Saturday, June 30, 2012

Travel Tales: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Lesson #1: Always Double-Check Your Tickets and the Schedule

100_3726.jpg by Kathy SterndahlMy girlfriends and I got on the train in Lucca headed for our next destination in Cinque Terre. We had already enjoyed our lunch of pecorino cheese with a bottle of wine and were just watching the scenery go by out the window.
When the view opened up between the mountains, I noticed steeper, taller, more rugged mountains in the distance. I knew right away that something was wrong. There were no mountains that large near Cinque Terre.
I had just begun to explain the problem to my friends when an employee came into the car to check the tickets. I explained in my halting Italian that we were pretty sure that we were on the wrong train. Fortunately, she spoke English and was very understanding, but the only remedy was to get off at the next stop and purchase another set of tickets back to where we had started and then to purchase more tickets to Cinque Terre.

When I traveled in Japan, I made a habit of pointing to the train and stating the name of my destination with a question in my voice. I found that just about everyone understood what I was asking and could tell me yes or no.

When I went to Spain and Portugal, I traveled all day and night from Guadalajara to Madrid. I had the day to enjoy Madrid and got on a train that night for my trip to Lisbon. I had been too excited to sleep on the flight over. That excitement kept me going the whole day in Madrid, but I was ready to sleep when I got on the train. I thought I had booked a bed for the night, but I was wrong. I got to travel all that night sitting up in a hard molded plastic seat.

Lesson #2: Be Prepared for Lost Luggage

My daughter flew from Boise, Idaho, to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, when she was in the fourth grade. She had flown many times, but never alone. The people from Space Camp met all the kids' flights as they came in, so I wasn't worried about her. What we did not expect was that her luggage would not arrive until five days later.
She was a kid, but it could have happened to anyone. Fortunately, I had ordered her a jump suit like the astronauts wear. That was the only thing she had to wear for the next five days. From that time on, I always carry a change of clothes and anything important in a carry-on bag.

Lesson #3: Learn Some of the Local Language

In 1991, we flew to the Soviet Far East, a.k.a. Siberia. It was a new program and the area we visited was not used to having foreign tourists. We were with a guide much of the time, but when we set out on our own, communication was almost not existent. One day we were wandering around when my daughters decided that they had to use the bathroom. We were far from our hotel and could find no signs for a public restroom. I tried asking but no one understood either restroom or bathroom. Finally, I began asking people if they spoke English. Many claimed that they did but no one understood my question.
I didn't give up, though, and and hour later, I finally found a young teen who understood. It turns out that the word I needed was the French pronunciation of toilet. Who knew? I guess I should have. Now I learn at least some basics of the local language when ever I travel.

Lesson #4: Never Carry More Money than You Need

I learned long ago to hide my passport and credit card and cash in a travel wallet well hidden under my clothes. But, of course, that doesn't work for the cash I need for the day. If I dig it out of hiding in public, anyone will know where it is. On our trip to Italy, we kept our personal money hidden but had a kitty that we all put money into whenever it got low. We paid most of our expenses from the kitty. We had just put in more money before we left the hotel in Rome and I was carrying the kitty. I used some of the money to buy metro tickets. The next time I reached for the money, it was gone. I was pretty sure that the guys in line behind us got it and I was very upset. But at least it was only the money for that day.
I see so many people wearing those travel wallets right out in public with the strap around their necks. They obviously don't get it. Everyone around knows exactly where their money is, and all they have to do is grab that strap and tighten it around your neck. Be sure to keep it well hidden out of sight. We often even wear a decoy fanny pack with just a bit of money that we can hand over to anyone who might decide to rob us. We make it seem more real by adding cards that look like credit cards at a glance.

Lesson #5: Learn Something about the Local Customs

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I had stopped by the market to buy some rice and.fruit for lunch and was planning to have a picnic at a museum a few miles outside of town. As I walked along the road I discovered a Buddhist temple that I hadn't noticed before. Carrying my lunch bag, I went inside and wandered around a bit. Because the monks are not supposed to have anything to do with women, I was surprised when one of them approached me and began talking. I notice that he kept looking down at my lunch bag. That seemed kind of odd and made me feel uncomfortable, so I soon left.
Later, I found out that the monks depend on the local people to bring food to the temple sothey have something to eat. My monk was assuming that I was bringing food to them in my bag. I wished Ihad known because I could have easily taken an extra bag to donate.

Lesson #6: Make a Reservation for Your First and Last Nights

Remember that trip through Madrid to Lisbon? When I finally got to Lisbon that next morning, I didn't have a hotel reservation. I also didn't have a current Lonely Planet or other guidebook to help me find one. (By the way, I also NEVER travel without a current Lonely Planet any more.) It took many hours of wandering from one hotel to the next looking for a place that I could afford and that had a vacancy.
I prefer to travel without too many commitments. I want to have the freedom to change my plans if I find out about a better option. But I've learned that it is best to have a reservation for the first night I arrive and to know how to get there from the airport. Also, I want to make sure that I can get back to the airport easily when it's time to leave the country, so I also make a reservation for that last night. The rest of the time, I take my chances and rely on recommendations from fellow travelers.

And So Much More...

This is getting really long, so I'm going to stop. Just a few more hints from experience:
  • Travel really light, especially if you are on the move. A few coordinated outfits and a bathroom sink can go a long way. (You probably won't see those people again, anyway.)
  • Don't try to cover too much ground. Take the time to get to know a place before you move on.
  • If you get sick in Europe, don't panic. Emergency health care is free. But travel insurance is also a good idea.
  • Don't assume all airports will be open all night. I hurried to be at the Florence airport two hours ahead of schedule, only to find that it didn't open until 45 minutes before the flight. (And I almost decided to check out of my room and spend the short night at the airport!)
I hope these hints will help you to avoid some of the travel mistakes I have made along the way. The main thing for me is that none of my mishaps were serious enough to ruin my vacation.

Thanks for reading this!


1 comment:

  1. Yes, lessons learned on the road truly are memorable! I always work hard to learn something about where we are going, but the nuances of local customs can be difficult to discover in advance. I remember one notable hand slap in Naples, Italy when I reached for a cluster of tomatoes in the produce area of a small market. The local custom was apparently NOT to touch the produce, but rather to let the store owner do it. Nowhere in any of my travel books was this noted . . . I was most embarrassed at my error.

    We've also found that carrying around a small dictionary in the local language can be a terrific conversation starter. When people see us thumbing through it they can't seem to resist asking where we are from and how we are enjoying their country. We've had many a memorable exchanges as a result.