Traveling Alone - A Few Tips
You learn the most when you travel alone. In a foreign country, you have complete freedom to learn new words in the language of the countries you visit. If you travel with a friend or your spouse, you will speak the language that is common to both of you. If you travel in a group, you have almost no time at all to communicate with the people you meet and you often spend your time discussing what to do each day, moving your friends into the right position for photographs, and chatting about the trip itself. As a result, you learn very little about the places you visit and even less about how the people there actually live and think - how they feel about the rest of the world. Even if you can’t understand the language, it is never difficult to communicate. With a little effort, you can learn quickly how to count and speak enough words to not only obtain the necessities for survival, but to actually carry on a conversation with the natives in a foreign country.
I’ll never forget a motorcycle trip I made to Greece several years ago. The spokes on my wheels had been beaten so badly on the bumpy roads in Yugoslavia (now Croatia and Serbia) that several of them had broken. A pedestrian in the town of Thessaloniki sent me to a bicycle shop, where a mechanic could repair my motorcycle. He did and the thick bicycle spokes held many thousands of kilometers after that. While I waited in the cafe next door, I enjoyed my first cup of extra strong Greek coffee. The cup was so tiny, a thimble would have held as much. The coffee was so thick that I wrinkled my face from the bitter flavor when I took the first sip. The men playing cards at the next table laughed at the tourist that didn’t know how to drink Greek coffee. One of them got up from the bench he was sitting on and offered to pour some sugar into the cup for me. Afterwards, he showed me with his own cup that I should only touch it to my lips and take a very tiny sip. It was a delightful experience. It’s not the amount, but the quality that counts. That’s true of many things in life.
Museums, Churches, and other Tourist Attractions
Why do most people visit museums and cathedrals while traveling? Of course, I step inside one or two of them now and then, but In most cases, I generally avoid doing that. I think the reason most people visit them is because that is where their parents took them when they were small. A museum, or even an old church, is a place where the history of a city is recorded. Although these places may be interesting to visit, you cannot learn about the present when you spend your time in places that are concerned only with the past. The best place to learn about a new town or region and what it is like in the present is in a café, or even better, in a bar -- where the local townspeople go to have a drink and talk about God and the world. It is a place where people are always open for a good discussion. Politics, religion, sport -- all topics are free game -- and you never know which way the conversation will turn. How do you get involved as a stranger? Easy! Just sit at a table, pick up a newspaper or a periodical, and read it. Sooner or later, someone will come along and the conversation will begin. If you are willing to listen most of the time and make a comment or two when it is appropriate, you will learn a lot -- and you will be amazed when your sparring partners say that it was great talking with you -- even if you only spoke a few words.
If you want to see tourist attractions, the best tour guide is found by simply stopping at a street corner and opening a map of the region. No more than three people will walk past without one of them asking, “Where are you headed? Can I help you?” If you answer, “I’m not sure! I’m new in this area. What is there to see around here?” You’ll get answers better than anything you can find in any tour book. And if you’re lucky, they’ll even offer to show you a few things that visitors ”never” get to see. If they escort you, all the better! It is likely that you will be invited to spend the evening with them and maybe even be offered a place to stay for the night.
Comparison? Don’t Do It!
It’s easy to compare places we visit with what we already know. If you compare the quality of living in another country with the way you live at home, you will always err. What determines that your way of life is better? If you compare prices, the mode of travel, or the clothing worn in another country with your own, you rob yourself of the opportunity to enjoy the experience itself. Enjoy travel for the sake of learning -- to learn how others live their lives and what they can teach you and how they deal with reality. Do the material things really count in life? No matter what the circumstances, people make the best of what they have and find joy in some of the simplest of surroundings.
Allow me to share one of my experiences with you. Many years ago I was traveling south of Puerto Escondido in southern Mexico, when I realized there would be no place to sleep for the night. There were no cities and no hotels for miles around and it was getting late. I stopped at a small roadside shop and ordered an Orange Fanta to drink. I explained to the shop owner that I needed to find a place to sleep soon or I would have to sleep in my car. He said to me, “No hay problemo, seńor. Usted puede dormir aqui.”
Understanding his offer to allow me to sleep there, I looked around the countryside for his home and saw nothing but the small grass shack before me. Puzzled, I asked him, “Where do you live?”
“Here! Here in my house!” I accepted, and after chatting with me for quite a long time, he dropped the bamboo curtain to close the shop window in his grass thatch shop, and invited me inside. The entrance room was maybe 10 feet by 8 feet with a curtain of string beads separating it from another room, which was about the same size.
His nearly toothless, smiling wife was inside the second room fixing something to eat, and five giggling kids were playing a game on the floor. He pulled out two straw mats, laid them on the dirt floor of the first room, and sat down on one of them, motioning to me to sit down on the other mat. We talked, ate, and enjoyed each other’s company that evening, and eventually, when the stars were shining brightly and the coyotes were howling at the moon, he pulled out a larger newly woven mat -- apparently for guests only -- and stretched it out on the floor for me. He then pulled a colorful new wool blanket from a shelf in his shop and handed it to me. I could barely believe it when he went into the tiny room next to mine together with his five kids and wife to spend the night. I had guilt feelings about having the entire entrance room to myself, knowing all the while that there were 7 people lying like sardines in the room next to me. I was so tired, and perhaps a bit tipsy from the Mexican cactus drink, that even on the hard dirt floor, I went to sleep quickly and awoke the next morning to the sound of eggs frying, kids laughing, and the owner selling cups of coffee and sweet rolls to passing tourists.
It was hard to say goodbye to such a happy family, but even more difficult for me to pay the price of only 3 pesos - about 40 cents for staying the night and enjoying one of the most memorable evenings of my trip to Mexico. Could I honestly say that my style of living was better?
A Cup of Coffee, Please!
Before you travel, learn the customs of the country you plan to visit. One embarrassing incident that comes to my mind is that of an American tourist, who ordered a cup of coffee in a Swiss café. As was customary, the waiter brought a large cup half-filled with hot coffee and then placed a warm pitcher of milk on the table in front of the strangely clad American -- strange because he was wearing plaid polyester slacks and a brightly colored shirt in a country where the people generally wear solid colors and more conservative shirts.
His boisterous reaction to the waiter was immediate and disrespectfully loud: “I ordered a cup of coffee, not a half-cup of coffee. When I order coffee, I expect to get a whole cup of coffee. Do you treat all your customers this way?” The waiter hurried to the counter with the cup and asked the man behind the bar to fill it up. Although I was sitting at another table, and there was no way for anyone to know I was a fellow countryman, I was both embarrassed and boiling with anger at his ludicrous behavior.
Why did it happen? Comparison. Instead of learning the local custom of drinking 50% flavorful coffee and 50% milk mixed together, the visiting ignoramus insisted on having his coffee the way he was accustomed to drinking it at home. I think he would probably have enjoyed the way the Swiss drink it had he not behaved in such a foolish manner. (To tell the truth, I wanted to walk over to his table and dump the coffee on his head.)
Learning the regional customs of people in foreign countries is a different approach. I think it is not only more appropriate, it’s fun. That’s part of the adventure.
Avoid tourist traps. If you want to buy something that is similar to something you can get at home, don’t waste your time. A small souvenir or two is nice, but if you think you have to buy something for Aunt Molly, Uncle George, and all your friends while you’re on the trip, you will spend half your time looking for things and have no time to enjoy yourself. The same goes for postcards. One for Mom or your sweetheart is enough. Your most enjoyable trip will be the one where you took only pictures and memories back home with you.
Distance and Communication
How far did you travel each day?
Most of the people I know that have taken a bicycle trip talk about how far they were able to travel in a day. A friend of mine boasted of 175 kilometers per day -- 25 kilometers per hour for 7 hours. “Why?” I ask. Take it easy. A faster pace takes the joy out of having the time to meet people and see things that would otherwise only be a blur in your memory. It’s not unusual for foreigners visiting Germany to spend a few hours in each of the larger cities, like Berlin and Munich, to take a quick day trip to Paris and then whoosh off to Rome for another day or two of sightseeing. When they return home, they can say they went to Europe, but did they really see Europe? Not a chance! Even the pictures they took could be taken from the Internet by right-clicking a mouse. Spend at least 3 days in each larger city. Relax over a cup of cappuccino, take a slow walk in the city park, sit on a bench near a playground, and get off the ”tourist allee” into the side streets to see how people really live. They won’t bite you. I promise. And if you ever get to Rome or Paris, stay for at least a week in each city and take some time to let your feet dangle in one of the fountains and then relax at a quiet sidewalk cafe for a couple of hours over a café au lait.
During my last 4-day trip to Rome -- my fourth visit to this wonderful city -- I chuckled when I heard a British lady tourist making a comment to her traveling companion, “Do you remember the short little guy back there in the brown leather jacket? I swear he couldn’t speak a single word of English!”
My thought: “Why should he? He grew up speaking Italian.”
When you’re in a foreign country, take time to learn a few words and then try them out. If you make a mistake in pronunciation, so what? At least you tried. You might be surprised how easy it is to get along in another language once you get the hang of it.
Above all, be accepting and non-critical of the people you meet. Even criminals want to be loved and appreciated. Most thieves steal because they have a need deep within them that is unfulfilled - a need that rarely has anything to do with money. Most murderers kill because they experienced no love and attention when they were small children. Communicate with everyone, who looks into your eyes -- the windows of your soul -- even it means only returning a friendly smile. It may become the toppling domino that triggers the best souvenir you will take home with you.