Living in a developing country can be a challenging—and frustrating—experience for the expat. And I learned a lot of lessons in that regard when we moved to the Mediterranean.
“But Malta isn’t a developing country,” you might be thinking. “Were do you get your stats?”
The IMF listed Malta as a developing country until the day it joined the European Union and the Eurozone. And then someone waved a magic wand and that status changed overnight. So it’s wise to take such indexes with a grain of salt.
The island is geographically considered part of Europe, but I’ve always felt it to be culturally indistinguishable from North Africa and the Near East. And the challenges of living here are very similar.
The advice I’m going to share with you in this column deals with Malta, but it applies to any of the developing countries I’ve traveled through. So if you’re headed there for any length of time, you’ll want to keep it in mind.
And don’t worry—there’s nothing overwhelming or unliveable about it. You just have to change your expectations, and go about things a little differently.
The first thing you’ll notice—whether you’re taking a taxi from the airport or you’re at the helm of your own set of wheels—is that driving in the developing world follows a very different set of (or total lack of) rules.
I’ve driven in places like Africa, Laos, and Vietnam. I’ve even raced through the incredibly congested streets of Hanoi on a motorbike without blinking. And Malta has the worst drivers I’ve seen anywhere—not just in terms of ignoring all the rules, but in terms of competence.
I have never seen so many single car accidents on straight roads. In Malta, vehicles mysteriously leap off the road several times each week, crashing into walls or barriers and seriously injuring the occupants.
And the only reason for so many head on collisions is that drivers are on the wrong side of the road—usually because they’re passing on blind corners.
I see at least one or two accidents every time I leave my house. And if you think I’m exaggerating, you might enjoy this piece from the Times of Malta: The Curse of Maltese Driving.
The key lesson for driving in the developing world is to expect things to come at you randomly, from every possible angle, and for no logical reason. Cars will roll out in front of you and suddenly block the road. Drivers will make erratic turns, cutting you off. And at least half the people you see will be texting or talking on mobile phones.
Blind confidence is key here—that and keeping your foot pressed firmly on the accelerator. Show no hesitation—even when pulling out into a steady stream of oncoming traffic. And never take your eyes off the road to look in your mirrors, because you’re only responsible for anything that happens from the driver’s door forward.
Expect nothing logical, because you will find nothing less.
Getting Things Done
The other thing you’ll notice immediately on moving to the developing world is that things don’t work quite the same way when it comes to getting things done.
You’ll probably first realize this when attempting to follow the rules, or when applying for government documents, or doing anything in the way you’re officially “supposed to.” And you’ll eventually figure it out after a lot of waiting, pointless emails and calls that go unanswered.
Call it what you will—“graft”, “kickbacks”, “favours”, “skimming from the public contract money”, or “just helping my cousin get a job he’s totally unqualified for”—corruption is everywhere.
Official rules do exist for things, but they’re rarely ever followed. What matters is who you know. If you need a permit or document, don’t waste any time filling out forms or finding out which office you should go to. That alone will take weeks, and you’ll find yourself right back where you started.
Instead, ask around until you find someone who knows somebody in the relevant office. Get that official’s phone number and call them directly. When you reach the right person, it’s like every door mysteriously opens for you. You’ll have your paperwork done in a few days, rather than spending 6 months wondering if they sent it to Mars.
In the developing world, even government officials will advise you to break specific rules and keep quiet about it. “Apply for this business permit because it’s easier to get, but just don’t tell anyone you’re also doing these things.”
I know someone who was asked by a doctor in Malta, “Will your insurance cover these tests?” And when she said no, the well-meaning physician replied, “Well, I’ll just have to make up some symptoms then. Here’s what you should say if they call you…”
Corruption can be frustrating to deal with, especially if you’re coming from a country where you have set expectations that things should be done in a predictable manner. But on the positive side, it’s very easy to fall through the cracks. The world of “officialdom” tends to leave you alone in such places, and no one bothers you about small details as long as you keep to yourself.
While the driving and the corruption are probably the first things that will jump out at you—sometimes quite literally—there are other smaller challenges you’ll also need to adjust to.
Take technology, for example. The websites in Malta are at least 10 years behind anything I see in Canada or in the rest of Europe. Not because businesses don’t have websites. They do. There just isn’t any useful information on them.
You’ll find logos of all the brands that a shop carries, but you won’t know which products are actually in stock. You’ll search for 20 minutes, trying to find something as basic as the store’s opening hours and their location. And you’ll always end up having to call.
Even when you do call, that’s no guarantee of getting accurate information. Here’s a sample conversation I had during my first year.
“Hi, I’m calling to see if you have descaler for coffee machines.”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Great, I’ll be right over.”
I spent 10 minutes driving to this business, and struggling to find their shop in the winding nameless village streets. And when I walked in the door and said, “Hi, I just called about a bottle of descaler…”, the very same shop employee said, “Oh, let me check to see if we have that” and vanished into the bowels of the store.
You’ll be left there confused, saying such things as, “But why wouldn’t you check when I called? I wouldn’t have wasted so much time driving over here if you didn’t have the product.”
But you would be wasting your breath, because no one’s listening. And even if they heard you, they’d just be doing that thing where they talk even louder overtop of you, to tell you what they assume you’re wanting to hear.
So what’s the solution?
Well, you could drink yourself into a new liver, but that won’t solve your problems, even if it does ease your stress. Or you could simply get used to the fact that purchasing even the most basic item will involve half a day, and going in person to several different villages. Or even better, you could give up on the local shops entirely and order from Amazon whenever possible.
All the above things can be frustrating, but there’s one other item that tops even corruption and barely believable driving, and that is the complete unreliability of most people.
The work ethic in developing countries can be very different from what you’re used to back home. In Malta, it’s very common for tradesmen or service people—or just about anyone, really—to simply tell you what you want to hear in order to make you go away. Problem solved!
You’ll need to get used to people not showing up. I’ve noticed friends in Malta will call a service person every 20 minutes when they really need something fixed, nagging them so much that it’s more of a pain to ignore them than it is to complete the job.
I’ve also noticed that Maltese people will stand there and watch the person to make sure they’re doing the job thoroughly. As with much of the developing world, there’s very poor attention to detail, and little sense of responsibility when it comes to your own work.
But thankfully you will find those very few people who do a thorough job. And when you do locate them, I suggest you pay them well because reliability and basic competence are in such short supply.
The other thing that really struck me about life here—and that I still can’t reconcile myself to—is the litter. The level of rubbish in the streets is truly depressing. Malta is filthy.
I won’t rant on about how drivers drop garbage out the window of their cars, or how passing eaters used to deposit fast food wrappers or empty bottles in the plants in front of our house. Or how people abandon large garbage items by every stone wall—though collection is free of charge.
I’m afraid I can’t offer you any advice on this point. I was shocked by it in the beginning, and it still depresses me each time I go out. But litter is something you’ll just have to get used to when living in the developing world.
Lack of green space is also a challenge for expats, especially if you’re accustomed to Europe’s public parks.
It’s understandable that such things would be lacking in a country as small and as heavily populated as Malta. But fields and beautiful green areas do exist, especially along the island’s dramatic coastline. It’s just that they’re largely inaccessible.
Much of it is fenced off as private land—whether or not that’s actually true—and spray painted with warnings, and the occasional skull and crossbones.
But the most unfortunate thing is that walking in them for much of the year is likely to get you shot at. Malta has an average of 31 hunters per square kilometre, an incredible density of people firing guns in such an overbuilt island.
Hunting is also highly political, and if you’re seen walking in the countryside during hunting season, you’re assumed to be spying for a wildlife or environmental NGO. Aggressive—and sometimes violent—confrontations are common.
If you’re like me, you’ll prefer to simply avoid such conflicts. And so you’ll give up on exploring those wonderful areas of the island, and you’ll take hiking vacations abroad instead—just as we also take beach vacations to places like Portugal and Spain, because the local beaches are so overcrowded and dirty.
You might be wondering by this point if the tradeoffs of living in the developing world could possibly be worth it?
I ask myself that same question nearly every day. And you probably will too, when those developing country blues are getting you down.
Expats accept these tradeoffs for a variety of reasons. Some come for work. Others enjoy the culture of the place they’re living in. And people like me live here for the sunny weather and the low tax rates.
But most of all, the cost of living is incredibly low, and that allows me to spend a great deal of time abroad, researching material to write entertaining stories for you.
Besides, I moved to Malta to write an island book. And I’ve already accumulated the sort of material that would make a toddler’s hair turn grey.