You’re giving a presentation at a university in Manila, and even though you’re in the air-conditioned room, you haven’t stopped sweating since your coffee run this morning. But as you get up to present, you notice that your colleagues aren’t sweating at all—in fact, they look perfectly professional. How is this possible?
When you are working in a tropical climate, it can be tough to adapt quickly. I just got back from a week of challenging travel for field research and quickly remembered just how exhausting traveling in different conditions and still getting work done can be. (In Southeast Asia, we used every mode of transportation except elephant, and the weather alternated between sweltering humidity and constant rain.)
But, it was a great refresher on how to succeed in difficult conditions and still get the job done. Here are some of my travel secrets for staying comfortable, calm, and graceful when you're working in a tropical climate.
Sleeping in a New Environment
You’re in your hotel or guesthouse, jet-lagged and ready to get some sleep. But after the dogs have finally stopped barking, there’s now a rooster crowing outside your window. It’s 3 AM—and you have your first meeting at 9.
As someone who has slept in everything from huts to tree houses, let me tell you: Sleeping accommodations (and even work accommodations) are not always five-star in tropical countries. And even if they are, they probably still won’t be quiet.
So, earplugs and a sleeping blindfold are must-haves (if you can sleep in them, noise-cancelling headphones also work). If you are in the bush or jungle, try a thick, sweat-proof headband to keep the buzzing mosquitos away from your ears while you sleep. Or, there are several apps like the Ambiance App that use white noise to cover up any background sounds (like the gecko outside my window right now). I often just opt for classical music.
If you have concerns about cleanliness in a new place, I swear by silk mummy sleeping liners. Instead of a whole sleeping bag, it’s thin like a sheet, so it gives you the safety and comfort of a sleeping bag without being too hot. It’s also easily packable in a small pouch.
It happens to the best of us: As soon as you enter the country, you start to uncontrollably sweat, even in air conditioning. It’s not only embarrassing, but it’s uncomfortable: You feel like you’re overheating all the time.
And that’s normal—if you aren’t used to warm and humid climates, your body is just trying to adjust. That said, there are a couple ways to combat that. The first is to drink fluids—water, juices, and fruit smoothies—to stay hydrated. Try to avoid heavy and fatty foods and caffeine, which can often make you feel worse and even dehydrate you. In many East Asian cultures, people believe that eating hot foods keeps you cool, and while it’s worth a shot, you should listen to your body and see what it needs to maintain equilibrium.
When you’re outside, opt for a hat. Or, in Asia, it’s normal to carry an umbrella, which provides shade when there’s no tree cover. (Really—you will stand out more by baking in the sun, not by carrying an umbrella.) In addition, you should dress for the occasion, avoiding heavy suits if you can. Take cues from local professionals: Can you get away with wearing a button-down shirt or nice kurta top instead of a suit and tie, or a cotton dress instead of full business gear? See what your local colleagues are wearing, and use this as a guide.
Finally, the big question: How are all your colleagues not pouring sweat every day? The best-kept secret for not sweating is actually something called Prickly Heat Cooling Powder (or Ponds Magic Powder), a mentholated powder that can be found in most local convenience stores throughout Asia. Toss some on after your shower, and you will keep cool (no joke) and look professional even when it’s sweltering outside.
Adjusting to the Food
My local colleagues told me that we were going to the best fish restaurant in their city—and it turned out to be a few tables inside of a lamp shop. And while the fish was delicious, I had a good laugh as the owners were setting up their shop for the next day.
When you’re traveling, prepare for dining experiences you’re not quite used to. But remember, a roadside shack or tables on the street doesn’t mean its going to be bad food. In fact, everywhere from Thailand to the Philippines, most of life is lived outside on the street. There are lots of open air markets, restaurants, and businesses, so that is where food is cooked. If your local colleagues say it’s OK, it most likely is. Plus, the quality of food at local restaurants can often be fresher than in tourist establishments.
Also remember that spicy food is common in most tropical countries. So, make sure you have something with milk nearby, like tea or yogurt, to cool it down if it's too much for you. I also carry candy and mints in my purse to take away any aftertaste if I don’t like the food—and ginger candy can calm your stomach down if you feel like you ate something you couldn’t handle. But don’t be afraid to try everything! Eating the local foods will impress your colleagues and help your body adjust to the new environment.
You are listening to your colleague tell a story from his last trip to Borneo, and your stomach starts to rumble. You have to go—seriously. You excuse yourself and make a mad dash to the nearest toilet—and find that it’s a squat toilet with no paper in sight.
I cannot stress this enough: Always carry baby wipes and toilet paper with you. Many countries use a bidet system, which is something most of us aren’t used to. Also, for the kind of stomach troubles you’re bound to face when traveling, always carry Immodium and Ciprofloxin. Traveler’s indigestion and forms of gastritis are very common when traveling, and it’s better to be prepared.
I would also recommend eating papaya, which is local and has great digestive enzymes, and drinking coconut water (the real stuff, in an actual coconut, which you have generally have someone cut for you for 50 cents to a dollar). Long before it was sold and marketed in the U.S., coconut water has been used around the world as a way to improve health, gain nutrients, and prevent dehydration, and some rural clinics use it as fluids when they don’t have clean water to give to patients. It will help give you the energy you need to get through the day.
Most importantly, keep chugging fluids and alternate between water and drinks like Gatorade. You definitely don’t want to get dehydrated during a meeting. And if you’re feeling really sick, don’t be afraid to go see a doctor.
Working in a tropical country can feel worlds away from the office settings we are used to. But just remember that even if you're having a hard time adjusting or things seem challenging at first, you still have to get your work done. Things are going to be different, but being open to the differences will be the key to success in your work and experience.
Photo courtesy of Garry Knight.