An experienced world traveler offers 21 guiding principles for a more interesting trip.
After circling the globe a few times, I wrote The Frugal Globetrotter and began presenting a lecture/slide show on the university circuit about what I'd observed and learned out there. These aren't rules, just random road-tested musings -- globetrotter lore endeavoring to enrich your journey and simply remind you to hit the road. Go set your gypsy blood on fire. Dismiss common sense, leave the herd for a while.
CANON 1: You'll never know what's on the other side until you land there.
"New earths, new themes expect us." --Thoreau
CANON 2: Concoct a mission. The "I was really off the beaten path, they'd never seen anyone like us before" rap is getting rather tired. Super, we're all Marco Polo. One way to comprehend a culture and candidly harmonize with the locals is devising a hobby-inspired crusade -- birding, animal-powered transport riding, attending religious services, festival-hopping, learning a massage technique from the local healer, watching musical instrument craftspeople at work. Invent a quest and find out where the local guru works or hangs out.
This strategy moves you past the other skulking, bumbling tourists who wait to be fleeced by the gratuity-incensed layer of con artists that plague many destinations. You'll save money by discovering the heart of the region's honest people.
CANON 3: Choose guidebooks that will support your "mission"--whatever it may be. Experiment by comparing several different guidebooks' perspectives about a locale with which you are already familiar.
CANON 4: "I see more of what is going on around me because I am not concerned with finding a parking place." --Taxi Driver Wisdom
Take advantage of your foot power. Lose the main road, walk...you don't always need a plan. When driving, stay off the interstates when you can, they hide the landscapes and the people. Life doesn't happen on the asphalt pipeline. It's against the law.
Go up to the roof of the place you're staying. Look around and pick an interesting direction to go for an all-day walk. Bring a daypack with your camera, a note pad and some water. Then just smile and be open to meeting new people. If you pass an interesting factory, school or business, go in and check it out. In many places, particularly in underdeveloped countries, people are happy to let you watch their daily work, whether it's making hats, drying fish or teaching math to a roomful of 8-year-olds. This is where fun hides.
CANON 5: Do we spend the first half of our lives figuring out what we want to do with the second half of our lives, or do we spend the second half of our lives wondering what the heck happened in the first half? Tough call. Traveling helps us figure it out. Go see for yourself.
"Everything must end; meanwhile we must amuse ourselves."--Voltaire
CANON 6: Take a media sabbatical. If you haven't circled the globe yet, maybe there's an umbilical cord attached to your TV convincing you that the world is an unfriendly place. IT'S NOT. The media "news" is 95% bad. You CAN do it.
Close your eyes and imagine that you are eighty-five years old, rocking away, contemplating your life. How would you feel if you'd never had a genuinely wild journey? Globetrotting isn't for everyone, but here you are -- questioning what lies beyond this prodigious land of mountain ranges, shopping malls, plains, baseball stadiums, coastlines, drive-through restaurants, forests, lakes, and 33% taxation. If you can't stand the thought of not taking a big trip, start packing.
CANON 7: Exercise Halloween-at-age-twelve style caution. Be prudent. Monitor your partying -- many misadventures occur when we're under the influence.
"The major causes of problems are created by a drug interaction between alcohol and testosterone." --Philosophical Venezuelan Policeman
Women roving solo: There's safety in numbers; band with a pack of locals or fellow travelers before roaming into the unknown. Heed no advice first-hand, get a second or third opinion.
"Better an honest loincloth than a fancy cloak"--Swahili Proverb
CANON 8: Go where the locals go. Cops and bartenders know their terrain better than the local chamber of commerce--and they work nights. Inquire about best meal deal, zones of peril, reasonable accommodation, safe strolling, camping, worthwhile attractions and hangouts. Cordially interview them when you roll into town.
CANON 9: Get back in the kitchen, it's the most fun room in the house in other countries too.... Deep in the heart of Morocco's Riff Mountains, I hiked a rocky hillside that was shadowed by olive trees. I befriended a thirty-year-old shepherd, wearing a ski cap crowned by a pom-pom. He was the commander of fifty goats and twenty sheep. After a lesson on flock-control fundamentals (tree branch coaxing, throwing pebbles, grunting and hissing), we exchanged butter rum Lifesavers and cashews. I helped bring home the herd to his dwelling, lost somewhere in the narrow, winding byways of Chefchaouen. We settled in the dirt-floor kitchen, drank Moroccan whiskey (mint tea) and smoked kayffe, employing a 60-inch pipe (pipa). The peace pipe ceremony gained momentum when his mother, brother and sister arrived and we all played the Arabic/English name that kitchen utensil game. Meanwhile in the next room, the livestock baaahed, grunted and mooed. The grass is greener down at the roots . . . Moroccan sunsets forever on my mind.
CANON 10: In many parts of the world, latrine flushing and personal cleansing is done with the left hand using a few splashes of rainwater held in a nearby vessel. Don't shake hands lefty in these places.
Squatting low within a Goa, India restroom (an outhouse accommodating a porcelain crater at floor level), I was frightened by a sudden slosh and clatter--odd, since traditional Asian style toilets don't "flush" western- style. I peered between my legs and saw the cause of the commotion: a spasmodic pink apparatus flapping about wildly. I exited, darted to the rear of the structure and barreled into a humongous pig that was voraciously groveling its snout deep into the outflow pipe of the outhouse. These "pig- toilets" are clever spinoffs of traditional Asian toilets, wherein you hunker down, resting your buttocks upon your ankles, hovering above an opening in the floor.
What distinguishes a pig-toilet from traditional undeveloped country latrines is the ravenous pig that consumes your poop, without delay. The sound of flushing, common in western bathrooms, is replaced by a hog slurping on the other side of a wall. Indeed, there's a sensation of a closed-loop ecosystem when your waste is recycled back into the food chain before you've even pulled up your pants. (New perspective on pork too.)
CANON 11: Avoid the Unsavory Tourist Syndrome.
Six Americana impulses that shout "tourist!" as you bumble abroad:
1. High-fiveing everyone.
2. Wearing high-top sneakers and baseball caps backwards.
3. Talking incessantly (volume set on loud). Observation: There are two North American languages: English and louder.
4. Defending America's defense policy.
5. Giving 'em the enthusiastic thumbs-up sign, accompanied by a lightheaded grin.
6. Prefix your sentences with "yo" and "like"--respond with "totally" and "definitely!" Then, high-five again. CANON 12a: Bypass neurotic travel partners, which usually means roving solo, since spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with anyone breeds dementia. Nine-to-fivers don't comprehend "24/7" until they cross India on a bus together. One advantage of traveling with someone you're not in a relationship with is being allowed to separate for a few days.
CANON 12b: When traveling with friends or family, undertake an exhausting itinerary. My Dad and I walked 200 miles, coast-to-coast across Northern England. Meandering 20 miles a day along towering shoreline cliffs, through dense forests and over forbidding mountain ranges left us no energy to recycle any debates about my tenth-grade car crashing spree.
CANON 13: Keep a journal.
"...I think about all the different ways we leave people in this world. Cheerily waving goodbye to some at airports, knowing we'll never see each other again. Leaving others on the side of the road, hoping that we will." -- Amy Tan
"...be careful in traffic. Mopeds are often the family car in many Asian cities. Taipei, Taiwan has wide, busy streets where there seem to be no rules. Lawlessness, such as ignoring signals, is aggravated by leaning on the horn. Low grade fuel emissions cloud the air. It's common to see up to four people crammed onto one moped. Mopeds move freight as well. Today I saw a fellow weaving through traffic on a small scooter while hauling a king-size mattress and box spring upon his back." --journal entry
CANON 14a: Avoid money hernias. Don't haggle people to extinction. The same shoppers who beat an impoverished Javanese innkeeper down fifty cents probably shop back home at The Sharper Image. The test of adventure greatness depends on the depth of the traveler's vision, secondary is their amount of time, and last is their bank account.
Don't become a sporting-goods hero. Do you really need a personalized odometer/altimeter for that day hike? Although K-Mart and Wal-Marts have crushed small-town intimacy, these retail coliseums sell tents and walking shorts priced way below the mall-rat outfitters.
CANON 14b: Dancing is a great, inexpensive form of entertainment. Economic prudence once led me to a gut-level, Caracas dance hall where the landscape relaxed with a continuous warm-climate, mañana attitude. Usually, the higher up on the socioeconomic ladder one travels, the likelihood of meeting an English-speaking acquaintance increases. In local, easy-going joints on the "wrong side of town" your chances of encountering an amigo capable of speaking English are slim. No worry, lacking Spanish skills makes your search for a dance partner a bona fide challenge. One option is to persuade one of the more senior señoritas to familiarize you with the hand and foot placements. Even a language-impaired visitor soon realizes that dancing, like eating, is routine here, a national sport, where everyone's clued in. Albeit exciting, dancing faces remain expressionless, as dreamy eyes hover calmly aloft dimly-lit, slyly meshing torsos. Somewhat like a thriving high school gymnasium dance, minus the U.S.-style cotillion theatrics.
Once you understand the dance partner search strategy (approaching a table of people and extending your open hand with a smile), finding a partner is easy. Four out of five women accept these extended hand, dance floor invitations, not bad compared to North America's woesome one for six average. On the dance floor, your gringo status goes undetected, unless you open your mouth--a habit for many States folk. So hush, treasure the sundry, close-up dances and the immediate, innocent intimacy. A majority of the combinations seem to inspire either entranced, locked-at-the-mid-section gyrating, or, earnest, pelvic collisions. In any case, you'll be in close quarters. Try watching other couple's hands and feet out of the corner of your eye until you get the hang of it.
Dancing endures as a hedonistic life force that's not deadly or illegal. Wherever you roam, discover the local music scene by hanging around the "tape market." Translation: locate an outdoor cassette market, when you hear something that moves you, find out where they are playing or DJ-ing. Dance zones remain indifferent to status. Infectious music lets UBU.
CANON 15: The first thing you pack is yourself. And that should be an open, positive thinking, compassionate person. Buy things there, it helps you blend. With the exception of Frisbees, feminine products and antibiotic ointments (for ferociously itchy insect bites, jock itch and stinging bungs) you can often buy basic items en route cheaper (Japan and Scandinavia are exceptions). Unless you're scheming to ice climb to do naked Yoga above the tree line, hold off on buying boot crampons.
Earplugs. Aside from safeguarding snore-stressed marriages, they're protection against blaring buses, trains and bracing humans.
Backpack. The most important feature is the zippers, when they fail, the backpack isn't. Darker colors hide dirt, and thieves, like bugs, seem lured to bright colors. And, before stuffing your pack, recognize that the real essentials are what's in a globetrotter's head--background knowledge, resourcefulness, a considerate perspective and a smile.
Pack to give away. Clothes, footwear, Bungee cords, safety pins, etc. They need them more than you do. Bring balloons for the kids. People who've never seen an ocean love sea shells. Photos of friends and family also create smiles. Pack a cassette mix fave or two--lost Brazilian villages sometimes have generators that make a few hours of juice per day. Many people learn English via music.
Airline giveaway paraphernalia (slippers, eye patches, toothbrushes) make great gifts in undeveloped countries. Business Class travelers always leave these gifts behind, collect them as you deplane.
Gifts purchased on the road? Follow your impulse. An $8 Balinese wood- carving turns more heads than another tee shirt. Occupational tools such as bamboo fish traps, spears and handmade backpacks can be purchased (though they may not be for sale) at a fair price.
CANON 16a: Europe? Please hold out. Visit the distant lands of undrinkable water and witch-doctoring while your immune system is hearty. Delay western Europe for when negotiating stairs is a bitch.
CANON 16b: And jeez, believe me, when you do visit Europe don't attempt to photograph the Amsterdam red-light district prostitutes unless you're wearing running shoes. After relentless rejection, I offered one pro the fee for her usual services to snap one photo. Nope. I snapped it anyway. Suddenly, an army of heel-clacking harlots were sprinting my warpath, intent on destroying more than my camera.
CANON 17: The trip starts before you leave. Befriend a fellow globetrotter at the airport before the plane boards; the alert travelers wearing sensible footwear (and the sense they wouldn't be crushed by a rainstorm) are easy to spot.
En route, learn from the existing traveler's subculture. How do I get started on the SE Asia trail? Partner with a European or Australian road warrior who dropped by three years ago, and hasn't left.
CANON 18: Inoculations. Seems to be two schools of thought: absolutely and forget it. Many unvaccinated veteran travelers escape without incident, but some rookies get cerebral malaria. You decide. Your local or county health department should be cheaper than the tropical disease specialist and after they both send your itinerary to the Center for Disease Control they'll probably urge the same thing--a bucket load of pills and shots. Avoiding many diseases, like malaria, is 90% prevention. Better safe than sorry. Try acupuncture and homoeopathy for what ails you before you go as a preventative measure and if you get sick on the road. Many over-the-counter, unnatural Western medicine panaceas eventually backfire.
CANON 19: You only stumble when you're moving. Expect setbacks. The Chinese symbol for crisis represents both breakdown and opportunity. Have a book, a conversation, or a drink handy for waiting out avalanche-blocked roads or for when the trekking permit office in Kathmandu invents another holiday. Every now and then, you might have to grin-and-bear a tourist trap that's in bloom. Keep moving boredom-fighting soldiers!
BOOKS: Pack a masterpiece, complicity often sneaks in. I read this apropos inquiry in Thoreau's Walden while trekking amongst naked New Guinea aboriginals: "It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes."
CANON 20: Romance on the road. Pack a coffin. Nah, when you and honey quarrel, chant the Chinese idiom, "Even a typhoon doesn't last a day." (Review Canon 12a). Quarrels often ensue on departure and arrival days under the duress of laboring through airports and getting ripped-off by unscrupulous cab drivers.
"Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most." --Anonymous
I piloted a horse-drawn carriage around midtown Manhattan for a year. Most riders were couples. The most useful missive I beheld from blissful older couples was that a sense of humor breeds timeless compatibility.
CANON 21a: Resist complaining. Period. It may be a symptom of your cubicle- infested office allergy. If you must whimper, break out your translation dictionary or phrase book and transcribe your conundrum to a local. You may realize that your dilemma is a tad pathetic, and you might even learn the language.
Bruce Northam is an adventure author/lecturer. His animated multimedia travel presentation is held at universities and seminar centers nationwide. This story was excerpted from Northam's "In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology". His first book, "The Frugal Globetrotter," provides rat-race exit blueprints and counsel for people on academic and workaholic binges. To order either book call (800) 356-9315 (24 hrs), or visit amazon.com
For more information on Bruce, visit http://www.authorinterviews.com
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