After living in Papua New Guinea (PNG) for about 4 1/2 years, I’ve learned a little about what it’s like to live in a developing nation. I’ve grown to love so many things about this place, but there are still times I remember those surprising moments of my first visit here. Some sights and smells might still seem new periodically, and they remind me that this world really is so different than my home culture – even though I call PNG home for now.
If you’re planning to visit a third world country or have ever considered it, this list might be helpful to you. A short term mission trip is a great way to be introduced to a developing nation as well.
10 Things to Know Before Traveling to a Third World Country
1. You are wealthy. If you have money in a bank account, own a house and/or car, and are even considering international travel, consider yourself wealthy. Your plane ticket probably costs more than the average citizen of that nation will make in a couple of years worth of work.
2. Go as a learner. While some people might seem uneducated to you, realize that knowledge is relative. Sure, I might have a masters degree in education, but I couldn’t ever survive if I had to build my own bush style house or be a sustenance farmer. The people here in PNG have taught me so many life skills – ones I’m convinced I would’ve never learned in an academic institution. While you’re there, ask someone to teach you to do something new such as scrape a coconut or cook a new kind of food.
3. You will stand out. More than likely, you won’t look like the average citizen, especially since we’ve already established the fact that you are wealthy. Be prepared to be stared at. In some places, you may get positive attention; in other places, you may be a target for theft. Keep your valuables in a safe place.
4. Some unexpected things just might be taboo in that country. Try to learn a little about the values of the new culture before you go, and pay attention to cultural practices while you are there. For example, here in PNG, it is offensive for a man and woman to hold hands in public. However, it is perfectly acceptable for two men to walk holding hands.
5. People might ask you for money. Money will not solve all of the deep social issues that are really the root of many developing nations’ problems. If someone asks for money, consider an alternative, such as food or spending time with them. In PNG, people love to tell stories and to hear about other places.
6. You may feel guilty.* I remember the first time I came to PNG, I was almost overcome by guilt. Guilt that I have so much and they have so little. Guilt from not knowing how to help.
7. You’ll appreciate what you have (hopefully!). When you see the condition in which people live or the kinds of clothes they wear, it might cause you to appreciate the things you have.
8. You might feel dirty and uncomfortable. For the first few months we lived in PNG, I felt like every time I came home from town, I just had to scrub and scrub my hands. And even then, I still didn’t feel completely clean. Also, I really struggled with this culture’s view of personal space. Admittedly, my personal space bubble is probably a little larger than the norm, but I still feel uncomfortable with how close people stand by me in line at the supermarket.
9. Time is (probably) not of the essence. If you are in a hurry, you will probably spend the majority of your time being highly frustrated. Make plans, but expect them to take longer than you want, and know that your plans will change by the end of the day. PNG’s motto is “Land of the Unexpected”. My American mind is still trying to slow down enough to enjoy everything.
10. You will be changed. If you leave the third world country and return home without being changed, you’ve probably missed something along the way. The experience of visiting a developing nation is one I think every wealthy member of the world should do. It will forever change you. Hopefully the change won’t be short-lived.
*I used to feel guilty (and still do) that the citizens of PNG have so little and I have so much. But there are times when I look at the simplicity of the lives they live, and I envy them. Sure, I wouldn’t want to deal with the problems I often see of abuse or homelessness. But I wonder what it would be like not to have a huge house to clean, or retirement savings to plan for, or a huge truck just to move everything that I own, or time to sit and do nothing other than spend time with the people that I love.
I wonder who really leads a richer life.
Are you ready for the challenge of visiting a third world country?