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10 things you must know before your first trip to a developing country

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By Alix Farr, Editor

It can be incredibly rewarding to travel in the 'developing' world but if you're used to being on the road exclusively in the West, or accustomed to luxury hotels, there are likely to be a few challenging moments. A sense of humor and some preparation can go a long way in helping to keep the journey going smoothly. Or at least as smoothly as one could expect from the back of a rickety moped.

1. Learn toilet paper etiquette

Many sewage systems aren't built to handle toilet paper, so yes, that trash can next to the toilet is probably there for you to toss your used T.P. in. In many countries, it's also common to pay an attendant to receive a small portion of toilet paper at a public restroom, and others don't have paper in restrooms at all (or even an actual toilet) -- best to always keep some with you (and be prepared to squat).

2. Don't drink the water

The locals may drink out of the tap, but their immune systems have had a lifetime to build up an immunity to what's in the water. Stock up on bottled water -- or, for a more eco-friendly option, bring along a portable water filter (like the MSR SweetWater Microfilter) or a sterilizer (like Steripen) -- and use it exclusively. Also be wary of fresh fruits and vegetables, like salads rinsed in tap water before being served. It's usually best to stick to cooked foods and to rinse off any fruits with filtered or boiled water before you take a bite.

3. Be a good bargain hunter

Bargaining is an art, but it isn't meant to be a winner-take-all competition. Offer a lower price, go back and forth a bit, and then settle somewhere fair -- don't get overly aggressive over what amounts to a dollar or two. You should also do a bit of research into what areas of the economy, other than the typical market setting, operate with a bargaining system. For example, in many countries, taxis are not metered and you should agree on a price to the destination with the driver before you get in the car.

4. Don't resist bribes

Never been asked for a bribe before? It may be subtle -- a customs officer telling you he's hungry and asking for some lunch money before he lets you pass through, for example. Unfortunately, asking for bribes is incredibly common in many countries, and fighting corruption is futile in such small instances. It's aggravating, but you aren't going to fix a country's political issues in your two-week-long vacation, and it's best not to get in a feud with the law.

5. Donate wisely

One of the most overwhelming parts of visiting a developing country can be witnessing extreme poverty. While it is tempting to hand out your spare change to beggars on the street, it is generally accepted that this does not bring about meaningful change in their lives. This is especially true for child beggars, whose begging is only encouraged by your donation when they should be in school. Instead, research ways to contribute to the economy wisely, like visiting locally-owned hotels and restaurants, and donate to local organizations that offer better solutions to poverty.

6. Don't assume everyone is trying to rob you

You should absolutely be smart about what you pack and wear when you travel. Leave behind your most precious jewelry, don't flash your expensive camera around, keep your cell phone hidden when you aren't using it. Also, get a good map and have a trusted local point out spots where it's best not to wander. But after you've taken some common-sense precautions, don't let fear guide your actions. Most people who talk to you really are just being friendly, and it would be a shame to miss those connections.

7. Be respectful

How would you feel if a tourist took a photo of you without your permission while you were wandering down the street in your hometown? Exercise the same courtesy that you'd expect of others. Ask before you take photos. Don't gawk. Be kind and friendly. Try not to judge. These are just regular people living their lives.

8. Learn a little of the local language

There are many places, especially in Northern Europe, where you can get by on English alone while traveling, but that isn't always the case in the developing world. Learn some basic phrases and bring a pocket dictionary to ease communication, especially if you plan to dig deeper than the most popular tourist attractions.

9. Don't let the clock rule your trip

Did you buy an out-of-town bus ticket for 4:30pm? Is it 4:45pm and everyone is standing around casually with no bus in sight? The bus will come. You will get to your destination. Much of the world does not operate by the same strict adherence to scheduling as you do, and that's ok.

10. Be flexible

In matters more than just timing, you will need to be flexible. Your hotel may have no record of your reservation. Your guide may decide to not show up on a moment's notice (or without notice at all). Your only means of getting to a destination might be on a tiny, cramped 15-passenger van (loaded with 30 people). That overcrowded van may then break down several times along the route. Take deep breaths and roll with the punches.

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