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Ghosts of ethnicity

From Thomas Laely, “Peasants, Local Communities, and Central Power in Burundi“:

The existence of ethnic groups has been questioned in recent years by some scholars, while others have contested or emphasised their importance, usually for political reasons. But as Jean Bazin once said, “As in the case of ghosts, the question is not to know if they exist or not, but why they appear.”

(Stay tuned for more Burundi blogging as I launch into my MA thesis on state-building in Rwanda & Burundi!)

Travel tips: staying healthy

Last but not least in the travel advice series: staying healthy.

Don’t bring:

  • An obsessive fear of illness.  You may be slightly more likely to get sick in an low income country, but ultimately if you have the money to travel then you have the money to stay healthy.  It’s an object lesson in public health.

Do bring:

  • Sunblock (which you should be wearing every day anyway!).  I like Neutrogena’s SPF 30 facial sunblock, which is unscented and non-greasy.  If you’ll be outside for long periods, get waterproof sunblock in a higher SPF and reapply frequently.
  • Hand sanitizer. Get the alcohol-based type, which are more effective than those containing triclosan or other antibacterial agents and won’t promote the growth of resistant bacteria.
  • DEET-free bug spray.  DEET is effective, but it’s inconvenient to wash it off before bed every night, and isn’t recommended for use with small children.
  • Anti-malarial medication.  Malarone and doxycycline are commonly available in the US.  Mefloquine is no longer available by its brand name, Lariam, but is still sold as a generic.  All of them have a non-negligible prevalence of side effects (with mefloquine being known for being hallucinogenic, doxy for causing sun sensitivity, and Malarone for milder effects), so discuss the choice with your doctor.  It is sometimes possible to purchase brand-name anti-malarials like Malarone in low inome countries, but it’s not always available and is sometimes counterfeit, so it’s preferable to get them before departure.
  • Extra doses of prescription medications, and copies of prescriptions.  Check with your pharmacist if any of your medications might be known by another name outside of your home country.
  • Iodine tabletsUseful for times when you can’t buy bottled water or boil your own.  The taste-neutralizing tabs have gotten much better since I first started using them.
  • An extra pair of glasses, if you wear them.  Keep your last pair as back-up when you get a new prescription.

Do get:

  • The rabies vaccine.  There’s a very low risk you might contact rabies, but it does exist almost everywhere, and is nearly 100% fatal if you’re exposed and are unable to get treatment rapidly.  Getting the prophylactic vaccine before departure will buy you several extra days to get help if you’re bitten by an animal.
  • Deworming pills at a local pharmacy.  Only important if you’ve been exposed to water or food in places where open defecation is common.  Most local pharmacies will have them.

Travel tips: logistics

Today in travel advice: sundry logistics of travel.

Don’t bring:

  • Traveler’s checks.  With the advent of ATMs these are rarely used any more.  And if you’re in a place without ATMs, you’ll do just as well to bring cash.

Do bring:

  • Your ATM card.  In larger cities, ATMs are everywhere.  Ask your bank if it has international partners in your destination country which will waive out-of-network ATM fees.  You should also be sure to alert your bank to your upcoming travels, as unexplained transactions occurring abroad are often tagged as fraud.  If your debit card doesn’t already have a chip, ask your bank if they can issue one for you; many ATMs require the chip to work.
  • Cash for a few weeks’ expenses, in US dollars. Dirty or torn bills, or those printed before 2009, may be rejected as counterfeit.  Your bank will exchange old bills for new ones if you explain why you need them.  Pounds and euros will also work, but the US dollar is most widely used.
  • The same credit card used to purchase your plane tickets.  Airlines will occasionally insist that the purchasing card be presented during check-in, or used to cover other charges.
  • Photocopies of your passport, driver’s license, vaccination records, health insurance, and credit/debit cards.  You’ll need them if the originals get stolen.  It’s also useful to keep copies of these online, for instance by emailing them to yourself or saving a copy in the cloud.  If you’re concerned about data security you can encrypt the file first.
  • A bicycle or motorcycle helmet, if you expect to be riding either.  Quality helmets are generally difficult to find outside of high income countries.  I have an AFX helmet similar to this one that I’ve been quite happy with.
  • A high quality, TSA-approved travel lock.  “High quality” is salient because in my experience cheap locks tend to get stuck or fall apart after fewer uses.

Do get:

  • Bedsheets or other types of cloth.  Can serve their intended function (bedsheets) in cheap hotels, or as towels, curtains, pillows, emergency slings, or sarongs.  Buy these locally rather than bringing them from home.
  • Evacuation insuranceInternationalSOS, Medex, and Travel Guard all offer international medical and evacuation services.  It’s relatively cheap for short trips, but do read the fine print carefully – evacuation services might be limited to larger cities in some countries.
  • An international driver’s permit.  If you plan on renting or purchasing a car or motorcycle this will be necessary.  AAA offers them for US residents, and there seems to be an international application as well.

Travel tips: staying connected

Today in travel advice: the care and feeding of electronics.

Don’t bring:

  • International data roaming.  This is incredibly expensive, and with the proliferation of domestic data networks sand internet cafes in many low income countries there’s no reason to use international data.  Your phone should have an option for disabling international data use under Settings.
  • A voltage converter.  If you’re moving across voltage standards, most complex electronics like computers and cameras will have a voltage converter build into their chargers.  Simple electronics like hair dryers won’t have this, but it’s generally easier to simply buy a new hair dryer at your destination.
  • Your new laptop.  Dust, rain, and power surges are not your computer’s allies.  If you strongly feel that you need access to a personal computer on your trip, this might be the time to bring an old laptop back into action if you’ve still got it around –  or to consider purchasing a cheap netbook or a tablet.  (Don’t buy a Chromebook or another laptop which relies extensively on cloud services, since you may not be able to get online often.)  If your expensive laptop is your only option, make sure that everything is backed up and that your warranty is still valid.  I use SugarSync for cloud backup and TimeMachine on an external hard drive for a local backup.

Do bring:

  • A universal outlet adaptor.  They’re cheap, they last forever, and they can be useful in regions with a lot of secondhand electronics, where an imported piece of equipment may have a plug that doesn’t fit the sockets used in the country.  You may need to get a separate adapter for South Africa, which has very large plugs.
  • Waterproof cases for your electronics.  Very useful if you get caught in a downpour or something spills in your bag.  Note that neoprene cases like those from InCase are meant for padding rather than waterproofing; they’ll soak up water if they get wet and hold it right next to your computer.
  • A surge protector.  Power supplies can fluctuate unevenly, and plugging your electronics directly into a wall socket can be disastrous if there’s a large surge.  For travelers coming from countries which use 110 V current, get a surge protector that will handle 220 V, otherwise it will blow a fuse when you plug it in.
  • Extra batteries and chargers.  Spare batteries will serve you well if you need to work through a blackout or a long flight.  If you wind up losing your charger or seeing it fried by a power surge because you failed to obey the cardinal rule of the surge protector, it’s good to have a backup.

Do get:

  • A mobile phone, if your domestic mobile is locked in to a certain service provider.  The cheapest phones run about US$25 and will last for years.
  • A local SIM.  In many African countries, prepaid SIMs can often be purchased for less than US$1.  International call rates to North America & Europe are quite cheap.  That said, countries vary broadly in their approach to mobile regulation, and I’ve heard that purchasing a phone in India or some Latin American countries is more difficult than this.

If you need to constantly be connected, you can also consider:

  • A dual-SIM phone.  Useful in places where the mobile networks aren’t stable.
  • A USB modem.  This will let you get your computer online anywhere with a cellular data network.  You can either get a universal one before you leave and then buy a data-equipped SIM later, or buy a branded modem from one of the mobile networks once you arrive.
  • A solar charger.  Leave it outside during the day and charge your electronics from the battery at night.  The Voltaic 10 watt charger is large enough to charge a laptop.

Travel tips: necessary accessories

Today in travel advice, we present: necessary accessories.

Don’t bring:

  • One of those travel vests with a million pockets.  It’s unlikely that you’ll need to carry every pocket-sized item you own at any point.
  • A passport pouch, unless you think you’re likely to lose your passport if it’s not attached to you at all times.  Opportunistic theft is less common than people seem to expect, be it from a hotel room or on the street, and after taking basic precautions (like using hotel safes, keeping your bag zipped and firmly held in front of you, and not walking around by yourself at night), your passport is probably as safe as it’s going to be.  If someone really wants your things, the fact that it’s tucked down your shirt won’t be very helpful.

Do bring:

  • A waterproof bag.  I’ve been satisfied with Longchamp shoulder bags for office use – they’re durable and waterproof.  A waterproof messenger bag or backpack is ideal if you expect to be commuting by bicycle or motorcycle.
  • An umbrella.  You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to locate travel-sized umbrellas when you need them.
  • Refillable water bottles.  Great for long days in the car, and long flights.  I have a few of these large Kleen Kanteen bottles.  Additionally, if you boil water in the evening and fill the bottles, they’ll be cool and ready to go in the morning.  (This obviously holds for metal bottles, not plastic.

Travel tips: what (not) to wear

As a few people have asked me about this recently, I thought I’d share my list of tips for people traveling in low income countries for the first time.  Based on my time in central Africa, so caveats apply outside of this region.  You can see all of the posts in this series here.  First up: what (not) to wear.

Don’t bring:

  • A head-to-toe khaki ensemble made of rip-stop, permethrin-treated, UV-blocking fabric.  Unless you will be spending weeks at a time in the jungle, this type of outfit simply isn’t necessary.
  • Worn-out clothing.  People everywhere care about looking put together.  It’s rude to show up in a new place looking as though you couldn’t be bothered to bring proper clothes.
  • Shorts or skirts that hit above the knee, for men or women.  It’s usually not work appropriate.
  • White clothing.  Gets dirty easily and is prone to getting stained by bluing in the wash.
  • Anything that needs to be dry-cleaned.  Cleaners are rare outside of more affluent capitals, and your wool sweaters will not benefit from being washed with the rest of your clothes.

Do bring:

  • Business casual clothing in natural materials.  I have three basic outfitting strategies for very hot places, in declining order of formality: a suiting skirt with an oxford shirt; jeans or linen pants with a cardigan or tunic; and long cotton skirts with a t-shirt or tank top.
  • Athletic clothes made of synthetic fabrics.  Long pants and long-sleeved shirts are useful if you’ll be hiking in wooded areas.  Hooded raincoats are essential rainy season material.  Avoid cotton shirts or socks, which are uncomfortable to wear when wet and take a long time to dry.  I’m partial to SmartWool’s hiking and running socks.
  • One set of warm clothing.  Evenings can get cool at high altitudes and latitudes, and you may find yourself on a bus with an overenthusiastic air conditioner for hours on end.  For women, scarves are useful if you’ll be visiting religious sites where you need to cover your shoulders or your head.
  • At least one formal set of day and evening clothing, which may well break the “don’t bring” rules.  Important for high level meetings.  People also dress quite well (and less conservatively) to go out in larger cities.
  • Shoes that can get wet. I usually wear flats or sandals in synthetic leather.  Hiking boots are appropriate if you’re hiking, not at the office.