Advice for visiting a developing country

William, a loyal MR reader, asks:

What advice do you have for an aspiring development economist visiting a developing country for the first time?

He is a rising sophomore from a very good university and has strong interests in economics.  The locale is Cape Town, although the question is about general advice.  My tips are the following:

1. Learn as quickly as you can what is safe and what is not.  In Brazil taxicabs are pretty safe, in Mexico City they are not.  This will take some doing and in the meantime be very careful.  Have a prearranged safety net if you lose everything to a thief.

2. Do not get drunk take drugs or patronize prostitutes.  Really,  It is a path to trouble and if you want to do it save it for a more familiar environment.

3. Try out the various transportation networks in the region, the more inconvenient the better.

4. Attend a religious ceremony or fiesta or both.

5. Make sure you visit some small farms.

6. Immerse yourself in the music of the place — I don’t mean the most commercial musics — before you go and then of course after you arrive.  This is more valuable and more "real" than reading the literature, which is often intended for outsiders.  Of course read some non-fiction on the place as well.

7. See if you can teach or attend a class in a local school.

8.  Eat the street food.

9. Do not rule out the idea of romance, keeping #2 in mind and noting that cross-cultural romantic signals are often misunderstood.  This is a tricky one but it is the #1 teacher if it works out not to mention the romantic benefits.

10. Count the number of Indians and Chinese and Lebanese (and sometimes Koreans) around and draw inferences from that data.

11. If you can, arrive with a well-defined hypothesis in mind.   But don’t think you can collect all the data on one trip, you probably can’t.

12. Realize that you probably won’t understand all the times that people are telling you "no."

Learning the language goes without saying.  I suspect Chris Blattman can add to this list, can you?

Addendum: Here are Chris’s tips.


Cook it, peel it or forget it. Personally, I would not eat street food in most countries.

Forego the ice (even in strong drinks) and only drink from sealed containers.

When shopping in local markets (it may or may not apply to bigger stores), assume the prices you're asked are way too high. If possible, take a local with you, they will know what prices are appropriate. On the other hand you may argue the prices are far lower than at home and haggling is not really your thing and just pay what's asked. Some find this to be a sort of development aid.

Be wary of discussing politics and religion. Depends a lot on the culture in question, though.

Carry sublingual (i.e. the type that can be used without water) diarrhea medication with you (in your wallet or some such) and have a broadband antibiotic in your suitcase.

I can't emphasize this one enough, though it's surprising how many people forget it: keep your opinions about the country, its lifestyle, culture, and folkways, to yourself. At least while you are there. What your mother told you is true: if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

Chances are your hosts are not in a position to do much about the beggars, prostitutes, and stray dogs, so your offer of quick solutions to these problems ("Why don't they hire some dogcatchers around here?") is unlikely to impress them, and will only put them on the defensive.

Mention wanting to visit a neighboring country.

Thanks for all the advice!

I'm not sure what exactly 12 is supposed to mean, though. Can you elaborate?

The line between (2) and (9) is not always very clear cut...

Avoid saying how rich you are, or saying anything about how good you live.. pepole will hate ya for that..

Also note that you can easily spend weeks in Cape Town without realizing South Africa has poor areas! This is true of many middle-income countries. We tend to think only of the average incomes when comparing countries, when, in fact, there are many, many people in places like Argentina, Mexico and South Africa who live lifestyles that would seem normal to any American.

So mission one if you're interested in development: actually go to the poor part.

@Will, re 12:
A very interesting (german) blog explaining the U.S. to Germans once offered the following pieces of advice regarding discussion with Americans: "I wonder if this is really the best solution" tranlated “nein†. "I’m wondering if we might need more time" means “nein† and "We might want to review some parts of the project" means “nein†.

I think that illustrates the point: even though most Germans learn English for 6 to 9 years in school, it would never occur to most of them that someone would be that reluctant to say "no" when they mean "no". People in the countries you visit may have the same or even more reservations regarding saying "no" and significantly different ways to, err, paraphrase it.

If you are in the capital city,
1. Take a look at how nice the central bank building is relative to its surroundings.
2. Note the queue (if any) at the American embassy/consulate of locals who want visas.
3. Spend one night at the theatre, even if you don't know the language.

in the main, this advice also works well for getting to know a developed European country -- I've done a lot of the positive things quite rewardingly in Paris, for example.

Feel free to get tipsy. Avoid at all costs becoming incoherently drunk. Prostitutes, if you are willing the disease risk, are generally safe if you arrange them through your hotel, or tour guide. These people make a good portion of their income from setting up these dalliances. Also, while taxis in Mexico City may not be safe, this is not the case for Mexico's mot beautiful city, Guadalajara.

Carry some small gifts for children of people you meet. Nothing too fancy -- you don't want to seem patronizingly affluent, nor do you want to create situations of jealousy or fighting over things. One of those things where you pull the string and it makes different animal noises, or a Transformers figure for slightly older kids, that kind of thing.

Of course gift customs vary widely so you need to find out first what is appropriate. (But that is just necessary in any case -- you can end up in just as bad trouble for failing to give something when you should.)

My best advise is to live as similar as you can to the locals. Have an open mind, forget about your domestic lifestyle, and try to assimilate yourself into their culture for as long as you are there. Eat what they eat, listen to what they listen, celebrate what they celebrate (and in the same manner). Take every opportunity to talk with the locals, assuming language barriers are not high. It has been my experience abroad (most extensively in Russia, and most recently in Indonesia) that people are open to talk about their life in general terms and thoughts about the future. Lots of times they are as curious about your thoughts as you are theirs. Try to makes friends that will let you "hang out" with them and their friends. Finally, know the history of the country. It is fascinating to "see" how their history has influenced their culture and perspective for the future. If you show that you took the time to learn about the county and the people, then they will open up much more to you.

I've yet to be disappointed with staying in a lower end hotel. I can't always say that about pricey ones.

Visit fresh vegetable/meat/fish markets and watch.

Ask where you can buy old stuff. When you get there ask where you can buy old stuff.

Bargain hard. You'll learn something and get to know people.

Over tip. Support the local economy. "Drop helicopter money."

Take plenty of pens for school children.

Visit one room schools. Everyone wants to practice their English.

1) Beware the jaded development worker and ex-pats. Take their stories with a grain of salt.

2) Concerning RSA, remember that apartheid fell only 14 years ago. Be prepared for differences ... and the oh-so-awkward moments when race comes up on conversation.

3) Always have toilet paper in your pocket. Trust me. I can't tell you how many orphaned socks i have.

4) if you're riding local transport and depending on the terrain (i.e. if you're prone to motion sickness), you may need to bring a bag just in case.

5) Concerning local transport ... they usually do not stop for bathroom breaks. Go when you can.

6) When getting directions, ask more than one person.

7) It's not cool to look like a slob. Dress professionally.

8) If you are American, don't be embarrassed about it. I got so sick of people being all embarassed about W and saying "I'm canadian."

9) And be careful about political and religious conversations with people you don't know. Just keep a good head on your shoulders when those subjects come up.

10) Learn how to take a "fake photograph" if you have a film camera.

11) If hiking remotely, be smart. Oh, and bring smokes ... offering one up to curious herders can get you quickly in their good graces.

12) Have fun. Cape Town is really modern and one of the most beautiful cities I've been to (but do get out to the rural areas). Just watch your back, but don't be paranoid.

I have tons more. Cheers

Real story: I was a part of a government delegation who visited Morocco a month ago. A few hours after arriving in Rabat, a colleague of mine ate a meat sandwich from a street vendor in the busy central market of the city. Nothing happened to her. Two days later, we all went to a fancy reception at the house of an ambassador. The next morning, I was so sick I couldn't get out of bed and lost a very important meeting.

So I guess point (8) is not that far-fetched...

You have included some really good information here. You need to be aware of what is safe when you go to a new Town and be aware of the fact that many people are out to grab your money espescially taxi drivers. You can learn about the Country on the internet before you go. Staying soba is good advice, but if you are somewhere safe you may want a drink on holiday. Some great advice though.


Like one of the other commenters, I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this post and seeing some of the impressions of South Africa.

South Africa is full of contrasts, and Cape Town has most of them. In the right places, Cape Town is as first world as you get.

I agree with the suggestion to not offer suggestions to how to solve the countries problems. Listen, ask, and get involved but be careful not to shove solutions down our throats. The reason many choose to call themselves Canadian is a bit of a prejudice against `American Arrogance'.

In the same way as many people see Africa as a country, lots of us don't see America as a continent (as we should) and that every American is an individual.

Some hints

1) Tap water in Cape Town is awesome (judge by the quality of the tap ;-) ). I still find the idea of bottled water in SA's major cities very funny.

2) I studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Like other universities, you can just rock up on the campus and wander into lectures if you fancy. Hang out on `Jammie Steps' and you might just sort out that romance suggestion.

3) You'll get by with English. Learning a few greetings etc. in the other languages will be handy just to bring smiles to peoples faces.

It is a friendly country... enjoy.

About romance... when you're young you learn languages in your baby crib, when older, you learn them in your bed.

A neat trick I discovered in Ecuador - if you have an iPod, bring it. It was a great ice-breaker/bonder with the under-30 crowd. They know what an iPod is, though may not have played with one before. They also tend to be very curious about American music...which made me feel a bit self-conscious, since my tastes are *very* atypical, and my Spanish wasn't good enough to be sure I got that point across. On the other hand, it did make for a great social lubricant and instant bonding.

If you don't want to trust that the person you are talking to won't run off with it, keep the iPod in your hand, but give them the ear buds:)

Instead of Ben's #3, learn how to use the toilet the "local" way. Carrying around TP is annoying, you'll eventually forget, and once you figure it out washing with water (the preferred method in all the developing countries I've been to) actually feels cleaner. Don't know what I'm going to do when I go back to the States.

In regards to #9, I think this deserves many more caveats than have been given. At least where I am (SE Asia) I have observed numerous white guy-local woman relationships and only a handful weren't at the core exploitative. Dating a white guy is considered by a considerable subset of society to be prestigious and there's also the inevitable money issue where even drifter English teachers make several times what college-educated young locals make. So every white guy has tons of local women throwing themselves at him, and they have their pick. They tend to form "real" boyfriend-girlfriend relationships but at the core is a not-so-subtle exchange of sex and hotness (these guys would never have such hot women at home) for spending power. The guy can always get another girl in an instant if the first acts up. It's not prostitution, but in practice the line is disturbingly blurry. I've seen so many relationships like this and so few that seem to be truly genuine that I'm quite cynical about the whole endeavor.


Imagine if the roles were reversed and a man was complaining that women had too much spending money, too much sexual freedom, and too much freedom of choice in general... a bit of a Sex and the City double standard on your part, don't you think?

Another problem for you perhaps is that SE Asian women tend to have a naturally slight build, and age less visibly. So Western women obsessed with body image, weight, aging skin, etc. feel a little more threatened somehow, unnecessarily so.

Anyways, why not loosen up, let go of the jealousy, and find yourself some local guy to "exploit"?

If you're visiting a new area, meet with the local traditional authorities. I don't know how this works in SA (as I've never been there), but this has been immensely helpful here in Malawi. The village headmen know everybody for miles and miles around, and can point you in the right direction if you're looking for answers to specific questions. They'll have the answers to a lot of your questions themselves as well. Also (again, here in Malawi at least) meeting with the village headman is really the cordial thing to do if you're going to be spending more than a day in the area. It will put you in the good graces of an influential person, and if you get into a spot of trouble, you might be glad that you've acquainted yourself with the traditional authorities; it will give you a tad more legitimacy yourself.

Find someone who knows the chief/headman/whoever fairly well and have that person with you when you go, to give a formal introduction. This is extremely preferable to just showing up at the headman's home and saying Howdy Doody.

On 8, the rule I learnt was "Eat the street food if it's freshly cooked and you can see them cooking it. If you can't eat the street food, eat packaged food (fruit or artificial packaging) or eat at McDonalds. If you can't follow those rules, then at least don't order any exotic dishes. "

The two cases of food poisoning I've ever had were not from eating street food. I think what's happening is that foreign bugs are about as likely in a restaurant as at a street stall, but are far more likely to breed in food that's been sitting around for a while, which in turn is far more likely to happen in a kitchen with a bit more space than a street stall.

Regarding language, the point that Margaret Mead was seriously hoaxed is dead on.
However, for most people, unless they are going for an extended period with a long
period for preparation, telling them to "learn the language" is not very useful,
although, of course, doing so is always excellent.

More practical in most cases is to make an effort to learn at least some phrases
and to take a phrase book or dictionary with one. Among the most useful are "please"
and "thank you" and "hello" and "goodbye" and "where is the toilet" and "how much does
this cost" and "a menu please," and, that especially important one/two, "excuse me" and
"I am very sorry."

Well, all the advice depends on what part of the world your "developing country" is located.

My experience from traveling in China and Southeast Asia:

1 Avoid tourist areas. The experience is almost always artificial, and rip-offs are far more common than elsewhere.

2 Eat street food. Asian food is generally safe, tasty and often the choice is between paying Western prices for Western meals or paying almost nothing for great food. Crowds of local patrons is a good sign.

3 Taxis are cheap and generally reliable (except for language problems)

4 Practice squatting over toilets. Bring paper.

5 Don't drink tap water.

6 Eat everything.

7 Walk through unfamiliar areas (I practice a sort of "vague directionality with random deviations")

8 Above all, look as if you live in the place and know where you're going: no cameras, shorts or sunglasses! Be tall and confident. The combination short-sleeved shirt, jeans, sneakers and a briefcase is my preferred choice in hot weather.

9 Carry money in your pockets, and leave the rest in your hotel safe.

10 Spend money on food and drinks. Don't buy actual "things" unless you would buy them at home.

I live in Cape Town and have also traveled extensively. South Africa is a nation where wealth (classy infrastructure) and poverty (underdevelopment) co-exist (albeit in an often mutually exclusive nature) - a condition understandable due to the country's past. Not surprisingly, foreigners often cast big South African cities into the the same mold as other developing nations (like Brazil), which isn't a terribly useful mental model for a traveler. My comments on Cowen's points below, with respect to major South African cities:

1) True, but I recommend doing this groundwork before arriving here. Learning "the hard way" might cost you more than you bargained for. So make some South African friends on Facebook, and talk to them before getting here.

2) Apply your judgment. Stay out of bad areas (you hopefully wouldn't wander into them anyway), but do as you please in richer parts of the city. South Africans are very tolerant, although men do enjoy the odd fistfight (Capetonians are notoriously docile, mind you).

3) No. The more uncomfortable forms of transport here will probably leave you feeling bitter and frustrated, not enlightened. Stick to cheap taxis (no metro, sorry).

4) Who's? It's impossible to pin down any homogeneous South African culture, as several ethnicities with different cultures and religions co-exist simultaneously. Not all South Africans are black (but we are all still Africans). Rather try to get to a barbecue. South African's call this a "braai", and it is pervasive across all cultures :-)

5) I wouldn't bother. But maybe that's because I've seen small local farms before.

6) Refer to point (4). OK, there are some local music styles- "Kwaito" is pretty well known. But you will find international music at 95% of the parties you end up at.

7) Again, I refer to the divide between the privileged and underprivileged. Try to see both, and formulate your own opinion. (A friend of mine from Chicago recently visited Cape Town on an international medical scholarship, and was positively aghast at the disparity between public and private hospitals. It almost made her ill.)

8) Agreed!

9) Enthusiastically agreed!

10) Stop right there. Indians are a NATIVE ethnic population in South Africa- my own ancestors all trace back to India, yet I am many generations South African. So be careful when deciding who is an immigrant and who isn't. The numbers of Chinese here are high!

11) Most people's hypothesis of South Africa are shattered upon arrival, but good luck. It helps massively if you have a local friend to abuse as a guide.

12) Don't worry, Western culture persists here, too.

Just my honest thoughts; I hope that they help inform your next trip to South Africa. Lekker bru!

Uh, skip the farms?

Only if you don't drink wine! There are some fantastic small wine farms close to Cape Town, in beautiful settings. DO NOT SKIP THE WINE FARMS!

If you want to catch a ride on a local taxi, mail me, I find it a very authentic experience of the life representative South Africans endure. I have had some of my most entertaining experiences on local taxis, but they're tough to navigate, and you need to know how to avoid being ripped off. Taxis between UCT and Claremont are easy and safe to take during the day. I also used to catch the Lavender Hill taxi every now and again when I was younger - a very different experience to taking the Rondebosch-Claremont route. Lavender Hill and Mannenberg are both similarly impoverished areas.

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In my experience, street food is usually fine as long as it is cooked - I got a parasite from a meal in a fancy hotel but have never gotten sick from street food.

Learn at least a few words in a local language, particularly a greeting and "Thank you." Knowing these few words will take you a very long way.

Know the names of the local politicians and political figures and some information about them - people will be much more willing to talk to you if they see that you understand what they're talking about.

two things-

1- I strongly disagree with Christopher M on his gifts point. When traveling in the developing world, you should NOT be handing out presents except in situations where locals traditionally give gifts. In rural Benin, many children will approach foreigners and demand 'cadeaux' (gifts) or ask what you have brought for them. I like to respond with "interesting ideas and lots of questions", "a few hours of fun", "my wonderful self", "why? did you bring a gift for me too?" or (in regions where I think the santa claus reference will be understood), "my name is not papa noel- did you forget my real name?' -- these responses generally get a laugh from kids and their parents alike, and help counteract stereotypes, etc, etc, though anything you say will be funnier and better received if spoken in the REAL local language, which leads to number 2

2- "Learning the language goes without saying." when in africa, try to learn the REAL (read: non-colonial) local language! this effort will be deeply appreciated by everyone you meet, and will open up important doors of communication- in many countries, older people (and especially older women) never had the opportunity to go to school and therefore speak only their language, and most kids under 7 or 8 won't speak the colonial language either.
if you follow #3 on the list above (and you should!) it is also nice to know what your taxi companions are saying (about you...), and knowing even the salutations of a language can get you out of all kinds of jams. for example, i was once a long way from home and desperately needed to use a bathroom. i saw a sort of grouchy looking old lady and knew she wouldn't speak french. but because i was able to greet her properly according to local custom, she totally warmed up and called for her grandson to come help, and he promptly escorted me to the latrine behind their home. in general, i found that people were extremely proud to share their language with me and extremely pleased when i said the most basic things in the language (aja/mina in this case).

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