First World Problems in Third World Countries

Posted on Posted in adventure, Colombia, travel

By Diana Proemm


Last fall my partner and I sold everything we own to leave on a world tour, with a secondary agenda to find work abroad. Mind you we are mature adults, and for people our age, this is not the norm (Read more here). Diving into long-term travel can be exhilarating, breathtaking, humbling, and sometimes extremely frustrating. It seems when you are in your late teens and early twenties; you can deal with almost anything. When you are middle age, the tolerance level drops – dramatically. I call these frustrations “first world problems in third world countries.” Please note there are times when you will get screwed because you are white (if you’re white) and it is what it is, I consider it a “Gringo Tax.”

Bathroom & Showers

Toilets are the bane of my existence, what goes in, must come out. When you’re in the United States, there are lovely porcelain thrones at most public and private locations. When you’re traveling through third world countries, it is a different story.

It is sometimes not only is it difficult to find a toilet; it’s especially difficult when your bowels are moving in ways that are slightly irregular (which typically happens for all ages when eating some of the things you find on the street).

  • If you’re lucky enough to have porcelain – thank your lucky stars – here are four tips to alleviate first world frustrations while traveling in third world areas when you have to go to the bathroom.
    • Toilets range anywhere from a hole in ground to porcelain holes with foot rests for squatting. Watch your aim and the silver lining ladies is this helps your leg strength. When you are uber-lucky, you have a normal toilet, seat and all.
    • Bring small change, as the majority of toilets in public places (including grocery stores, bus stations and airports) are pay only.  The fee is larger for more touristy places!
    • Toilet paper is an essential component to have in your daypack. Especially in countries with bad water and hygiene… even when you have to pay, you may not get toilet paper. Sometimes they have it for free, sometimes they have it for more money, and sometimes they don’t.  Go prepared!
    • Soap is not common in bathrooms, and sometimes running water isn’t either. You may choose to carry some antibacterial wipes and/or hand sanitizer. You never know what has touched that doorknob or handle in the bus.
  • Hot water showers become a thing of the past as you travel deeper into territory where water is limited and showers are sometimes sparse. What you can expect:
    • Expect cold water at most places. If you are a backpacker, this won’t be much of issue, but if you are older, and your tastes are a little less resilient, you can sometimes find hot showers, you just have to pay for them – and it won’t be convenient.
  • Shower heads will vary along with the bathroom, as if you find a shower that has a normal spraying head, count your lucky stars and embrace. Occasionally you will find buckets with a cup, or a pipe (sometimes rusted and broken) coming out of the wall dropping a steam of water on you. It does the job so make use of hot water showers when you can!

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Lodging

Lodging is hit or miss depending on where you are. You can pay $20 for the night and live like a queen, or feel like you just got taken advantage of at the five & dime rent-by-the-hour hotel.

  • Most lodging in Central and South America consist of concrete. I have started giving them the name of concrete hovels, as that is what it feels like to sleep in one.
    • If you can, ask for a room with a window to allow air flow, but be mindful that its not near the local discotech, unless you are partying there yourself.
    • Rooms with more than one opening (i.e. door, window) often have openings near the kitchen, trash bins, toilets, etc.
  • Beds range from hard to soft, often with the springs poking you in the back, and sometimes they are foam mats that replicate a thin camping pad.
  • A lot of places in hot climates may offer air conditioning, but you will pay substantially more for it. Most likely you will get a room with a fan (if you’re lucky).
  • Finding places with a kitchen can be tricky throughout Central and South America. Trevor and I are on a special diet of no wheat (or extremely limited), and additionally I am dairy free as well. Going out to eat can be expensive for three meals a day, so finding a kitchen is a good way to reduce costs and maintain your diet if you have special needs.
    • Please note the first world problem in Central America is the food options in the grocery stores. If you can eat wheat and enjoy it, then you’re fine as the options are mostly pasta, bread, tomato sauce, cheese, rice, meat and few veggies.
    • Checking out the local markets are a good way to find fresher produce than in the supermarkets, but never a guarantee they will be good. Additionally, the meat in the markets, unless you arrive at about 5am has been sitting out since the morning and may have an odor that you won’t find desirable.
  • Staying at hostels as a mature adult can be enjoyable but mostly I find it annoying. When I left on my world tour last year, I thought that I would enjoy staying at hostels as I had when I was traveling in my early twenties. I was wrong. The nostalgia is slowing wearing off for me and I find joy in a comfortable private quiet space. For the most part, I don’t need much, I just want the place to be clean, and have quiet nights. When you stay at hostels, read the online reviews and decide for yourself when you get there. If you are traveling as a couple a private room is typically similar in cost to two to three dorm beds, and you have your own space. We stay at hostels for the convenience of having a kitchen to cook, which also bring our food cost down.
  • Rent an apartment if you are able to stay long term. Check into local resources and be careful of Airbnb as with the occasional extra fees it often is no cheaper than going direct. Try renting from locals as booking online can cost you more money.
    • Book a place for 1-2 nights as a landing spot then move if necessary as you can typically find resources locally that are inexpensive.

These rooms were actually some of the nicer ones and one of our favorite “villas” we stayed in Colombia for $21/night.

Laundry and the missing clothes…

Twice now in the last 3 months I have had laundry done, only to walk away with missing clothes. Try to remember what you sent (i.e. write it down), so you don’t leave valuable underwear, t-shirts, and socks spread throughout your travels. Everything is valuable when you only have 4 of them for your long journey.

Just as in losing your clothing during the laundry process, leaving things behind because you forgot is also one of those irritating moments. I have left a few items behind intentionally, as they didn’t serve me anymore. I have also left behind a few things I wasn’t ready to let go of like my treasured blue and white sarong. Its not the actual cost of what I lost it’s the personal attachment I have places on it. It looked good on me, I liked it and mostly I didn’t want to have to take the time to purchase another one.

You will, inevitably, forget to grab something when you leave somewhere. Expect to never see it again. Best thing to do is get in a rhythm with where you leave things (i.e. money belt, passport, etc.) and whenever this varies from normal, write a note. Keep a running list of the things you need to walk out the door with (yes, you will likely forget 1 of the 5 items at some point when you are rushed by the taxi driver and it’s raining).

Where does the material hold you have on things come from? I can’t figure out whether it’s the loss itself or that you’ll have to replace the item if it was needed. For me having sold 99% of my things, I’m finding that the precious few items I do have, mean more to me than they normally would.

Food

There are travelers out there who travel with the soul purpose of eating their way around the country especially in places like Italy or Thailand. I find myself saying that I want to go back to Thailand and just sit on the beach and eat. When you travel to parts of Central America, food options are quite limiting especially when you’re used to eating Gluten and Dairy Free fairly easily.

  • If you want to eat economically in these countries, chances are you will find, rice and beans, chicken, beef and pork options. Most of the time, we find these out of the way local restaurants and order whatever they have on the menu or special of the day. After we order, we ask ourselves, what are we getting? And the food adventure of the day begins, as you never really know what you’re going to receive. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, it looks a semblance like what you thought you ordered.
  • Often there is little to no variety of food within a particular country, and they don’t like to experiment with changing things up. Grilled or fried, chicken or steak, rice or rice, fried plantains or fried plantains.
  • It amazes me that in Mexico they can have ten ingredients and make all sorts of tasty meals. In Nicaragua they take ten ingredients and make the basically the same thing over and over. If you travel to Nicaragua, learn to love the gallo pinto (rice & beans) as it will be served one to two, if not three times a day.

Transportation

If I had to pick a spot where my anxiety kicks in most during travel, it’s during transport days. I don’t know why, maybe it’s due to the ‘unknown’ or just that especially in Nicaragua, the bus is going to be full, more like overloaded. It takes all the energy I have to bring my being to a real place and realize that it’s all going to be fine.

  • The transportation comes in all shapes and sizes depending on the country you are in. Taxi’s are a dime a dozen in most places and will be the first to offer you a ride, at outrageous rates if you let them, and they WILL NEVER have change, so again, carry small change or bills!
  • On this trip to Colombia we experienced our first motorcycle taxi… it was with reluctance that I put my butt on the seat, but we were literally in the middle of nowhere and there were no other options to be had to get into the mountains terrain of the farm we were seeking in Colombia. There was no helmet, and I was in my sandals with my large backpack on.
  • The bus systems vary from place to place, but I think traveling in Nicaragua most recently hit home. I never thought that I would ride in a 1970’s era school bus again, much less, ride in one crammed to the max. Trevor counted over 100 people on one ride (on the bus rated for 68).
  • I recommend making peace with life, and the unknown, otherwise there is the option of taking some Xanax before venturing off onto the bus system.
  • If you are prone to seasickness bring the pressure point wristbands and/or Dramamine – for bus rides. The local buses are excellent at their stop and go techniques along with their Mario Andretti passing skills before coming to a screaming halt to avoid another vehicle. Where are those Xanax?
  • Please note, the driving system in these countries don’t make sense to us coming from a sophisticated driving school of thought. Hang on, because you will think this is the last ride I likely will ever take based on the organized chaos. Somehow it always works out, but you are left wondering. Don’t forget the Xanax. (Note: I have never taken Xanax but there are numerous days I wish I had)

Ups and Downs of Traveling Long Term

You have ups and downs when traveling long term. All your friends and family think you’re having crazy adventures every day and you might be, but sometimes you’ll want a down day. If your twenty you can most certainly pull off adventures day after day without tiring, but when you’re in mid-life and traveling long term, you need a rest day; at least I do. Most importantly it gives you time to enjoy a city or village without rush and talk to locals and the opportunity to ease drop on conversations you don’t understand. This is why I travel.

If you’re feeling down while traveling long term, think about your core values and why you are traveling. Is it to learn Spanish? Photograph? Meet as many locals as possible? Or to just BE? If you don’t think you could handle just wandering without a real purpose, incorporate a theme for the trip, something extreme like motorcycling or driving from America to Argentina or finding the local kite surfing places. It will make those down days a little easier to handle. Traveling long term is thrilling and life changing. Most of these issues stem from living in a first world country my whole life, and immersing myself in less fortunate countries. The next travel opportunity is waiting for you – start saving your pennies!


The Bigger Picture  uses my love for photography to capture real people using recreation to gain wellness and happiness. Diana Proemm is a Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist (CTRS) with a photography and travel problem. She provides RT consulting and photography services throughout the USA and beyond.

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