I’ve been lucky enough to experience a decent cross-section of the world – rich and poor – and all the charms it has to offer. From the pristine streets of Berlin to the dusty roads of Delhi, from the clockwork metro in Austria to the rickety network of dalla-dallas in Tanzania careering along at breakneck speeds, and from 5-star luxury in the Maldives to a cockroach-infested Cambodian dorm – they all have their allure and if I’m honest, I’ve enjoyed my trips through the latter destinations more than the former. Travelling through a developing country can be arresting yet terrifying, breathtaking yet prosaic, tender but heartbreaking, thrilling and frustrating.
For western Europeans such as myself, there’s no escaping that travelling through a developing country is different to what you’re used to. I must try to avoid generalisations, but you’re less likely to find clockwork timetables, clean running water, reliable electricity, cash machines, 4G or wireless broadband, ambulance services, cappuccinos, escalators, night buses – the list could go on. Travelling in a developing country can be hard but as Kia says in her last post, it also offers immense rewards. Here’s my advice on how to travel safely and sensitively through a developing destination.
1. Carry small change and local currency
Whether it’s for tips, baksheesh or donations you can never have enough small change in the local currency. In some countries, such as Egypt, it’s practically part of the national psyche. Credit cards are usually not accepted at smaller establishments, and certainly not by hotel porters or restaurant staff.
2. Stay alert
A “rich” westerner will stand out in Nairobi more than Northampton. I was in the Kenyan capital a couple of years ago and got talking to a local man on the street. I thought he was just curious and friendly but after a few minutes I noticed that he kept looking over my shoulder at someone or something else. I was unsure, so I tightened my backpack straps and leaned against a wall so my backpack wasn’t exposed. Within seconds he cut the conversation off mid-sentence and marched away. Be aware of these non-verbal cues.
3. …But keep an open mind
My friend said to me after visiting India for the first time: “Pete, it just hit me like a wall. I’d never expected that.” A few breaths later, he told me he couldn’t wait to go back. He hadn’t expected the level of poverty he’d encountered but then he hadn’t expected to enjoy the trip so much either. My point being that you will almost certainly be shocked by some of things you will see – whether it’s poverty or something else – but likewise, you will almost certainly be cheerfully surprised by something wonderful and graceful as well.
4. Be compassionate
Remember where you are and that you’re a guest. Try to forget your first-world problems and remember it’s the experience and the people that count. The very fact that you’re on holiday there means your life is incomparable to those around you. I still, to this day, regret snapping at a local tuk tuk driver in Jaipur, India, in 2008. I was tired and had been traveling all day on a bumpy bus and just wanted to get to my hotel. I wasn’t in the mood for haggling and lost my temper with the man. In reality, the amount we were haggling over was small change to me but, for him, it was possibly a meal for his family.
Buses and trains won’t run on time, if at all. Likewise, there may well not be a metro or tram system to whizz you around town. You know what? That’s just fine. Walk. You’ll see more, meet more people and probably get to know a culture better on foot than on an antisocial underground system where people don’t even make eye contact let alone talk to each other. Just give yourself plenty of time to get around.
I think it’s fair to say that people in developing countries are less accustomed to visitors. With this comes a certain level of suspicion or wariness. The best way to quell such suspicion is to talk. Ask locals about their families and lives; tell them about your families and your life. No matter where you are in the world, people generally have the same wants and needs. You and they are never that different.
7. Be prepared to bribe
In Morocco in 2009, I was driving into a small town in the early evening. As I entered the town a local policeman hailed me over to the side of the road. I got out of my rental car as he walked over to me and pulled out what looked like a calculator from his pocket, punching in two numbers before holding it out for me to see. “You drive too fast. Fifty dirham, sir!” I looked at the calculator – it read ‘88’. Eighty-eight what I don’t know, but looking at the car I was driving I’m not sure it was capable of 88 miles – or even kilometers – per hour. I thought about protesting, but 50 dirham was worth less than three pounds. I paid up and then got some useful advice about the best hotel in town. He even led me to there while I followed behind at a safe and steady speed.
8. Don’t stick a camera in their faces
We all want to document the travels we go on. We want to look back and remember the people, the places and the landscapes we have seen, but show consideration and think carefully about what you’re doing. Be considerate of cultural sensitivities and restrictions. Think about how you would feel if tourists shoved a camera in your face while you were out and about getting on with your daily life. Always ask if you can take a photograph of someone or something. Most of the time you’ll get the answer you want.
9. Don’t give money to children, or mothers with children
It’s heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking when a young, clearly malnourished child approaches you with a dusty hand outstretched. However, most travel guides and international organisations advise against giving money to children, or mothers with children as it often perpetuates the problem. If you want to help, there are almost always local charities and organisations around that will take donations, ensuring that the money you give goes to those who need it most.
10. Don’t neglect the basics
Yellow fever, malaria, polio, hepatitis and typhoid are all genuine threats and should be taken seriously. Visit your surgery between 4 to 8 weeks before departure to ensure you have enough time to get the jabs you need. Check the FCO website for visa information and any warnings around your destination (though bear in mind they can be over-cautious). Drink bottled water and only eat fruit that can be peeled.
In addition, make sure you get travel insurance! Kia (and my mother) have chastised me in the past for not taking out travel insurance whilst abroad. Traditionally, I’ve been sceptical of insurance in general. However, in hindsight I’ve been foolish. There have been plenty of times when things could’ve gone awry and I’d have been in real trouble. From now on, particularly with our upcoming trip, I will be taking out some form of insurance. If anything, it offers a certain level of peace of mind – for Kia and my mother at least!