Ten Commandments for Travelers

I gathered this little bit of shared wisdom long ago before the age of the Internet or even email. I don’t know where it came from – Reader’s Digest, a mechanic’s wall, who knows. But I’ve always saved it and cherished it because as one who has been blessed to travel to many places in the world, I have found the thoughts contained to be accurate and valuable.

I.       Thou shalt not expect to find things as thou hast left them at home…for thou hast left home to find things different.

In an interview with Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Michael Shapiro quotes a story he heard from his grandfather about a traveler coming into a town.

He asks the first person that he sees, what are the people like in this town? The man replies, what were they like in the last town? The traveler says, they were miserable, horrible, terrible. So the man says, I think you’ll find the people here are just like that. A second traveler asks the man, sir tell me what are the people like in this town? So the man replies, how did you find the people in the last town? Oh, they were wonderful, generous, kind. And the man says, I think you’ll find the people here are just the same.

In describing his perception of Mayes’ attitude while traveling, he wrote,

I think that’s your perspective, too: you come to a place with an open heart and a generous spirit. You go into a restaurant and say, “What’s the specialty of the house?” Not, “I demand this.” I wonder if you have any advice for travelers as to how they can receive the best by bringing their best.

Mayes replied,

“I think trying to leave America as far behind as possible and realizing that the world is still really various. To come here wanting what you get in America is really a sad way to travel.”

It’s sort of like the old saw about relationships:

BRICKS

I think it was a good idea for the author to put this “commandment” first – because in my experience, it’s the grand key, the summum bonum of travel. If you approach travel with vulnerability, being open to surprises, and take joy in whatever comes – even if it turns out that your “adventure” is a catastrophe – you will most likely have something of value to take away from the experience which will last a lifetime.

Rabbi Hillel said this:

hillelquotehebrew

By interpretation, “That which is distasteful unto yourself – do not unto others. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

In the same way, the rest of these “commandments” simply expand upon and refine the central thesis of the first.

II.      Thou shalt not let thy fellow travelers get on thy nerves, for thou art paying out good money to have a good time.

If you travel in a group or with a tour, this is great advice. I’ve always steered clear of such things, simply because then you don’t have to worry about other people’s idiosyncrasies or enforced schedules.

There’s a great movie from 1969 called “If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.” Starring Suzanne Pleshette, it depicts “the humorous adventures of a group of American tourists taking an eighteen-day guided bus tour of nine European countries.” At the moment, the full movie is on YouTube, but who knows how long it will last:

III.     Thou shalt not take anything too seriously, for a carefree mind is the beginning of a holiday

Now, we’re not talking bodily mayhem here. Personal injury, being a victim of crime, things like that can happen anywhere, even in your own comfortable home. These are not things I would wish upon anyone, and if they happen, they have to be dealt with. But beyond that, very little that takes place on a trip is the end of the world. Lost baggage, lost passports, sickness, missed connections… it’s all part of the deal. As Jenkins Lloyd Jones once said,

“Life is like an old-time rail journey — delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

That said, it’s not a bad idea to head for a foreign adventure with preparation aforethought – never take anything along with you that you can’t afford to lose, because even in countries other than Japan, shiatsu happens.

IV.     Remember thy passport that thou knowest where it is at all times…for a traveler without a passport is a voyager without a country.

It’s a good idea to carry your passport and most of your cash in an under-clothing belt or pouch, preferably RFID-blocking. Only have what you need for the day in your purse or wallet, because if a pickpocket strikes, you’ve only lost a little money and your holiday isn’t ruined. Keep that wallet in a front pocket of your pants, not a back pocket or jacket pocket – those are the easiest target for thieves. And keep that purse zipped closed, and with your hand on the straps over your shoulders.

Scams

In this category, it’s wise to be mindful of the fact that there are people out there who see visitors as a walking ATM machine. Just keep a few things in mind and you’ll be better prepared than the average tourist:

  • Watch out for the “can you help me” scam. A friendly soul comes up to you with a map and asks for help finding “Piazza Navona” or some such. You put down your bags, get involved in looking at the map to be helpful, and when you turn around, that laptop or briefcase or suitcase is gone.
  • A “good samaritan” comes up to you and points out some ketchup or mustard on your coat (which they just squirted there), and busies themselves removing it with a hanky… while they or an accomplice rifle your pockets or make off with your bags.
  • The Phony Police Ploy: Two thieves in uniform — posing as “Tourist Police” — stop you on the street, flash their bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or “drug money.” You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave. Never give your wallet to anyone. This happened to me in Romania, but as far as I know, I was fortunate not to lose anything.
  • If you are going to be traveling on trains overnight, especially through high-risk areas like southern Italy, a great trick is to get an economical bicycle lock and coil it through your suitcase handle and the luggage rack rungs. While on the train from Catanzaro to Rome, I had some young punk come into my compartment and try to make off with my bag during a stop in Naples. I was asleep, but woke up in time to get the thing out of his hands. This would have avoided the problem altogether. Baggage thieves don’t usually carry the kind of tools needed to defeat even low-cost locks – they want to be in and out before you wake up or come back to your seat.

A good list of things to watch out for is here.

V.     Blessed is he who can say “Thank You” in any language…and it shall be worth more to him than much advice.

I can’t stress this one enough.

An American tourist on one of those 10-countries in 10-days tours developed a survival tactic that stood her in relatively good stead for most of her trip. She would walk into a store and say in her loudest voice, “Does anyone here speak English?” One day she must have gotten her itinerary confused, because a clerk sidled up to her and whispered discreetly, “Madam, this is London.”

Another joke goes,

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? – Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? – Bilingual. What do you call a person who only speaks one language? – American.

It has been my experience that people in foreign lands, long unimpressed by the loud, demanding attitude of the typical “Ugly American,” are delighted when someone takes the time to learn even the rudiments of their language. I recall traveling on business in Rome in 1984; having lived in Naples for about 18 months, I had become relatively fluent in Italian. When I reached the office of the company I was visiting, my contact said, “Ah! Finalmente un’Americano che parla Italiano!” (Oh, finally an American that can speak Italian!) Even learning how to say “Please” and “Thank you” really does go a long, long way in generating good will. A remarkable resource for learning some critical phrases (including “My hovercraft is full of eels”) is Omniglot.

On the other hand, even with some language skills, it’s possible to make an ass of yourself (the joke is funnier if you have some French and some Yiddish.)

Mrs. Rothschild is in a fancy Paris shop; she inquires as to the price of a tablecloth.
“Combien pour ce tischtoch?” (“How much for this tablecloth?”)
“Cinquante francs, madame.”  (“Fifty francs, Madam.”)
“Cinquante francs? Mais c’est une shmatte!”  (“Fifty francs? But it’s a rag!”)
With indignation, the clerk replies, “Une shmatte, madame? Quelle chutzpah!” (“A rag, madam? Quelle chutzpah!”)

VI.   Blessed is the man who can make change in any currency…for lo, he shall not be cheated.

With the advent of the Euro, the issue of changing money in Europe is significantly diminished, but there are still many, many countries that use their own currency and it’s good to have a handle on ways to save money.

Europe Trip - Jun 1971 - Toulouse Market

Market in Toulouse, France

In 1969 and 1970, I was blessed to be able to live in Europe and did a lot of traveling by rail. I recall stopping in to a photo shop in France for some additional film (you youngsters may need to Google the history of photography if you’re not familiar with that term) and as I paid, the little French lady behind the counter smiled and said, “Vous connaissez bien des sous!” (You know your money well!) I have a suspicion that I was shamelessly overcharged for the film, but hey, I know how to count.

CNBC posted a good list of money-saving tips while traveling. To this I would add, Never change money at an airport or at a hotel. You’ll be charged exorbitant service fees and/or be given the lousiest rate possible. If you need funds to get into town, change only the bare minimum, and find a local bank for the bulk of your currency exchanges. Change only as much as you think you’ll spend in cash, because you’ll lose a percentage on the exchange when you hit your next country.

VII.     Thou shalt not worry.  He that worrieth has few pleasures, and few things are ever fatal.

This is related to No. III. Take it easy. Relax. Things will work out. Enjoy each day, each moment, and look for the little joys. Wander the side streets away from the tourist crowd and just take time looking at the architecture or the little touches of life.

Mestre - Italian Courtyard Cafe

Tiny outdoor café in Mestre, Italy (Mainland Venice)

VIII.    Thou shalt not judge the people of a country by the one person with whom thou hast trouble.

You’re going to meet morons. Some, or a few, may try to take advantage of you. Some will by angry at tourists. These are in the minority. Don’t let your vacation or experience be ruined by bumping in to one of these – there are plenty at home as well. If you’ve ever worked retail, or as a server, or a call-center agent, you’ve met all of them. Look for the good, the kind, and the wonderful – you’ll find them.

IX.     In Rome, thou shalt do as the Romans. When in difficulty, use common sense and friendliness.

Culture and customs vary widely around the world. What’s common to the laborer in Kinshasa or the farmer in Viet Nam may seem strange, other-worldly, or downright disgusting to you (I’m thinking casu marzu here, among other things.) But it is critical to remember that our customs and culture may be just as off-putting to them in exchange. It’s all about what you know, what’s familiar to you, and what you grew up with.

Part of the joy of travel is experiencing the lifestyle of others first-hand. Back in the old days – I mean really old – the only way for many people to “travel” was to haul out the stereopticon

1JC-Stereopticon

and sit around looking at stereo views of strange and exotic lands.

Beijing

There was no way you could sample a wonderful Phở or a divine bowl of callos from your living room. And enjoying local cuisine is one of the greatest joys of traveling, in my book (and on my waistline).

Short of learning some of the local language, there is no better way to endear yourself to the locals than to express a love of their cooking. I remember sitting around a table with a contingent of translators in Kinshasa, lustily dipping up antelope moamba with manioc fufu, and watching their smiles as I relished what to them must have been as common as a Sabretts™ hot dog to a New Yorker.

haggiswithknifesmall

Haggis. If you haven’t had it, you haven’t lived.

Take the time before you travel to learn about some of the basic customs and courtesies of countries you will be visiting, to avoid giving unwanted offense. A great resource (although paid) is CultureGrams, a database of most countries of the world, with reports (Madagascar sample) outlining history, government, culture, customs, and other information that would be most useful for travelers.

For free, Google is your friend. Search for “German customs for travelers” or “American customs to avoid,” for example and scan what you find. You’ll get some good ideas of things to do and not do in any given country you plan on visiting. Some articles are more populist than others, but you can still gather some good information. Forewarned is forearmed.

X.      Remember that thou art a guest in every land, and he that treateth his host with respect shall be treated in return as an honored guest.

Going back to Commandment I, the biggest takeaway is basically Wheaton’s Law (bowdlerized): “Don’t be a moron.” If humanity would adopt this one guideline for life, this earth could be close to a paradise.

Despite the fact that almost anything you get in your inbox with the word “actual” is most likely 100% false or fictitious or contrived, this list of “Actual Complaints Received by Thomas Cook Vacations from Dissatisfied Customers” should be taken with a grain of salt or two. That said, you know things like this have happened – and I’d bet any travel agent worth their salt has heard one or all of these in various forms, so consider these representative fac-similes:

1. “I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”

2. “It’s lazy of the local shopkeepers in Puerto Vallarta to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during ‘siesta’ time — this should be banned.”

3. “On my holiday to Goa in India , I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”

4. “We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price”

5. “The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”

6. “We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”

7. “They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”

8. “No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”

9. “Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”

10. “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.”

11. “The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”

12. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England . It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”

13. “I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends’ three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller.”

14. “The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort’. We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”

15. “There were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”

16. “We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning.”

17. “It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel.”

18. “I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”

19. “My fiance and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

Don’t be these people. Be kind, be open, be prepared… and your travel experience will probably be one you will remember with pleasure for the rest of your life.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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