Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
This writeup is dedicated to all the people who have /msg'd me about the countries I've noded and said that they've never left their own. I hope it inspires you. Seasoned travellers, feel free to /msg me that I don't know what I'm talking about and am alarmingly full of shit. Here, I'll help:
/msg frankie YOU ARE ALARMINGLY FULL OF SHIT AND DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT
- Know your bounds
Travel the World is a catchy title and a great concept. Yes it is possible: The beauty lies in the interpretation. Some will not rest until they have conquered every square inch of this Blue Planet; others will be satisfied once they've visited each of her seven continents; some might hang up their backpack after reaching the most practical six. But there is another group, whose world does not even penetrate the borders of their own country, and this is for them too.
- Exceed them
Surely the point of travelling is to learn something, to take in experiences you wouldn't have in your day-to-day life? Travel is an expensive hobby, so the stories better last you longer than your tan. But do remember that exceeding your boundaries is not necessarily a physical thing. It can be a cultural thing, an emotional thing, a self-discovery thing.
- Everybody hates a tourist
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and that you can't disguise that you're not from 'round here. There are so many subtle things that will give you away that to list them is futile. I don't just mean your accent. It's the way you pause momentarily when counting out money to pay for something; the way you stroll down the street instead of striding purposefully; its the starch in your safari hat; its your sunburn. You can't hide it, so please be apologetic about it, without being sycophantic. Look cashiers in the eye and say thank you. Do not bitch about bad service. Shut up and listen when talking to locals. Generally be gracious and respectful of local customs at all times.
- Most places you visit will be comparatively poor
International travel is getting cheaper, but its still the realm of the wealthy. It is becoming affordable to the middle classes in the first world but remains out of range to all but the well-connected in most of the rest of the world. You are likely to encounter grotesque poverty at some point, and its going to be ugly, tragically beautiful, heartrending and in-your-face.
Impromptu charitable donations are not a good idea. You will raise the interest of an uncomfortable number of people, one of whom may well feel that you don't need the rest of what's in your wallet either. You can do more in the long term by supporting local industries. Keep your notes in your pocket and be charitable with your humility instead.
- Everywhere is stunningly beautiful
Stop snapping for a moment, put your camera down and really LOOK. Most of what you see could never even be captured by a professional photographer with a kick-ass wide-angle lens. You're going to need more than just photographs to fully appreciate all that's before you, so take memories. I once heard a statistic that we remember 5% of what we hear, 10% of what we see and 80% of what we write down. Now I'm not suggesting you whip out your sketch pad, but memories are made of more than just visions - you need a combination of the senses to keep it locked in. Capture the atmosphere: listen to the sounds, take in the scents, look at the sights. Once you've imprinted the scene on your memory, look around for something interesting: that silhouette of the lovers kissing in the sunset with Table Mountain to the left is how you will remember Cape Town.
- Get a passport
I once heard that only 5% of Americans hold a current passport. It nearly made me cry and I don't want to believe it. I don't care if you have no current plans of taking a trip to a foreign land, the fact that you've read this far means that you want to. Come back and read on once your application is in, here's why:
Buy a backpack
- It takes alarmingly long to get a passport. Six weeks to three months is not unusual, by which time that fantastic deal you saw for a weekend in Costa Rica is long-since lapsed and Hurricane Hilda has washed the resort away.
- You need some form of photo ID to get on a plane, or to get into Mexico or Canada, so it may as well be a passport with a carefully selected photo, and not your hideous drivers' license snap. Plus, they'll stamp your passport if you ask. Unless you're an EU national travelling within the borders, in which case you're lucky if there's even anyone to look at your passport.
- Once you have a crisp, shiny, virgin passport, you'll be so damn tempted to use it, it may just be all the encouragement you need.
Those wheelie-suitcases piss everyone off. I actually had to start cycling into work after I nearly punched some old dear's lights out for tripping me up for the third time coming out of the underground at Victoria station. But that's not the reason: you'll be carrying your luggage more often than you think, and most people, North Americans specifically, pack too much. Travel Light does not mean ordering Diet Coke from the trolly dolly. If you have to sling what you pack onto your back, its likely that you won't over-do it too much.
Learn to carry it properly
That waist fastener should fasten (here's the catch) around your waist. Think of a mother carrying her toddler: she puts the toddler's center of mass above her hip on her waist, right - just about where her center of mass is. No nasty moments and levers and hideous physics calculations to explain why your back aches. Your backpack has that heavy-duty belt-like thing for good reason: you want it to take the majority of the weight. Shorten up those shoulder straps and tighten the waist band. For long-term carrying comfort, you want as little of the weight carried by the shoulder straps. If you haven't packed too much, none of it is a good moon to shoot for.
I once went to Dublin to work for 3 weeks and took only one carry-on bag. It was summer, which helped, but you get the point. Seven pairs of underwear and five outfits will see you clear for anything less than a month. Travel laundry detergent is well worth the space it takes up (not much), and use it. Save those dinky tubs and bottles you got in that its the thought that counts Body Shop gift set your grammy gave you last Christmas, and decant your usual toiletries into them. 15ml of moisturiser should comfortably last 3 weeks. If you're going anywhere for more than a month and won't be moving around too much, then buy products when you arrive. Twenty bucks should set you up with conditioner, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and sunblock and save you any in-flight drop-in-air pressure-explosions on your nice silk shirt. Give or throw away the left-overs before you return.
montecarlo suggests that you buy local undies instead of carrying home-bought pairs around. An added bonus is that when you get home your undies remind you of all the exotic places you bought them. A further suggestion of montecarlo's is that you take half the luggage and twice the money. I'm pretty sure that kalen mentions that here too. heyoka has another variant: one on, one off, and one in the wash.
- Start small
If you've never left the state, then Outer Mongolia is probably not a good idea for your first trip. Hawaii or Alaska is a good start for Americans - they're far enough to be exotic, but they speak your language and your bank has a branch in all the towns. If the thought of all that expense for not technically leaving the country irks you, then consider a border hop. Canada and Mexico get so many Americans, its likely that if you run into any kind of trouble there'll be an experienced American traveller within earshot to help you out. And while the locals may be fed up with Americans and may pretend they don't speak your mother tongue, deep down they know where their bread is buttered.
Still unimpressed? More power to you. But for a first trip, I strongly urge you to go somewhere that speaks your language or where you speak theirs fluently. "I took French class in the tenth grade" doesn't cut the mustard, as my mother will tell you after she lost my brother on the streets of Paris at 10pm. Also please remember that you'll encounter a lot of "You American? New York is such a great city!" and if you answer "I dunno, never been" then that thing your Joe Localchap muttered under his breath translates as "Ignorant loser, how can I rip him off?".
- Pick travel buddies carefully
For trips longer than a weekend, you'll want a blood or legal relative, a bosom buddy or someone who is paying your fare. Travel brings out the worst in people, not the best. Jet lag, cramped accommodation, lumpy beds and food poisoning is a lethal cocktail. When you have to be around someone 24/7, it better be a person you can snap at and then laugh with five minutes later, or you'll be off the Christmas card list quicker than you can say "Rudolph the red nosed reindeer".
- You are your own best friend
If you can't find one of the above, go it alone. One of the most liberating travelling experiences is discovering who you are away from people who already have an opinion on the matter. Want to change your name? Change it. Want to stop being a vegetarian? Tuck into a fillet steak. Want to shave your head? It'll save you wasting money on hair cuts and save space in your backpack that used to house shampoo.
It can get lonely, but if you stick to dorm rooms in YHA hostels, you'll soon have more friends than you ever imagined. Well, maybe not friends - though some of them may end up so - but certainly plenty like-minded individuals. The roommate turn-over rate is swift, so you're assured of one person who did what you want to do today, yesterday, and can tell you how to get in free. Likewise you'll have one who wants to do what you want to do today, today: Hey-ho, instant buddy. But remember: independent travellers are just that, independent. At some point during your day together, your new mate is likely to want to do something you don't want to do, so don't cling - let them go off and do it, you'll hook up again later. You are your own best friend, not them.
- Get a travel guide
Lonely Planet is usually the best. Let's Go will do. Time-Out guides tend to focus on dining and shopping and not outdoor activities. I've never been impressed with Rough Guides, but they do have nifty pictures. Try your local library before shelling out fifteen quid for the latest edition.
- Where to stay
Surprisingly, this depends more on how well you've researched and planned your activities than economics. If you have a travel companion and an itinerary accounting for every minute, then by all means stay in a hotel. And please do if your snoring performance puts a chainsaw to shame. But if a good night's sleep is lower down your list of priorities, then I recommend that you head for a YHA youth hostel.
The YHA chain are well worth the extra three bucks or so a night. Bring a padlock and use it and you can be happy that your valuables will be secure. YHAs have to adhere to strict standards - one being cleanliness (no sleeping bags, sheets and blankets provided), another being unisex dorms. There is not normally an age-limit (bindlenix and I had the pleasure of joining our 65yo and 55yo roommates in a trip to the Getty Center). Unaffiliated hostels are a mixed bag and website claims should not be believed.
Anyway, my main point about hostels is that, as I mentioned above, they're the best place to pick up good travel advice. Hostels also usually have booking offices for local tours that usually do pick-ups on the doorstep. The booking offices are generally independent of the hostel, and work on a commission basis. However the prices they charge are not normally any different from what you'd pay if you went to the tour operator direct.
- What to do
Presumably you've picked your destination based on the attractions and you have a good handle on what you want to see. Some tours only operate on certain days, and many hostels operate free trips to different places on different days, so its worth planning (and booking) ahead. A walking tour of the city or town is always a good candidate for the first day, taking in the local tourism office for public transport and other local info.
I never bother with forex or travellers' cheques anymore - though obviously in some places this practise will eventually lead to me sleeping in an airport and going hungry. I travel with Visa and AMEX credit cards, and a Visa bank card. Not every ATM will give you money, but usually those dodgy-looking ones that add two bucks to the amount will happily spit out the dough.
Carrying an (empty) credit card is not cheating - it can at times be life-saving and at others can give you a well-deserved break. Britney Spears is in town - bring out the credit card and don your glad rags. You've done three weeks of showering in your sandals and putting up with flatulent snoring tossers on the bunk above you - whip out that credit card and head for the nearest four star hotel.
Always take more money than you think you'll need. Sure you'll spend it all, but at least it'll last longer and you'll have more fun.
anthropod says that Visa isn't all that helpful in South East Asia and I forgot to mention that you should take wads of cash if you're going to rural places where the bank may not open just once a week, because there may not be one at all. Apply this principle to food too - I nearly went hungry my first two weeks working on a stud farm in the Hunter Valley, NSW. (It's a good thing I like horse food.)
Your travel agent won't think to ask what passport you're on or mention that you need a visa, but your travel guide book will. Find out for certain by visiting the country's website, and do it before you pay for your ticket. Visas can take up to 12 weeks to come through, which is another reason to get your passport before you plan your trip. If you're on an unpopular passport, a visa service is well worth the commission, and they usually have back-door agreements with consulates that get your visa through in less than half the time.
Shop around to get the best deal. It won't necessarily come off the internet. Daytime flights are always worth it - I saw ice floes and glacier calving off Greenland and the Grand Canyon this way. Window seats and checking for free that 10kg of overweight you picked up in souveniers are well worth arriving early at the airport for. I could have seen Uluru if I'd had a longer lay-over in Kuala Lumpur and it was a different flight path on the way home when I did have a window seat. Another advantage of window seats is something to rest your head on when you try to snooze.
- Carry a bulky sweater onto the plane
More space in your luggage, and a makeshift pillow. Yay!
- Don't overstay your welcome
Just don't. Leaving can be a problem and coming back again even more so. Contact the authorities for a visa extension or plan a cross-border trip if your visa will be reissued on re-entry.
- Working illegally
Cash-in-hand jobs are the best you're likely to get. This means bar work or labouring, and you won't get either in the Middle East. If you suspect that your funds are thinning, sooner rather than later is the time for action, particularly if you can't reschedule your flight home. In the off-season, you can sometimes do a couple of shifts a week in a youth hostel in exchange for accommodation. But cleaning toilets in St Tropez is still cleaning toilets.
anthropod worked her way around Thailand teaching English. She says it helps if you have a copy of your university degree (or a copy of mine for ten bucks). Just watch out if you're a lady and your client is a rather well-spoken in English middle-age man who insists you meet in his house for private lessons.
- Don't piss your holiday against a wall
Call me the grinch who stole wild orgies with sultry Scandanavians if you will, but if your idea of a mad wicked holiday is getting blotto night after night, then do your sums again. I'm sure that what you save in cheap booze is offset by the cost of your flight and accommodation. You may as well stay home - after your fifth beer, you won't care whether outside it's raining or the sun is shining.
- Do not drink and go out in public in the Middle East
Trust me, it's not worth finding out why this is stupid.
- Organised (aka Package) Tours
These babies have received some really bad press so far in this writeup, and probably get more before it concludes. I should mention that other than school and rugby tours, I have never been on one. My spies tell me that they're okay if you're not very independent, don't care that you have to leave even if you love the place you just found yourself, and like being told what to do and when to eat or sleep. If you're one of those people who won't travel alone and doesn't have an appropriate travel companion, then these might be up your street. You may not end up bosom buddies with your roommate, but at least if you don't get on with them there will be plenty of other people to sit next to on the bus. Contiki tours are for 18-30 year olds (or is that 36?) and there are some companies catering for retired people. I believe folks over 35 and not yet retired are statutorially required to be raising children and too broke to travel.
Making the most of it
- Absorb local customs
You haven't gone half way around the world to meet foreigners. You want to meet locals, so get out there and meet them. Chances are bars will not be the best way - I find that going to a local sports match fits the bill. Try to pick a sport that isn't played in your home town. The chap sitting next to you will happily bend your ear explaining the rules, why his team is the best, and will probably fill you in on plenty of other local titbits. But if he is really into the game, especially if his team is losing, don't badger the poor chap. Also wear neutral colours: Black and white are much safer than red or blue.
If you're sticking around long-term, then joining a sports team is the easiest way to make friends. At the very least you'll have a once-a-week bunch of drinking buddies. If sport is not your thing, then um... I don't know but I'm open to suggestions.
anthropod to the rescue again! Yes, she made Thai friends by hanging out with people who sell things to tourists - waitresses, T-shirt sellers, book sellers. She'd start by chatting, then sit a while if they seemed friendly. I think that the key here is that she initiated the contact. (Ladies, see later.)
- Learn a little of the lingo
As heyoka points out, knowing how to say stuff like "please" and "thank you" in the local dialect will enamour you evermore than those damn Americans last week who thought that an increase in volume would aid comprehension.
- Ride public transit
I used to while away idle Sundays in Sydney riding the ferries in the harbour, or taking buses randomly. With a multi-trip travel pass and a map, you're never lost and you can see wonderful out-of-the-way places or get bored out of your mind. It's a lottery, but it can be fun. Plus some of the greatest characters you'll meet will be on buses.
- To plan? or Not to plan? that is the question
Whether tis nobler in the mind's eye to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to rigourously plan your entire trip really depends on you. wrinkly suggests that short trips should always be planned, but longer ones you should plan a few days, have a general strategy, and go with the flow. If it rains when you said you'd climb Table Mountain, you can always go on the Wine Route instead and say an extra day. Of course you should have done the wine route anyway...
Safety tips for women travellers
- Don't date locals
That local chap you met in the bar is highly unlikely to be sincere. The Date Rape drug is out there, and it gets used. Touristy bars attract the wrong type of local character, and any local man who approaches you should be ushered off if he makes you feel uncomfortable.
Obviously this dating-the-locals rule can be relaxed if you're sticking around for a bit and met your prospective beau away from the tourist traps. But still be a little weary, and always make sure you have a get-away plan and don't go down dark lonely alleys on a first date. If you're in a place with a similar culture to your home (eg. a Brit in Australia/America/Europe) then you should be fine. But if you're stepping out side of familiar territory, then learn local dating customs before you accept the date. Especially in the Middle East, where just being seen in public alone with a local chap is pretty risqué.
- Never say if you're travelling alone
Congratulations. That ill-intending local chap who wants to rape or mug you now knows that nobody is going to come looking for you if you don't return to your hotel at a reasonable hour.
- Never tell anyone where you're staying
If you genuinely think that the local guy asking for your address or number is sincere, still don't give it to him. Ask him for his, and only ever arrange to meet him in very public places. If he suggests a nice trip somewhere remote, an out-of-the-way gem of a place that the person who wrote your travel guide somehow missed, be suspicious and do not go. I had a fantastic time in Sultan Ahmet with an off-duty carpet salesman, playing "spot the tourist" and learning how to eat sunflower seeds. I also had a particularly "Oh dear God please don't let me get raped now" experience with a carpet salesman who had shown me all around the Grand Bazaar and won my trust.
- Never do anything you wouldn't do at home
You're not one for one-night-stands, good for you. On holiday is not a good place to start. That sexy boy propositioning you propositioned someone else last night and will proposition someone else tomorrow night. Law of averages says he scores a couple times a week. This spells one thing: S-T-D. Syphilis if you're lucky, AIDS if you aren't. It can happen to you.
You've always wondered what its like to take E. Fine, but if you want to try, do it where you know the person supplying the drugs to you, who knows the person who supplied them to them, and preferably who is taking the same batch of drugs they're giving you. Most of the people who die taking drugs die the first time. The other hitch, especially in the Middle East, is that the local chap giving tourists drugs probably gets a lot more from the police for shopping you to them - not only a kick-back, he gets his drugs back. When you're travelling, stick to weed, and get it from within your hostel, and from a fellow traveller, not a local. (I still think its a waste of money - you can do it at home, but you can't skydive over Christchurch at home.)
- Self defence classes are not dorky
It saved anthropod's ass once, and it can save yours too. I'm a big tough rugby player but even I've had a few self-defence tips. (Though many here are deluded that I have some rugby talent, anyone who has actually expected to be tackled by me has been pleasantly surprised by the result.)
A work in progress. /msg me your suggestions and I'll gladly include them.