Avoid the worst, enjoy the best
Travel should never be too easy. The best stories of a time in another land almost always emerge from struggle and tumble.
That said, it always pays to board the plane with a few useful tips of survival.
Survival Tip One: The multilingual map rule
Maps are a contentious issue for travellers. Some reckon them a useful partner and others, such as a friend of mine who traipsed across Central America on foot, consider them a hindrance. In his mind, they stop conversation with the locals.
To be sure, he was a traveller who took pride and pleasure from getting lost.
For the more stable traveller, however, maps are an exceptionally valuable addition to the backpack. That is simple enough. There is more, however, to be said about this basic tool: The words on the page matter.
A map in only one language should be avoided. If possible adopt the “multilingual map” rule.
A map in a language you do not understand is, well, incomprehensible. The place marks, streets, roads, parks and nightspots should obviously be written out in words you understand.
Yet, what you understand a local may not, and so you may lose the best of guides: the person who was born, cried, loved and retired in that neighbourhood. So, make sure you are using a map they can understand.
It is a simple enough trick, but one not to be forgotten. You both should know the words.
Survival Tip Two: The home and away rule
Subway stations in other countries are fun. Everything is similar, but nearly nothing is the same.
The writer Alain de Botton made the point that in every airport the signs adopt a different aesthetic and this simple variation is a pleasurable novelty of travel. The same goes for subways. Distinct fonts, unique symbols. In Beijing the tunnels themselves are lit up with ads and halfway through the journey a flurry of light bursts into the train from the tunnel walls.
Apart from an experience of travel, metros have their pragmatic value. It is easier and cheaper to get a metro to The Forbidden City in Beijing than a taxi, to say nothing for the trickery of the rickshaws.
However, there is one simple rule to keep in mind: the “Home-and-Away Rule.” Like all of the tips in this series of travel ideas, it is simple enough – but often forgotten.
As you research where you want to go, sure enough you find the station nearest to the destination. This is the “Away” leg. Mistakes rarely, if ever, occur at this stage of planning. The error is one of returning. Be sure to know how!
Navigating a subway station with a vague idea of one’s home station is problematic enough when the signs are written in a foreign language of Roman letters (say French or German). The difficulty is amplified when the entire linguistic script is distinct (think Chinese or Arabic compared to English).
Be sure to write down the return station – the “Home” leg – exactly as it is written in the local language. The hostel or hotel staff are your safest bet for writing it as it actually is. Then you can get the help of locals. This way, after transferring from line 2 to line 5, then taking line 8, and scurrying a day through the perfume and heat of a foreign land, you will have no trouble returning to the comfort and food of your hostel.
Survival Tip Three: The ports are pinching places rule
An acquaintance once told me the tale of cigarettes and a port. Arriving by freight ship to a significant sea port, the captain of the vessel offered her a collection of cigarette cartons. “These will get you through customs,” he said. “Offer them only to these select people,” he added, importantly. The story did not surprise me. Ports, be they the shipping, aeronautical or bus variety, are all lacquered with a lick of iniquity.
The “ports are pinching places” rule is less specific than the others, but perhaps the most important. The idea considers cynicism a necessity when arriving at any variety of port. Take little on face value.
In some places scalpers will be marching the streets outside offering tickets of inflated cost to distant stations. Taxi drivers will come up to you with a friendly smile and offer to take you where you need to go. They will do so, and then demand a price many times the norm.
Another – seemingly specific to China – is the tea-house scam. A person begins a conversation with you, explaining they are an arts student studying the finer points of English. Would you like to drink tea with them, they offer. Arriving at the tea-house, a beverage of average quality is poured. The bill eventually arrives and you are faced with a two hundred dollar debt. Their smile vanishes, replaced by bullying. Some of my friends have payed; others – the more experienced travellers – counter attacked, threatening to call the police. Either way, an unpleasant welcome to town.
A traveller generally arrives at a port with two easily exploitable traits: fatigue and naivety. These are a conman’s best friend. Where possible, be sure to venture a distance from the port before making any transactions. This may not always be possible, but it is sure to save you money, time and stress.