“How to be in the right place at the right time”
No group tours! We did that once and extracted some benefit, but swore off them forever after
Transport yourself, if possible – rental car, metro, tuk-tuk – be not afraid
You can learn to drive in crazy French traffic or in desert sand… but be prepared, as with traction grates
Road warnings in guidebooks can be overdone – e.g., Costa Rica, where there are deep drains on the side, but it you’re not drunk or very tired it’s no worries, mate. In Cameroon, however…
Rules of the road in other nations are usually straightforward
Public transport is great – get a guide book with maps // ask locals
Learn some of the language
Greetings; “Boleh sayah potret?” opened great conversations and mutual photo sessions in Tana Toraja
Talk to locals – people around the world are friendly, with very rare exceptions. The only rude Frenchman we ran into was a sausage seller in Paris, and he was rude to Parisians. Other Frenchmen did us great favors.
Muslims are the most hospitable and honest -if you’re lost, look for the fez. In Kota Bahru in Malaysia a pedicab driver implored us to take his services. At one point the found one of tires leaking. “Wait here; I’ll be back.” Off he went… with our cameras, airplane tickets, and more in our backpacks! Panic. He came back in ½ hour, again, no worries. In Cameroon, it’s hot, expensive, and the people are often rude, but not the Muslims.
Get lucky; follow the breaks – we were invited to a Maasai wedding at Oltepesi, to creation ceremonies in Bali. We dug around in books and heard about staying in a Dyak longhouse with former headhunters. We ran across the first-ever performance of the kecak (keh-chak) dance in Bali to be performed in Bali – zip right over there. In Montpellier, France, we became friends with the young staff at Pizza Papa.
Plan your itinerary, but don’t overplan – esp. not accommodations. Small, local, out-of-the-way places are almost always rewarding. In France, the chambres d’hotes (bed and breakfast places) are charming and friendly. In Ubud, Bali, Oka Wati runs a small hotel with charm, character, culture, and wonderful food. In Nancy, France, we looked at a gaudy hotel an agent had booked for us and turned around; we found a tiny pension, bright and airy. Yes, book local! You’ll meet interesting people – the hosts and the other guests.
Get a good guidebook, esp. any Lonely Planet guide
Do figure out travel times. It can be sobering to realize the travel time and intricacy, but we enjoy map nirvana in a big atlas or a road atlas, as well as the magical depth of airline guides (ah, the old OAG).
There are a few places to book in advance. By accident, the package of books I mailed back from France split open and a postal worker included someone else’s guide to the Perigord. Ah, there’s a small cave with prehistoric paintings there, the Font de Gaume. A telephone call in French and we were booked. (Even the French are a bit daunted making a phone call in a foreign language. It’s fun.)
I have to note: you’ll stand out as an American by your dress, your walk, perhaps your weight. We also have a reputation for being shoppers rather than engaged tourists. The third time we met our apartment booking agent in Split, Croatia, she noted to us and to her friend, “I didn’t know Americans can be interesting!” We took it as a compliment and loved it.
Buy local food – maybe even bargain – you get interesting conversations
Warungs are street diners or just food carts in Indonesia. The food tech is basic, but we and others find them often safer that Western-style hotel food
One of my favorite such memories is watching fellow traveler Janet Riehl bargaining with a fruit and vegetable seller in the small market in Nakuru, Kenya. More geared to tourists but enormously fun was having breakfast or an afternoon orange juice at Fresh in Chania, Crete with super-gregarious Giorgos, the owner.
Expand your palette. Our small hotel in Amman, Jordan offered an Arabic breakfast – hummus, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, a hard-boiled egg, and some condiments. I eat it every other day now. There are, or course, some things we’d rather gloss over, like a fried monkey arm (not identified as such in the menu!) in Abong-Mbang, Cameroon.
Walking around the streets is a good way to get to know a city. We got to know Marrakech and its history that way… even in 40⁰C heat.
You can live without cell phone service, television, radio – better, even
If you take young children – they can thrive; David got the travel bug by age 5 and still loves to travel with us. We engaged him in all the planning, and eventually it was much the converse.
Even babies travel well, IF breast-fed
Follow medical advice of the CDC – e.g., for malaria – but we found warnings overdone; the CDC cited malaria as a hazard in Viet Nam, but we probably saw 6 mosquitos in the whole trip. Doxycycline as a preventative is more hazardous to your health as a gut microbiome killer. I stopped taking it.
Safety – is usually straightforward. Lonely Planet guidebooks are very comprehensive about safety.
DAN membership is invaluable. The Divers Alert Network offers annual memberships for $55 for a family. You’re covered for medical evacuation up to $150,000 if you’re 50 miles or more from home, and not even intending to dive. Their magazine, Alert Diver, is spectacular.
We’ve been in countries with rebellions – Peru and Zimbabwe stand out. Know where the points of contention lie and try to avoid them. The general rule is that warring groups are not interested in you as a tourist. Stay calm when you hit a checkpoint.
Of course, test your photo (and other) equipment beforehand
Re import restrictions: We never found that registering equipment with US Customs made a difference
We found more and more that we can travel light
Photo equipment – I love being pared down to an 18-205 zoom, a 1:1 macro, two bodies, several SD cards, compact owner’s manuals, and wipes
Your own habilement – your option, but we carry minimal clothes and wash in sinks – no waiting for the laundry to be returned
Hotels are commonly happy to store your luggage while you take a lightweight side trip
Don’t waste that first day after a flight – use melatonin to get sleep at the right time at your destination
We count pennies but splurge – Poas Volcano House in Costa Rica is a treasure; the overnight ferry to Crete is a luxury at modest expense and it leaves you fresh at the 6 AM arrival.
Local money is now easy to get, in almost any nation. Every airport these days seems to have an ATM (well, maybe not Maun, Botswana, where there was a tiny customs shack and no taxis. We hefted our suitcases onto our shoulders and walked the mile into town).
Local museums abound, and give a sense of history to take around with you
Hidden gems – Maritime Museum in Split,Croatia, e.g., and the archaeological museum in Chania, Crete
Talking politics is often enlightening; you get a new perspective. We talk politics with overseas friends. However, in iffy countries such as China, don’t endanger friends or new acquaintances with casual talk
Wildlife! Fauna and flora. There really are many hotspots, for every interest from butterflies to lemurs to baobab trees… but you might hurry with our Sixth Mass Extinction in progress.. There are a few precaution about the behavior of dangerous animals or plants (Cape Buffalo, the blue-ringed octopus, cone shells, estuarine crocodiles…) but common sense is a great asset.