Ten Things to Know About Backpacking, Working Abroad, and Developing Countries

this could be anybody. working with an ngo in a developing country? visiting sri lanka? give this a gander. it’s what i’ve learned, what I’d recommend, and what I wish I knew.IMG_0109

Travel Tips. For Everybody:

1. People are generally good. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard it, but it may be the first time you rely on it. You will need help from strangers at some point, go ahead and reach out. Most people will want to help you however they can, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation. People have some really cool stories, stories you’ll never hear if you keep to yourself. Making friends with locals is the best way to get the most out of your tripIMG_11852. Pack lightly, but pack smart. I am the packer that never packs enough. In an effort to pack light, I wasn’t all that smart this go-round. A nice pair of pants or a conservative dress can go a long way, even if you think you’re going to the tropics or the Land of Maxi Skirts. That said, you can probably leave your favorite bra at home, you probably don’t want that kind of attention and will need the space. Because if there’s one thing to overpack- it’s underwear. As a good friend once advised me, “when you’re wearing dirty clothes for the third straight day, a clean pair of underwear can improve your situation significantly,” and she was spot on.photo (80)

3. Say Yes. As always, trust your gut among all else, but when your co-workers invite you to do some bizarre cultural things on the weekend (weddings, family birthday parties), go. They’re frequently things you can’t do on your own and things you’ll never get to experience again. Feeling exhausted and just want to curl up in bed? Get it together. Because these will be the coolest experiences you’ll get,or the biggest regrets you have when you look back on what you wish you did. Plus, it normally involves good food.IMG_0574

4. Be Flexible. Time is a relative thing outside of the western world. So is efficiency. Sometimes the whole concept of “accomplishing a task” is done in a way you’ll never understand. So, always make a plan B, and a plan C, and keep your expectations realistic. Especially for meetings, transportation, and day plans. Regarding work, it’s not your job to change the world in record time. Creating a positive change will be much more attainable if you go with the flow. Take breaks, cry when you need to, skype your family, then get back up. Don’t think of it as frustration, think of it as part of the experience. Perspective is everything, and that IS in your control.

It is almost certain that you'll be hopelessly lost at least once
It is almost certain that you’ll be hopelessly lost at least once

5. Do the touristy things too. Just because you’re living with locals and doing work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see the sights. It’s embarrassing to talk to tourists and not know what they’re talking about. Even if it’s cheesy. It gives you another take on what the country is all about and a chance to meet other foreigners (for better and worse). You’re not a bad person because you want to drink on the beach in a bikini for a weekend.IMG_0431

6. Don’t neglect your health. It’s easy to pull the “I’m on vacation” card and get overwhelmed with foreign foods, but you’re not just a tourist. Taking care of yourself physically will help everything else run smoother. While that’s true in life, it’s especially true when you have to juggle the exhaustion of working in a foreign country. Find a jogging path if you like to run, walk to work sometimes instead of taking the bus, clear a space for jumping jacks in your room, get your blood flowing- it helps. Similarly, since you have plenty of time to explore the local cuisine, cook some of your own food. Veggies and spices are fresher than fresh- use ’em. A pot of veggies with some soy sauce and curry powder can be plenty filling, and healthier than the oily street food.

(our thanksgiving!)
(our thanksgiving!)

7. Figure out the public transportation. It’s probably not that hard. And once you get the hang of it, you’re a free bird. In a country where cars are reserved for the wealthy, you can probably get anywhere by bus, for cheap. You’ll make some mistakes and get on the wrong bus a few times, but you’ll gain a sense of freedom. Along with feeling like a bad-ass local when you can flag down the right bus and give the conductor exact change.IMG_1027

8. If you’re not willing to learn to live with the bugs, dirt, and primitive toilets- it may not be the place for you. If you know you’re the type of person that cannot handle roaches and get overwhelmed when the fourth spider falls into your lap or your toilet won’t flush, rethink whether you’d really enjoy a long-term trip into the developing world. There will be bugs. Nobody loves it. But learning to coexist is vital and the willingness to do so will change everything.

And on this day, I used hand sanitizer instead
And on this day, I used hand sanitizer instead

9. Things might not be perfect, but they’ll be worthwhile. Compared to trips through tropical beaches and beautiful cities, you may not be living in paradise. Even if you’re in an exotic country, your office may be in the middle of a polluted city that’s less than glamorous. Seek out nature and open spaces when you can- catching a sunrise/sunset is a good idea. Get to know the people. You’re on an adventure and doing good things, but you can’t expect to fall in with every place you see. That’s okay. You can still find ways to love your experience.IMG_0352

10. Write. Whether it’s journaling, writing for school, writing professionally, or just sending emails- write. Culture shock is real and you probably won’t have all your best friends around to chat things through over coffee. You may be alone. You’re probably experiencing things your usual pals can’t relate to or things your traveling companions process differently. Write. It’s incredible what a release you can get from getting things out of your head. When you’re having feelings you didn’t even know you could have- write about them. Maybe it will turn into a memento of your trip, something you smile at later. Maybe it’s something you’re not proud of that seems silly and not very articulate- who cares. You never have to read it again, but getting it out of your head is crucial. Share it with paper if you can’t share it with people. Do you have other skills? Use them. Paint. Draw. Write music if that’s your thing. But if there’s a fast track to breaking down, it’s gotta be bottling things up. It’s a huge change, but that can mean huge potential for some creative genius if you channel it the right way. Big emotions fuel the coolest art. But if nothing else, try to write.IMG_0969 2

I love reading blogs about “things I wish I knew” to reap advice from the wise ones, so I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned. It may not be the first time you’ve heard these tips, but they’re the things I found most essential.  

Please share if you have more advice!


5 thoughts on “Ten Things to Know About Backpacking, Working Abroad, and Developing Countries

  1. Great job Shannon, love the advice. I would also toss in “meditate”, “smile a lot” and “don’t whine.” Of course, I tell people the same advice here! :) love you


  2. Great list Shannon, for travel or life. We have also found a sense of humor to be very helpful. Things may not be funny at the time but can end up being an endless source of laughs later. Great pictures too.


  3. yes! lightheartedness goes a long way. that definitely includes laughter :) I find I laugh more, and harder when traveling! Like when the waiter servers you an animal part when you swear you ordered a salad, or when the train has so many people stuffed inside you have to rewrite your entire definition of “a crowd” haha thanks!


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