Deirdre Mullins suggests tips for happy travels in the developing world.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that the less people have the more they give. My best travel experiences have been in the developing world, primarily due to the warmth and generosity of the locals. Whether it was the Ugandan women who tried to teach me how to dance, the countless number of Syrians that welcomed me to their homes for tea, or the generous Indian family who fed me on a 36-hour train journey, it was their kindness that stayed with me.
But despite these joys, travelling in the developing world can be difficult and challenging. Travellers often find they are caught in a delicate balancing act of staying safe and embracing the unknown.
These difficulties can be lessened by knowledge, preparation and a bit of cop-on. Below is a list of tips to help you get the most from your travels in the developing world.
Everyone remembers their first time negotiating a squat toilet. Trying to balance over a hole in the ground without messing up your clothes can be a challenge.
But once you get into the hang of it you may find that you start to prefer squat toilets over Western ones. After all, when used properly they are faster and more hygienic.
To manage successfully you need strong thighs and an ability to hold your breath. Don't get too hung up on privacy as lots of public toilets have three foot walls with no doors.
Place your feet on the foot grids on either side of the toilet facing outwards, then squat as close to the hole for accurate aim. Don't forget to always have your own toilet roll and bring hand sanitiser gel.
Eating with Your Hands
Eating with your hands is a skill that is not easily learned. It can be mesmerising to watch an expert mop up the thinnest curry without dirtying their hands.
Generally, the right hand is used for touching food and the left is reserved for toilet duties. The fingers are used to shovel the food into a ball and then the thumb catapults the food into the mouth. Food should not be left on the palm as it conveys that you're uncouth.
It's not as easy as it looks so it's best to master this in private first to avoid public humiliation. Although most locals will eat with their hands, the good news is most places will have cutlery or chopsticks - all you have to do is ask.
Forget soccer, haggling is the world's most popular sport. It might seem like a hassle to an impatient tourist, but haggling is an easy and fun way to interact with the locals. Besides, in some countries it is considered rude not to haggle.
To avoid getting ripped off try to get a rough idea of what the item is worth by listening to other transactions. Start out your offer at about two thirds of what you are willing to pay and allow the ping pong match of pricing to begin before the deal is made.
The shopkeeper may try and get to know you by offering you tea and asking about your family. Spend time with them and enjoy the ritual that is often considered as important as the sale itself. Remember: hurried hagglers often pay over the odds.
Respect for Local Customs
Travellers need to familiarise themselves with local traditions and to adapt their behaviour accordingly. Resentment of tourists is usually caused when tourists don't respect local dress codes, religions or dining rituals. The information is easy to find and most good guidebooks have lists of the dos and don'ts.
Dressing inappropriately is the most obvious way you can offend. Women travelling in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are best to adopt the motto that 'modesty is the best policy' to avoid being leered at. Take your cue from locals of the same sex and do your research before you pack your bag. I mistakenly thought I was been respectful wearing a long sleeve top and three-quarter length trousers in Syria but was spat at because my ankles were showing. I found a pashmina shawl to be a good addition to my day pack; they are versatile and can also transform into a skirt or hat.
Appropriate dress is especially important at religious sites, as is respecting iconography. Lying on top of a statue of a Buddha for your Facebook profile picture is not cool.
If you are privileged enough to get invited to someone's home for dinner, familiarise yourself with the local table manners so as not to offend. In China it's considered rude to eat everything that's on your plate as it implies that the host has not fed you enough. But in Thailand it would be considered rude not to clear the food. Things that are considered bad manners in the West are sometimes good manners abroad; in Egypt burping is the highest compliment a guest can give the host and in Japan its good manners to slurp your noodles.
As they say money talks and hard cash is definitely the currency of choice in the developing world. Unfortunately, there are many tales of travellers having to bribe corrupt police and border officials. Ask other travellers what the going 'bribe rate' is so you are prepared for an altercation. But when faced with an angry policeman who is demanding you give him $100, my advice is to just pay up. Handing over your hard earned cash is difficult but it's preferable to spending the night in jail for unknown crimes.
Travelling by Road
Travelling on a shoestring will involve long road trips in often barely roadworthy vehicles.
It's best to surrender to the fact that the journey will be difficult, go prepared and think of the journey as an adventure in itself.
Sit as near to the front of the bus for safety and comfort reasons. Always have a day-pack on the bus containing toiletries, change of clothes, ear plugs, books, journals and an iPod. Keep your passport, cash and credit cards in a money belt around your waist.
Even if the bus has air-conditioning the chances are that the air it's blowing out is not cold, so pack a hand fan. Bandanas and scarves are handy for covering your mouth from dusty air. Sarongs are good for female travellers to pee behind when toilet stops don't have any toilets. They can also double up as a blanket or to cover women who are getting unwanted male attention.
Buses aren't considered full until every available bit of room is packed. Forget about personal space and be prepared to have other passengers and sometimes even livestock positioned on your knee.
It's always a good idea to bring some food with you and offering it to your fellow passengers is a nice way of making friends.
The most important thing to take with you on a bus journey in the developing world is patience. Journeys are often delayed; it could be anything from a herd of cows blocking the road to an army checkpoint. See this as a good opportunity to read or update your journal.
Being exposed to the poverty in the developing world is one of the most challenging aspects of travelling. The begging culture in poorer countries is rife and presents a difficult situation for any ethical traveller. This is especially true with regards to children, who are often kept out of school or sometimes physically maimed to earn more money. Paying off the window-tappers and sleeve-tuggers is easier and instantly gratifying but by handing out money you are condoning these methods. It's best to put your money back into the community in different ways. Donate money to NGOs who help the underprivileged in the area and use local people who engage in honest work. Buy from street vendors, hop in a tuk tuk, get your souvenirs in local markets and sleep and eat in locally owned hotels and restaurants.
The most important thing to pack travelling is a sense of adventure, curiosity and openness. It's one of our generation's great privileges to be able to travel as intrepidly as we do and some of my best moments have been on the road. It's not only fun and exciting but it teaches you so much about the world and the person that you are.
Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he said: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."