Safety while travelling alone as a woman

I’ve been travelling across the world on my own since I was 15 years old.  I love to explore new countries. It’s fun to travel with others, but sometimes it just doesn’t work like that and you end up travelling on your own. It can be a bit scary at first until you learn how to be independent and try new things. It’s going to be a bit uncomfortable to do things in a new way, but once you get the hang of it, you feel great!  The first time taking a bus on your own through Dhaka and actually arriving at your friend’s house. When you finally feel like the lady at the tienda down the street understands what you’re asking for in Spanish. Catching your flight after navigating a long customs line and running through an airport to make it to your gate.  These are all stressful situations, but once you master them, you feel totally accomplished – like you can do anything!

Then a person comes along… They may be a stranger, a colleague, a friend, or even your mom.  They say “Are you sure that’s safe?”, or “You shouldn’t go there, because you might get murdered”, or “Did you hear about that tourist that was abducted just last week?”, or “What’s a small girl like you doing travelling all by yourself?”, or “You should go back to Canada and cook for your boyfriend.”.  They probably mean well, and have the best intentions at heart, but it totally sucks. Telling someone not to explore the world just because “it’s a scary place” is not productive.

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Working with Different Cultures

When you’re an expat in a new place, you have to get used to a new culture, with new types of people.  Since I work in international development, I’m always working with colleagues and “clients” from different countries. Primarily, the country that I happen to be working in, but that’s not always the case. I also end up working with other people from all walks of life:

  • Young and old
  • Men and women
  • Liberals and conservatives
  • Christians and Muslims
  • Volunteers and directors
  • Partiers and quiet types
  • Locals and international staff
  • Every profession imaginable….

A lot of jobs these days have a requirement along the lines of “Values diversity”. It’s always a tough thing to answer. Of course, I value diversity, I’ve worked all over the world. But what do you actually say? “I worked with “x” group of people and they contributed a lot…” – not great I think. But I do love that working with a diverse group of people is included on job applications. Of course, some are probably just doing that for legal purposes or corporate social responsibility reasons, but probably not all of them.  I really do think that having a diverse group is more likely to get you new opinions. Although this might cause a bit more discussion, I think it will ultimately lead to the most successful “product” for your organization.

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Picky Eater in a Strange Land

For as long as I can remember, I’ve only eaten simple foods. If you ask me what I don’t like… well, it’s probably easier for me to tell you what I do like. I explain to people that I eat like a four-year old, so whatever your little niece or nephew likes, I probably do too. People laugh and think I’m joking, but then I list the foods I don’t eat and they stop laughing. “Huh, you were serious…”.  I mostly eat a lot of bread and cheese, in various forms. When I tried to ask my Spanish teacher what the right word would be, she just said difficult. I guess it’s appropriate but doesn’t feel great. :p

Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. I can cook, and my boyfriend is a good cook, and we eat a lot of meals at home with the ingredients I like. He makes food for me and then adds extra stuff for himself like hot sauce or mushrooms. In Canadian restaurants, I can always find something I like. When I’m travelling, or living in another country… that’s a different story!

Ghana was the first time I had lived in a “non-western” country for an extended period of time. For those of you who don’t know, Ghana is on the coast in western Africa. This means that the food is spicy, fermented, and there’s lots of fish – not exactly my favourites! While my colleagues were ripping of pieces of fermented dough like fufu to dip in their spicy peanut sauce or grab a hunk of tilapia (a white fish), I was learning how to eat with my hands. I had to emphasize to restaurants that “No, I don’t want any of that extremely spicy black sauce. No, not even a little. Yes, I know it’s boring without it.” They would laugh at me for eating “baby food” but serve me plain rice with chicken anyway. I ended up eating a plastic bag of plain rice with a hard-boiled egg, and maybe a small piece of chicken every day for lunch. Fortunately, I had my own kitchen so I could eat anything I wanted at home. Unfortunately, there were constant power outages and I had a major ant problem in my house so I ate a lot of staples – like pasta. I had to keep all my food on a table in the kitchen so the ants couldn’t find it. One time, I tried to eat some leftover vegetables and chicken that had been in the fridge during the daily black-outs – it was my first time getting food poisoning, and I gave it to myself. How embarrassing!

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Living Without Modern Luxuries

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.

powerCan 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”:

electronicsElectricity – 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!).

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Life as a Traveler vs. Life as an Expat


Walking the streets of Venice, Italy

A lot of people think that traveling the world is very exciting, and it is! It’s interesting to learn about new cultures, it’s fun to try new activities you may have never even heard of, and it’s (sometimes) yummy to try new foods! But when most people picture this around-the-world adventure, they picture traveling as a tourist. Everyone is having fun all the time on vacation, right? That may work for 2-3 weeks, but after that, you will probably start to get tired, and one cathedral just blurs into the next. It can be overwhelming for some people.

Living out of a Suitcase

Say you’re European and have a gap year, where you’re planning to go with your boyfriend on an epic adventure and back-pack around the world. Sounds great! Some people really do love doing this, but I’m not one of them, and I know a lot of people are like me. Living out of a suitcase isn’t always glamorous, and a backpack is even worse! In fact, a lot of these people end up stopping for a month or two in Sucre, Bolivia (where I’m living right now) because it’s a great city to chill, volunteer, and take Spanish classes while regrouping for the next leg of your adventure across South America.

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Getting Sick While Abroad

Living in another country is like a roller-coaster of emotions.  Sometimes you feel great: you love your job, enjoy all the food, and you’re fitting in with the local community.  Sometimes you feel lousy: the traffic is loud, you hate your new roommates, and you’re having a hard time making friends.  However, the hardest thing for me while living abroad is getting sick.

I’m sitting on the ground of my room, crying in the dark.  I call my mom on Skype.  “What’s wrong?” she asks.  “Everything!” I pout.  “I ‘m sick, so I made soup.  It was my last package, but I made it on the gas stove in the dark because the power is out.  My roommate moved out and I don’t have any friends. When I finished the soup, I tried to grab something and the soup spilled all over me, burning my arm, so I dropped it.  Now there’s soup all over the floor, mixed with pieces of broken glass!  It’s so hard to clean up because it’s dark and I don’t have enough water… But if I don’t clean it up then the hundreds of ants will come back.  I’m tired, and I’m sick, and I’m hungry – so here I am, crying on the floor.”

dscn8825Being sick makes everything worse!  Each little thing individually is fine – I’m flexible, I can handle it.  I know how to wash food off the floor.  I can read for hours by candle-light if necessary.  I’m not that sad about breaking a cheap bowl, I can live without it.  But when you’re sick, everything just comes together to make a super-storm of negativity.  Everything physical seems harder because you’re in pain.  Anything emotional seems super intense because you’re exhausted.  You don’t want to be social because showering and smiling seems like a lot of work, but then you feel lonely.  EVERYTHING SUCKS! But you’re sick – so what do you do?

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Christmas on the beach

christmas-mexico-2014-steveMy family has never been traditional. We’ve never been the type of family who does things like all the others. That means, over the holidays we do have traditions, but they’re our own traditions. For example, instead of putting importance on decorating the tree, stringing popcorn on strings, having a nativity scene and singing carols – we do our own thing. Our traditions include wearing our pyjamas all day on Christmas Eve and ordering Chinese Food to eat while we watch girly movies. On Christmas Day, we normally volunteer at a church or shelter to serve a Christmas dinner to those less fortunate, and sit down to eat with them once we’re done serving in order to have company from people who may be alone over the holidays. We even hung our Christmas tree from the ceiling, and talked a lot more about what we’re grateful for then actually giving tons of expensive presents. It’s not for everyone, but it’s perfect for our little family of 3.

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5 Ways to Make Friends in a New Country

I consider myself to be an experienced travel. No matter how stressed I get in the days and weeks before I actually leave for a new place, I know that once I get there I can handle whatever this place throws at me! I’ve gone through challenges before, and I’m tough enough to overcome the new ones I might encounter. I’ve been evicted, lost my phone, missed flights, experienced new religions, communicated with people who only speak a different language, and figured out how to take public transportation. But one of the hardest things to do in any country is to make new friends!


It’s important to stay in touch with friends and family back home through Skype, email, and postcards, but it’s not enough.  When you’re in a new place you want to experience it.  You should be checking out festivals, trying local beers, finding the best street food, and learning how to salsa – all of which are a lot more fun with some friends! In Canada, most people make friends through work, school, and friends of friends, but that’s a lot more difficult in a new place where you may not have those networks. So, what do you do if you’re travelling or moving on your own and you don’t know anybody yet?  Here are my top 5 tips for making friends in a new city:

#1 – Stay in a hostel when you first arrive
Depending on why you’re moving, you may already have a place set up by your school or company. However, if you don’t, it’s often cheaper and easier to look for accommodation once you arrive. While you’re looking, you can stay in hostel for a few days or weeks until you get settled. Hostels often have a lot of events for the people staying there. Various hostels I’ve stayed at over the years have different activities, like pub crawls, movie nights, day excursions, volunteer opportunities, and cooking classes. Most of these events are attended by young people from other countries who are also looking for new buddies, and are super open to making new friends. Even if you don’t have time to attend all these events – just knowing that the hostel has a special drink night at a certain local bar every Tuesday night, means that you can go to that bar on your own in a few weeks and try to meet up with people as well. Hostels are a great place to get oriented to the social activities available in a new place.

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Balancing Careers And Family Life As An Expat

Here is part two of our collaborative series with the women of  Knocked Up Abroad Again. This week, we look at how to you accommodate the needs of two independent people, who are now a couple, but have different careers, family concerns, etc. when choosing where and how to travel for work?
Amanda + Steve - Ottawa, 2016 - Friend's wedding.jpgAmanda
: For the past 3 years, I have been working in the world of International Development.  Since most of the work is contract, I’ve also been doing the “long-distance thing” with my boyfriend in Canada during my last two contracts (5 months in Ghana, and 7 months in Bangladesh/Nepal).  This time, my contract is for an entire year in Bolivia, so my boyfriend agreed to take a year off work (he’s a Chiropodist – a foot and ankle specialist) to come travel with me.  We both agreed that it’s a good chance to explore the world, work on our Spanish, and live outside of Canada to learn about a new culture.  I know it’s really difficult to find someone to uproot their life to join you on your newest adventure, and I feel really lucky to have such a sweet guy here with me on my journey!

As women with families, how do you balance the needs of each member of your family (partner and kids included)? Assuming that you have different careers, different family needs back at home, and different friend groups – how do you come to a compromise?  How do you decide what jobs to take, where to live, how long to stay in one place, and how often to see your families “back-home”?  It seems a bit easier for us since we’re only 2 people, without a lot of commitments, and no kids or family responsibilities yet – but how can we make it work over the years to come?  I would love to hear any tips, advice, or recommendations you have from your years of experience!

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The Pressure to “Settle Down”

Everyone is impacted by the society around them, whether they like it or not.  You may not care what other people think, but that isn’t going to stop them from telling you what you “should do” or asking you why you haven’t done it yet.  It’s not just the people around you either, it’s everything around you every day.  My Facebook is constantly filled with weddings, engagements, and babies.  TV shows are all about finding love (“The Bachelor”), getting married (“Say Yes to the Dress”), or life with kids (“19 Kids and Counting” or almost any sitcom…).

Anne's Wedding - Toronto, 2016

This pressure is especially strong for women, who are told they need to have all the kids they want before they’re 35, apparently for health reasons.  I don’t think there’s a woman over 25 who hasn’t been asked about her future plans to marry and have babies.  In fact, I remember when my friends and I were about 23.  A friend of mine had a bit of a freak-out because she was newly single.  She reasoned that she was 23, which meant she was almost 25, which meant she was almost 30! She was single and needed to find a guy RIGHT AWAY – so that her timeline of dating for 2 years, engaged for 1 year, married for 1 year, and then 2-3 kids before 30 could come to fruition!  Man – that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, and it doesn’t help if the society around you agrees.

Kim's Bachelorette Party - Toronto, 2016

This feeling is exacerbated by being a nomad, a traveller, someone who isn’t in one place for an extended period of time.  It’s not easy finding a partner if you’re only in a country for a few days or weeks at a time.  It’s difficult to decide where you want to live permanently (or even if you want to live in one place) if you’ve been to so many beautiful places around the world.  Some people don’t want kids – or if they do, they may not want to have them in a country where the hospitals aren’t as well-equipped, or they don’t have a family support system to help them out.  There are a lot of barriers to the “typical American dream” lifestyle when you travel all the time.

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