From November 30 through December 12, 2013, I was in Togo, West Africa and it was one of the most exciting trips I had ever taken in my entire life. I had always wanted to go to Africa from my college years but the timing never seemed to work out. A team from my fellowship was supposed to go in 2003 but civil unrest broke out in the country due to fraudulent elections; so instead of Togo, we traveled to the Philippines for three weeks. But finally I made it, and while in Togo I learned three valuable lessons that I believe will help anyone who is a third-world traveler, and plans to immerse themselves in the culture of the countries they visit.
First, never, ever drink the local water. The water contains microbes and bacteria that can inflict serious harm to your body. It can cause severe diarrhea, headache, and difficulty breathing. In other words, it can kill you. I made this mistake twice while in the country. The first time it happened I was staying on a compound taking a shower, and I accidently swallowed some as I was rinsing my face. The result was me feeling as though something were pressing down on my chest and head for an hour, but then I recovered thankfully. The second time it happened I was in the village of Bago, about 20 kilometers in the “bush,” while staying at a linguist’s house. He had little pouches of water in his home that said, “Purified” and I saw him washing his hands with it and drinking it. Watching him do this, I naturally assumed that it was safe to drink the water and I poured some of it from the pouch into my water bottle. That was a mistake that left me sick almost the entire day. Only drink the bottled water, period. Everything else will get you sick.
Second, if you want to eat cultural foods, eat the foods that are common staple crops such as rice and beans. These are the two safest foods you can eat anywhere. We ate these frequently in the places we visited and no one on the team ever got sick from eating them. You can also eat bread, but be sure to “flame” it before you eat it. Meaning, wherever you stay, run the bread over a hot eye on the stove. This kills any bacteria that might be on the outside of the bread. Also if you want to eat any fruit while in the country, first soak it in bleach for 20 minutes before you do. This too will kill any bacteria that might be on the fruit.
Thirdly, airlines can be cumbersome and tricky to navigate. Wear clothes that have no metal on them such as sweatpants and shoes that you can easily slide off and on (i.e. crocks or sandals), this will help you through the metal detector process with less difficulty. If you are going to travel to Togo, or anywhere in West Africa, Ethiopian Airlines is the cheapest. We flew from Washington, D.C. to Ethiopia; and from Ethiopia to Togo for roughly $1,900 per person using CheapOAir. The flight attendants from Ethiopian Airlines are very sweet and the food on the plane is excellent. That being said, once you reach the airport in Addis Ababa, boarding your connecting flight can be a very chaotic process so pay attention to where your gates are because they are subject to change several times. Air France is also an excellent choice, with one teammate reporting that they served gourmet meals and there was plenty of room for walking during the 18 hour flight.