Recently many folks have set out on a Locations Effect sabbatical without enough information on the risks or challenges in developing nations. They have run into many unexpected problems that I’m going to outline in this post.
If you have health challenges or environmental sensitivities and you take off unprepared to a developing country this can lead to very difficult and risky experiences.
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A number of folks recently have set out for locations known to have good outdoor air to experience the Locations Effect.
There are many developing countries (the Global South, also known as third world countries) that have great outdoor air and might also be appealing in terms of cost savings.
But there are a number of really important things to know before you take off if you are someone that has health challenges or mold and chemical sensitivities.
If you haven’t traveled to a developing country before, or you haven’t traveled while sensitive, it’s essential that you know what you are going into.
I have a 5-year degree in International Development Studies, and my area of expertise is Latin America. I also had to study development factors – poverty, disease, access to health care – in all other regions of the developing world.
I worked for a year in Ghana and have backpacked through Morocco, Ghana, and Togo. In Latin America, I have spent about 7 months total in Cuba, Mexico, and Costa Rica, outside of tourist areas.
I have traveled recently with very high environmental sensitivities to mold and chemicals. I am also immunocompromised and physically limited.
What you MUST consider before doing a Locations Effect Sabbatical In a Developing Country
1.Much higher disease potential
Almost all of the developing world has high disease potential. All topical areas, other than very high elevations and a few other exceptions, have very risky mosquito-borne illnesses.
Denge and Chik V are the most concerning for those already sick. Malaria and Zika are the next most concerning. There are a couple of others that you should research as well. Vaccines are not available for most mosquito-borne illnesses.
Parasites are rampant in developing nations. They are mostly in food and water, but can also be caught by walking barefoot or swimming in freshwater.
There are many other illnesses transmitted through food and water: viruses, ecoli, hepatitis, etc. Many of us get sick very easily and it is almost a guarantee if you are immunocompromised.
I cook all my food and take pretty extreme precautions with water after a few really rough experiences.
2. Unexpected MCS (chemical sensitivity) triggers
Possible unexpected MCS triggers include: way more potent (less regulated) car exhaust, more cigarette and cigar smoke in public, burning garbage smoke, scented cleaning products, more cologne or perfume use, increased pesticide spraying both inside for pests and outside for mosquitos.
Other unexpected triggers might include, charcoal burning, wood-burning, exhaust from boats, other people’s mosquito repellant and sunscreen, and widely used incense (including in restaurants) or smudging.
These differ by country.
You may not find any unscented personal care or cleaning products in stores.
3. Unexpected level of mold in buildings
In general, in both developing nations (due to poor building standards), and tropical locations (where mold grows faster), buildings are more likely to be moldy.
If the type of construction is different than where you are coming from, you will not be able to predict which buildings might be OK if you haven’t been there before.
There are exceptions, for some people the general mustiness (or even visible mold growth) in concrete buildings in tropical areas is not enough to affect them. Many can still improve, but those already unmasked probably won’t.
On the other hand, there may be simpler structures available that are even better than buildings in the US, Canada and Western Europe.
If you are aiming to stay in a building, this has to be carefully considered.
I also prepare for the possibility of musty or otherwise contaminated beds and bedding by bringing bedding and tarps to sequester beds.
4. Exasperation of symptoms from heat
If you haven’t traveled anywhere hot for a while, this might be an unpleasant surprise.
You also should look at whether taxis, buses and hotels often have AC (likely many or most don’t).
High-end hotels usually have AC almost anywhere in the world, but even then, not always! Some areas are prone to power outages.
If you are reliant on AC in hot weather you have to think this through carefully.
There are tropical countries that are not that hot and there are developing countries that are not hot at all.
Plan ahead if you know this will be a problem.
5. The safety profile of the area
While many people do assume that some developing nations are more dangerous, do not go based on news reports. Look up actual statistics. I look at whether crime is isolated to certain areas or certain groups of people.
What are the real risks and will they be likely to affect you in the area you plan to go to and the activities you plan to take part in?
There are many guides to safety for travelers out there. Look at those and then look at special circumstances (like is it safe to camp where camping is not the norm).
Driving is often the biggest risk to personal safety. I consider myself an excellent driver and would never drive in a developing country, at least not until being there for a long time and getting used to the norms.
The Lonely Planet outlines things you need to know like which cities are not safe to walk in after dark and whether you should use a money belt or not. This is always my first resource. They have a book for each country.
6. Do they have the foods you need
The foods you are used to might not be available in many developing countries. There may not be organic food stores or no distinction made between organic and conventional produce.
You may not find the types of foods you need or expect. Expect less variety and a different variety of foods. It’s possible that imported foods are extremely expensive.
There are some places that don’t have grocery stores (or the grocery stores are just small stores for canned goods). You may find it hard or almost impossible to gather groceries yourself from all the places they are sold.
It might not be realistic to go gluten-free or vegan.
In Cuba it was prohibited to cook in a casa particular (a bnb).
7. Do they have supplements you need or are you able to order them
The availability of supplements is limited, sometimes severely limited (possibly nonexistent) in most developing countries.
Some countries have high tariffs on imported goods and it may be extremely expensive for the shipping cost as well.
In some countries like Mexico, it is not legal to order supplements from abroad. In Ghana, it was difficult and very expensive to send anything there by Fedex.
8. Is good medical care available
If you are on any medication you will want to check if that medication exists in the country you want to go to, and how easy is it to get.
You will also want to look at the quality of medical care, both clinics and hospitals. What kind of ailments (including emergencies) can they address? Which ones are not treated there?
How far away are you from a good hospital if something did happen.
How common is it that doctors and nurses speak your language (or do you speak theirs).
Don’t expect alternative health care – look up whether they have the practitioners you need.
Make sure you have travel medical insurance!
9. Is camping allowed or viable
Camping is mostly a first world activity. If you plan on camping as your primary option or backup option, be sure to research the feasibility thoroughly.
If camping outside of a proper campground, check on the legality, safety and general acceptance of doing this.
If camping is non-existent there, it’s most likely there are no stores in which to buy camping gear that may need to be replaced.
10. Are vaccines necessary
There are a few countries that have vaccine requirements, but not that many. If that is the case I would suggest looking at whether whether the vaccines are tolerated by you.
Many vaccines are likely recommended (though not required). The first thing I do is check on what the transmission routes of those diseases are. If they are food and waterborne, you may be able to avoid them by cooking your own food.
Some depend on the area you will be in and the likelihood of your exposure. I always look at the Lonely Planet books for everywhere I have ever traveled to as they have very good overviews of disease profiles and vaccine requirements.
11. Noise levels!
It’s possible and likely that developing countries will be noisier than Western countries – whether it’s traffic, roosters, howler monkeys, people who get up very early, or a culture of playing music in public places – this is another thing to know about.
If your sleep is highly affected by noise then plan your strategy accordingly. I like a three-step approach to earplugs for worst-case scenarios. Foam, silicone, and noise protection gear. (And note, don’t count on being able to buy these locally).
I bring a borderline insane amount of things with me, including earplugs and any supplement or medication I think I might need, emergency snacks and scent-free products. Here is my packing list.
You may also want to plan carefully where you stay – whether it’s a rental or campground. Find out what it’s close to. Find out when the holidays are.
I got stuck in Cuba’s week-long New Year’s celebration, woken by howler monkeys in Costa Rica, and was right by the community well in Ghana where everyone pulled water at 5 am.
What else!? A lot…
There many other things that could be different in your destination country.
Rocky roads can be painful for many to drive down, they may not be conducive at all to wheelchairs. There may be very different cultural norms that influence clothing you wear. They may not be tolerant of LGBTQ. There may be limited access to ATMs. Credit cards may not work there. There may be many safety precautions you need to take that you would not think of in your home country. Etc etc etc…..
Most of that you can find in regular travel guides and blogs.
Again, I recommend the Lonely Planet as the first place to look. I’ve never gone anywhere where I didn’t carry the local guide book everywhere.