Dear Green Mama
My partner is traveling to Guatemala for 2 weeks and we are now wondering whether myself and our 8 month old baby could join him on this trip. We would all love to go as a family but we are a little unsure of the safety–illness/hygiene wise. Is there any advice you could give us on this?
How to stay healthy while traveling with children (even in the developing world)
Don’t assume that because you are in a poor country the food will be cleaner, unfortunately, the opposite is usually true: there are few enforced environmental standards, there is a lot of pollution, pesticide use is rarely controlled, GMO is rampant, and prepackaged junkfood is readily available where land for fresh foods often is not.
Read up on the dirty dozen: these are the fruits and vegetables with the highest level of pesticides. Not only are these the “dirtiest” from this perspective, but many of them will also be the most likely to harbour other contaminants: berries, lettuce, and raw celery are better avoided. Cooked foods are often better on both accounts. Foods that are native to an area are likely better on both accounts as well. In Central America that means you get to eat lots of avocados, mangos, papaya, and coconut!
Figure out how to get fresh water. Don’t buy plastic water bottles: it’s devastating on the environment to manufacture and then put all that plastic into the garbage. (Few developing countries actually have recycling programs; just ask the founders of Project Somos who have helped get hundreds of pounds of plastic bottles out of the environment and into the walls of their homes). Not to mention that plastic has been sitting around leaching plasticizers into that water perhaps for a very long time. Instead, invest in a good water filter/purifier, buy water from a local with a good water filter or, if you really must buy bottled water, buy it in the extra-large five gallon size.
Your gut is your first line of defense in keeping your immune system working for you. Eating foods high in natural probiotics will help. Plain yoghurt, especially from goat’s milk, can often be found in developing countries. Fermented foods are an excellent source of natural probiotics if you can find, or make, them. (No, beer and wine don’t count.) One of the first things I do when I get to my new house is grate some cabbage, throw it in some salt water, and let is sit for a week. Fermenting foods is just about that easy. Supposedly, a few bites of this kind of fermented food has far more probiotics than a supplement. But, if your trip is short just bring along your own probiotic supplement – this is great for kids too.
Wash your hands (and your children’s hands) a lot with plain soap and water. It can be really hard to avoid the antibacterial stuff in the developing world where it is very popular, but quite problematic. The main ingredient in antibacterial hand soap is the pesticide Triclosan and its use is discouraged by all major Canadian and American health organizations because it is no more effective than regular washing and because it may be linked to the development of superbugs. You can also bring along an alcohol-free hand sanitizer like CleanWell or your own tea tree oil and water hand wipes for those times when no soap and water are available.
If you need to see a doctor there: most towns, even small ones, will have access to a doctor, or nurse, or some sort of local healer. If you decide to travel to an actual doctor, many will speak at least rudimentary English. The first time I went to Gautemala, I brought already filled prescriptions and an EpiPen for my children, just in case. I have found, however, that local doctors are usually well equipped to deal with local diseases and it is usually relatively easy to find basic medications, such as antibiotics, when traveling overseas.
Other safety precautions:
1. Finding cars with seatbelts has been a real challenge for me in Gautemala. I try to always special arrange a care or van with seatbelts for my kids for longer trips–especially on the Pan American highway. I bring a booster for my older child and this awesome travel vest thingee call the RiderSafer Travel Vest that weighs nothing and replaces a typical carseat. I also bring my own life jackets because where we live is only accessible by boat and I feel far safer knowing they are vested-in. On smaller trips, we go local: kids in the back of pick-ups, riding in TukTuks, etc.
2. Remember that if the water isn’t “clean” where you are living–and probably it isn’t–that you should not use it to brush your teeth. Be especially careful with your children who likely have a hard time getting it out of their mouths when showering.
3. When you wash dishes in water that may harbour water-born diseases–air drying is your friend. Water harbours bacteria and other pathogens. Letting things be totally dry before using them is one way to help keep yourself a bit safer.
4. Vaccinations or not? The places where I travel in Guatemala aren’t effected by malaria and other mosquito-born illnesses, which makes staying healthy much easier. As well, the places I go do not have outbreaks of diptheria, polio, or any of the other diseases that I find most scary. There are, however, incidents of regular childhood diseases. The rates of vaccination, from my research, here are also similar to those in North America. Thus, I have chosen to follow my exact same vaccination plan and schedule as I do in North America. All of these things should be considered, as well as how well you are equipped to deal with a child who becomes ill, when considering whether to obtain special vaccinations for your child before traveling.
And, enjoy! It is an amazing experience traveling with your children. At some point in my first year, where we all got sick at least once, I realized that you get sick wherever you go: it’s just trading this year’s flu for this year’s intestinal problem. It’s not necessarily bad to get sick: it’s uncomfortable, but as long as your body is then able to recover and you don’t stay sick, it can just be part of your healthy life.
By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama.