The Job Where You REALLY Don't Want To Forget The Tampons

Illustrated by Abbie Winters
From disaster relief in Pakistan, to farm aid in the Congo, to conservation in the Amazon, working in international development has taken me to some of the most fascinating — and sometimes difficult — places in the world.

As a woman whose preferred daily activities involve luxuries like sipping wine on terraces, getting facials, and going to the gym, I could definitely be considered high maintenance. 10 years ago, I never would have imagined I had it in me to travel to a disaster response or conflict zone.

But despite my inclination toward the finer things in life, I have become quite accustomed to traveling places with no electricity, spending long hours on African roads with no bathroom in sight, and putting up with the periodic emergency evacuation. I have even learned to love it.

Why? Because the occasional discomfort has never been a match for the rewarding experiences that I have gained in return. I have had unimaginable experiences, like the visit to a refugee settlement in Azerbaijan, where I walked alongside people trekking an entire mile to fetch water each day. Or finding myself suddenly surrounded by 20 adorable African children yelling “Mzungu, Mzungu” (meaning white person in Swahili), after arriving in a village that had never before welcomed a Western woman. By actually traveling to the places that most people will never go, I have had the chance to connect with, and learn to understand people who I would never otherwise encounter. I have often come home dirty, exhausted, and sometimes broken, but I have always come home having grown in some way.

Despite the rewarding experiences, there is no question that aid work — and particularly travel to countries where there is extreme poverty, disaster, or war — poses a unique set of challenges. There are obvious issues, like health and safety, but there's also a whole other set of challenges in ensuring your physical and emotional well-being and spirit do not suffer.

Luckily, what I have learned through many years and many mistakes, is that traveling to difficult places does not need to involve sacrificing my health or my self-image. Ahead, my five simple rules that I have found are the keys to taking care of myself, anywhere that my job, or my life, may take me.

Sara Mason works with coffee farmers and women entrepreneurs in Africa through her consulting firm SHIFT Social Impact Solutions. Her work in international development has taken her all over the world, but her heart will always be in Rio de Janeiro. When not traveling for work, these days you will find Sara in Barcelona, where she enjoys good coffee, good wine, and long runs on the beach. You can follow SHIFT on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to learn more about Mason's work with women. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of Refinery29.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
Rule 1: Know Yourself

Perhaps the biggest key to traveling is really knowing yourself: identify those things you absolutely need to feel comfortable, and then learn to be flexible with everything else.

I have learned that I can endure almost anything, as long as I can look forward to an espresso in the morning, 30 minutes of exercise, and a glass (...or three) of red wine in the evening. While Africa produces some of the best coffee and wine in the world, it can be really difficult to find either in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. This is why, regardless of what I might encounter at my destination, it reassures me to know I have in my suitcase a bottle of red wine with a screw cap, an Aeropress coffee maker, ground espresso, and my running shoes.

For you, those must-have tastes of life at home might be your special pajamas, your vitamins, or a full season of your favorite television series (always download in advance in case the internet connection is spotty or nonexistent). Figure out what things you truly cannot live without. If you aren't sure you'll be able to find them at your destination, take charge of your own destiny, and bring them with you. The little inconveniences that are outside your control are much easier to handle when you know you have control of the things that really matter to you.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
Rule 2: Exercise

The number one recommendation from the aid workers I know is to try to stick to an exercise routine — regardless of where you are. Long hours, little sleep, and fatty foods will quickly take a toll on your health, but a little bit of exercise will do wonders for your mood, stress, and energy levels.

I prefer to run, and have managed to do so in some very unexpected places. This has included running laps around a tiny tennis court at a hotel in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and sharing a 20-by-20-foot plot of African beach with a giant dead rat in Dakar, Senegal. But for me, the most memorable exercise excursions were morning jogs (accompanied by a male coworker) through the streets of Islamabad, wearing a traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez, which consists of a long tunic and baggy pajama-like pants. My one regret is that it wasn't caught on film.

Assignments in dangerous areas where women cannot walk around alone, or areas where your movements are restricted, such as a compound in Afghanistan, require extra creativity. A Salsa-loving aid worker friend of mine swears that 30 minutes of daily dancing in her bedroom kept her in shape for two months during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake Response. At times like this, when you don't have access to a gym, a jump rope or a travel yoga mat tucked into your suitcase will become your new best friend.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
Rule 3: Be Prepared

My absolute, must-have item? One word: TAMPONS. In many rural locations, you'll be hard-pressed to find any pharmacies or convenience stores. Believe it or not, in some countries, tampons simply don't exist. In fact, only a small percentage of women around the world actually have access to sanitary products. This lack of access is a serious issue that keeps women and girls all around the globe from attending school — in Africa, one in 10 girls has to miss school while she has her period, according to one widely cited UNICEF statistic. In some places, girls and women are actually isolated from their families or communities. In parts of rural Nepal, for example, they are sent to live in a shed for a week every month.
Another unexpected savior to stick in your suitcase is a wedding band — it'll help you avoid unwanted attention. During my travels, I have probably been proposed to about a hundred times, the most memorable of which was a marriage request from an elderly Senegalese driver who already had two wives, but thought I would be a good choice for a third. I took this one as a compliment, however, on other occasions, a fake ring has been a huge help with unwanted advances.

To make sure I’m prepared for last-minute trips, I always keep a packed suitcase with a few Africa-appropriate outfits (more on this later), and necessities such as tampons, sunscreen, antibacterial hand soap, insect repellant, a few malaria pills, plastic bags (these always come in handy), and ibuprofen. Think about what you would always need in your bag, and have these items prepacked so you cannot possibly forget them.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
Rule 4: Pack (and dress) appropriately

A no-fail rule is to assume there will be no escalators or ramps, so pack no more than you can comfortably carry. I have serious guilt issues when I consider all of the people who have at one point or another carried around my giant suitcases (sometimes even carrying them on their heads), when in the end, I probably wore 25% of the clothes I brought with me. In case your luggage gets lost (which happens often!), make sure to take a carry-on with all of your essential toiletries, two interchangeable outfits, and, of course, your exercise clothes.

As I touched on earlier, it's important to try to tailor your dress to the local culture and norms. The goal here is not to be the most fashionable, but to dress in an understated way in which you feel like yourself, without standing out more than necessary. For safety, clothing should always be modest, and jewelry should be inexpensive. Be sure to bring a large inexpensive looking purse or bag with a zipper, where you can carry your computer, and anything else you need to make it through the day. Layering is key when you’re going from the office to a meeting to a field visit, so regardless of the weather, I usually wear a tank top, a light blouse with a longer skirt, a light jacket, and my sunglasses. A big scarf is a lifesaver for helping you blend in with local dress, and can also be used as an accessory, blanket, cover-up, or even a pillow.

A word on heels. I am always amazed by African women, who despite the dust, lack of sidewalks, and the worst roads I have ever seen, still manage to look absolutely graceful when they climb off the back of a moto-taxi in 4-inch heels. But remember, you have not been strutting through the local terrain your whole life like they have. In many places in the world, sidewalks simply do not exist, so tailor your shoe choices accordingly. A sprained ankle will ruin any trip.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters
Rule 5: A little pampering goes a long way

Mentally, it is important for me to keep up with elements of my beauty routine from back home, regardless of my location. When I don’t look like myself, I simply don't feel like myself. So, even on the days I don’t have the option of taking a warm shower or blowdrying my hair, I try to put on a little mascara and lipgloss.

While it may be difficult to bring all of your beauty staples, travel is the perfect opportunity to try out a new mask or product. Fill your makeup bag with sample-size goods so you can pack light and still look (and feel) good. Taking advantage of local services can help expand your beauty horizons, without breaking the bank. Asia is known for amazing spa treatments, but some of the best massages and spa services I have ever had have been in Africa, using local ingredients and techniques. Plus, services abroad often cost half of what it does at home.

Remember, that once you get to a country, you never know what you will — or will not — find. Take care of yourself by providing for your individual needs — and by making an effort to exercise, and do whatever it takes to keep you feeling good about yourself. That way you'll be refreshed, and ready to focus on doing your little part of helping to make the world a better place.
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