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Traveling in Developing Countries: You Won't Know Until You Go

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When I was doing my online TEFL class with International TEFL Academy, I was dreaming of beaches and classy resorts. After doing some exploring in the world, it turns out that developing countries are by far my preference. Unexpectedly to me, Cambodia has my heart over anywhere else. Countries that are still a work in progress have the biggest hearts, amazing food, best prices, and they’re definitely the most interesting. But there are some things I didn’t know was going to happen. These things can throw you off balance at times, but they’re actually the best parts.

Here are 8 things I didn’t realize before I ran off into developing countries and what I learned from them:

1. Travel-you is not as hygienic as at-home-you.

You’ll learn to let go of many things. No stain and no bad smell on your clothes is considered clean clothing. When you start doing the sniff test, you’re part of the club. You’ll sleep on airport floors and eventually you genuinely won’t mind. You might even catch yourself washing your armpits in the bathroom during your 20 hour layover. Your makeup may sweat right off of your face in those hot and humid countries, leading to you just not bothering with makeup at all. Bugs. Lots of bugs. Big bugs, little bugs. It’s okay. It’s all okay. Resilience. Freedom. Adaptability.

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2. Be ready to dump the itinerary.

Your plans will fail at some point. Or best case scenario, things will be nothing like what you anticipated. You’ll have to do things differently. This is not to be feared, though - it will make you more flexible. You’ll probably freak out a little the first few times this happens, but after a while you’ll see that these unbalanced and uncontrolled moments are when you really begin to learn. Often times they’re when the adventure truly begins. Textbooks can’t teach you the level of personal growth that happens here, but these are the best times, and they absolutely make for the best stories.

3. You’re going to fall in love.

I’m not just talking about a romantic partner, or a friendship, or beautiful landscapes. You already know travel will do this. And you know you’ll fall in love with feelings, with moments, sights, and smells. What you won’t see coming is that you’ll fall in love with the strength of the little old lady on the street corner selling fruit seven days a week. Then you’ll fall in love with the innocence of the the naked children being bathed from a bucket as they stare and smile at you. You’ll love the generosity when a student picks you flowers. You’re going to love the absolute chaos that is driving and the way that it somehow makes sense to the locals. You’ll feel a tug on your heart from the kindness of the stranger who doesn’t speak a word of English but stops to help you fix your motorbike on the side of the road. You’ll fall in love with the unfamiliarity, with the freedom and with the strength you feel from being so far from home in these uncharted lands. When you’re in a developing country, you fall more in love with the world every day.

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4. You’ll be heartbroken, too.

Which will make you stronger. You’ll feel your heart break when you see children begging on the street at 3pm then later at 3am. You’ll be heartbroken when you walk into an empty home to see a family sleeping on the bare floor. Your heart will hurt when you meet a mother of four who comes to English class after working in the sun for 12 hours. The dozens of grumpy stray dogs who have never felt a humans love will break your heart. You’ll want to fix parts of the world that you really can’t fix. Feel the emotions. This will teach you gratitude, empathy, and how to see the beauty within people and cultures different from your own. And eventually when you travel, you’re going to have to say goodbye to the places and people that taught you so much. But thankfully most cliches are true; it honestly is better to have loved and lost. You’ll leave knowing that your heart has grown in size but has also developed more cracks than it started with. It’s okay. It’s all okay.

5. You’re going to be uncomfortable at times.

There’s always more of this than travelers talk about. Developing countries don’t have the same standards that you probably grew up with and this will take some adjusting to. Open your mind. You’re going to be confused sometimes. You’ll be surprised, you’ll be challenged, and you’ll get lost. You might get a ton of bug bites or end up with an injury. You might lose your camera or favorite t-shirt. The waiter will bring you the wrong food or charge you the wrong price due to miscommunication. The discomfort you’ll feel will help you realize that all that matters in any given situation is your attitude and perspective. Gratitude goes such a long way.

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6. You’re about to learn all about navigation and transportation - whether you like it or not.

This skill will be useful for life. You’ll be on roads that don’t have names, the numbering system will make no sense, but these things don’t really matter because you won’t know how to properly pronounce things anyway. You’re going to get a taxi driver that has no idea what you want. The good news is, though, you’ll get to go on motorbikes, bicycles, taxis, buses, subways, trains, tuktuks, and boats. You’ll learn how to get from one country to another. You’ll learn how to cross sketchy borders that appear to have no organization. You’ll learn to trace your steps and to remember prices and times. You’ll play a lot of charades. You’ll stumble a bit;, you’ll definitely get lost; but you’ll come out much sharper and will see some cool stuff along the way.

7. You’re going to learn how to bargain with street vendors.

Most likely taxi and motorbike drivers too. It’s a skill that becomes developed from practice. Oh, you’ll probably get ripped off at some point. Foreign money looks a lot like toy money and some locals take advantage of what you don’t know. It’s all good though, because it’s probably just a few bucks. You’ll gain bargaining and budget management skills that will forever be useful. Sometimes the $3 isn’t worth arguing over. Stay aware, but also choose your battles and worries.

8. Visas, man. Visas. Knowledge is power.

This will teach you about patience and problem solving. It’s part of the deal, so do your research on visas. Sometimes it’s more expensive than you thought, or the embassy is unorganized leading to things taking longer than predicted. Sometimes, however, it’s fairly painless and simple. Just be aware. Do your research. Above all, go with the flow. Trying to control these situations can be maddening. Do what they say with a good attitude so you can get it done.

Pro-tip: Make friends in line - it will help pass the time.

Read further: The reality of teaching English in Cambodia.

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