often say “It’s ok, I’m not jealous”). If you are not interested and the attention you are getting is not overly offensive, take it in stride. Don’t be rude, but do be firm. Deflect lightly when possible and move on, it’s OK to say no. Sometimes you may want to keep your phone out of sight so that you can pretend you don’t have one if you keep getting asked for your number. If the attention is scary and threatening though, do whatever is necessary. As anyplace, be safe.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something…. Add your comments below.
Update: Here’s a great post by Scarlett Lion: What to bring and not bring when traveling to Africa.
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