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.