Thursday, March 11, 2010

Independent travel makes you stronger

From time to time exotic travel can be a little more challenging than anticipated so remember the saying: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In a letter home from Malaysia I said the three things I hate most in this part of the world are cockroaches, lizards and the heat: “The first two are far too big, the latter unbelievable—the kind of heat that melts you in five minutes.” It was Malaysia during its hottest season, however.

Many years ago, a three-day boat trip from Indonesia to Singapore certainly tested my (then) husband and me. The ship was headed to Mecca. It was packed. For the many who had only ‘deck passage’ (thankfully, not us), there was no room to walk around, no toilet, and no place to wash. When it was time for the few of us who were going to Singapore to disembark, a wooden gangplank was lowered way offshore and we were told to jump to the rowboats a good distance below. To complicate things, men got behind us and started to push, which caused a panic as we hung onto one another so as not to fall in the ocean. These men were there to steal our stuff, taking whatever they could grab. There was much screaming and we were certainly relieved when we were safely on shore (and glad that we had put our valuables in waterproof bags buried deep in our packs).

My sister Nancy in Morocco souk

Recent travel through Morocco was much easier than anticipated. I had heard horror stories about the souks and the young men who would drive us crazy asking to be our guide. Well, young men did approach us and one even told me that I would be “really, really sorry” for turning down his offer to show us through the medina in Fes for we were sure to be lost. But it was all rather tame. Maybe it’s because everything is rather tame after India. Also, I visited Morocco in January when it is not packed with tourists and probably more relaxed.

Letters home

“The only thing that surprises me in Jodpur is camels pulling carts of produce. Camels are new to me today but by tomorrow they won’t be as I’m going to the desert tomorrow.”

- India

Rajasthan, India

Weighing dire warnings

If you listen to all the chatter about what could possibly happen to you when you travel to foreign destinations you’d never leave home. Travel books devote pages to health and safety issues. U.S. government travel advisories are particularly discouraging. You really need to put these warnings into perspective. There are travel snobs who see themselves as intrepid and don’t want “just anyone” to follow in their footsteps, such as a co-worker of mine who kept saying I was a ‘brave girl, brave girl’ for planning a trip to Ecuador, a country he visited frequently. Being unduly fearful will keep you inside the travel bubble.

Yes, you should weigh dire warnings and indeed bad things can happen. But incidents that you hear about can be isolated and not impact on your plans. Or if they do, you may be able to make alternate arrangements. Sometimes concerns are exaggerated or misunderstood. I recall (with some embarrassment) asking the customs officer at the New York City international airport if it was safe to travel across the city to the train station. I asked him this as I handed over my passport with visas in it from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, countries I had just been to. I suspect he thought my question was ridiculous, and even insulting, and told me rather sarcastically that I had a “50-50 chance of making it alive.” Well, in those days, we were bombarded with warnings about how dangerous New York City was. But I had obviously failed to weigh such warnings.

Occasionally it can be difficult to assess the situation from home. Before we went to Peru an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter Scale caused considerable damage to telecommunications, power lines, transportation routes, and general infrastructure in that country. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs recommended deterring travel to the area. We altered our itinerary so that the city most hard hit was our last stop and sure enough, most of the damage had been cleared away by the time we arrived. On another trip, an erupting volcano threatened to block the highway between Mexico City and Oaxaca but the bus just drove around it. Floods prevented our overland travel from Malaysia to Thailand so we took a plane instead. A tornado flattened the Darwin airport in Australia where we were to catch our flight to Indonesia so we made alternate arrangements. All to say that if you remain calm and flexible you will usually find a way to overcome logistical challenges.

Dire warnings, Southern India

While changes to your itinerary may be disappointing, alternate arrangements can have their rewards. In a letter home from Ecuador I wrote: “We were hoping to get the train out of Riobamba to Guayaquil through the infamous Nariz des Diable (Devil’s Nose). However, El Nino wiped out the train tracks. So we took the bus and the trip was spectacular.”

Terrorist bombs have gone off in the United States, Britain and Spain, all countries much like ‘home’. Australians seem to get a thrill out of telling tourists that a bite from one of their poisonous snakes can kill hundreds of sheep. While travelling in Europe a highly educated Brit told me he would love to visit Canada but was afraid of the bears, which to me is ridiculous. This is not to trivialize the bad stuff but to suggest you not over react.

The Anticipation

Two weeks after my six week journey through India I started thinking about my next destination. On the recommendation of Europeans I’d met in Delhi, I decided on Morocco. And so the research and anticipation began. Anticipating the next trip gives life a lift. It’s like the gardener who plans her spring garden in February (and I am a gardener), for dreaming about spring gets you through the winter. (The great thing about the Internet is that you can still anticipate your spring garden from the other side of the world. When in India and feeling a little homesick I spent several hours in an Internet café researching what new perennials to add to my garden.)

You can also anticipate difficulties but don’t become a creative worrier for things tend to work out well.

Letters home

“Yesterday there were mothballs in the drain in the bathroom, which was a turn off. Today I’m in a different hotel and there are no mothballs. A toad just hopped out of the drain. I chased it under the bed where it is now huddled. What else do you think can come up from drains?”

- India

You’re more appreciative of home

There’s nothing like travelling in the less developed world to make you realize how fortunate you are. As I wrote to my kids from India, “big things must be expected of us for we are so privileged.”

Letters home

“Women seem to do most of the physical work. You see them walking barefoot carrying a pan of cement on their head to pave the road.”

- Indonesia

“The women wear saris, even when cutting wood or gathering hay. The men? Too many of them pee in public, spit on the street, and blow their nose using their fingers.”

- India


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