High-Yield Tips for Travel in Developing Countries

We came up with these tips after extended travel through the Yucatan this past summer, but they are generally applicable to travel in many developing parts of the world.

1. Learn the basics of the language(s) of the nation(s) in which you’ll travel.  This will help in rural areas and could even help in large cities (e.g., with taxis).

2. Have a dedicated checking account for travel with an ATM/debit card that is fee-free worldwide (rebates any fees you may have been charged).  Use only bank-affiliated ATMs and make transactions during the day whenever possible to avoid identity theft.

3. Bring small packets of detergent (e.g., Woolite) to wash your clothes in the sink (because laundromats or laundering services are often unavailable or inconvenient).

4. Bring a small bottle of Febreze (the type for fabrics) to spray on and freshen up used clothing when it cannot be laundered.  (Can also use Febreze to freshen up the bathroom.)

5. Use a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

6. Pay with the local currency when it is weaker than your nation’s currency.  In Cozumel, we repeatedly saw vendors asking for payment in US dollars instead of pesos.  Many tourists fell for this trick and were overcharged.  The peso was much weaker than the dollar at the time, about 16:1.  Paying in dollars, when converted to pesos, was always more expensive than the peso price!

7. Bring plenty of DEET-based bug repellent and sunscreen with SPF > 50 when in tropical areas (and mosquito netting if mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria are endemic).

8. Avoid uncooked, sliced/peeled fruits and vegetables unless you rinse them yourself with purified water before eating.

9. Brush teeth, rinse mouth, and use contact lenses only with purified water.

10. Bring packets of instant oatmeal, nuts, raisins, trail mix to make delicious and healthy oatmeal breakfast and for healthy snacks on the road.  Consider bringing packets of nut butter (almond, peanut, etc.).

11. Bring a small Swiss Army knife or equivalent.  Remember to check it in with your luggage because it will not be allowed onboard the plane, no matter how small it may be.

12. Bring a journal and writing or drawing utensils.  (In my case, I often bring an ink brush pen, a fine-point Sharpie pen, a ballpoint pen, a mechanical pencil, tortillons, a mechanical rubber eraser, a kneaded eraser, watercolor pencils, and a Niji waterbrush.)

13. Bring a small point-and-shoot digital camera with a large memory card and carry it with you almost everywhere as a valuable photojournaling tool.

14. Bring your own high-quality snorkel mask and dry snorkel. Bring a small bottle of anti-fog solution.

15. If you normally wear eyeglasses, don’t forget to bring contact lenses and rewetting drops if you plan to go into the ocean or other bodies of water.

16. Bring minimal electronics (e.g., only a tablet, not a laptop).  Consider leaving that smartphone at home.

17. Buy a cheap phone with a pay-as-you-go data plan as soon as you land in the foreign country.

18. Bring tea bags because boiled water (tap) is usually safe.

19. Consider bringing a portable water purifier (very small and inexpensive; available online or at REI).

20. Bring a sleep (eye) mask (Bedtime Bliss is a nice brand that fits comfortably) and enough >30 dB-blocking foam ear plugs to be able to sleep soundly throughout the trip.

21. Bring a roll or two of toilet paper and travel packs of toilet seat covers.  Many toilets in the Yucatan and other developing areas don’t even have seats.

22. Bring wet wipes for your hands and disinfectant wipes for surfaces.

23. Try to bring mostly quick-dry shirts (both short- and long-sleeve) and easily cleaned/dried clothing in general.

24. Bring a small travel umbrella and a light poncho.

25. Bring a small flashlight (with fresh or solar-charged batteries).

26. Bring mesh travel laundry bags to hold used clothing.

27. Bring appropriate adaptors, if applicable, for the electrical outlets at the places you’ll visit.

28. Visit your local travel medicine clinic months before the trip for necessary vaccinations and prescription medications, including antibiotics for traveler’s diarrhea.  Bring Pepto-Bismol (bismuth subsalicylate), too.

29. Use TSA-approved luggage locks.

30. Carry multiple copies of your passport in different places (backpack, suitcase, money belt, etc.).

31. Carry a sheet of paper with phone numbers of immediate family, close friends, credit card companies, banks, etc., and contact information (addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, confirmation numbers) of reserved hotels and other services.

32. Use an RFID-blocking money belt.

33. Consider bringing a GoPro or other waterproof “sport” camera with you to take videos and photos during water-based activities.  Our GoPro recorded amazing underwater videos!

There are many other “high-yield” travel tips.  Which ones would you add to this list?

How I Lost Thirteen Pounds in Two Months

(Note:  the following is *not* health or fitness advice.  It is simply my personal account of how I lost extra weight.  You should consult your physician before starting any weight loss or exercise program.)

Earlier this year, I got a kick out of the fitness boost I got from interval training and decided to incorporate it into multiple runs each week. This was a terrible idea because after months of running too intensely, I injured my right hamstring and was forced to stop running for months.

I was fitter than ever at the time of injury.  I burned so many calories—or, so I thought—in the months leading up to the injury that I felt justified increasing my calorie intake to “maintain” my weight. (In reality, like many of us, I just liked to eat, so I came up with excuses to do so.  I’m reminded of a severely obese college roommate who enrolled in a jogging class and rewarded himself after each run with a large shake–containing more than a day’s worth of calories–from Smoothie King.)  I became used to a higher-calorie diet.

After the injury, I switched to cycling but didn’t change my diet. (It’s more difficult to burn as many calories cycling as running.)  A few months later, at my yearly physical, I saw that I weighed much more than I had ever weighed in my life!  (I’m convinced it was mostly fat weight because I paradoxically felt weaker over the prior few months despite strength training at least 3 days weekly.  My pants fit more tightly and my belt reached its final eyelet.)

By the standard body mass index (BMI) calculation, my weight was still within the “normal” range.  My family, friends, and coworkers also thought I was of normal weight. They didn’t understand why I thought I had a problem.  Did I have body dysmorphic disorder, perhaps?

However, Asians and Middle-Easterners have higher levels of body fat, a propensity for central obesity, and are at significantly higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other serious chronic illnesses related to weight gain, so a different BMI calculation, called the “South Asian BMI,” should be used for them.  According to my South Asian BMI, I was overweight.  What’s more, despite being fitter than ever, my hemoglobin A1c (a long-term measure of serum glucose levels), while still within the normal range, was higher than it was the previous year!

So, like many other Americans, I was both fit and fat, and I had just discovered that I can’t outrun a bad diet. (Calorie restriction is much more effective than exercise for weight loss.)  In America, we have an abundance of highly-processed, low-quality, easily-absorbed calories.  Sugar is the new tobacco.  We also don’t get enough sleep, which makes us crave fat and sugar.

I immediately cut out all stress-related and other surplus calorie intake.  This was difficult for the first two weeks; my thoughts repeatedly returned to food during this time.  After I became used to it, though, I was surprised by how infrequently I became hungry and by my enhanced focus on more important matters.  I refused high-glycemic treats brought over by drug reps at work.  I cut out eggs, decreased meat intake, started eating steel-cut oats* for breakfast, then switched to whole oat groats with mixed nuts and frozen blueberries.  I massively improved sleep quality by using blackout curtains at home and an eye mask during travel.  (I also benefit greatly from wearing soft foam earplugs during sleep.)  Also, and this is of critical importance, I bought a reliable scale and got back into the habit of weighing myself several times a week.

Two months later, despite working out less intensely than before the injury, I was thirteen pounds lighter (fifteen by now!), well within the normal South Asian BMI range, and had returned to my pre-fellowship weight.

I feel much better.

Update 1/3/16: I continued to lose weight until I dropped a total of 20-22 lbs.  Any more weight loss would threaten to make me underweight.  I’ve remained at this optimal weight by avoiding large amounts of refined or high-glycemic carbohydrates, by limiting total daily calorie intake to a normal amount for my size, by weighing myself several times a week, and by continuing to exercise regularly.

Update 7/4/16: Probably because of calorie creep, my weight slowly increases if I don’t practice intermittent fasting.  By skipping just one or two meals a week, my weight stays at goal.

Update 1/2/17: With the above strategy + intermittent fasting (see follow-up blog post here), I’ve remained > 20 lbs lighter–steady at ~23 lbs over the past few months–without any swings in weight at all.

*I was first introduced to steel-cut oats in the early 2000s upon reading Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy by Walter Willett.  That book changed the entire way I thought about food and health.  However, I didn’t make a regular habit of eating unrefined oatmeal for breakfast until this year!