There are many different places to live as an expat. In fact, any country other than your own would probably count, so you have hundreds of options! Most “expats” choose to live in comfortable countries with all of the modern amenities included. However, people are often surprised when I choose to live in “developing countries”. Although each country is different, these places often lack access to services that we would consider non-negotiable back in our home country.
Can you imagine renting an apartment in Canada and someone telling you that it didn’t have central heating and that you may figure out what to do during regular 12-hour power outages? I’m pretty sure you would say “No!” right away, and quickly leave to find another place that’s more suitable for your needs. But in reality, that’s the kind of decision I make all the time when working in development. Although many rich expats have ways around these problems (like hiring someone to wash your laundry by hand for you, or buying an expensive gas generator), these solutions are not in the budget of your average aid worker. Plus, it’s often important to live in local neighbourhoods instead of embassy neighbourhoods, for the sake of learning about the culture and understanding the people you’re there to work with. So, how can you cope?
So, I put together a little guide about the lack of services you may experience in different parts of the world, and how you can survive (and thrive) in situations you’ve never dealt with before! Here are some tips I have for being “an expat in a developing country”:
Electricity – Having electricity is pretty useful, and something a lot of people take for granted. Not only is it necessary to light your home at night and charge your electronics, but depending on where you live, it might also be necessary for heating/cooling your food, heating your home, and your ability to communicate with others! Wow, that’s quite a lot of things… If you want to know more about the best ways to cope with power outages in developing countries, you can read my blog about my different experiences with power outages in Ghana and Nepal.
What to do: If you don’t have electricity ever, then you just need to live a more simple lifestyle. Get up with the sun, only use electronics in your office, cook using gas/wood, etc. But this is not an easy lifestyle and takes a lot of getting used to (like camping – but permanently!). If you don’t have electricity occasionally, then there are a lot of different strategies you can use. A few I recommend most are: shopping daily for food (instead of worrying about meat and other produce in your fridge – which may or may not be cold), using multiple electronics for different purposes (instead of using your iPhone for reading books, alarm cloth, phone, camera, etc. – because what happens once your one gadget dies?), carrying a flashlight, and trying to figure out the electricity schedule in order to charge all your electronics when you can. You can also check what the system is like in the country you’re living in. Some countries even publish a schedule of when the power will be out (like in Ghana) and some are even more tech savvy (Nepal even has an app!).
Running Water: Running water is one of the hardest things to live without, which you’ll understand if you’ve ever been out camping in the woods. It’s possible for a few days, but not ideal permananently if you want to do ordinary things like clean your hands, cook vegetables, wear clean clothes, or wash your hair. In many countries, the running water is not potable (drinkable), at least not to you as a foreigner with a different immune system and hygienic standards. You may have to boil all water you’re going to drink (which is what we do, and isn’t actually as much of a hassle as you would think), or buy water for drinking. You may also live in a place where water has to be pumped up to a tank for your house, meaning if the power is out, there might not be water. If you live in a place where you have regular outages, it’s good to be prepared, and if you never have running water than you’ll just have to get used to your brand-new lifestyle.
What to do: If you don’t have running water for a short time, all you can do is wait until it comes back on, buy water, or borrow from a friend. If you consistently have shortages, I recommend keeping extra stores of water in buckets or other containers around your house. If you NEVER have running water, well then you just need to do what the local do. Do they get jugs delivered to their house? Do they walk to a local well with a bucket. Sometimes you just need to “rough it” and do what needs to be done. Living in a place for more than a few nights with no running water is not for the light of heart, so I wouldn’t recommend it if you have any other options. It’s especially bad if you happen to get sick (which happens often in these types of places) and don’t have ready access to toilets with running water…
Hot Water: Having water that isn’t arctic temperature is definitely a luxury. It’s especially nice when you’re in a cold climate and want to warm up with a hot shower. In many countries, hot water is simply not available unless you boil it yourself. In some of these countries, there are hot showers available (with a special machine attached to your shower – no, it doesn’t look safe with those wires hanging so close to the water, but you learn not to question it when you’re really cold). Even countries with hot showers often don’t have hot water straight out of the tap for things like washing dishes, doing laundry, or other things you need to do with water, like washing your hands. You can get used to it though (like I’ve done, many times).
What to do: It’s totally possible to live without hot water, especially in a hot country. Normally you just shower as normal, and if you’re cold then you can do it quickly. You can also take a “staggered shower”, where you only turn on the water to rinse off. If it’s just too cold and you can’t deal, another option is a bucket shower. It’s exactly as it sounds, you shower using a bucket, and it’s easier if you also have a sponge/cloth and a cup for rinsing. You simply boil some water, add it to cold water until you have the perfect temperature, and then take your “shower”. If you’re like my friends, you can also invest in friendships with richer people who have access to hot showers at their hotels or houses! Washing dishes and doing laundry with cold water is also a bit tricky (and can be cold on the hands), but you can boil water for these purposes as well if needed.
Laundry – Washing clothes isn’t exactly the most fun activity in any scenario, even if you have a machine. But once you’ve done your laundry by hand, you’ll be grateful that you have a washing machine next time you do laundry! I’m not just talking about a few pairs of underwear in the sink, I mean buckets of laundry with everything from socks coated in dirt, to heavy towels and blankets. Many developing countries do not have the infrastructure set up for laundry machines, so you’ll often have to do it by hand. No matter how long you live there, you’re never going to be able to hand-wash as well as a local who has been doing it their whole life, and they’re probably always going to think your clothes are at least a little bit dirty, but that’s okay, you’re learning!
What to do: You have a few options for clean clothes if you don’t have a laundry machine, depending on your time vs. budget. The cheapest things always take the most time, and the simplest options are often the most expensive (of course!). The most expensive option is to find a laundry place. Most non-western countries don’t have laundromats (where you just put coins in a machine), but they do have something like a dry cleaner almost anywhere. You drop off your clothes and pay per piece or kilo, and then you pick them up (usually the next day) – clean, dry, and ironed. Another option is to hire a local person to do your laundry, and there are often local women who already provide this type of service but they can be harder to find, and a bit tricky to negotiate with tact in a different culture. If you don’t have the budget, you’ll probably end up handwashing everything in a bucket, usually in your shower or out in the courtyard. This often takes multiple steps of soaking, scrubbing, rinsing, etc. It’s a lot of hard physical labour and takes many hours. Afterwards, you’ll need to hang it to dry on a line (hopefully you have one outside for big things that need the sun, and one inside for your unmentionables that may not be appropriate for the neighbourhood to see!). Depending on the country, you may also need to iron your clothes to avoid flies which have laid eggs on your clothes and can burrow into your skin when wearing the clothes later – gross! Your clothes will probably end up a little starchy and stiff, but they’re totally wearable!
Heating and Cooling – In many countries (even the pretty hot and relatively cool countries), they don’t have any sort of indoor temperature control. This means that no matter what temperature it is outside, it’s also that temperature inside. Countries without central heating/cooling also normally have lower building codes. This means that buildings are not well insulated from the elements, but often have thick cement walls that keep the cool temperatures inside, and have big gaps around doors that let the outside air in. You can be lying in bed shivering with all your clothes on or sweating with all your clothes off! If you’re Canadian (or Nordic) you probably think that you’re tough and can handle the cold weather. However, it’s a lot different when you’re the same uncomfortable temperature for 24 hours a day, with no opportunity to cool down/warm up.
What to do (in the cold): Layer up! Nothing beats lots of clothes for staying warm. It may be possible to buy a small heater for your room or office. If you live somewhere with lacking electricity, I recommend a gas/wood heating device, but if electricity is available then an electric heater is usually the most simple/safe. Hot water bottles are also often sold in pharmacies worldwide and can help to stay warm at night if you put them under the covers. Drinking lots of tea and going outside in the sun during the day can also help.
What to do (if it’s hot): Honestly, there’s not much you can do if you’re really hot but can’t get air conditioning. You can use fans but they often just blow the hot air around (and don’t work if the power is out). Cold drinks are good, wearing a hat, staying in the shade, wearing loose clothes. One thing I found that really helps for sleeping is to leave lots of water in small containers in the fridge during the day (water sachets – bags of water) work best but water bottles will also do. Then at night, you can take the bags and put them on your body. The cold won’t last very long, but it’ll hopefully cool you down enough to sleep.
Garbage and Recycling – Dealing with waste disposal can be quite different in each country. On top of the logistical problems, you may also encounter ethical dilemnas about what happens to it after you’ve gotten rid of it. In countries like Canada, you have the ability to separate your trash. If you live in a big city, you probably have the ability to recycle plastics, paper and metal, compost organic waste, and then you send the rest to the landfill. However, many countries don’t have recycling facilities, and if they do, they may not have a method of collecting from households. Even if there is waste collection, they may not have a proper process for getting rid of the waste – instead choosing to just burn it on the side of the road. There’s nothing worse than the smell of burning plastic…
What to do: You can only do what’s possible. If you live in a big city, there are probably already people living in poverty who look through the garbage for recyclables to sell. Try to figure out where they bring the recyclables or give your recyclables to them directly. If you live in the countryside (or somewhere with a yard), you may be able to start your own composting. You may also be able to reuse or up-cycle you discarded plastic or glass bottles into things around your house or garden. You may still have environmental dilemmas, but you can’t always solve them all on your own.
Moving to a developing country? Don’t worry, you’ll live. If you’re even considering it then you’re tough enough to handle any of these inconveniences! These may seem like big problems, but you get used to your new circumstances very quickly. If you can’t figure something out, simply ask the locals and they’ll show you the best way to handle any problem. Feel free to message me or comment on this post if you have more specific questions, and good luck with your new “normal”! 🙂