Over the past two decades my travels have taken me across the equator 40 times (nine times on land) to 51 countries on all seven continents and on countless airline flights, boat trips, train journeys and every vehicle imaginable. I’ve slept on dirt floors amid scurrying four-legged companions, and in five-star hotels with my own butler just down the hall.
I have attended travel and tourism conferences all over the world, briefed a Minister of Tourism and met with CEOs, MDs, GMs, and even been introduced to one prime minister and one president. I have owned seven passports, bought countless visas, had dozens of vaccinations and visited two countries that can no longer be found in any current atlas. I’ve been chased by elephants and hippos, mock-charged by a rhino, had a standoff with a buffalo and a polar bear (though not at the same time), been stalked by a leopard and had two aborted aircraft landings.
In short, I have a lived a life on my travels that’s almost unimaginable at home. And perhaps that’s one of the great rewards of travel; not merely to step out of one’s comfort zone, but to step out of one’s shoes and into someone else’s. I have done things – and eaten things! – overseas that I would never do at home, like face-forward rappelling down the side of an eight-storey building in Melbourne when I won’t even venture near a roller coaster at home, or eating mopane worms in Zimbabwe when I ask them to hold the pickles at my local hamburger joint.
It was Mark Twain who said that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” in a quote that has made it onto the email signature of travel agents and travellers across the world—but he’s correct.
Travel has broadened my mind, expanded my brain, freed my tastebuds, liberated my adventure-lust, increased my confidence, honed my patience, sharpened my humour, improved my tolerance and enhanced my appreciation for my home and things I take for granted. Not a bad outcome…especially if you factor in the mountain of spectacular international T-shirts in my closet and collection of shot glasses in my kitchen.
Of course, there have been ups and downs, but the ups outweigh and outnumber the downs, so I have selectively chosen to forget the latter…or at least give them all a positive twist.
1) Getting there is half the fun. Enjoy the journey every bit as much as the destination. Never sleep when there’s a window and daylight nearby no matter how tired you are.
2) Learn at least three words of the local language (brands of beer don’t count!). You’d be amazed how many doors a simple “Hello, Please, Thanks,” and “Would you accept my little brother in exchange for that beautiful 12th-century handwoven tapestry?” will open, if attempted in the local language or dialect…even when that person speaks perfect English.
3) Familiarize yourself with the local currency and the exchange rate before you arrive to prevent getting ripped off, accidentally giving someone a $100 tip (or a 10-cent tip), and to avoid making enemies for life by asking a shopkeeper “how much is that in real money?”
4) If you wanted it to be just like home…you shouldn’t have left! Embrace the differences, even when they don’t seem particularly embraceable. Enjoy the unhurried pace, even when you’re in a hurry. And whatever you do, don’t ask for your Steak Florentine to be well-done!
5) Always assume this will be the only time you’re at that destination. See everything, drink it all in, take advantage of every moment…unless you really want to come back one day, in which case accidentally-on-purpose leave something valuable behind to collect later.
6) Never sleep in past 8:30 a.m. Okay, I know it’s a vacation and not basic training, but every minute counts. If you’re feeling particularly lethargic or exhausted then sprawl on top of a mountain, on an isolated beach or a city bench overlooked by ancient monuments…but not in your hotel room.
7) Never order any food that has an icon of a volcano beside it. If it includes the word “Vesuvius” in its name, or has Mucho Molto Piccante Caliente on the menu, or a dozen small red chili pepper icons beside it, avoid it. No matter how brave you feel. No matter how much the waiter dares you. Stay away from it.
8) Find the happy balance between taking enough awesome photographs to properly remember your trip without having your only memory of it being through a viewfinder.
9) Always think how that tempting souvenir will be once you’ve brought it home and it’s sitting in your living room instead of beneath a thatched roof within earshot of crashing waves…and also how you’re going to get that 12-foot handcarved wooden giraffe home in the first place!
10) Don’t engage in tick-off tourism. Don’t see the Great Wall of China “just because.” See the Great Wall because you’re fascinated by ancient history, because you know it’s 8,850 kilometres long, because you’re a fan of the Ming Dynasty…or because you’re so over the Stairmaster in your basement.