Last updated on November 11, 2021
I landed in Italy after six months in developing countries, and it was a shock to the senses in some regards. I remember having culture shock when I landed in Bangkok all those months ago. I didn’t expect the reverse culture shock of landing back in the Western world. Having my bestie Jenn fly over for this leg of the trip gave me new perspectives about my months spent traveling in developing countries. For me, after five months of backpacking, I had lost track of the delineation between my experiences and my life back home in the states.
Jenn, however, had no such confusion. She arrived with shiny-clean clothes and a backpack that smelled distinctly better than mine—what is that funk?! Jenn knew two things about herself when deciding to join a leg of the RTW trip: she definitely wanted to meet up somewhere, and she had no wish to travel in developing regions. Props to her for knowing herself well enough to not embark on something she couldn’t handle. My experiences in South and Southeast Asia are among my favorite, but there are many easier places to travel, and these places have equally beautiful sites and cultures.
Arriving in Milan, my cousin and I slogged off of the plane—we were sweaty, dirty, and I had a small sugar-ant infestation in my backpack. (Perhaps I should have left the half-eaten Snickers behind in Delhi?) Jenn took one look at me and started a list of all the crazy differences in my perspective and earlier travels compared to what we were about to face in Italy.
Now, this list is not to be seen as a discouragement from travel in less developed countries — I had wonderful experience and it shifted my perspective in profound ways. Although I love Europe, I know that it was only by adding Asia to my travels that I could build a deep and nuanced consideration of our global community. I count many of my experiences as the most transformative on my journey.
And also to note, I understand that some of these point to deep fundamental issues facing developing countries, such as lack of government stability, poor transportation infrastructure, systemic education issues, and more. Consider reading up on why the developing world is developing before you travel there. It helps keep everything in perspective if you better understand root causes.
This is more of a brief look at some of the more endearing, hellacious, charming, and weird things I’ve contended throughout my months traveling in developing countries. Jenn and I compiled this list throughout the three weeks we traveled together. We made a note every time Jenn exclaimed, “Are you serious! That happens?!”
Lots and lots of shots are needed. They poked me relentlessly for weeks to administer them all in time. And shots don’t guarantee that you won’t get sick. You will get sick. The shots simply offer up that you probably won’t die from your sickness. There are only a few shots you need when traveling in other developed countries, but far more when you venture off the path a bit.
2. Drinking the local water results in illness.
It just does. Sadly, I did it anyway once or twice and I came to Italy sporting a rockin’ case of giardia. Plus, I almost died in Laos of dysentery. This is a very real consideration. Of note though, unlike the Western world, the medicine to fix my illness was just 80 cents in Nepal. What are we even doing with our healthcare system in the U.S.?
3. Squatting over a ceramic floor toilet is a luxury.
In the U.S., we basically have just one style of toilet, and even going to Europe is a shock when you see a squat toilet. Boy aren’t those the good days though. These squat toilets are actually better for you though. Of note though, ceramic squats are the good ones — sometimes they’re just a hole!
4. Life is lived outside.
The air takes on a different quality. In India especially, it’s a smell I will never forget. It’s a country scented with a beautifully fragrant mingling of urine, cow dung, exhaust, incense, and humanity. Sounds potentially gross, but makes me a bit nostalgic for that wacky place.
5. It’s a crowded place out there.
Space is a Western luxury, by and large. In the cities of South Asia, people swarm you, watch you, talk to you, and possibly pet you. In India, the women would stroke my hair and hand me babies, pretty much just because I am light-skinned. Life is lived in close quarters so you will get up close and personal with each new country. But perhaps the best thing, eventually you become wholly accustomed to it and unfazed.
6. Pick your battles.
Every culture is different, and that’s not just in developing countries. Landing in Japan is like a slap in the face with different cultural practices. In developing countries though, that’s where to often find the starkest differences. You can’t freak out over it all. Some seemingly unpleasant things will be a fact of life. Pull on your humanity and remember to keep perspective when it seems like shit is hitting the fan.
7. Chaos. Everywhere.
Sometimes it’s organized chaos. Often times it’s not. And while there are some notable exceptions to that, for a first-timer in a place like India, it feels like life is running at a frenetic pace.
8. Amenities, toiletries, and creature comforts are very basic.
Chalk this up to quirks. Somehow I found a jar of Skippy peanut butter in Dharamsala, but I spent three months searching for Q-tips. What you take as a baseline normal part of life might not be normal at all where you’re visiting. Usually they have a local work-around, though, so ask a bit about how to solve your dilemma if you can’t find something on the road.
9. They have public transport figured out.
So much of the world outside of the U.S. has taken public transportation as a key concern. Trains run through India, buses dart across Southeast Asia. And while transport can sometimes be amazingly on time, it also might never show up. Learn to go with the flow and don’t pick this as a battle because you won’t win. Just embrace the experience and go with the flow.
10. Nothing will faze you, which is really not such a bad way to live.
I found that a result of traveling in Nepal was a total desensitization to boisterous political demonstrations that might lead to mayhem. It’s not that I wanted it to happen, but that frenetic fear was gone. When you’re on the road, you’ll figure it out if it’s serious enough to call for it.
11. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about bodily functions.
Diarrheal illnesses are real. You will get one, it’s just a matter of time.
12. You’ll learn to be really comfortable talking about your travel companion’s bodily functions.
You will know as much about their bodily functions as you do your own. It’s just a fact of life on the road and an open topic for discussion. I’ve even broached the subject with random travelers because, hey, we’re all in this together.
13. Pop songs that normally make you sneer become the new favs.
Many songs that are a decade old have just hit it off in the places you’ll visit. And boy do they embrace them with enthusiasm. Once there’s a hit that seems to go over well, it plays incessantly. These songs though, they’re another layer of nostalgia because they invariably link themselves to places, events and smells. Summer of ’69 reminds me of tubing in Laos. And I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have listened to Shaggy in the past three days—were nearing a dozen!
14. It doesn’t make sense.
If you didn’t grow up there, then some of the quirks will just not make sense. But it will be interesting, if you allow yourself to be open to curiosity in each new place.
15. A lot of unexpected things are just a bit harder to do.
Finding the right train takes a while. Using dial-up speeds in an internet café could be a half-day project. Finding that book you want to read may take months of combing tourist book swap shops. But there’s time, so what’s the hurry?
16. Outside of the US, some places just don’t queue … they just don’t.
The idea of a neat line of people waiting until their turn—sometimes that doesn’t exist! In India, a few times I had someone throw an elbow to advance toward the vendor. Those it’s weird, I learned to gently shove, and give a good push right back at them.
17. Traffic and cars.
Nothing I read prepared me for sheer amount of traffic—and that’s saying something, I lived in L.A.! Lines in the road are often nonexistent, and your mode of transportation will think nothing of dodging through oncoming traffic. If it’s faster than waiting on the correct side of the road then it’s fair game. And helmets on motorcycles rarely exist. This is changing in many parts, but helmet laws are rare in a lot of places. Oh, and motorcyclists can accomplish great feats—I’ve seen some talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, and safely transport an entire family. They keep it interesting, that’s for sure.
18. Oh, and really: It still doesn’t make sense.
19. Their idea of modesty is much different than ours.
Dress codes vary by country, and many are becoming more Western in style, but only a bit. Modest dress codes are in order in much of the developing parts of Asia. And it’s kinda nice. Once you embrace the modesty of the developing world it’s hard to go back. I love my Indian kurta with all of my heart. It was only after some distinctly strange looks in Milan that I shoved in deep into the recesses of my pack and pulled out other more fashionable items I had last used in Australia. They are a bit obsessed with fashion there, I guess. But even then, I pulled it out for long travel days.
20. The people are generally incredibly and overwhelmingly warm.
Most people in the world want you to visit their country and enjoy it. To explore and have a good experience. The kindness if very real and countless people offered me meals, conversations, and friendship.
There is so much to love about these less-structured countries. Most people call them “developing,” but really that’s a term for the economists. These countries have developed cultures, food histories, and long histories that dates far back into history. I know that Jenn will never join me in many of these places, but I have a special place in my heart for the swath of countries I traveled on that part of my round the world trip.
The best I advice I can offer to new travelers is this: Recognize that control and certainty don’t exist. Just surrender. As a Westerner, you have to abandon the preconceived notions. And definitely abandon the need to control every moment and circumstance. You could try to force everything into a sanitized version of what you expected. But what is the fun in that? It’s all better when you are just floating along with it, adrift in the well-meaning chaos.
Jenn’s list began to balloon out of control by the end into the most minutely hilarious additions, but really these are just some of the top reasons to dig in and love every moment of traveling in developing countries! :-)
If you’re planning a trip, why not head over to my travel planning resources page for the nitty-gritties on everything you need to plan the trip. And my country guides offer a great overview of what you should know before you go, as well as how to travel responsibly in each new place.