If you try to picture what it’s like to live in a 3rd world (developing) country, you may imagine living in a mud hut surrounded by poverty and hunger. Or you may imagine a fabulous life because it’s cheaper to live there and your money takes you further. You may imagine it to be dangerous, as developing countries are unstable and prone to violence. You may have even traveled to a developing country before so your imagination is somewhat informed. But living here is something else entirely. I know first-hand what it’s like to be an expat in a 3rd world country.
I’ve had the opportunity to live in Guatemala for the past two months, and it has given me such a different taste for what this country is all about. And when I say I’ve lived here, it’s not like the backpackers on the gringo trail that like what they’ve found and decide to stay at their hostel for a couple of months. I have been here for a work assignment, where I have a daily commute, routine and professional responsibilities. Every day I walk to my office and collaborate with my Guatemalan co-workers. I live in a home and I cook for myself. It’s a version of my regular life, only displaced to Central America. This is an important perspective to consider, and I want to share with you what it’s really like to live in a developing country…
Being on time is a loose concept.
Everything follows a looser concept of time here, whether it’s the time to arrive to work or to meet up with friends, everyone is always running late. There are no bus schedules, businesses open when they want. Waiting becomes part of the routine, as timeliness cannot be counted on.
There is wi-fi.
As an expat you’ll probably have this luxury, though it is of course not available to everyone. Many of the poorer folks will go to internet café’s in the middle of town where they can use the computers for about a dollar an hour.
Tuk-tuks and motorbikes take the place of cars.
Where transportation can be made smaller and cheaper, it has been done. The streets are filled with more motorbikes and tuk-tuks than you have ever seen before. These aren’t as safe or reliable as cars, and even at that the cars here are much older and their lives are extended as much as possible.
You’ll never really be clean.
Everything is dirty and the movement of dirt is something of a mystery. It somehow is always in your home, in your shoes, on your clothes and skin, and generally everywhere it doesn’t belong. This is especially exaggerated in open-concept type homes where you literally have to walk outside to get from your room to the shower. You can’t fight the dirt. Accept that your standards for cleanliness must be lower here.
Only drink bottled water.
This is true for tourists and expats alike. No matter how long you stay here, if you were born and raised here you just don’t have the proper gut bacteria to handle whatever is in this questionable tap water.
Everything is kind of falling apart.
Money is tight for everyone, individuals and the government alike. So you’ll often encounter rickety bridges, paint chipped off buildings, cars missing parts, walls crumbling, and makeshift solutions where proper tools aren’t available. Be careful, as there is no regulation at all to keep buildings or bridges safe. But also know that this is an unavoidable problem to deal with and that you probably won’t be hurt.
It’s cheap to live here.
It’s not free and there are certainly ways to whittle away your savings, but on the whole it’s much cheaper to live here. You can make you money last you longer when you’re in a developing country.
The cellular connection is spotty.
There are some good international plans out there and you could even go for a cheap local phone, but the cell towers are unreliable and you’ll probably drop more calls in a month here than you have in your whole life at home.
The bugs are vicious.
I find approximately ten new bug bites a day on my body. I think I’ll hit a world record soon. There are bugs, lots and lots of bugs, and they’re everywhere and they want to bite you all the time. You’ve been warned.
There are problems with stunting and obesity.
More so than the ever-popular emaciated poster child for developing country charities, the health problems have made a shift to obesity and noncommunicable diseases, just like in developed countries. There is definitely still malnourishment and lack of proper vitamin and nutrient intake, but this is manifested in the long term by stunting (low height for age) rather than underweight. Since urbanization makes available unhealthy foods for cheap and a more comfortable sedentary lifestyle, the problems of overweight and obesity are grossly apparent here.
Cultural norms are interesting to navigate!
Despite what anyone says, you’re not going to offend anyone if you don’t know the proper way of greeting someone in this country. You’re a foreigner and they don’t expect you to know. But once you learn, you should abide by those norms to be polite. For instance, in Guatemala you always greet people with a kiss on the right cheek. And you can never engage in a conversation without first exchanging “hello”s, “how are you?”s, and “good to see you”s.
There’s no enforcement of traffic rules.
That is, if there even are rules. No traffic cops will ever pull you over and give you a ticket here, as it seems there aren’t enough resources to police such a minor problem. Instead, they have speed bumps all over the place, forcing you to slow down or else tear up the bottom of your vehicle. And to avoid accidents you simply beep as you’re coming up on an intersection or passing by another car. It’s not sophisticated but it seems to work.
You can’t do your own laundry.
Washers and dryers are too expensive, most homes won’t have them. But there are lavanderia’s around town where you can take your laundry to be done for you, for pretty cheap. You may think this is a nice way to avoid chores, or perhaps weird to have a stranger handling all your dirty clothes. But either way, it’s a necessity.
Imported foods are available but the local stuff is better.
In an attempt to please tourists, there’s almost always a store that imports Oreo’s and peanut butter and potato chips to feed your craving for comfort food from home. And there is even a blossoming of the fast food chains like McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza in the major cities of developing countries. But the local food is always fresher and more flavorful. And it should be part of your experience to eat like those around you. Tortillas, chicken, rice, and limes are some of the staples here in Guatemala, and after spending so much time here I cannot stop myself from craving a twist of lime on every dish I eat!
You begin to resent the tourists.
The longer you live here the less you feel like a tourist, and more like a local. The tourists and touristy part of town will inevitably become an annoyance at some point. But remember that tourism is usually the biggest income for the economy, and it’s needed!
You need to speak the local language.
As a tourist, you can get by just about anywhere with speaking only English. Wherever you go, shops, restaurants, hotels, cater to tourists and make it as easy as possible to serve you and take your money. But when you live in a developing country you need to be able to speak the local language because your interactions, relationships, needs and wants, all extend beyond what’s available for the tourists. So even if you come unprepared and having learned no Spanish like me, you can start taking lessons when you arrive and it will help you immensely. Es verdad, creo que si!
Don’t touch the dogs.
There are stray dogs everywhere. Trying to manage this overpopulation problem is beyond the government is capable of addressing. So the street dogs are everywhere, they pick through the trash, get into territorial fights, and roam around in packs at night. Even if they look like dogs at home, they’re wild and dangerous and should not be touched.
You find ways to deal with the dirty produce.
As a tourist to developing countries, you’re warned extensively against eating the fresh produce. No fruits and veggies they say, nothing that hasn’t been cooked to a piping hot temperature. There is valid concern with this because the produce is handled and transported in rather unsanitary conditions and you never know what germs or disease you could pick up from one, ruining your trip. As an expat though, you can’t very well go for months without fresh fruit. Scurvy, anyone? So we clean our produce with biocide. It’s a necessary inconvenience.
Women get cat-called and men are offered drugs, constantly.
This doesn’t stop whether you’re an expat or a tourist. Find a way to deal with and not be too annoyed.
Exercise is a challenging proposition.
There is a severe scarcity of work-out gyms and nobody goes for a run in the street. So it is a challenge to find ways to exercise here!
Don’t expect a hot shower.
But be grateful when you find one!
Life is more survivalist.
Coming from a world-class city in a developed country, it’s striking to realize the difference between living and just surviving. Here there is far less consideration given to creating art, cultivating culture, progressing academic achievements, or creating a life that’s beautiful. Instead, there’s a general sense of hustle, hustle to make enough money and get enough food and continue to survive. Major movements and efforts are focused on raising the standards of living from the current level which is unspeakably low. As an expat we’re almost like observers because though it does impact the options and amenities available to us, the poverty doesn’t impact us directly .
There is a lot of incredibly beautiful nature to explore.
Due to the challenging nature of visiting a place like this, the natural attractions are generally unspoiled, and cheap to access. Take advantage of this opportunity to hike mountains and volcanoes, visit jungles and deserts, and see all of what this place offers!
Your friends will still be the gringos.
Even when you work and live with local folks, your best friendships will inevitably still emerge with other gringos. This makes sense, given that you share with them probably a high level of education, similarly comfortable upbringings in developed countries, and a passion for travel and adventure. The locals are usually very poor, uneducated, and have never left their home country or even hometown. This huge divide makes for great acquaintances but not so great friendships.
It’s harder to see the suffering.
When you’re thinking of developing countries you can easily picture a very desperate, poor situation. This is partly driven by the cunning marketing ploys of charities pulling at your heart strings to get to your wallet. But when you’re in the developing country, it’s not as apparent as they make you believe in the adverts. You have to know what you’re looking for. There is definitely suffering here, but it’s not in your face. The suffering is long term, it’s in the home, and it’s masked by the fact that no matter your circumstances, you find things to be happy about every day.
You’ll either want to stay forever or be happy to go home.
The expats I’ve met have all fallen into one or the other of these categories. For some, this place is so interesting and beautiful, relaxed and inexpensive, that they decide to open a bar here and stay here for life. For others though, being here is an eye-opening experience, something that changes their life, but that makes they return home with a renewed appreciation for all they have there.
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