How to avoid getting sick on a Plane

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You wait for your vacation, counting the days, only to spend the first three days sick in bed. Its horrible and you feel like it ruins your entire vacation. There are many things that can make you sick, from the lack of sleep counting down the days to the vacation, to the stress of finishing your work before you go on your trip – sometimes it is only adrenaline keeping the illness at bay. However, one major source of illness that not everyone realizes is the airport and the airplane itself.

Germs are a part of daily life, but most of those you will encounter you will already have developed an immunity against. It is only when a new germ shows up that you get sick, and that’s why (most) people only get sick a handful of times per year. However, people at airports aren’t just bringing their luggage, they also bring their own micro flora of germs to travel with them – and just because they have their own immunity, doesn’t mean you do. Additionally, lots of people are travelling for lengthy periods of times, staying in the same clothes, and not showering for days. This means your chance of getting sick at an airport is significantly increased, and you’d be well advised to take extra precautions.

Assume everything is dirty. Tables, chairs, doors – these have all been touched by people from everywhere. Even if you assume everyone washed their hands after using the washroom (a dubious assumption at best), you can’t assume they didn’t scratch an under arm itch, or touch some other germ ridden area. Their hands then come in contact with things that you later use, and you are open to infection. This is even more true on the airplane, where they have limited time to switch between passengers, and so the cleanup will necessarily be limited. One of the worst offenders is the tray table where they will place your food, people sometimes use that when changing diapers – never let anything that you eat directly touch that tray. Wet wipes can help and are generally allowed on planes.

Since you have to keep your baggage in sight at all times, if you do have to use the washroom at an airport, you’ll have to handle it with your dirty hands from the stall to the sink – everyone else has to do that to (as I said, assume EVERYTHING is dirty). Wash your hands, and if they have the hand sanitizer, rub some on the handles of your bags and belt. Take every opportunity you can to wash your hands, and it is extra important to wash up before eating.

On any intercontinental plane, you will have hundreds of passengers, and, unfortunately, some of them will be sick. You are then jammed into a small area with them, seated like sardines, for many hours, breathing the same recycled air. Your best bet in this case is to turn on the overhead fan at maximum strength, and place it directly over your face – the plane has an internal filter that will help reduce the amount of germs you breathe in. It isn’t a perfect solution, but it helps significantly.

If you can avoid it, don’t use the airplane bathroom. Those are small washrooms, not cleaned regularly between visitors, and turbulence is a thing. Toilets flushing cause enough germs to circulate, I can’t imagine how bad an airplane bathroom is on a plane. If you have to use it, wet wipes are again your friend.

Don’t order ice in your drinks. The ice machine on planes is the low man on the totem pole when it comes to maintenance and cleaning, so, you really don’t want to risk the extra bacteria just so that your pop is a bit colder.

How to Prepare your Phone for Travel

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When travelling to other countries, many people leave their phone at home. This could be because they want to be “off the grid”, are afraid of losing the phone, or simply to avoid roaming charges. However, I would say this is always a mistake. Your phone is your lifeline in another country, it is the best chance you have at responding to an emergency, your best method for remaining safe, and is incredibly useful in your day to day while travelling (presumably you’ll want to use it as a Camera either way). A little bit of preparation ahead of time will allow your phone to be that much more useful when you go travelling:

First, and most importantly, double check the emergency numbers in the place you are visiting, and record them in your phone. In Brazil these numbers are:

  • Police – 190*
  • Ambulance & Fire –  192 or 193.

*Police will generally be able to help with any of the emergencies, but it is faster if you call the right number.

You’ll also want to download a translation app for your phone, and install the offline translation. I am a big fan of Google Translate, but I don’t know its availability for non-android phones. Test the download by putting your phone into airplane mode – it should still be able to translate phrases, including using the camera mode to translate written text. This will be fairly literal translations, but it will allow you to read anything from store signs to menus with relative ease. I don’t find the conversation feature works that well yet, but it still is incredibly useful to help you communicate.

It is a good idea to download the map of the city you are visiting in advance. The downloaded map will allow you to navigate should you get lost, and also to help you plan where you want to visit.  You do not need data to use the gps. Record the hotel you are staying at and the local spots you want to check out, and check the directions to the places at the times (adjusting for the time zones) you want to go – remember, traffic can be extremely bad in some cities (Minha Namorada – My Girlfriend, doesn’t even consider Toronto at rush hour to be bad traffic), and so you’ll want to check out the directions ahead of time to ensure your fifteen kilometre drive won’t take four hours. Be careful with directions though, they may try to send you through a Favela (Google doesn’t have an option to avoid them that I’ve seen), but if you are using Google Maps, you can drive past those areas and your phone will recalculate a new path for you.  Again, test your phones ability to give directions between two local spots at your destination before your trip with your phone in airplane mode to ensure the downloaded map is working correctly.

Download and install Uber (note: referral link). If you get stranded in Brazil, you don’t know who is driving that random taxi you flag down, if you can even find one. Most places have Wifi, and an Uber will have reviews from hundreds/thousands of previous riders. It is generally viewed as much safer. While hotel-associated cabs are probably your best bet, that may not always be an option. Check the driver’s rating, and check the driver’s number of rides. It will probably be safer and cheaper for you to take an Uber.

Download and install WhatsApp. If you don’t know what it is, WhatsApp is basically a text/voice/video messaging program, that runs over data rather than through standard telephone lines. WhatsApp is incredibly popular in Brazil, with most bigger businesses advertising that you can call them regularly, or on WhatsApp.

Finally, and this is the least important, install the app for your airline company. A lot of companies are phasing out in-seat entertainment for use on your phone/tablet. If you don’t have the app downloaded ahead of time, you might be stuck on the plane with no way to use the entertainment system.

If you have an unlocked phone, consider buying a prepaid Sim Card for your phone. These are very inexpensive, and are available at countless places. This will give you a Brazilian telephone number, but more importantly, it will give you a limited amount of data for use in a pinch.  Then you won’t have to keep your phone in airplane mode the entire time.andreas-haslinger-iD6mmn89YX4-unsplash.jpg

Keeping Hydrated – Water in Brazil

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Everyone knows keeping hydrated is important, but it is easily missed in Brazil (and other tropical areas). This can easily ruin a day or two of your trip, and given the low amount of vacation days Canadians get, you don’t want to lose any of them to easily avoidable situations.
On the left is what you think of when you order water at a restaurant, but on the right is what you get.
Now, to be clear, tap water in Brazil (in most places) is perfectly safe to drink. I know a lot of Canadians think all tropical places have unsafe drinking water, but this isn’t true. In addition, not everywhere in the USA has safe drinking water (for example – Flint, Michigan). Brazil actually has great water purification systems in place in urban areas, and you don’t need to worry. That said, everywhere you drink water, you’ll find it comes in bottles. Tap water is never drank, even in homes, partly because of prior times when it was not as healthy, and partly because their method for purification leaves an odd taste that some people don’t like. Always stop at a grocery or convenience store to buy water if you are staying in a hotel – the hotel will charge more than double the price for half the water, and there is no point in wasting money on water. Feel free to brush your teeth or rinse with the tap water, but the taste is bad enough that you won’t want to drink it straight.
The main problem with tap water not being served is that, like in Canada, restaurants and bars always charge for bottled water. This, combined with the cheap beer/drinks makes it easy to forget to drink water. I have often caught myself dismissing ordering water, because I think “well, if have to pay either way, I might as well buy beer”, and this is even easier do when sometimes (although rare) the beer is cheaper than the water. However, you’d be wrong to do this. As everyone who has ever had a hangover will tell you, drink water is essential. This is even more true in hot tropical climates where you will spend all day sweating. Drink water, and drink it often. I try to make sure to drink water at least one in four drinks, if not more.
Also, it isn’t expensive to buy water even at bars, as the exchange rate works heavily in your favour, but the price is close enough to Canadian prices it will trick you – three Brazilian Reals for Water sounds expensive, until you remember that is only one Canadian dollar. If I told you you could get a beer and a glass of water for four dollars Canadian at a bar, people would be lined up out the door. You need to view the price of buying the occasional water as part of the price of the beer you drink. But if you really can’t get yourself over the knee-jerk reaction of refusing to pay for water, buy it at a grocery store earlier in the day. Water at a grocery store isn’t even expensive in Canada, and it’s much cheaper in Brazil. For a dollar, you can get a large bottle of water to take on your travels. Drinking from it regularly throughout your day will go a long way to keeping you hydrated. Ideally, if you really want to avoid a hangover, you would do both.
That being said, if you do get a bad hangover, or fear one coming, I personally find a water and a Gatorade right before you go to sleep, and another right after you wake up is a good home remedy to keep the hangover to a minimum.
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Journal Day 8

Fast forward seven months, and its my next trip to Brazil. In the meantime, Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had grown much closer, we spoke every day on WhatsApp (video calling is a godsend to long distance relationships), and she had spent a large part of the summer with me in Canada.

This time, I felt much more comfortable walking into her home after a long flight, smelling terrible after 24 hours of travel, and craving a shower – this was a big sign of how welcome her family had made me feel from day one of my first trip. We didn’t hang out too much at her home though, as Minha Namorada wanted me to see the Sunset from downtown and so whisked me away after just enough time to stretch my legs and say hi to her family.

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The couple just ahead of us were speaking in English – it seemed they couldn’t understand each other in their native languages, so they used English as a universal language.   

While I did get some beautiful views, we missed the sunset by about five minutes. Downtown João Pessoa is beautiful though, as I’ve mentioned. It used to be the richest neighborhood in João Pessoa, and the architecture reflects that, but large swaths of downtown are now abandoned. The rich having moved to the coast to be right next to the ocean. Being unable to resell these properties for their values, they have now been long abandoned, and an uneasiness has settled around the downtown core.

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This is not a safe place to be at night, although during the day there are still many tourist attractions worth checking out – just start early, and leave after sunset. That being said, there are still busy bars downtown, so its not all parts that are unsafe. The basic rule is of safety in numbers still applies. If you want to go at night, make sure to check with your hotel if its a night where one of the downtown bars is having a large gathering, and then Uber directly there and back.

Downtown even has a thriving Chinatown community, where everything seemed incredibly similar to a China Town in Canada that, if not for the language. My first trip, I had barely seen any foreigners other than myself, and there are definitely less in Brazil than in Canada (for example, Japanese and Chinese restaurants tend to be staffed by ethnic Brazilians), but there are still lots of expats in Brazil. This trip, my suitcase had broken a wheel, and we went downtown to get it fixed – that is another lesson I liked from Brazil, there is a much stronger emphasis on fixing things that are broken, rather than just throwing them out and buying new. For 45 Reals (about 20 dollars) my suitcase was as good as new.

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Hot Temaki – my mouth waters just thinking about it.

I also insisted that first night that we have one thing I had been craving since I got back to Canada from my previous trip – hot temaki. Brazil has taken the wonderful taste of sushi, and they deep fry it in batter similar to chicken-strip batter, and it is one of the best tasting (and horrible for my waistline) foods that exists.

The Importance of Sunblock

Sunblock is extremely necessary in Brazil.  While Brazil is the fifth-largest country (by area) in the world, the Equator goes right through the country.   Thus, is it possible to talk in general terms about the issues of sun-care in Brazil.

Canadians do not really know the sun, not the same way as Brazilians.   Canada has a very low UV index by comparison, as it does not get the intense solar rays that Brazil does.   Canadians go outside and “don’t want to waste the sunshine”.   As long as you are in Brazil, you will get plenty of sunshine; however, I do understand that Canadians aren’t going to travel all that distance to Brazil, just to sit in the shade.   It may technically be a good idea considering the UV index, it may even be what the World Health Organization suggests, but I understand it won’t get followed.   So, at least do yourself a favour and use Sunblock properly.

There are some very important things you need to know about sunblock.


     1. SPF 30 is likely sufficient

With the exception of some extremely pale-skinned individuals, sunblock with an SPF factor of 30 is probably sufficient.    It is much cheaper than higher SPFs, and there are diminishing returns.   Generally speaking, you divide the time you spend in the sun with the SPF factor, to get the equivalent:

  • 30 minutes with SPF 30 is the equivalent of one unprotected minute in the Sun.
  • 30 minutes with SPF 60 is the equivalent of 30 unprotected seconds in the Sun.

Barring extreme paleness, the difference of 30 seconds isn’t extreme, but your pocket book will thank you.

Another major issue is that higher SPFs may create behavioural disincentives to use sunblock correctly.    Looking at the above comparison, you may look at the numbers and think you could wear SPF 60 for two hours, and its the equivalent of wearing SPF 30 for only one.  While it is technically accurate, the problem with looking at the comparison that way is that you might fail to then remember that the both sunblocks needs to be reapplied after 2 hours.   The SPF 30 after one hour is still good for another hour, whereas the SPF 60 after two hours is not.   So, if you accidentally make them equivalent in your head, it would be easy to accidentally go long overdue before reapplying the SPF 60.   The slight lower feeling of security with the SPF 30 will remind you to use it properly.

Further, higher SPFs, depending on the country it is sold, are not always associated with higher protection of the damaging UVA rays, but only UVB.  While UVB are the more likely to cause painful sunburns, UVA is associated with faster aging of your skin, and more importantly, UVA is associated with increased cancer risk.  Unless there are strong statements of broad spectrum protection, you may actually be better protected by SPF 30.

     2. Use Sunscreen properly.

Sunscreen needs to be applied 30 minutes before you go outside to be effective.   You want it to have some time to soak into your skin and actually begin protecting you.  

As I said above, sunscreen needs to be applied every two hours, don’t forget this.  Sunscreen doesn’t always disappear everywhere at the same rate, so you may not notice parts where you are beginning to burn until it is too late.   Your body will absorb the sunscreen, and it won’t be effective all day.  Sunburns will ruin your trip, it is incredibly hard to sleep on a sunburned back, and you won’t want to move, walk anywhere, or even enjoy the sun.   If you were going to just stay in the hotel, why would you have even gone to Brazil?

You also need to reapply when you sweat or when you get wet.   Water is a natural solvent, and is really good at its job.  If you look at the supposedly “water resistant”, or “sweat proof” sunblocks, they all still recommend you reapply after any situation in which the sunblock may have washed off.  While I do think they are a good idea, they can only do their job so well, so you have to do your part and reapply.

Remember to use enough sunblock – you want to use about a shot glass full every time you apply it.   

     3. Spray sunscreens

Personally, I like spray sunscreens.   A big drawback is that it is hard to know if i have used enough, but that is why I apply twice as much as I think I need.  However, the main benefit for me, is that I am not a flexible man.   I can’t touch everywhere on my back, and the spray sunscreen at least allows me to know some sunscreen is applied everywhere.   Partial protection is better than none.

Simple tips to remember:

  • Put Sunblock on when you wake up
    • make it part of your morning routine, after you’ve dried from your shower, and gotten dressed. Sunblock is supposed to go on well before you go outside anyways.  
  • Put sunblock on whenever you eat a meal, or start a new event
    • it is easy when you are on vacation to forget the time, so take a few minutes and reapply whenever you do something new.   If you apply it first thing in the morning, after breakfast and lunch, you’ll have captured most of the day.  Assuming you don’t stay in one place the entire time if you apply it whenever you get to a new location, you’ll have covered most of the day.   
  • Put sunscreen on whenever you dry out after feeling wet.   
    • You’re going to a hot and humid climate, you’ll probably go for a swim, or even if you just sit there and soak in the sun, you’ll get sweaty.

The above are all about making sunscreen part of your routine, so you don’t even have to think about it.   You won’t want to worry about the time of day (other than to make sure you reach your reservation), and you won’t want to have your cellphone on you.   Enjoy yourself, and just have this routine.

If you do think about the time, unless you are absolutely sure of the time of your application, round down and reapply 90 minutes after the last time.   Being extra protected is not a problem, and using SPF 30 you won’t break the bank.

     4. Finally, if despite all of the above, you still get a sunburn…

Apply sunblock immediately, and at night apply a sunburn cream.   Sunburns are not like a light switch, there are degrees, and just because you are “already burned” doesn’t mean it can’t get much, much worse.  A minor sunburn is an annoyance, a bad sunburn means you probably won’t sleep well, but a really bad sunburn can lead to hospitalization.

Sorry for the delay in posting this week’s article, WordPress was down over the weekend, and the holidays delayed me a bit further.

Misconceptions about Brazil

Growing up in Canada, people often get an unwarranted poor view of other countries. Please don’t think I am suggesting Canadians are racist, or anything like that. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, Canadians simply don’t get educated about many countries around the world. By the time we learn about British History, French History, American History, and how they all integrate into Canadian History, there is not a lot of time to learn about other countries. In addition, as large as we are, Canada is fairly isolated on the map. We have one land border with another country (possibly two), and we live in one of the top ranked countries according to many different indices.

Accordingly, we can easily have rumours, singular items, or misleading headlines shape ours views of other countries. I’ve put together a list of Misconceptions about Brazil, misconceptions that I once believed, or that I’ve head from others:

     1. Brazil is dangerous

Brazil is not dangerous. Canadians have an extremely low crime rate compared to the rest of the world, and we also tend to visit only countries very similar to our own, like the USA or Britain. However, all countries have places that are not safe. Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and Newark all have high crime rates, and higher murder rates than Brazil. Yet, people don’t have the same irrational fears of those cities.

There are places in Brazil that are not safe. You simply have to stay out of the crime ridden areas though, and you will be fine. If you stay away from the Favelas, including the controversial Favela Tours, then you need not worry. This doesn’t mean don’t take precautions, but you don’t have to do anything different than you should do when visiting any foreign country, and especially when you don’t know the city.

     2. Brazilians dress provocatively

I think this comes solely because of Brazilian Carnival. I haven’t been to Carnival, but the traditional Samba Dancers there dress in fairly provocative clothing. And when marketing Carnival and other Brazilian things to tourists, its not surprising that dress like this is used – sex sells, as the saying goes.

Agência Brasil Fotografias [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

No one could rightly think this is how everyone dresses all the time. It is clearly the type of outfit worn for a special performance in one specific time and place, yet many people think about it when they think of Brazil. But, a quick thought experiment will quickly dispel these thoughts. Imagine for a second you live right on the equator, where the sun’s UV index ranges from a low of 5 to a high of 12.

Just to give those numbers some context, Vancouver ranges from 1-7, and the World Health Organization suggests that when the UV reaches just 8, that people avoid the outside during midday hours, seek shade, and that a shirt, sunscreen and hat are a must.

Would it make sense to show a lot of skin in those areas? Certainly not. In fact, when I have visited Brazil, it is almost always the tourists who are the ones provacatively dressed, and who ultimately looking like a tomato at the end of the day. While the Brazilians are the ones seeking shade, wearing hats, wearing UV-protective shirts, and actually getting through life without contracting Melenoma.

     3. Brazilian animals are a constant threat.

Canadians don’t view Brazil quite as badly as we view Australia, but we aren’t used to dealing with poisonous animals. Accordingly, when visiting Brazil, we think about the horror stories of animals from the Amazon – anacondas, poison dart frogs, Brazilian Wandering Spiders, just to name a few. However, Brazil and the Amazon are not the same thing. And, this largely stems from a familiarity problem. People from countries outside of North America think of Canada and worry about bears or wolves. I’ve only ever seen a bear in the wild once or twice in my life, and that was when I was visiting small out of the way towns, and I was in a car. The same is true for Brazilian animals. You won’t see anything more dangerous than a hornet (which, don’t get me wrong, do suck – I have an irrational hatred of bees, wasps, and hornets). But, you don’t need to worry about snakes, or poisonous animals anymore than someone living in Toronto has to worry about bears.

I’ll add to this list as I encounter more misconceptions.

Journal Entry Day 1

Minha Namorada (My Girlfriend) and I had met the previous summer, and she’d even come to visit me over the Christmas holidays in Canada – arriving on a freezing cold day in Toronto when we broke a fifty year old record, but that is another story.

I had flown from Canada on a ‘milk run’ through the United States, and first arrived in Sao Paolo. As with most countries, I went across the border and through customs in Brazil in the first city I landed, São Paulo, it was a simple process because I had done my research ahead of time, and then I had a short layover before heading to Recife. I was actually worried I would not catch my connecting flight initially, because of a long line for checking in, but luckily there were many signs in Engliish. Following them, I saw that there was a second check-in tucked away in a corner, specifically for connecting flights, and where there was no line.

I had an uneventful flight to Recife, which is the State Capital of Pernambuco, just under two hours away from Joao Pessoa. Then I was back in the loving arms of Minha Namorada – I won’t bore you with the romantic details, but she was a sight for sore eyes.

Recife is not a city that I have visited much, or that I particularly like, and the route we took out of the City did not help. I’m sure it has many beautiful areas, and I’m sure it actually is a nice city, but if you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ll understand how I could have accidentally seen only the bad portion of the City.

Baggage comes out much faster in Brazil, which was refreshing. One time I was standing waiting for my bag for ten minutes, and staff actually came to check on me, because it was so unusual – that time was my own fault, I followed someone I thought was on my flight, and ended up waiting at the wrong carousel.

My first stop in Brazil was at a place in the airport called Casa Do Pao de Queijo. Pao Do Queijo is one of my two favourite Brazilian foods, the other being Carne De Sol but I had yet to try Carne De Sol. Pao do Queijo, however, is common at Brazilian Steakhouses in Canada, whereas Carne De Sol is not.

After a quick snack, we were off to drive to Joao Pessoa. The countryside in Brazil was very beautiful – the part between Joao Pessoa and Recife has a number of hills, and some beautiful sugar and pineapple farms. Coming from Western Canada, as I do, I found the similarity and yet differences between the farms so interesting – also, I had somewhat forgotten that Pineapples grow in the ground.

We arrived in Joao Pessoa, and that’s when I got to meet Minha Namorada’s family. Sweaty and smelling from a long day of travel, I was welcomed with open arms. Her brother was excited to see me, and had been practicing his English specifically so that we’d be able to talk, and with a small group of people they very kindly spoke slowly and waited for Minha Namorada or her brother to translate for me so that I could respond, as at this point I basically spoke any Portuguese.

Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world, and so Mass is an important aspect of life. We went to a service on Saturday, as we wouldn’t be able to make it on Palm Sunday (it was right before Easter). Services in another language are difficult to follow, but they do give you a handout to read, and at least some parts (like the Lord’s Prayer) always have the same rhythm, so I did my best. Like many places in Brazil, it a very open building to allow a breeze, but it was still very hot.

We then went to see Minha Namorada’s mother, who is also lovely. She and I spoke through Minha Namorada and Google Translate (make sure to download Portuguese for offline use ahead of time), and we had fun.

Prior to arriving in Brazil, I had heard many of the stereotypes. First and foremost was the crime. I did some actual research, and while the crime rates are high, it is largely confined to the Favelas. Crime statistics are sometimes misleading, Acapulco in Mexico hass the third highest per capita murder rate in the world, but no one thinks twice about going there for Spring Break. If you stay out of the Favelas, then the crime rate drops significantly. There are Favela tours which some people go on, I do not. While there is debate about Favela Tours themselves, sufficed to say, they are just not for me.

However, one thing that is initially unnerving is that every building you see will have a wall. It is unnerving in the same way that it is unnerving when you see security at airports in The Netherlands carrying machine guns – why would they have them, unless they need them? But what I realized while sitting on the apartment patio, right next to the (relatively) low wall, chatting with Minha Namorada’s mother, is that a large amount of the reason for the walls are that they are a form of security theatre. I do believe it helps to make a big show of security, as it deters some would-be criminals or crimes of opportunity. Obviously, you shouldn’t take stupid risks, but that’s true of anywhere, and ultimately, I felt perfectly safe in Brazil after that night.

We then went out briefly to a bar, again it was wide open with an extended roof to protect us from the rain, and we relaxed with two of Minha Namorada’s friends. A lot of the bars have live music, and you should be aware that if you stay to listen, they’ll come around and ask you to pay a small fee to the band – essentially a cover charge, but one that comes alongside your bill at the end of the night. They play lovely music, often Forró, which is a big in the Northeastern culture, and it is definitely worth the money to experience such a riveting part of the culture. The cost will be a minor amount anyways – less than a GST/HST charge, which Canadians are used to anyways. Remember, the exchange rate is heavily in your favour.

I was tired after travelling, and while I am probably better at sleeping on a plane than most, we called an end to my first day in Brazil.