What to Take to the Tropics

The wintry weather at my current post has me reminiscing about the five years I spent in the tropics. The sun, the colorful birds and flowers, the beaches … the mildew, the bugs, the constant heat rash …

Luckily, you can minimize the negative aspects of the tropics and make the most of your hot-country posting with a bit of preparation. For those of you who are preparing for your first tour in a tropical country, we’ve gathered some tips about what to take along.

Personal Care and Clothing

High-quality UV-blocking sunglasses are a necessity. If you wear prescription glasses, consider having prescription sunglasses made.

Of course you’ll need high-factor sunscreen if you’re fair-skinned, along with remedies for sunburn and heat rash, such as aloe vera. Don’t forget the insect repellant — in fact, some brands of insect repellant have a built-in sunscreen. Extra deodorant, needless to say, will also come in handy.

Before you go, check on the availability (and affordability) at post of these items. If you plan to take a supply with you, be sure to check expiration dates and give the products a trial run — or you might be stuck with a case of expired sunscreen, or bug spray your kids refuse to use because they hate the smell!

If you will be in a malarial region, educate yourself before you go about the various medication options. “The Buzz about Malaria Prevention,” from the November 2000 Global Link is a great place to start.

Before buying your tropical wardrobe, check with someone at post about the dress code at work and in public places. For example, in some countries, shorts are frowned upon, even in the hottest weather. In some countries, locally-made clothing is an excellent value; elsewhere, it may not be, or it may only be available in a narrow range of sizes.

In many tropical countries, you can easily have clothes made, especially for women and children, at a low price. Tailors and seamstresses can usually work from a magazine picture or copy a piece of clothing you already have. Check with someone at post to see if you should bring fabric and supplies such as buttons, zippers, thread, elastic, etc.

Machine-washable clothes are good to have, since you’ll have to wash more often. Dry-cleaning services are hard to find or quite expensive in many countries, as well.

Natural fibers tend to be cooler than old-fashioned synthetics such as polyester. However, some new synthetic fabrics, like CoolMax, have been designed to wick moisture away and keep you cool. The new lines of clothing for travelers can be ideal: they are washable and adapted for hot climates, but look polished at the same time. Check out www.travelsmith.com, for example.

Especially in a hot, dry climate, long, light-colored cotton clothes (such as long-sleeved blouses and long skirts for women) can be even cooler than shorts and a T-shirt, because they block the sun’s rays.

A hat with brim (and even neck flaps, if they don’t make you feel too silly) will help prevent sunburn on your face, neck and scalp. These are also ideal for children playing in the sun. Remember that for fair-skinned people, even a few bad sunburns can measurably increase skin cancer risk.

Household Tips

I used to keep my kids’ toys in open milk crates, until I found a live scorpion at the bottom of one! Plastic boxes with tight-fitting lids (the Rubbermaid type) help protect clothing, extra consumables, toys, craft supplies, etc. from creepy-crawlies, dust and mold. Check to see if these are easily available at post; if not, bring a supply.

The plastic clothing bags with valves for pressing out the air are especially good for storing those cold-weather clothes you keep on hand for winter travel or your next post. Ship plastic hangers rather than metal ones, to avoid rust spots on clothing.

If you are authorized a consumables shipment, consider including household cleaning supplies, especially anti-mildew products. Extra cleaning is necessary in the tropics to keep down the bugs and mildew. However, if you have household help, your staff may prefer to use familiar local products. Check with someone already at post for advice.

Because of tragic poisoning incidents, embassies worldwide are now extremely cautious with chemical pest control. Consider bringing less-toxic pest control products for your own use, such as cedar blocks, mothballs, mousetraps, ant traps and boric acid bait for roaches. “Roach motels” may not work, however, since tropical-sized roaches can hardly get their feelers in those little holes! “Bug zappers” aren’t effective either — they tend to kill predatory insects that feed on mosquitoes, rather than the mosquitoes themselves.

Kitchen garbage quickly becomes odorous in the heat. Bring a trash can that has a lid (such as a swing-top or step-on can), to contain smells and discourage flies. A generous supply of trash bags is helpful, since you may find yourself emptying the trash every day. (Some garbage pick-up services require a certain kind of trash bag — check with post.)

You’ll probably be given an extra freezer in your kitchen, to help you win the war against food spoilage and bugs. Bring lots of plastic freezer bags. Also, specific fruits and vegetables tend to go quickly in and out of season in the tropics, so you’ll want to freeze them while they’re available. Flour, cereal, rice, cake mixes can be stored in the freezer as well.

We soon found that our typical sugar bowl with a little notch for the spoon attracted a trail of tiny “sugar ants” stretching all the way across the kitchen. Get a sugar bowl with a round lid, or use a small Tupperware-type container. Salt and pepper tend to clump in humid weather — consider replacing your shakers with a pepper mill and salt grinder.

Since U.S. government fixtures aren’t exactly state-of-the-art, and you’ll probably need to filter, boil or distill your drinking water anyway, don’t count on having one of those refrigerators that dispenses water and ice out of the door! Bring extra ice cube trays, and if you like crushed ice, bring an appliance that does the job. Bring extra containers to store treated water. A plastic pitcher or water dispenser that fits inside the fridge is also good for keeping cold water handy. Don’t forget coolers and other picnic equipment.

Your home will probably have air conditioners in the bedrooms, but other areas may not be air-conditioned. It’s a good idea to bring extra fans. Dehumidifiers are usually provided at posts where humidity is a problem, but it’s a good idea to check and bring an extra one or two if needed. Lowering the humidity in your home will help you feel more comfortable, discourage mold and mildew growth (and allergic reactions), and protect your belongings.

Other Stuff

Gummed items like stamps and envelopes tend to stick together in a tropical climate. Use the new peel-and-stick postage stamps, or use waxed paper to separate sheets of stamps. Look for envelopes with little paper strips over the gummed flaps — or if you have valuable stationery and plenty of patience, layer waxed paper between the envelopes.

If you’re purchasing a car to take to the tropics, consider a light-colored one; dark colors absorb more heat. Another small touch that can make a big difference is a sunshield for your car windshield. The cardboard kind is fine, but wire-mounted cloth lasts longer.

Take along lots of indoor activities for the days when it’s just too hot to go outside. And consider investing in a bird guidebook for your new country, along with a good pair of binoculars. Even if you couldn’t tell a mockingbird from a sparrow at home, the gorgeous birds of the tropics might tempt you into the hobby.

Stock up on beach or pool equipment appropriate to your post, such as snorkeling gear, goggles, sand toys, beach towels, floats, wading pools and so forth. For some reason, these are usually much more expensive overseas. Swimsuits fade quickly and lose their elasticity in tropical weather — bring extras. A beach tent for shade can be very helpful, especially if you have children. I used to set up an inflatable pool under a tent at the beach for my little ones, filling up the pool with a plastic bucket. Remember to protect fair skin even in the shade; enough light can filter through or be reflected to cause sunburn.

Ahh … those were the days. Floating in the warm salt water. Or doing laps under the palm trees at the community pool. Maybe we’ll return to the tropics for our next tour. At least I feel prepared now!

Longtime AAFSW member Patricia Linderman is co-author of The Expert Expat: Your Guide to Successful Relocation Abroad, with Melissa Hess, and co-editor of the AAFSW book Realities of Foreign Service Life, likewise with Ms. Hess. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Tales from a Small Planet.

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