Travel can be truly exciting and rewarding, but only if you survive. In journeys to out of the way places – Borneo, Papua New Guinea, Burma, Ghana, etc. – where travelers are few and conditions frequently trying, I have discovered several ways to decrease my chances of the trip being interrupted by problems of health or safety. Though some suggestions may seem obvious, it takes but a single germ or missing plane ticket to undermine an otherwise joyful adventure.
1. All destinations present danger from some disease or other. You can’t avoid every threat but you should check with a travel health clinic to get appropriate inoculations and preventive medicines for the area you will be visiting. There are helpful ways to minimize your likelihood of contracting illnesses more common in developing nations.
2. Sickness or accidents are more threatening in remote places because of the scarcity of good medical facilities. You can access well trained, English speaking physicians by sending for a list compiled by the International Association for Medical Assistance (IAMAT). In emergencies call the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
3. Bring medications which may be unavailable abroad. If you take any medicines regularly, have a supply for the entire trip. Do not count on the local drug store in rural Peru or Bhutan. Make sure these medications are in your carryon, not the checked luggage. Pack medical staples such as a pain reliever, antibiotic cream to fend off bacterial infection, anti-itch cream, Dramamine, cold tablets and lozenges, a thermometer, an anti-diarrheal, Pepto-Bismol tablets, a general antibiotic and band-Aids. Don’t forget sunscreen (15 or above), insect repellant and lip balm, especially if you are heading toward the equator. A hat is also an essential item in hot places.
4. Be careful what you drink and eat. There are countries where the water poses more danger than mountain trails. Drink and brush your teeth with bottled or boiled water only. But drink often. Dehydration is a danger in warm climates. Local beer and bottled soda or fruit juices are safe. Avoid uncooked food washed in water – lettuce, fresh fruit, etc. Note the sanitary appearance of the places you eat. Well cooked or boiled food is safe. Peelable fruits are desirable. Avoid dairy products. Unless you are a fussy eater, it is a waste of space to pack your own food supply. Bottles and cans are just too heavy and bulky to carry. A few crackers or sweets picked up along the way can come in handy at times. Finally, keep clean and wash your hands often and well. Hand wipes can be really useful.
5. Some helpful items to pack include a small flashlight, a pocket knife/opener and a dictionary or phrase book for the language of the area. You can purchase small electronic translators for some languages which are especially convenient. I strongly recommend that men wear a belt which looks like a regular one but has an inside zippered pocket. You can carry about 15-20 folded bills in these safely. For women, a hidden strap-on money belt is the best bet. Traveler’s cheques are hard to cash in some parts of the world, ATM’s can be inaccessible but dollars are accepted everywhere. A handful of $1.00 bills are quite handy for street purchases in many places or for tips in airports and elsewhere.
6. Reduce jet lag by taking night flights and sleeping on the plane, avoiding alcohol and caffeine in flight, eating lightly, and walking around in the plane from time to time. Set your watch to the time zone of your destination when you board. If you are in mountain areas, be wary of altitude sickness. There are some very high airports. On arrival at one of these, move slowly, drink tea, avoid physical stress and rest a few hours before sightseeing. Give your body time to acclimate.
7. Packing well is crucial. If at all possible, take only carryons. That may be difficult if you are laden with the inexpensive purchases available in most developing areas, but there are two distinct advantages to keeping your belongings with you. First of all, you are sure to have them when you arrive. (I have traveled the byways of New Guinea and gone on safari in Tanzania for a month or more without my belongings.) Secondly, you save time not waiting for luggage to follow. If you must send bags through, mark them with colorful ribbon for quick identification. Take a large zippered bag for laundry on the way home if you are a shopper and want to carry your purchases in your carryons. Always carry camera equipment and toilet articles by hand.
8. Normalize your routine as much as possible. Eat and drink regularly, exercise if you are accustomed to do so, and get a decent amount of sleep. It’s easy to overlook such things.
9. Be reasonably cautious. Most places are no more dangerous than the average American city but travelers unfamiliar with the terrain are more vulnerable. Don’t leave valuable belongings in hotel rooms, keep money hidden when you are out¬side, guard your tickets and passport with great care, copy the passport face page for convenience and security and put it in a separate place, and safeguard camcorders or other tempting equipment. Your camera may be the equivalent of more than a year’s wages for some.