What would you never leave home without? Here’s my list – and best of all, they don’t cost a penny.
At some point, your train will be late. Or your flight will be delayed. Or the shop will be closed for no apparent reason. Or a national holiday will get in the way of your plans. Take a deep breath. This is part of what you came for – a chance to experience the rhythms of a different country.
Some of my most memorable experiences have been ‘mañana moments’ – hanging around, waiting for something to happen or somewhere to open.
A roadside fireplace meal in rural China, while waiting for the bus mechanic; an unplanned night in Bahrain because the flight was late; four days on a Sicilian island while storms grounded the ferry fleet; two days on a train because an Icelandic volcano stopped every flight in Europe. All of them could have been tiresome and annoying – each was filled with chance encounters, interesting people and fascinating glimpses of day-to-day life.
An open mind
An open mind will get you further in your travels than an open wallet.
I just made that aphorism up (and feel free to Instagram it with a beautiful image), but I think it’s true. You can plan trips and buy experiences, from elephant-trekking to gourmet food tours, but maybe the thing that will stay with you for the rest of your life is the thing you never knew you wanted to do.
So be alert to every possibility. Say ‘yes’ and ‘why not?’ – not ‘no’ and ‘you must be kidding’. Try new things. Do different stuff. Go against your own grain.
A few words in the local language
A few words go a long way to opening doors, smoothing paths and finding your way. ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ in any language shouldn’t be beyond anyone – really, if you’re not prepared to learn ‘Thank you’, then maybe you’d be better off staying at home. And if you can manage ‘Can you pass me the soap dish’ and ‘Where is the bus shelter?’ (as I can, inexplicably, in Dutch and German respectively) then people smile and you’ll go far.
A sense of curiosity
What’s down that street? What can I see from the top of the hill? Let’s see if that church is open. Does kangaroo really taste like chicken? Is the North Sea really that cold…(sort of, and yes, to the last two, in case you were wondering).
The best finds are always the unexpected ones, or those you have to work for. That backstreet restaurant that’s not in the guidebook; that town that you only stayed in because you liked the sound of its name; that museum that was open when all the famous ones were closed – serendipity, that’s what great travel is all about.
They do things differently in foreign countries. They just do. And while not all of those things might seem sensible or reasonable to you, that’s just how they do them, so you should follow suit. You’re a guest and a visitor, and while you’ll usually be given plenty of leeway if you genuinely didn’t know you were supposed to bow, or eat with a particular hand, or take your shoes off, there’s no call to ignore customs and upset people, just because it doesn’t seem right to you.
A spirit of generosity
If you can afford to fly away somewhere for a few days, or have the money to travel around Asia for six months, you can afford whatever it is you’re just about to quibble about. Tips for waiters, cash for buskers, alms for beggars, rounding up fares for tuk-tuk drivers – let’s not be mean when it comes to people’s livelihoods. Buy a fellow traveller a drink, spread some money around at the neighbourhood market, get your host a gift, drop some change in the donations box, give the local kids a treat – you can definitely afford it, you’ll help someone out, and maybe you’ll make a new travel memory or two.
Anything I’ve missed?
(You’d never travel without a new ebook you say? One written by a Rough Guide writer in search of heart and home? One with a brilliantly intriguing title? Funnily enough, I can help you with that too…).