Temple of Saturn in Rome, 11/2000
It's incredible to see a place that you've only read about in books, or seen in movies. I try to travel as much as my budget allows. I also do a lot of research before traveling, so the following photos are accompanied with descriptions of the history and significance of the different places.
Work In Progress: A list of fun places, things and events I'd like to try.
My Thoughts / Suggestions on Intl Travel
I love traveling, and have done a fair amount of it as a solo woman, as half a couple, and part of a family. I've developed some planning tricks and tips I thought I'd share in case anyone is interested.
Before You Leave
Think positively. Downplay the negative. Enjoy culture shock. These suggestions may sound trite or easy, but they are important and can be difficult. It's easy to be excited about your trip when you're sitting at home poring through glossy travel magazines, but it can be much harder if you've just completed a 15-hour flight, you can't find your hotel or an ATM, and the local toilet is filthy. Even under the best of circumstances, international travel has stress that goes along with it. But no matter what occurs that is out of your control -- lost luggage, terrible weather, pushy merchants -- you can choose how to respond. You can let things ruin your trip, or you can be determined to have a good time no matter what. And always remember that in the long run, no matter how terrible something is at the time -- if you make it back home, eventually it will be a funny story. In fact, the worse the situation the better the story. There are always pros and cons with any travel destination. The pros will make you glad you went, and the cons will make you glad to return home!
This one phrase has helped my packing anxiety immensely. "If a billion people in Europe don't need it, you probably don't either." If you forget something -- unless it's crucially personalized like your child's favorite stuffed toy -- you can find a replacement or equivalent item at your destination. Even items that seem as personal as prescription medication can be replaced almost anywhere (although it may seem a hassle) and most large cities have "eyeglasses in under an hour" stores.
Pack as lightly as humanly possible. I recently managed a three week trip to Asia with one 32-pound suitcase and one carryon -- not even close to the 50 pound bag limit. There are many benefits to light traveling and I'm always trying to economize. The lighter you pack, the more room you have for buying and storing things (if you like that sort of thing). Also, it makes traveling a lot more fun and less work if you can just casually grab your bags and stroll instead of coordinating a cadre of porters and/or small shuttle carts.
Especially if you're a woman traveling alone, you may be targeted by "helpful" local porters who grab your bags to carry them and demand a fee to relinquish them. Depending where you are, it can be hard to tell if someone is just being helpful because you're struggling or is going to demand a fee for their unsolicited 'help'. One of the best preventions against this is small amounts of baggage that you hold onto at all times. Do a firm tug-of-war if you have to if somebody tries to take them and you don't want them to!
When traveling internationally, I've rarely experienced any jet lag on arrival regardless of 7, 10 or 15 hour flights. I have a few strategies for this. I suggest choosing a flight that arrives in the morning. While the prevailing theory of long flights seems to be passengers try to sleep immediately, I have an alternate suggestion. Bring sleep aids for the flight (I prefer Ambien), try to get a window seat so you don't have to get up for anybody, and spend the last 7-8 hours of the flight sleeping. It's like you're "waking up in the morning" like usual. Try to spend the day as busy as possible to be tired for that evening and go to sleep at a normal time that night. You should wake up in the normal again like usual. I've avoided jet lag that way in three continents! As a tip, if it's too early in the morning to check into your hotel, you generally can leave your luggage with the hotel concierge and then head out for a few hours, or have a city tour pick you up at the hotel. Taking a city tour the day you arrive may sound like too much after an international flight, but it's a great orientation to the city and you won't feel like you've lost a day to the airport, traveling or jet lag.
Traffic in other countries often leaves American slack-jawed. In many countries it is a free-for-all, with high-speed vehicles in close proximity to each other. There might be laws but it can be hard to tell. You'll usually see small mopeds weaving in and out of traffic, sometimes people park vehicles up on the sidewalks in all directions, and small donkey-led carts will negotiate space with a huge tour bus. You'll see buses so packed with people they are literally falling out of the sides or windows. And watching a huge bus parallel park in the tiniest possible space is like witnessing a marvel of engineering skill.
Obviously, you'll want to be careful crossing the streets. Travelers new to these types of traffic conditions will likely be nervous crossing at first. Look for somebody nearby who is confidently crossing the street, and follow right behind them. Eventually you'll gain enough confidence on your own. Remember to keep an eye out for mopeds, and if one is approaching make eye-contact. One of the experiences I remind myself in day-to-day life when I face a challenge is that, "I crossed a street by myself in Cairo ... I can do anything!". And in fact, I've even gotten to appreciate the insanity of traffic around the world. Now, it just doesn't quite feel like I'm traveling somewhere exotic if I don't fear for my life at least fleetingly while crossing the street. My first experience with terror-strickenly following others across the street was Italy in 2000. I'm happy to report that in Bangkok in 2007, as I was striding my way across the street I noticed some panic-stricken local tourists following along behind me!
As a disclaimer, I don't live or travel in order to shop. If you do, and a big part of your trip is shopping-shopping-shopping, then ignore this section! If you're not into shopping, you might appreciate my suggestion: wait on buying the souvenir stuff until you're at the airport shops when leaving the country. The airport shops generally have 1) All the touristy souvenir stuff you've seen everywhere else in the country, 2) Sometimes -- or at least often -- better prices than the horribly overpriced touristy areas, 3) Clearly marked prices, no haggling, 4) Air-conditioning, 5) Staff that ignore you and don't follow you everywhere. They actually let you look without pressuring you to buy like local merchants or the insincere questions, 6) Clean merchandise, not grimy and dusty, 7) Wrapped up for your professionally and insulated for the flight, 8) Gives you something to do before your flight.
This might sound scary -- I understand the worry might be "but what if the stuff I'm looking for isn't there?". My experience with traveling all over the world is that the main tourist attractions and associated marketplaces/souvenir shops all pretty much carry the same regional stuff -- especially the stereotypical kitschy touristy stuff. Often it's handbags or scarves, or in Egypt it's mummy statues, in Thailand it's elephant figurines, in France it's Eiffel Tower-related, etc. If you enjoy the thrill of the hunt or the triumph of haggling, fine. But some people would rather poke out their own eye than argue over arbitrary prices, and sometimes you have no idea if you've "haggled" down from 1,000% overpriced to merely 500% overpriced. Example: In Egypt, I thought I'd triumphantly made a major coup when I haggled the cost of a mug down from 750 to 250. Then at the airport, I found the exact same mug for 50. Ouch.
Granted, sometimes you're visiting someplace with a unique product you won't find anywhere else. But for your average mugs, carvings, figurines, magnets, bracelets/jewelry, coin purses, hand bags, cosmetics, specialty candies and chocolates, etc -- they'll probably have it at the airport. If you've seen the same stuff at 3+ places during your trip (sometimes a dozen or more places!) you can probably bet it's at the airport too. And instead of spending countless hours shopping and stressing over souvenirs while beating off local merchants with a stick then lugging it around the rest of your trip ... just do what I do and get all the shopping done in an hour or two beforethe flight leaves.
One afternoon at an Oktoberfest, a gentleman noticed my boyfriend and I were taking photos and he offered to take a picture of the two of us together with our camera. We happily agreed. As it turned out, later that evening we got engaged! I still treasure that spontaneous photo of the two of us on what ended up being a very significant day.
Since then, I've enjoyed offering to take photos of couples who are taking pictures of each other. Generally, if you see one posing for a photo and then they switch positions to take a photo of the other -- they will be thrilled if you offer to take a photo of the two of them together. (If they don't switch positions, it may indicate one doesn't like being photographed.) Or if you see a family posing where one family members is taking the photo, offer to take the photo for all of them. Aside from it being a simple, quick and nice gesture -- they usually then offer to reciprocate which can be nice if you're traveling alone or as a couple. Even if they don't speak English, it's easy to use the international gestures of pointing at their camera with a questioning look then pointing at the spot they were taking photos of themselves while pantomiming taking a photo. They may look confused at first but that usually morphs into pleased eager acceptance -- or a friendly decline of the offer. I've never seen anyone annoyed by the offer.
It can also have surprising results! Once, in Taipei, I noticed an elderly Asian couple taking photos of each other near a fountain. As usual, when I gestured towards their camera they were happy to pose with each other while I took the photo. Then, they each insisted on taking turns being photographed at the fountain with me. Not only that, but other camera-equipped tourists in the area started forming a queue, and before I knew it I'd spent 10 minutes posing for photos with more than a dozen strangers! Since I was clearly an average American tourist in Asia -- and not a photogenic, heart-rending young native child in local garb -- so I'm still not quite sure what that was all about, but they all seemed to be happy about it.
So who knows -- a photo you take for some strangers may end up a treasured memory for the rest of their lives, or you may end up featured in someone's photo album!
Food & Drink
I recommend mixing and matching different types of food while traveling. The type to predominate may depend on your area of travel, delicacy of stomach and curiosity for new experiences.
1. City specialties. These are usually recommended in travel guides, or advertised heavily everywhere in restaurant advertisements. For example, in Taiwan there are famous red bean sticky buns, in Hong Kong there are egg custard tarts, etc. One downside to this is that you might not know exactly what you're eating, particularly if you're just pointing at food on a street cart or picking a number off of a menu. But sometimes surprise food really is the best! I've had the best pork dish in my life from randomly choosing it on a menu in Portugal. I had the second best pork dish of my life from ... believe it or not ... a 7-11 deli in Taiwan! Try to keep your options open and stay flexible about what you try and may end up pleasantly surprised.
2. Weird foods. These are foods you don't normally see anywhere else, so give them a try! I've tried shark fin in Taiwan and crocodile soup in Thailand, for example.
3. Your ethnic favorites from home. This refers to what is "ethnic" cuisine for you at home in the US but is local at your region of travel. Aside from getting to try the "real" version, you'll likely smile with the memory every time you order the dish back at home. Examples: For me, I've had Wiener schnitzel in Germany, pizza in Italy, pad thai and massaman curry in Thailand, fish n' chips in England, etc. You also get bragging rights at get-togethers when you can say "Oh I've tried that dish in <insert country name here>".
4. Other ethnic restaurants in your destination. I personally really enjoy going to ethnic restaurants while in other countries. For example, Mexican in Ireland, Chinese in Italy, and Italian in Hong Kong. My husband and I had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Switzerland, which was quite an interesting experience!
5. Americanized favorites from home. While some people eat nothing but McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken when vacationing overseas, I advocate a more moderate approach. I try to eat mostly local food, with just enough Americanized "comfort food" to keep me from getting too homesick. Even the best of local foods can just get to be too much; for example I got tired of salmon on a Pacific-northwest and Alaska trip, and after 3 weeks in Asia I was just sick of rice!
Smile and say "thank you" in the local language. This may be hard to remember for a traveler dazzled by local spectacle, or nervous/shy, or having a terrible day. But it can be amazing how just "thank you" can turn someone's forced-smile-for-the-tourists into a genuine smile and make someone more willing and happy to help you. In fact, everywhere I've traveled the people have been nice to me! No matter what the stereotype of the countries, I've found the people all over the world to be helpful and friendly towards me. I think smiling really is contagious.
Be gracious in the face of disappointment. Many countries in several continents have cultural taboos against saying "no", so when somebody does have to say no -- take it as kindly and pleasantly as you can, thank them for their help or even apologize for asking. This makes it easier on everyone involved. It also makes them more likely to offer help with alternate arrangements. Think about it -- how likely are you to genuinely try to help someone who is angry and yelling at you for something that's not your fault? While in some countries, making a passionate scene is good manners to show it's important ... more often than not, displaying anger in public is frowned upon and counter-productive.
Keep your English short and sweet. Use short phrases, clear verbal expressions, and simple gestures. When dealing with a language barrier, remind yourself to speak succinctly. It is natural for some people to go into overdrive when nervous: over-polite, over-asking and over-apologizing. But someone with a poor grasp of English won't follow and you'll make the situation worse. Compare this: "Excuse me, I'm so sorry to bother you, and I don't know if I'm in the right place or not, but do you know where I need to go in order to get a taxi?" to: "Taxi?" with a look of questioning, and perhaps pointing where you think it is. You can assess the person's grasp of English when they respond. Or if you really want to be polite, you can do, "Excuse me...taxi? Thank you". They may not understand what excuse me means, but they should understand the tone. If you're ordering from a menu, it's easiest to say the most important noun while pointing at the menu item. You could complicate things and say "Yes, thank you, I'd like the green peppercorn Australian beef tenderloin, do you have it available?" ... or you could say "Beef?" and point at it on the menu. Keep in mind also the profession of the person you are asking. If they are in a tourist customer service role (staff at a hotel, or airport, or museum) they likely hear questions about taxis, buses, bathrooms, costs, etc. every day so you can dispense with the hemming-and-hawing. And of course, at all times smile and say thank you.
Use gestures to reinforce your words. When ordering from a menu, point to the exact item you want. Or point at the display. If you want a check from a restaurant, you can generally take out your wallet or money, and gesture with it towards your waiter with a questioning look.
Look at waiting as an opportunity to experience the country, not a hassle. There are inevitable times when you are stuck waiting in lines. It may be for a taxi, or at a historical site, or waiting for a flight, or room, or table at dinner. No matter what the situation, there's no point in letting your impatience get the best of you. Certain countries in particular have lines as a way of life and your poor attitude does nothing but make you look bad. Irritation isn't going to make your plane arrive any faster. Instead, take the time to study your surroundings. It's a different country after all. What is similar or different from home? If you get easily impatient, carry an iPod or book in your purse or backpack. Listening to music can certainly put you in a better mood, or an audiobook makes your time actually productive. And no matter how annoying the situation is at the time, remember someday it will be a funny anecdote: "And then I had to stand in line for *three hours!* to get my ticket!"...
Be courteous. You don't want to epitomize the "loud, ugly American tourist" stereotype. People have a basic tendency to become less kind to others the worse their mood becomes. A rough or exhausting day creates a tunnel-vision where you don't notice anything outside yourself. Try to stay aware and not fall into that trap. Even if you're tired -- offer your seat on the bus to someone elderly or pregnant. Smile and thank someone who tried to help you, even if you've had a bad day and they had to give you bad news. It is one of the true tests of character to treat people with the same dignity regardless of your personal mood changes. Traveling has a tendency to enhance both the good and the bad of any situation. So try to stay strong.
Beyond The Basics
Tell locals how much you're enjoying their country. Praise whatever you're enjoying the most -- the scenery, the people, the food, etc. Many times that is an ice-breaker and starts a wonderful conversation. I've had a great time chatting with taxi drivers or shop-keepers who give me tips on their favorite local events and restaurants. Others will just smile. Some people will try to list bad things about the country "Oh, there's too much traffic" or "So much pollution". But if you stick to your guns and argue their country is making you happy and there's nothing they can do to change your mind ... on some level they all seem to appreciate it, even if it's just smiling at your perceived na´vetÚ.
Prepare for small talk. When traveling in another country, there are typical questions you can expect from people around you. Most frequent are "How long are you staying here?" "Is this your first time here?" "Where are you going next?" There are also questions about weather -- "Are you hot/cold?" Etc. If you come from a cold area (like I do) and travel to a hot climate, you can impress the locals. In Bangkok for example where temperatures are usually 31-36 Celsius (year round), it's fun to explain that January in Colorado averages -8. You can also amaze people in hot climates with how much snow you receive -- but remember to learn it in cm instead of inches.
Research local communication quirks. While foreigners are generally given wide latitude when they make mistakes, do your best to avoid taboos and respect the local customs. Are you traveling somewhere that "smiling and nodding" is the response whenever someone doesn't understand you? That's good to know. It's important to understand compliments in the country you're visiting, so you can respond, or ignore, and avoid offending people. Many places in Asia, for example, compliment you frequently and modesty recommends that you deny it. In some European places, you can warm the hearts of any woman by complimenting her clothes or jewelry. But in many places of the Middle East, complimenting a tangible item is considered code for "please give it to me" and a polite host might then offer it to you as a gift.
Smile at adorable children. One of the most basic ways to bond non-verbally anywhere in the world is to smile at children. If a small child is toddling around being adorable, adults nearby -- no matter what the nationality -- exchange indulging, smiling looks with the parents and each other. It's hard to describe it as anything other than a universal human bond. But...do leave it at just smiling. I don't recommend actually picking up or touching other people's children unless expressly invited to do so. There are too many possible cultural taboos -- while in some places in Europe it's common to pat children on the head, in Thailand it's rude to touch anyone's head, etc.
My wise mother says the bad things you never expect are more likely to happen than anything bad you plan for. I guess the up-side is that I've planned for so many travel problems that I've been fortunate not to have any! Hopefully I'm not jinxing my luck here, but to-date I've never gotten seriously ill, or robbed, or even cheated while overseas.
When traveling, I've expected the worst but instead witnessed the good side of human nature. I've been prepared for taxi drivers to rob me blind, pickpockets to steal my passport, merchants not to give back correct change, and hotels to overcharge. Luckily, my experiences have all been very good! Merchants everywhere have helped me select the proper bills and I've never had anyone shortchange me (and believe me I've counted). Taxi drivers take me to my location by the fastest route, and never given a bogus charge or bumped the meter up. In Bangkok when I dropped money on the ground a nearby street vendor helped pick it up and hand it back to me. At a tourist attraction in Ireland, a museum vendor reduced our charge to the family rate without asking and ran after us to give us extra change. And once when my husband and I tipped "too much" at a restaurant in Greece, the waiter tried to make us take our own money back!
Of course it pays to be prepared for the worst. In the words of the Desiderata; "...the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism."
That said, here are some of my suggestions for staying safe while traveling:
It doesn't usually cost much, and I enjoy the peace of mind knowing I can get compensated for the loss of baggage, cancellation or delay of flights...and importantly, be medically treated overseas or returned to the US for treatment. It's often offered by wherever or whoever books your flight, generally at a cost of up to $100. It's also available from other travel insurance-specific websites.
When preparing for a long trip or a remote destination, consult with your primary physician for a small emergency medical kit. They'll write you small (non-refillable) quantities for several important ranges of medication and advise you on when to take what. It's generally just enough to tide yourself over until it clears up, you get home, or you get to a local doctor. Be sure to take the medication in their original prescription containers, and bring photocopies of the prescriptions to avoid any misunderstandings if questioned.
These are the medications I usually bring. Ambien: To help sleep on long flights. Cipro: For serious infections. Donnatol: These are a belladonna alkaloid to be taken for upset stomach or diarrhea. Prednisone: For breathing problems. Tylenol with codeine: For mild pain. Zithromax: For skin infections, allergy or suspected infection. (As a note these are medications for someone allergic to penicillin).
Watch your step! The United States is generally an easy place to travel by foot. There are several reasons for this. The country itself is fairly young and built recently, compared to other cultures where the roads and walkways developed haphazardly over a thousand years. The American handicapped regulations and fear of personal injury lawsuits makes walking surfaces pretty consistent and safe. You'll come to appreciate this after a few experiences in foreign countries. In other parts of the world -- sidewalks may be non-existent, cobbled together haphazardly, covered in refuse, steps may appear out of nowhere, and even stairs vary in their height. In Egypt, the curbs in many places are impossibly tall to prevent cars from driving up on them to park. In Athens, we came across a sidewalk in repair with a huge gaping hole and nothing blocking it off. No matter what, be sure to look where you're going and don't get too caught-up with sight-seeing to pay attention to the road. I offer this advice from my unfortunate personal errors...on my last night in Rome, I was looking up at my hotel ("to say good-bye") when I tripped and ended up limping for the next 3 weeks while my knee healed. I wish I could say I learned from this experience, but sad to say that in Bangkok when leaving a grocery store I tripped and fell heavily...because I was busy gawking at the market's pet dog that was curled up next to the door. I ended up with a 6" diameter-sized bruise on my leg, but luckily no limping. And even more sadly I wish I could say I learned from that experience too...but no, a few days later when leaving the same marketplace I tripped again. And yes...it's because I was looking at the same dog, again. Sigh.
Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and beyond! By Molly Kalafut