In the large: we merge our household financial management with saving for trips. We are frugal and pleased with simpler clothes, long-lived cars (only two ever bought new), and forgoing restaurants, by and large, for our own cooking of cuisines we’ve learned to enjoy from diverse cultures. We also are both very capable of doing home repairs, electrical wiring, all electronics, and such, from our families and from long experience as adults, including in the sciences. Our splurges are travel, art, and books. We’ve been fortunate in the places we started in life with financially prudent and supportive families and then with hard-won (and fun) careers in science.
For the itinerary – half the fun is the prep, and the dreams of who, what, when, where; the “why” is. Once we’ve picked a place, it’s a sine qua non to find out if we need visas and how long in advance we need to apply. We take passport photos and print them. It’s time to learn some of the customs – turn to a source such as Culture Shock (name of country)– e.g.,France in the image below:
It’s time, too, to learn some of the language. Vince takes a few months to learn greetings, directions, counting, and sometimes a lot more. He reads comic books in French to brush up on idioms if we’re going to a francophone country. He spent a lot of time on Bahasa Indonesia, which led to some good conversations. Here’s one that started at a Hindu temple in Bali:
It’s time to correspond with friends and helpful contacts. When we started that was with the featherweight airmail envelopes with their exotic feel, with the frisson of getting each reply. Now it’s email, sometimes phone. Phone was the only way to book a trip to le font de Gaume in the Perigord, a little cave like Lascaux but still open to visitors, only 6 at a time with a guide having only a flashlight.
Halfway to Viet Nam in 2017 we had to clarify a hotel reservation there. Phoning from an airline club (admission courtesy of our son and his wife for garnering freebies) made us feel as ultimate world travelers. We’re really closer to WTs, which translates as the same words but involves people who show up on your doorstep and say, “Bob from Bamenda said I could stay with you.” You don’t know which Bob and haven’t yet been to Bamenda.
The CDC site tells us if we need immunization, preventive meds as for malaria, and precautions about water, food, etc. The State Department tells us of political dangers. These are almost all overblown. Civil unrest targets the contesting sides, once in a thousand times a visitor. We negotiated roadblocks on remote roads in Zimbabwe (here, just the road; we dare not take photos at the checkpoint),
checkpoints manned by 14year-olds with AK-47s in Peru, but with only a brief anxiety. OK, load up on some antibiotic and antifungal creams, antimalarials, some first aid items. Btw, the threat of malaria is also commonly overdone. In 2017 we traveled in Viet Nam, dutifully taking doxycycline (far from ideal, as it clears out your beneficial gut bacteria) until we (1) saw only 6 mosquitos the whole trip and (2) were told that malaria had been eliminated in all the areas we traveled.
We turn to our maps and guidebooks in earnest, piecing together likely paths among all the rewarding places. We figure out the travel times and the time we’ll stay at each place, leaving space for changes. Let’s book the first night and wing it from there as we see fit. Of course, if there’s a celebration at one city or a museum only open on certain days we plan to be there and keep it in our diaries. Is there a flight or a bus or a train on these days? Do we arrive on a bank holiday, which can make getting local currency a bit tricky?
Then we get serious about booking flights. In the bad old days that meant seeing a travel agent (first few years), or getting a copy of the Official Airline Guide, and nowadays going online on airline sites. We’ll plot a set of alternative connections and see which one has a reasonable cost and no bad connecting times. In London that means you want at least two hours to negotiate the Tube, long lines, highway construction, and strikes. We had anxiety about short connections in June, 2019 until we arrived in Dubrovnik via El Paso – DFW – Des Moines – Pittsburgh with connections as short as 27 minutes for the only flight each week. In modern times the plane reservations are electronic. There’s no need to paranoically hold the plane tickets close to one’s chest, though it did have a real traveler’s feeling to it.
Now on to ground transport. Get the train, not the $300 taxi from Narita airport to Tokyo. Are there metro and rail passes? Get the contacts for booking transport after arriving in the country (bus lines are great in Croatia; a phone is your ticket).
Whenever it’s possible we rent a car to travel on our own. We’ve done so in 23 countries on all the continents except Antarctica, countries driving on the left or driving on the right. It’s quite easy to get used to driving on the left. It’s crossing traffic as a pedestrian that gets dicey; one is often looking the wrong way for traffic, and the 4 streets together in Nairobi we really had to be aware.
You need to get comfortable with rules of the road, traffic etiquette (what does a blinker on the left on a slow truck in Kenya mean, vs. a blinker on the right?), and a few precautions. Be sure you know the international road signs (easy) and, more so, where the route markers and street signs are – e.g., on houses and building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Again, overblowing the dangers is rife in travel guides. Costa Rica is often cited as dangerous, but drivers are quite nice; you just have to be aware that there are deep drainage ditches at the side of the road that you really don’t want to put a wheel in. There are countries in which we didn’t drive. Friends took us around in the Netherlands, Japan, China,
Above: Yi with her father (at right) and our driver, stopping for a festive lunch on the way from Zhengzhou to her family home in Dancheng, Henan province.
and in England, and Botswana and in places we also drove ourselves, such as Greece. In Croatia all our dalliances were compact locations, Dubrovnik, Split, Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb, so comfy and fast buses were the way to go. In Madagascar we had a driver, Leva (above), in a Land Cruiser. There is or was pavement on only 150 miles and no road whatsoever across the center. Leva could read the path across the sandplain heath.
Ditto for Viet Nam and Sulawesi, Indonesia, where we would have no clue of directions or signage. Those drives were magnificent.
Step one may be getting an International Drivers License, from your local AAA. We only really had to show one on two occasions. Most countries accept a US or other nation’s domestic license.
Find a rental agency. Our first one overseas was Hertz Nairobi. Yes, Hertz. Vince rented a van on his first trip and, later on that trip, a tiny Datsun B210 – better than a Land Rover, in so many ways, especially because 3 or 4 people can lift it out of ruts, mud, and sand pits… and did. We rented a Land Rover once, which is enough. Lou Ellen said of the 1984 version we had that it’s like a bad marriage; you’re always fixing it up, sometimes in rather worrisome circumstances.
You need to check the condition of the vehicle and its safety equipment. Ask for seat belts, which aren’t always provided in some countries, while in others with dicey vehicles a citation for not using them is a moneymaker for the police – $300 in Botswana. Write down and/or put on your phone the emergency contact numbers for the agency and for public emergency services. We only had to call about a modest car problem twice. Agencies are cautious, themselves. In Kenya we planned to drive to the wild north to Marsabit and Lake Turkana. The agent turned as white as a black man can. “Don’t go by yourselves! We’ll provide a driver…” Good call on their part. Aside from the rare bandits was the reality of having, say, 3 flat tires in a stretch of 150 miles between tiny service stations. We’d need to wait, hours or a day for a passing truck to give us a lift to one of the service stations and a repeat of that to get back to the car. We flew to Loiyangalani instead, a magical flight of its own… even skimming over the palm trees to land.
On the road you quickly learn the driving styles of the natives. Many French drivers in cities have two speeds, stopped and floored. Italians are tailgating maniacs, but mostly in narrow tunnels. Kenya has been the greatest driving experience of our lives. The freedom of having nice roads, windows open (or the pop-top popped) to the voices of the women walking to market, landscapes in which you feel yourself to be a part, essentially a time of excitement at being in a place of wonder yet with a feeling of comfort. We can still hear the voices, see the hills, the live earth at the roadside, smell the air while not forgetting some diesel truck fumes; those are part of the reality.
Today a cell phone is your handy lifeline. We’ve never had to use it for emergencies. Rather, it’s your way to be sure you meet your friends – or even your family arriving in Beijing on a different flight. It was our way to arrange transport and lodging and more as we wandered around Crete. In our early days of travel, we’d read up on how to use the British or Israeli or Camerooni phone systems at the PTT or Post-Telegraph-Telephone. All were tricky and needed multiple tries. Sure, we felt some feelings of adventuresomeness doing this, though we weren’t close to being Burton or Speke.
Prepare to use the local currency. You’ll need to know how many Indonesian rupiah make a USD (on the order to 10,000, it was). You’ll need cash and coins for small purchases in eateries and shops. You’ll need cash immediately for a taxi or the like to town from the airport. An ATM or bank in the airport can set you up right away. Of old, and a couple to times recently we needed banknotes in the foreign currency. It takes time and is a bit pricey, so start a couple of weeks in advance and get the minimum from a US bank. These days credit cards and ATMs are rife, all over the world from here to Cambodia and back. We take with us our ATM cards and credit cards that have no foreign transactions fees or the lowest fees. To prepare for loss or theft or these (none, so far!) we write down all the card numbers, PINs, and phone contact numbers in code and print them. We won’t reveal our code but you can make your own, especially if you like math. Our cards go into our wallets. Lou Ellen also wears a document carrier around her neck with copies of the travel and lodging reservations. We had a few monetary adventures in the past. Travelers checks were the way to go in the ‘80s. We’d get several thousand dollars’ worth in advance. That gets bulky. In Kenya at the game lodge in Tsavo West (below),
I checked for my bunch of travelers checks and found I’d lost them! We made a quick trip out of the park after lunch to the Nairobi-Mombasa Road. The proprietor of a tiny petrol station in Mtito Andei let us use his phone for a nominal fee so that Vince could call Nairobi – well, really shout over the crackly line. It went well; Citibank Nairobi got us replacements when we got there, but not a full replacement until a week later because hyper-modern (well, no) Los Alamos Labs couldn’t verity Lou Ellen’s residence under her maiden name after 3 years using it! Another adventure was buying a mask made from turtle shell from two young men in Buea, Cameroon. To cash our travelers checks and pay the young men we had to spend the lunch hour in the bank as employees checked for stolen check numbers in piles of computer printouts 6 feet high.
Preparing – the final push
Packing is perhaps a jumpy time for us all. Do we have all we need to take? Does it fit in the suitcases, especially the minimal set that avoids outrageous baggage fees? Make sure you know the baggage limits on all of the flight legs. It’s nice that many countries have higher limits on baggage weight or number and, if you book all through one airline, even a US airline, the higher limits apply the whole way. A practiced packing or two tells us if we’ve got it down. We always pare down what we carry to leave room for the souvenirs we’ll be carrying back. We have been surprised at the last minute. As we were leaving Kenya in 1989, two families of Maasai friend from the Narok and Ngong Hills area gave us stunning shields, truly authentic, one even with a design showing that the man whose it was had killed a lion. Aiee, no time to pack them. Good old Swissair handled it. They wrapped the shields in plastic and promised to put them on top of the other baggage. No need, really; Cape Buffalo hide is tough as, well, buffalo hide. These shields are now at our school, the Las Cruces Academy, in view of all our students, teacher and visitors.
For us the essentials are the cameras, lenses, lens caps, chargers, spare batteries (clean those lenses, clear off those SD cards), the documents, guidebooks, maps, clothes for the weather but not for style (no ballroom dancing for us), kits for cleaning and small repairs of cameras and eyeglasses, spare eyeglasses for Vince, flashlights, meds, melatonin for jet lag, first aid goodies, cell phone charger, toiletries, razor, money, credit cards and ATM cards, copies of reservations and our passports, our Global Entry cards, pens, new diaries with contact info, ready to fill in with the trip memories, earplugs for sleeping on the plane, and reading material to pass the time on looooong flights. Take nothing new, no new camera, without testing it. Let’s include melatonin for resetting our biological clocks after long E-W flights. Also include clothespins and fishing line because we take minimal clothing (shirts, pants, socks, underwear, hats…) and wash them in hotel sinks. That really keeps our weight down. This has led to some episodes. In Nairobi and the Kenyan highlands it’s cool at night and often humid. We learned not to carry denim jeans. They are so cold and damp in the morning! It’s like winter camping in the summer. There was a backspin on that. In Cameroon we were offered a spectacular elephant mask, which is a fabric piece decorated with colored fabric, beads, and cowry shells, all in the shape of an elephant’s face and trunk. The young men just wanted to trade it for our US jeans. Alas, these were our only pants. In hindsight we thought that we should have swapped right there and wrapped whatever around our legs until we could find pants to buy.
Vince has the short version of the gene for worrying. He’s a born worrier. We take full precautions for our house while we’re away. The ideal case has been having friends or visitors occupy the house while we’re away, providing them full instructions on how everything in the house works, admonitions about locking doors, and emergency contacts for repairs or to reach us. We leave them the car keys, too, to move them if need be or even to use them if we think that’s prudent. Lacking such a person or persons in residence we leave full instructions with friends in printed and electronic form (nowadays).
We’re off! Sending our itinerary to friends and relatives lets them know we’re off for another travel adventure. We’re saying “Bon voyage” to ourselves. The final step is ground transport to the airport. That’s friends or a shuttle or, for trips of less than about 3 weeks, our own car. We find ourselves at the airport, carrying our luggage and stepping toward a new world.
The last part is back home, getting back into work and home routines, but spiced up by reliving the trip in memories and photos and time with friends. That’s the next section of this introduction to our travels.
We also made a list of the most intriguing books, the most useful books about travel that we have come across.