Top 10 “Intentional Travel” Tips
(How to travel with purpose and meaning)
2.) Re-inventing Yourself Through Travel
3.) Travel with Conscious Awareness
4.) Packing for a Purpose and Like a Pro
5.) Traditions and Taboos
6.) Paper Work – Passports, Insurance, Credit Cards, Itinerary, Copies
8.) Languages and Weird Words
9.) Transportation – Rental Cars, Planes, Trains, Bikes
10.) Sightseeing Versus People Meeting
One day long ago when such things were fashionable, I attended a “personal growth” seminar. I’m sure everyone in attendance was there because they wanted to make more money, further their career, gain power, or something similar. Who so surprised as me, and certainly everyone in the audience, that the very first topic the speaker delivered was about “giving back.”
The speaker emphasized that being successful was not that difficult, if you followed the path he clearly laid out. So, if you are going to be successful, best to start by acting like it. The first choice you should make is: “What to do with all this money you want to make?” The first thing is to set aside 10 percent to give away. The second thing is to decide in advance what kind of charity you want to support, and how.
The same kind of planning is what I recommend to people who are thinking of a trip, vacation, adventure or any journey. Assume you are going to be successful at what you do. That may mean nothing more than getting on the plane and arriving safely, then lying in the sun on the beach and relaxing, it that’s all you want to accomplish.
But think of this; no matter what you do and where you go (unless you are a millionaire going to a convention of other rich people) likely you will often be richer than the people you meet. Travel is a luxury that 95 percent of people in the world can’t afford. They are too busy trying to survive.
Give some advance thought as to where you can spread your money around. Tips left for the chambermaid on your hotel pillow? Donations to a local school or charity? Paying full price for an object you want to buy, without haggling over the price?
Never, under any circumstance, give money or candy to children. Don’t buy the books, pencils, candy or other items they may be selling on the street. Children belong in school. If you support education, the children will acquire the tools they need to support themselves. Donate to the school principal, administration or teacher. Giving anything directly to school kids undermines their authority. Children need to learn respect for their teachers. Do your homework in advance, not on pure impulse or emotion.
2.) Re-inventing Yourself Through Travel
No matter what the purpose of your trip, there are two items that many people often overlook. One is the anticipation of arrival, which starts when you look at the brochure and say to yourself: “I wish I was there.” Second, and more important, are the memories you harvest and bring back from that journey. Memories always last longer than the trip itself. Keep these thoughts in mind as you plan your next trip and your life. All of life is a journey; you don’t need to be on an airplane to an exotic destination to be on a trip.
The moment you step off the plane, you are a new person, the wonderful person you always wanted to be. Unless you are travelling to meet friends or relatives, no one you meet really knows who you are or has any idea of your personality. You can pretend to be anyone you want, so why pretend? Actually be your better self. Act kindly and generously. Be friendly to people you meet. I am a master of bad jokes, Mark Twain style (“Everybody complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it”) which always makes people laugh and opens many doors.
I remember reading a copy of Rolf Pott’s book “Vagabonding” many years ago. Rolf started his travel career by cutting lawns in Seattle during the summer, saving all his money for a plane ticket and overseas expenses. It was hot and dirty work and he daydreamed about being at his destination. Suddenly he realized that he was already well on his way. Since “all of life is a journey,” why not act as if you are already on your trip? Be the person you have always wanted to be the moment you realize you are just a traveller being swept along by the tidal force of life.
Think of yourself as a benevolent monarch on a tour of your domain (without the pomposity, of course). Deliberately keep cash in the local denomination tucked away in one pocket separate from your wallet. Don’t simply hand it out to people you meet. Just the fact that it is there in your pocket will make you think. (Remember the old expression “burning a hole in your pocket?” It will.)
The money is there to remind you of your richness. Watch the world carefully, and choose what people or project to which you might give. Maybe the money can be spent on food or medical treatment. No matter; you must give serious thought as to how and where to spend it. Giving money frivolously can cause enormous damage in a small village, but just the fact that its “burning a hole” will give you the conscious awareness of your surroundings. Remember, as a monarch, you can make many good things happen. Not interested in being king or queen? Then, adopt whatever role you want. Remember, you can be anyone you want to be. Re-inventing yourself is a conscious decision anyone can make. Do it.
3.) Travelling with Conscious Awareness
For some people, travel is all about escape or a holiday or adventure or a vacation. They are so dialled into their destination they don’t notice anything else along the way. Their thinking is “get my bags, find a cab, get to the hotel, finally relax….” and THEN their holiday kicks in. Necessities like planning, packing, getting to the airport, sitting around waiting for your flight, debarking and making it to the hotel are all considered as necessary irritations.
Hey, you have it all wrong! All these necessities can be fun parts of the trip. Learn to make them enjoyable. Keep your eyes open and observe everything that is going on. When will be the next time you are in a taxi in Kathmandu? Look out the window. Pay attention. Make notes. Take photos (understanding the local restrictions) and chat to people you meet. Bring a book or smart phone. Keep yourself busy. DON’T complain, even if they ask you to take off your shoes at the airport. It’s way better than sitting at home and wishing you were somewhere else.
Any trip starts at the library, when you wander over to that obscure section usually titled “travel literature” which is where they keep the travel stories and books along with the guidebooks. Cheap bookstores and airports may stock only guidebooks. Guidebooks are useful, so buy the right one for you, but it’s the travel literature – the dreams, the stories, the reports, the fantasy – that you need to buy first. Have a fantasy like living in a castle or spending a summer in Provence, France? Pick up a good book and start reading.
Buy and bring a good camera. Plastic pocket cameras and smart phones tend to end up in your purse or pocket, out of sight and out of mind. Hang your camera around your neck or have it in your hand. (Not in crowds, of course, or airports, temples and taboo places) and be ready to shoot at all times. This forces you to pay attention to your surroundings, to think, to decide. Digital technology allows you to shoot thousands of photos at no expense. The important factor is not that you can shoot everything, but that your mind is turned on. You are alert. As the old saying goes, “awareness is next to godliness.” Don’t daydream your trip away. Live it.
After taking a shot – anywhere, any time – ask yourself the following questions: Why did I take that particular image? Why did I choose it? Why photograph a cow eating a hat? Why not that woman selling flowers? Why did I think, subconsciously, that image was of some interest or value? To who? Yourself, or your friends or readers? You may never end up with an answer, but just the process of self-analysis will make you more alert and sensitive to your surroundings. Don’t sleep walk though your life. A camera is a tool with many purposes. Use it wisely.
4.) Packing for a Purpose (and like a pro)
Quick now, without looking, how much does your bag weigh? Better yet, how many pounds or kilos are you permitted to bring to your destination? Is it an international flight or domestic? The farther you fly, the more weight you are allowed to bring. I bet you haven’t given any thought what can be crammed into that big bag of yours to bring you up to the limit. Gifts for relatives? Maybe. Several pairs of shoes for different needs? But there are some essentials you need to bring about which you may not have considered.
Go back to Travel Tip #1 and remind yourself about “tithing.” The best and long-lasting memory of your trip may end up being what you gave away. If you have planned to give away 10 percent of your overall travel budget, that may add up to as much as $500. that’s a lot of money in many parts of the world. It needs thought and planning.
Or, you can make it very easy for yourself and let other people do all the thinking and planning. Simply log on to the fabulous website called Pack for a Purpose (www.packforapurpose.com) and tell them where you are going. They can tell you what to bring as a donation, or even what resort to stay that supports initiatives in their local community. It’s that easy.
For instance, one day I got an email asking me if I wanted to go to the Dominican Republic to review an all-inclusive luxury resort. Well, actually, no I didn’t want to go. Those aren’t the kind of destinations to which I aspire. “All inclusive” often means “all you can eat and drink,” with big security gates to keep out the riffraff and guests indulging in as much booze as they can swallow. But I had never been to the Caribbean before, so I chose to go after doing some homework.
Using Google Maps and their streetscape technology, I zoomed in on the resort, then pulled back up into the sky. As you do that, often names of nearby establishments (restaurants, tourism booths, schools, etc) will pop up. Bingo, in five minutes I had located a backpacker’s lodge not five minutes drive from my fancy resort. Typing the name of the hostel in my Google search engine, I discovered that the hostel was run by a French Canadian lady, who promoted “voluntourism” at a local Haitian school.
The Haitians were refugees, picking sugar cane in the fields for money even the poor local Dominicans wouldn’t do. They had built a makeshift and ramshackle village of bits and piece of wood and cardboard. They even had a church and a school. Aha! Since the hostel owner could speak French, obviously I had a driver and translator!
When I was given the offer to go to the Dominican, I had literally no money to bring for any donations and little time to prepare. So I went straight to Plan B. My local community centre hosts an annual Flea Market, where I often buy t-shirts and baseball caps for next to nothing, as long as they have English language words written on them. I might buy 20 at a time. I keep them in a box in my basement. They weigh nothing and you can cram lots of them into a small carry-on bag, which is all I ever use on my travels.
The backpacker owner drove me to the local school, where we had an appointment to meet with the local teacher. He spoke no English and my French is limited, but we had a translator. I explained to him that I was a journalist from Canada, and that I wished to talk to his school kids about the importance of a good education, geography and ambition. If he liked, I would give him all the baseball caps and t-shirts to give to his students as prizes for doing their homework.
He thought it was a wonderful idea, so he introduced me as a “famous person from a country far away known as Canada” and we all had a look at the map, and I made a short speech about the rewards that emanate from getting an education, and I gave him the gifts in front of the class so he could receive all the credit and hand out the gifts at his own discretion. For the kids, it was like a Martian had suddenly dropped out of the sky into their midst, a welcome diversion from another day in the classroom. The English language wording (“Fred’s Plumbing and Electricity”) on the caps and shirt carried prestige, symbols of the outside world. When I had told the folks at the Flea Market why I wanted them, they gave me a huge bag for free. I give them out in all developing countries I visit.
As for my “packing like a pro” advice, every guidebook tells you the same thing, and everyone ignores it. The old cliché is “pack light,” because you will regret having to lug around a monster suitcase on your trip. Personally, unless I am going to the Arctic and need a big jacket and boots, I don’t carry a big bag anywhere. They key selections seem to in footwear and jackets. They are heavy and bulky and take up a lot of space. If you need a big jacket, wear it on the plane and then take it off and carry it. Don’t put one in the suitcase.
What you really need to do is find one pair of shoes that work for every situation, from hiking to five star restaurants. Don’t tell me that’s not possible because I have been doing it for 20 years. You need to look for a walking shoe, one that does NOT look like a sneaker. For ladies, it’s a bit harder, but you can get by with two pairs of shoes if the second pair is lightweight (dress shoe for 5-star places, or sandals).
Two pairs of pants, two or three shirts, shirts, socks and underwear… that’s all you really need. Once your big bag goes to Madagascar while you are going to Montreal is all the lesson you need. Carry your bag on the plane. You don’t need more.
5.) Traditions and Taboos
I once read a great short story by travel writer Tim Cahill has his taxi driver – warm, friendly, professional – went cold as ice when Tim kicked the door of the taxi shut with his foot. The bottom of the foot is taboo in much of Asia. You have to sit cross-legged in many places and those of us with bad knees know how that feels.
In North America, “tousling” the head of a young kid is a sign of respect. You never touch a child on the head in Thailand. For centuries the Chinese thought that phlegm caused disease so they were taught to spit it on the ground, or floor. To this day the Chinese government tries to tell its citizens not to spit. Never enter a traditional Brahmin’s kitchen, or open an umbrella in a Nepali home!
When travelling in China, if you want someone to come to you, don’t wave them over with an upturned finger. This is impolite. Wave them over with your fingers turned down, as if they were sweeping something toward you. The same motion is used when hailing a cab.
When using a toothpick in public, cover your mouth with your hand. When eating with a group, if there is a dish everyone is sharing (which is customary), do not use your chopsticks or the spoon you are eating with to dish your food. Use the serving spoon to dish into your bowl or plate and then use your spoon or chopsticks to eat.
If someone gives you a present, it’s best not to open it in front of them. When someone gives a business card to you, do not stick it in your hip pocket. Also, don’t stick it in your wallet and then put your wallet in your hip pocket. You would be symbolically stating that you want to sit on them! Putting a business card in your wallet and them placing the wallet in a front pocket is no problem.
Despite being a modern nation, the Chinese are incredibly superstitious. If you are going to buy someone a gift, never give a clock (giving a watch is okay), straw sandals, handkerchiefs or anything white, blue or black
In India, don’t shake the hand of the person of the opposite sex. Do not use the left hand for eating. Don’t drink or smoke in public. Don’t discuss religion. Dress modestly. Take off you shoes before entering a home or temple.
How is a person supposed to know all this before going to any new country? Simple; do your homework. Simply google the country name and follow it with the word taboo, tradition, manners or any version thereof. If you have a poor memory, simply write down the key rules and put them in your wallet or purse.
Finally, never under any circumstance be rude with an official, whether at an airport or doing any kind of business. Just because you are a foreigner doesn’t give you the right to break the rules. Smile, repeat your question, and carry on. It’s a wonderful world.
6.) Paper work – Passports, Insurance, Credit Cards, Itinerary, Copies
I was talking with the ambassador to Ecuador recently when I was in that country. I said that losing your passport these days was the end of the world. What with 9/11, terrorism, airport security, policing and whatnot. She said “no,” embassies are still in the business of helping their nationals when tragedy strikes. Just don’t make a habit of losing your passport.
My rules regarding paperwork are the same as you will find at every other site. Rule number one is to make copies of everything, and put them separate from the original. Personally I travel with a netbook (a small laptop) and all my personal data goes there under a file name only I would recognize. I bring email addresses, travel insurance, contact names and addresses, medical data, and emergency contacts both on paper and in digital format. I forward much of that information to the PR company, tourism board, friend or other hosts before I fly.
On leaving the house for the airport, I put my passport in the breast pocket of my “travel shirt,” a lightweight long sleeve khaki shirt with pockets that button. I pull out my passport when needed to check in and then put it back in the same pocket, and I button it up. I always use the same shirt and the same pocket. It horrifies me to see people patting their pockets and going through their luggage to look for their passport when requested to produce it. Your passport is like a million dollar bill. Keep it safe at all times.
When I get to my hotel room, the first thing I do is put my passport in the safe. Don’t hide it under the bedsheets. If you have no safe in your room, give it to the front desk and ask that they put it in their safe. A passport is worth a fortune and you don’t want the hassle of replacing it.
Always inform your credit card company that you are off to Kazahkstan for a few weeks. It’s more than irritating to find your card won’t emit money when you need it. Use the ATM at the airport immediately upon arrival and get your local currency there. If not, use the money changers. Don’t go wandering around the streets at 2 a.m. king for a machine. (I have some excellent stories in that regard.)
I make two copies of my itinerary, and print them out on paper. If you are as busy as I am on a trip, do the same. You may need to give a copy to an associate and often looking for a printer is a pain. Never travel without medical insurance. It’s just not worth the risk. Did I ever tell you about my 500-kilometre ramble across the Himalayas in the midst of the Nepal civil war, with no chance of rescue if there was an accident? “No problem,” said my guide cheerfully. “The Maoists would shoot down any chopper, the cellphone service does not work, and if you break a leg we will leave you behind a bush.”
Never travel without accredited medical insurance. (See above.) If you have personal medical issues (diabetes, asthma, whatever) bring both your medicine and a prescription. In some instances (like a heart condition) it just makes no sense to travel to high altitudes, or to places with notoriously poor medical and hospital conditions.
Many North Americans would be quite surprised to learn that foreign doctors and hospitals often provide excellent medical care, often at prices far better than in the western world. It’s not free in most places, so your medical insurance will come in handy. If you think you may need the services of a doctor, log on to Patients Without Borders, an international non-profit agency that provides ratings for hospitals around the world.
The number One cause of illness while travelling comes from drinking the water. To be safe, simply drink from bottles (check to see if the seal is broken). I’ve had “Delhi Belly” on every trip to India and Nepal. Plus, I got hit with parasites and campilobacter in Nepal, which is a bit more serious. Once again, a simple test at the lab will usually find the problem and d a pill will cure you quickly.
8.) Languages and Weird Words
No matter what country you visit, you MUST memorize a few words like hello, thank you, goodbye and “how much are two beers?” Don’t worry that people will think you understand their language and then launch into some long spiel. Probably if you mangle your “hello” well enough, they will understand you are a gringo, farang, gwailo or any other variation on the word “foreigner.”
One of the easiest ways to quickly learn a new language (besides all the books, courses and videos available to help you) is to write a few sentences in English, then use Google translation to help you switch the words to German, Spanish, French or what have you. I once did a series of lectures aboard a cruise ship using Google translation, and the service proved useful, if not comical.
For instance, the French translation for “Hello, my name is Michael” tends to come out as “Mon nom est Michel” instead of “je m’apple Michel (I am called Michael), but most people understood was I was saying, and those that didn’t – being French – left in a huff. But it was nowhere near the hilarity of Chinglish, which is a language all to itself.
Chinglish is, obviously, an amalgamation of Chinese and English, and it lends itself to many wonderful phrases you can find on signs and menus in China. Some of my favourites?
- Deformed man toilet
- Cash recycling machine
- No romping in the hall
- Don’t press the glass to get hurt
- Deep fried sesame children sticks
- Slip and fall down carefully
Here’s the point. Don’t be afraid to mangle the language and get laughed at. No one really cares about your faux pas except you. However, people will understand and appreciate the fact that you have tried to learn a few words, and often that’s all that is needed to open doors and get the assistance you require.
9.) Transportation – Rental Cars, Planes, Trains, Bikes, Ferries, Tuk Tuks, Guides, etc
The best line I ever wrote was “never drive in countries where they believe in reincarnation.” Ha ha. In actual fact, the only (foreign) countries in which I have ever driven are Australia and the United States, and I don’t advise people to drive in either country unless they have to.
In Australia, virtually everyone except for tourists like me drives on the wrong side of the road. It really takes some getting used to. It’s like looking in a mirror; everything is back asswards. There’s nothing like edging carefully out of the car rental shop, driving to the highway, and then at 100 kph finding out you have to negotiate a traffic roundabout with cars coming at you from four different directions. Help!
Although while at home I’d rather stick a sharp stick in my eye than ride the bus (I am a cycling addict) on the road I take the bus, subway, train or whatever public transport is available that I personally do not have to steer. I once met a guy who swore he liked to drive in India, on a motorcycle, but it was obvious he had suicidal tendencies. (Yes, the traffic in that part of the world is even worse than you think.) Be sensible and let other people, who are paid to do so, take care of the wheel.
Planes usually land safely, especially the bigger ones, and you can even go online and check their safety records. I’d rather hand feed a grizzly bear than ever get on a Biman Air (Bangladesh) ever again. But often there is nothing you can do about the choice of airlines. Small planes are a different story altogether. I have flown enough of them to know. Avoid adding them to your itinerary unless you must. Many bush pilots with whom I have flown seem to be wild men, determined to prove they can set that plane down on a postage stamp.
Ask around and find out from the locals what the situation is. Is it safe to drive from New Delhi to the Taj Mahal in Agra? (No, take the train.) Ask the concierge at the hotel desk to recommend a guide. No good hotel wants to see any of their guests get in trouble. Tipping your guide in advance (paying the rest of the bill later) may result in better service.
10.) Sightseeing Versus People Meeting
I write for newspapers and magazines. I swear you can read a travel story every day and never see a word written about tourism as it applies to people. It’s all about museums, resorts, beaches, and things. I don’t travel half way around the world to look at buildings, and I don’t know why so many people do. They must have a checklist, obtained from some silly source like a travel article or a guidebook, and they tick off the various boxes as they go.
Empire State Building? Check. Statue of Liberty? Check. Times Square? Check. Brooklyn Bridge? Check. Greenwich Village? Wow, imagine going to New York and doing that! What about the people who live there and give New York (“The city that never sleeps”) its vibrant urban life? How about meeting them?
The sad fact is, like any other topic, there are various levels of expertise involved. People who have never travelled anywhere (which is most people) will inevitably be drawn to well-publicized tourist traps and popular attractions. Where else would they know where to go? Again, the solution is to use the Internet and type in various questions phrased in different ways.
Start with, for example, local food. If you are a foodie, type in the name of the city and then best places. “Cleveland food best places” gives me 5 pages of results to surf. Narrow the list down by emailing the local food critic, always found in the local newspapers. See how it works? You can find anything by using a search engine.
The world is full of fascinating places, but it is even more full of interesting people. Over time, if you have the luck and opportunity to travel the world, I think you’ll find that people are more interesting than buildings and tourist attractions. Before you go anywhere, do your homework. Where do you want to go? Why? What do you expect to learn there? Who do you want to meet? You don’t need a checklist, you need an itinerary.