"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Friday, June 14, 2013

Travel Tips from a Journeyman Nomad

Well well.  Once again I find myself at this place.  One chapter ends, the next begins.  I had my last day of teaching yesterday, and will say my final (for now) goodbyes to Istanbul in less than a week.

Before I fly, I definitely intend to do a Final Assessment of my time here -- the teaching, the touristing, and all the rest, but for the moment the thing taking up the most space in my head is the truly impressive amount of traveling I will soon be doing.  Counting layovers, I will be on no fewer than six planes in the span of 12 days, and that is little short of certifiably insane.  Thank God not all of these flights will be the same caliber as my 14-hour traveling opus from Dubai to Dulles, but it's still a fair number of planes.  Quite a few security checkpoints, baggage claim stickers, and tiny bottles of mediocre wine.

I've racked up a respectable quality and quantity of adventures these past two years, but in no way do I feel anything like an expert traveler.  I still make plenty of dumb mistakes, large and small, and I've made many more times than once.  As I assess my time here in Istanbul and prepare to make one of my crazier trips -- to freaking Egypt -- I thought the time was right for me to share some of my hard-learned travel wisdom with y'all.  Because if nothing else, it would do me a world of good to see this all in clear black and white print right about now.

The Three Golden Rules for Travel Off the Beaten Path

1)  Know Thyself
What, exactly, do YOU need to be happy?  And yes -- in this context I am talking purely about all those shallow, petty, modern conveniences we all take for granted over in the First World.  Do you need printed photos of loved ones to tack to your wall?  Olay Regenerist Facial Scrub?  A yoga mat?  An external hard drive full of your top 500 favorite action movies?  When traveling abroad, especially for an extended period of time, every single person -- no matter how tough you are -- is going to want some familiar, comforting touches of home at certain critical points.  Take steps to make sure you have them, whatever they happen to be.  Even if you've decided to Rough It in the Australian Bush or the African desert, even if you've decided to challenge yourself in the harshest environments and with the most minimal of gear -- there will come a point where you are going to simply need to get weepy over a photo of your parents or snuggle up for a viewing of Alien vs. Predator.  And believe me, having the ability to do those things is going to make a gigantic difference to how smiley you are when you face the world the next day.

2)  Know Thy Situation
At the same time, be realistic.  If you really are backpacking the wilds of Australia, chances are you'll quickly find that there are a great many things you thought you couldn't live without when in fact -- you really can.  And especially if you're schlepping your life on your back, never forget -- as Bill Bryson once said -- that "ounces quickly turn into pounds."  Exactly how many beauty products do you need to survive, Princess Vespa?  Also falling under this category -- do your research.  Be informed.  Find out about the general costs of things, safety, local history, and current events before you go.  This takes about 20 minutes on Google, if that.  Make sure you're walking into your adventure with your eyes open.  Oh yes -- and last but not least -- know thy budget.  This is an important one, and one I have been known to be kind of crappy at.

3)  Know Thy Limits
Please note that this is not the same thing as "Challenging Yourself."  Definitely do that.  But as a travel book once advised me:  "Don't sign up for a 20-hour train ride in Chinese 'hard seat' unless you are really, really sure you can take it."  You're not out to impress anyone, but you are out to have a good time and hopefully make some memories that will make you smile rather than cringe.   Even if you happen to meet some grizzled dude in the hostel common room who promises with the utmost sincerity that the only way to see Siberia is by oxcart, it doesn't make you any less of a traveler to see it instead from the window of a train's sleeper car.

Kay, I think that covers it for the abstract.  Now for the concrete.  I give you:

10 Survival Tips for Long Journeys (plane, train, bus, etc.):

1)  Dress comfortably.  I cannot stress this enough.  This includes shoes that you can slip easily in and out of, loose pants, an extra layer, and, for women, a sports bra.  It makes a huge difference.  I've never seen anyone receive a Fashion Award on a plane, but I have seen plenty of women wobbling miserably to the airplane toilet in their stupid high heels.

2)  Make sure you have your Travel Survival Kit ready to hand:  eyemask, earplugs (two pairs in case one rolls under your seat), neck pillow, lip balm, lotion, gum, hand sanitizer, and pills (head, stomach, and sleeping).

4) If your plane/train/bus is not full, change seats the second you can to give yourself an empty row.  Do not hesitate, do no worry about being rude, do not be afraid to do it first.  This is... like the most gigantic gift any one person can receive on a long journey.

5)  Don't be afraid to ask for stuff.  This includes requesting the seat you want at check-in (aisle, window, close to the front, whatever), help with your individual touch-screen (which probably will have at least some little thing tetchy about it), or an extra mini-bottle of booze or three.  Again, no one is judging you, and if they are, rejoice that their lives are undoubtedly sadder than yours.  It's a long flight.  Do what you need to do to be comfy.

6)  Fill out that customs form thingy as soon as you get it, and stow it somewhere safe.  You're going to be way too zombie-fied to feel like doing it as the plane is finally landing.

7)  This might seem like just obvious common sense, but make sure your shit is charged.  A dead kindle is a very, very sad kindle.

8)  Don't carry on any more crap than you really need.  It makes going through security a lot easier to not have armloads of stuff, not to mention you don't have to fight with all the hoarder tards trying to push each other out of the way as they jockey for overhead storage space.

9)  If you can, get there early.  You never know what the lines will be like, and not to mention that a stressed person is not exactly a clearheaded person.  Get through security and find your gate or platform.  Then, reward yourself with a pre-boarding cocktail nearby.  And by "find your gate", I don't mean just look at the board and get the number.  Actually find it.  It might not be exactly where you think it should be, or be further away than you anticipated.  My last flight out of Istanbul, Gate A-24 (or whatever) was on the opposite end of the airport from Gate A-23.  Go figure.

10) Chill out.  A lot of what's going to happen in your life over the next few hours is something you'll have little or no control over.  Bag is lost?  Plane is delayed?  Connection is missed?  That completely fucking sucks, but getting angry and frustrated will solve nothing.  All you can do is try and stay calm.  Shit will work itself out.  Probably. :)

Okay, you've landed.  Now what?

10 Survival Tips for Once You Get Where You are Going:

1)  Please, have your shit together.  This is another painfully obvious one, but needs to be said.  Have the name of your hotel/hostel ready to hand, along with a phone number, address, directions, and confirmation of your reservation including price.  No printer the last place you stayed?  Take screenshots with your phone or even a picture with your camera.  If you're taking a cab, try to find out beforehand how much a ride is expected to cost and roughly how long it will take.  If you're taking mass transit, make sure your directions are as complete as possible.  Screenshots of Google Maps can be invaluable.

2)  I realize this is often totally out of a person's control, but if possible, try to arrive during the day.  Daylight makes simply everything friendlier and far less confusing.  Also, you know, safer.

3)  Don't look like a target.  Even if you are lost and nervous, learn how to fake it.  A blank, purposeful stare and a determined stride can be the most important tools in your arsenal.  And for the love of God, now is not the time to wear expensive jewelry or to mess around with your Canon Rebel.  Basically, use your body language to say coolly to the world: "I know what I'm doing.  I'm not afraid of you.  Oh, and incidentally I clearly have nothing of value that would be worth your time.  You really would be a lot better off trying your luck with some other poor sucker."

4) Don't forget to ask your hotel/hostel for a map.  Almost everywhere will give one out for free, although the quality varies.

5)  In the same vein, don't be shy inquiring about any tours, sights, or restaurants the staff might recommend.  Definitely use your own judgement with this as well, but it's good to have options.  Most hostels will offer a free walking tour (although again, the quality varies drastically), and that can be a fun way to meet people and get an intro to the city.

6)  Be friendly and polite to the staff.  Another no-brainer here, but you'd be surprised how much it has the ability to affect the quality of your stay.

7)   If staying in a dorm, be respectful of your roommates.  No lights before 9:00 or after midnight, and be quiet if you come in and someone is sleeping.  Respect everyone's privacy.  If in a co-ed dorm, please change your underwear in the bathroom.  If you need to hang sink laundry, keep it within your own personal allotted space (as in, do NOT hang it all over the damn room).  I could do a whole separate blog post on this, and probably will at some point.  But basically, stick to the Golden Rule of Do Unto Others and you'll be good.

8)  Do not tell people you meet where you are staying, even if they seem to be perfectly nice and totally harmless.  Even if they are harmless, you don't know who else just heard you.  Lie.  Duh.

9)  Take a few minutes to learn a few key words and phrases in the local language.  Don't have a good memory?  Make up an index-card cheat sheet and keep it in your pocket.  Aside from being completely freaking necessary at times, shop owners, taxi drivers, waiters, etc., will all find your attempts completely charming.  A short list words/phrases I've found to be especially helpful:  yes, no, hello, goodbye, please, thank you, you're welcome, excuse me, I'm sorry, I would like..., menu, check, right, left, stop, how much?, when?, where?, where is the toilet?, and numbers 1 through 10.

10) A few supplies to consider bringing along:  a padlock for the dorm lockers (with extra key stored in a separate safe place!), a small towel or camp towel, a tiny flashlight, a bottle opener/corkscrew, laundry soap sheets, a Tide Pen, travel-size Febreeze, a small mending kit, ziplock baggies, flip flops for the shower and walking around the dorm, an electrical converter that has more than one outgoing socket (a splitter), because lot of rooms only have one outlet.  Also keep the eyemask and earplugs from the plane handy.  You are almost certainly going to need them.

These are by no means complete or sacrosanct lists.  There are probably hundreds of people in Istanbul alone who could find issue with every single thing I just wrote.  But these are the things that I've found to work for me. Take 'em or leave 'em as you wish.  Happy Traveling!


  1. Olay Regenerist Facial Scrub - mets!

    Good tips! Love the plane survival pointers.

    I'd move the small flashlight from the "might consider" to the must-have list. Can't count how many times mine has been useful - when traveling places where electricity is frequently out; on planes when something small gets dropped; in dark archeological structures; when I'm walking at night on uneven pavement. Invest in a good one. This was a helpful site for me when I chose a flashlight: http://www.onebag.com/packing-list-tools.html.