A Guide to Healthy Travelprint resource
Posted by: Robin Lattimer
Date Added: February 25, 2012
Tips for healthy eating, exercising and what medical supplies to bring while on the road
As I travel I’ve struggled with ways to continue healthy eating and exercise practices with constantly changing and erratic schedules. Over these past few months I have worked hard to find ways to stay in shape and ward off illness. So, for all of the health nuts out there who are worried that volunteering may disrupt your exercise or healthy eating schedules, or for those who want use your time volunteering as a time to develop healthy habits, here are a few tips!
Health travel begins with healthy eating. When we travel we often don’t have access to kitchens to cook for ourselves or the health food choices that we are used to. For instance, in Guatemala, tacos, churrascos (like a steak taco), fried chicken and French fries prevail as the most common street food and cities are littered with brightly coloured tiendas full of cookies, chips, and pop (besides water and a few personal hygiene products, junk food is pretty much all they sell!). So, to ensure that I can try every new type of food that I encounter, no matter how greasy or vegetable sparse, I make sure that my first stop in any new city is the market. Here I buy fruit and vegetables, bring them home, wash them with a scrub brush and purified water (you can buy special vegetable cleaner in many places in Latin America) so that they are ready for me to use quickly to throw together a quick and healthy breakfast before dashing out, a packed lunch for a tour or a day exploring the city, or a vegetable-rich dinner at night. I try to have at least one vegetable heavy meal a day and this helps me feel like I’m at least getting the nutrients I need and offsetting the delicious local foods that I may come across.
Some ideas for healthy meals that can be made quickly to order (few leftovers and with few ingredients bought in bulk) are:
- Granola, fruit and yogurt. Restaurants in a developing country may charge you a fortune for this because it is a ‘tourist’ staple but it can easily be made on your own if you have access to a fridge or a store that sells yogurt (buy it on the go!).
- Hash: grab an egg (or two), chop up an onion, tomato and pepper and sauté it all together. If you have access to a kitchen, they should have communal oil. If no kitchen, stick with the granola.
- Smoothie: Now, don’t knock it until you try it, but a delicious way to start the day is with a spinach and fruit smoothie! The smoothie should be about 2 parts fruit (I always include a banana because it makes it extra frothy!), 1 part spinach, 1 part other (yogurt, purified ice, juice, and/or milk – mix and match whatever you feel like!). Make sure all spinach and fruit has been disinfected before use!
- I find that a Greek salad or sandwiches are the easiest options for quick lunches on the go. I always have a small Tupperware container with me – sounds silly but when it’s not in use you can use it to store things (so there is no space wasted in your bag) and it has been a very well used item whenever I travel!
- Pasta with homemade pasta sauce is an easy option: Sauté some onion and garlic in a pan, add carrots, peppers, mushrooms, zucchini (and whatever else you feel like!) and cubed tomato (about 2 medium tomatoes should be enough for two people or two meals for one). Add whatever spices are available and some water (not too much!) and let simmer over low heat while the pasta cooks. Add some flour to thicken the sauce (again, not too much!) and enjoy! All vegetables, no preservatives (well, maybe in the flour and pasta), and delicious!
- Either make to order (i.e. just enough for one meal) or make a bit extra to have as a quick lunch (in your Tupperware) the following day!
Now, if you are adventurous as me and make it a mission to try as many different types of local food as possible, here are a few healthy habits to consider when delving into street food cuisine:
Be Aware that any vegetables, cutlery, glasses, juices, or ice cream may have been cleaned or made with unpurified water. Any time you eat in any country with poor municipal water systems, even in restaurants and even if the vendor or waiter assures you that the water has been purified, there is always a risk of cross-contamination. Also, make sure you are watching your bag and pockets at all times when you are ordering and consuming food – an enraptured tourist is a tempting target for a quick bag swipe! Never leave your bag on the back of your chair – between your feet is best because you can see it and feel it!
Watch vendors preparing the food. Cooking food at high temperatures will kill much of the harmful bacteria and for this reason eating from a street vendor that is actively cooking the meat in front of you is key. Avoid buffet-style eateries and uncooked proteins like ceviche and carpaccio like the plague and try not to eat food that has been pre-prepared (i.e. fruit or vegetables that are pre-cut, sandwiches pre-made). Of course, these are just guidelines to get you thinking, you will no doubt use your intuition and best judgement when you are actually out there! Note: many of the people that I have encountered on my trip usually state a restaurant as the culprit. Just because you get to sit down does not mean that the food is better quality or treated more safely. Developing countries don’t have the same food safe regulations or enforcement laws that we do in the States or Canada (though, even in these countries, kitchens can be a little dicey!)
Enjoy! Be adventurous and try the foods you encounter. You only live once and if you are smart and safe about it, the experience can be very enriching. If you are trying something new and you have no idea how to eat it, watch the local people around you or ask them to help. You may feel like an idiot but the locals will no doubt get a kick out of it and will enjoy your interest in their culture. Eating at local-frequented restaurants and food stands is a great way to meet new people who may have tips on what to see and how to see it in their cities.
This one can be challenging when one is on such a tight schedule: catching buses, seeing the sights, volunteering, and meeting new friends (Oh yah, and sleeping)! I find that doing a small amount of exercise every day or second day is the best way to fit it in and I’ve come up with a few fun ways to incorporate it into your day so you don’t have to put off other important activities!
Go for a run (if you are in a warm climate) I know, this one sounds boring and most people hate the idea of running, never mind the idea of getting sweaty in a foreign country with unfamiliar streets, people, and places! But this is the beauty! A morning run is a great way to explore the city and find out new places to check out later in the day. Grab a map from a tourist kiosk or talk to your hostel owner or volunteering peers to find out some cool places to see and then run there! While you may feel a bit like an outsider (Western countries seem to be the only ones preoccupied with their fitness enough to get sweaty in public spaces), it’s a great way to meet new people (is there another health nut in the area that you pass every day?), find new places to visit (that maybe aren’t in the guidebooks), and orient yourself around the city (travel becomes safer when you know where you are going and aren’t walking aimlessly around with a map and camera at the ready). If you don’t feel comfortable going it alone, try to recruit a friend from your hostel. Remember: Always wear sunscreen (It sucks being slimy for a run but think how much it will hurt when you walk with your backpack on sunburnt shoulders!); only run during the day and avoid secluded park trails – ask the locals about which neighbourhoods and routes are safe (even if you don’t have valuables on you, you will still be a target at night or in a secluded area of a park) (morning is best because it is less hot!); Watch out for cars and uneven pavement! Developing countries often have different rules of the road and different enforcement patterns. Street maintenance may be inconsistent and infrequent and pavement may be crumbling, cracked, or cobble stone (watch the ankles!); Bring good running shoes (trail runners seem to suit me fine, but everyone is different); Stretch and don’t over exert yourself! An injury is the last thing you want on a volunteer excursion! Use common sense and be extra careful!
Rent a bike Very often you can find places to rent bikes in the cities you visit. It’s a great way to see a city or even to explore between nearby cities. Grab a friend (and a bike lock!) and hit the road. In all likelihood, helmets won’t be provided so make sure you are being extra careful when yielding to traffic and pedestrians. If you want to bike between cities, ask locals whether the area is safe and do not bring valuables with you.
Go for a hike If you are in a place that has great adventure tourism, take advantage of it! Hikes can be very rewarding, provide excellent exercise, improve your chances of seeing local fauna, and provide an opportunity to meet new friends! Mountain hikes often have great views of the surrounding area and all hikes help you get out of the city for a different perspective of the culture and community lifestyles in an area. While the trails on many hikes are often well laid out, I recommend going with a guide because trails have been known as target places for theft.
Visit some ruins If you have the opportunity, grab a friend and go learn about some of the history of the country you are in. In Latin America and Asia, there are wonderful ruin sights to visit and you can spend the day exploring in and around many of them. The goal: climb every ruin that allows climbing. Too easy? Run it. Make sure you are respecting the structures and limiting the degradation of them as much as possible. Some sites no longer allow visitors to climb, so be aware of this and respect site limits.
Do a self-led city tour Thinking of hopping on a tour bus? Don’t (well, ok, do but ALSO walk it). Walking around a city is a great way to really get a feel for the people, the culture, and the environment. I find that going it alone helps me really get an idea of where I am, and become familiar with the city streets and neighbourhoods. As I mentioned above, it’s always good to know where you are going when in a foreign city (or at least look like you do). Besides, while a bus or organized group-led tour will take you from sight to sight, a personal tour will open you up to seeing more detail and help you focus on your individual interests (do you love cafes, music stores, galleries, or shopping? This is a great way to find the best spots!).
Go Dancing A night out on the town is another great way to get exercise, meet new people, and learn more about a new city or town. Ask around to find out which bars are safe and have the best dancing. Maybe you’ll find a great bar with free Salsa lessons or your favorite music. Always be extra careful when traveling at night and never walk alone (seriously). Ask the hostel you are staying at, locals that you trust, or volunteer peers for the number for a trusted cab driver and keep this number on you at all times. I like to keep a cab number and enough money to cab home on me in a secret location (be creative!). Go out with friends and stick with them – no one wants to be stranded. I know you’ve heard it all before but, really, watch the drinking. If you are the kind of person who needs a good amount of 'liquid confidence' to get on the dance floor, this option is probably not for you. Lowered inhibitions and reaction time puts you off your game and can lead you into very dangerous situations. Have a drink, but watch it (also – physically watch it. Don’t let it out of your sight). Easy stuff, but easy to overlook on a great night out with new friends, too!
Organize or join in a game Set up a soccer, basketball, or volleyball game with people from your hostel or volunteer group! Playing a game is a great way to stay active and (as always) meet new friends! It’s also a great way to get to know the kids or teens that you may be working with if you are volunteering in a school. If you don’t organize it, who will? And how much effort does it take to organize, really?
Do some Push-ups or sit-ups You might feel ridiculous doing it (especially if you are staying in a crowded dorm room) but if you do have a private place, it’s a great way to get some strength training in and keep you at the ready for anything the day might throw at you! 15 minutes for 4 sets of 20 and you’ll be upping the ante in no time! Besides – imagine how impressed (and jealous) your friends will be if you come home in better shape than you were when you left.
Get in the water with swimming, diving, snorkeling, or surfing! These activities are great full body cardio and strength training options and can be a lot of fun, too! When in the water, always be sure that you are respecting local warnings (are there rip tides? Dangerous rocks?) and that you are in top form (fainting or losing strength in the water is a whole different problem than it would be on land). Make sure you have the right equipment and that you know about the potential creature dangers and practice suggested safety precautions (are there jelly fish? sharks? Crocodiles?).
This is just a short section about what medical supplies you should have with you whenever you are traveling. If you are volunteering with an organization, they will likely have a First Aid kit and information about medical services in the area, but I highly suggest carrying your own supplies just in case they run out, don’t have what you’re looking for, or you are unable to access their stores for whatever reason. Some good things to bring:
- Band-Aids (Try to have 2-3 Band-Aids with you in your daypack – they work wonders for blisters, small cuts and taping things together if you are in a jam)
- Bug Spray (Check with your local travel clinic to find out which is the best for the region you are traveling to)
- Floss (Great for, well, flossing, tying things together, sewing bag rips and (gulp) other rips (who knows what could happen in the jungle?!)
- Scissors (Just always handy and good to have)
- Acidophilus (Great for strengthening your digestive health – you’ll need it! Extra fortification to help your body get used to the new food)
- Condoms (Guys and girls – just do it)
- Tweezers (A nice thing to have - not really a necessity but can definitely come in handy)
- Disinfectant wipes (Seriously good to have in a country or region where soap and running water are not always available. Good for make-shift sterilization in the case of cuts or small wounds)
- Tape (Surgical is good, duct tape is more versatile)
- A bandage (For larger wounds – how much space could it take up? Better safe than sorry)
- Ciprofloxacin (Bringing a general antibiotic with you is a good idea – get a prescription before you go and bring it with you or just get it down there. It seems to be pretty plentiful in Guatemala and Mexico, at least. Don’t take this unless you have been specifically advised to do so. Please don’t self-medicate, if possible.)
- Malarials (If you have been advised to do so)
- Advil, Pepto Bismol, Imodium (Trust me, if you need them, you aren’t going to want to go running around looking for a pharmacy to find them.)
- Antihistamines and Allergy Equipment (If you have allergies it's better to always have these on hand. Also, always tell anyone cooking for you about your allergy. Working in the restaurant industry I am shocked at how many people don't do this. Better safe than sorry.)
- Rehydration salts (Very handy to have if you do end up getting sick. Keeps you hydrated and helps you feel better, faster.)
- Gravol (Do you get seasick? Carsick? Any kind of sick? Good to have some of the brand that works best for you as it may not be available wherever you are traveling)
Staying healthy will help you feel and perform better, allowing you to stay safe and have more fun!