Travel Advice Dr. J Wishes Someone Had Given Her

As I slide closer to my 60th birthday on January 24th, 2013 there are a few travel-type things I wish I had known when I was the age of the M.L.T.S. readers. That said, it is still likely that you will have to figure it out the finer details as you develop your own travel style.

Passport

Dr. J: Guard your passport with your life!

Guard your passport with your life. Watching my friend go through the hassle of having her passport replaced in Nairobi after she had her handbag snatched was a very long and very dull experience. The best option is an over-the-body document pouch that you wear under your clothes. The round-the-neck ones are okay, but the pouch is sturdier and makes it harder for thieves to rob you. Stash a photocopy of your passport in your suitcase. And, as a further back-up, scan a copy to an email address you can download from anywhere.

Get an ATM card and a Visa or MasterCard, as they are the most universal. Set up online banking before you leave so that you can move money around. Be sure to tell the bank and the credit card company you are travelling or you may end up with a frozen account.

Take some cash. Why? Because you can trade it on the black-market and get a better exchange rate. Don’t worry as the people who change money will find you. Be careful, but not overly concerned about it. Trust your gut, keep your wits about you and you will get a much better rate than at the bank.

Pack light. Here are the links to a couple of articles I’ve written on the topic: Confessions and Revelations of a Bag Lady, and How to Pack Like a Travel Belle Pro. But, then, would you expect to hear anything else from a woman who can stuff everything she owns in the entire world into one suitcase, a carry-on and a diaper bag?

Learn another language. Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, with English tucking in behind it and Spanish coming in third. Even if you only learn a few words of greetings in Hausa or how to say “please” and “thank-you” in Arabic, people will treat you differently because they realize you are making an effort.

Do your homework, but not too much. Research the important things like whether you need a visa to get into the country — and here is a handy link to help you do that — the temperatures to expect and if there are any major political concerns. Knowing everything about everything cuts in on spontaneity, an important travel ingredient.

Get lost. Stroll down the back streets and sniff the wind. Don’t restrict  yourself to the primped-up tourist sites. Instead, wander around and see how the local people live. Find out what makes the place tick, check for the pulse.

Expect to confront your cultural values and assumptions. The travel guide books simply don’t prepare you for what you will actually encounter once you are on the ground. For example, in China I had to learn to bracket myself from the sound of hawking that came from the restaurant kitchens just before my food appeared. The smell of the open sewer in Jakarta was a stomach-churning experience. But it couldn’t begin to rival the smell of an inflated corpse by the side of the road in Nigeria. And after living in sub-Sahara Africa I can make an arguable case for bride price, four wives, and arranged marriages, even though I don’t agree with the practices. Or how about gut-wrenching reaction when you see the quieltros — dogs that are abandoned and left on the street to fend for themselves — in Chile? Nobody ever said real travel was all going to be pretty.

Develop your own travel style. I am the first to point out that not every woman wants to grab a machete and hack her way through the travel-jungles of life. And I should ‘fess up that after my parents visited me in China they forever after took cruises and bus tours. So if you are going to be a guidebook-clutching tourist who has to tick off everything recommended in the book, consider booking a bus tour. Seriously, this appeals to some, as all decisions — except whether you will have the chicken or the vegetarian option for dinner — will be made for you. Those who want to travel without ever leaving home should opt for a cruise. No nasty surprises there. Matched luggage, 5-star hotels all-inclusive resorts? If that is that you want, go for it. Just don’t try to convince me that you are a traveller and not a tourist.

Keep a record. One way to record and evaluate your travel experience is to keep a diary. I started a daily journal in August 1981 when I went to teach in West Africa. It is a long story for another telling, but all my records, papers and personal effects are in the archives at Flinders’ University in South Australia. Every day I write in my diary in baby-Spanish and when it is full I will send it to join the others.

Enjoy. Experience. Engage. The world of travel is waiting for you — go!

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