It is very easy to find travel advice. It gushes in currents, like the waters of a melting glacier, carrying all before it. I have no desire here to provide an exhaustive laundry-list of action items; my goal is only to toss out a few thoughts on the subject that have come to me in recent days. I recently read the following travel recommendations which appear in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. They are taken from a letter he wrote to one Mr. Perkins in 1782, when Johnson was 73 years old:
To Mr. Perkins:
Dear Sir, I am much pleased that you are going [on] a very long journey, which may by proper conduct restore your health and prolong your life. Observe these rules:
- Turn all care out of your head as soon as you mount the chaise [a horse-drawn carriage].
- Do not think about frugality; your health is worth more than it can cost.
- Do not continue any day’s journey to fatigue.
- Take now and then a day’s rest.
- Get a smart sea-sickness, if you can [i.e., get it intensely and get it over with quickly].
- Cast away all anxiety, and keep your mind easy.
This last direction is the principal; with an unquiet mind, neither exercise, nor diet, nor physick [medicine], can be of much use. I wish you, Sir, a prosperous journey, and a happy recovery. I am, dear Sir, your most affectionate, humble servant,
July 28, 1782.
This is sound advice. Not a novice to travel, I have picked up a lesson or two in my years on the road, and thought this might be a good place to lay them out for inspection. Here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on the subject of travel advice.
1. Start out with a plan. One should not meander in his travels. The act of moving physically from one place to another can fatigue the mind and overwhelm the senses; the traveler can be exposed to all manner of irritants and obstacles that can derail him from his peace of mind. To reduce this stress, it is important to have a concrete itinerary. You do not have to plan your movements in great detail, but you should have a list of goals for each day. Staying focused on your goals will help keep your sense of balance, and keep away the fatigue and depression that can come from floundering around in unfamiliar environments. This is especially important in places where you do not speak the language. There are some oblivious fools who like to yap that “language and cultural barriers do not exist,” but do not believe this for a second. Cultural barriers do exist and they are all around you in a different country.
2. Bad things happen to ignorant fools. The world is getting to be “smaller” all the time, and this can mean that the scams out there have a greater ability than ever before to intrude into your life. Do not take chances, understand what is going on around you, and do not dress like a target. The gods hate idiots. On this subject, Samuel Johnson once said:
Though the proverb Nullum numen abest, si sit prudentia, [Divine favor never leaves if one has prudence] does not always prove true, we may be certain of the converse of it, Nullum numen adest, si sit imprudentia [Divine favor never arrives if one is imprudent].
In other words, seek to be a prudent man, not an idiot. You would be surprised at how many people fail to learn this lesson, to their great detriment. Do your research on where you are going before you go. Learn how to communicate on a basic level. Dress in a way that keeps your profile low. Imitate the mannerisms and behaviors, as far as possible, of the locals. Do not speak of politics or religion with strangers: in some parts of the world, this can be an invitation to real trouble. Respect, to a fault, the people and customs of the country where you find yourself.
3. Take twice as much money, and half as many articles of clothing. You will always need more money than think. And you can get by with at least half of the clothing you think is so important. And even if you run out of t-shirts, or whatever, you can always buy local clothing. After all, you are not going to Antarctica. Make sure you call your credit card and bank card points of contact before you leave, to let them know your dates and locations of travel.
4. Shoes are more important than you think. You need shoes that are comfortable, durable, and that you can use for long periods of time over uneven ground. Ideally, they should be something that can be worn acceptably with both long trousers and with shorts. Solid, dark colors for sneakers are best.
5. You have no obligation to tell people your life story. You can if you want to, but some people operate under the mistaken impression that encountering strangers on the road mandates that they disclose their life story and purposes. I don’t see things this way. No one has any right to prod, press, or compel you to provide personal details. Only you can decide your own comfort zone; and when someone crosses the boundaries, do not be afraid to put them in check.
6. The common rights of humanity to social interaction. On the other hand, you do not want to be shrouded in an air of cold, aloof reserve. As a member of humanity, you have an obligation to open your mouth and speak to others with courtesy and tact. I have nothing but scorn for those timid, anti-social souls who slither along the wall, like frightened rats, when greeted with goodwill by a stranger. Boswell makes the same point:
Though [Samuel Johnson] was a true-born Englishman, and fully prejudiced against all other nations, he had discernment enough to see, and candour enough to censure, the cold reserve too common among Englishmen towards strangers: “Sir, (said he), to men of any other nation who are shewn into a room together, at a house where they are both visitors, will immediately find some conversation. But two Englishmen will probably go each to a different window, and remain in obstinate silence. Sir, we as yet do not enough understand the common rights of humanity.”
7. Try to stay in lodgings near major transportation spots. It is a good thing to be staying within a reasonable distance from a metro station. Your trip back to the airport will be much easier, and when you land in the country, it will be easier and faster for you to find the place.
8. If you are staying at Airbnb, take pictures of the apartment when you get there, and when you leave. The reason for this is to protect yourself from fraud. There seem to be more scammers and fraudsters out there than ever before, and they all know where to find marks. I have a friend who recently stayed at an Airbnb apartment in a certain country (I’ll not say where), and when he left, the apartment owner falsely claimed that he had “damaged” the residence. He even tried to demand several thousand in compensation for fake damage. Although the matter was favorably resolved, it took time and effort. Use your cell phone to take date-stamped photos of the residence both coming and going, so that you can show you caused no damage to the residence.
9. Eat and drink with gusto. This does not mean “eat and drink to excess”: there is a difference. But you need to experience the food and drink of the place you are visiting, and money spent on food is generally well-spent.
10. Get up early. The days will seem longer, and the enjoyment greater, if you get out early and keep going all day. No one ever remembered with fondness the time he spent lounging around his room. Get moving, and stay moving.
11. Try to see live events. For some reason, live performances are great ways of seeing the local environment. You have a large number of people congregating in a place, and you have a chance to see some sort of musical or theatrical show. Concerts, live musical acts, and related events get people’s energy pumping. People tend to be in a light-hearted mood, and such events are usually at night. Wherever you are, find out where the live shows are, and see them.
Read more in On Moral Ends: