This article originally appeard in the October issue of ‘Destinations Travel Magazine‘, a major international travel site and a Kred ‘Top 50 Travel Blogger Sites’; and here on Traveldudes, a well known travel site with a huge social networking following.
10 TIPS FOR THE LONE TRAVELLER
It can be utterly bewildering taking on a new city, metro system or train station alone. You arrive aching, dizzy and drenched in sweat, the only traveller among thousands, where nobody knows you or gives a damn, unable to find your hostel, bus or train, and not even knowing how to begin to ask a passer-by for help.
But remember, there’s always a solution. Stay calm, focus, and keep these simple common sense tips in mind and you will get over the hurdles.
Always be friendly, respectful and straight when you’re talking to people in a foreign country. You’re in their country, never forget that. Make sure you learn at least a few words, and say everything with a big honest smile, even if you feel rotten. Defer to local people 9 times out of 10, even when it means swallowing your pride, and never take out your frustration on them. But on the rare occasion, like when people are trying to shove you out of the way in a queue, stand your ground and be firm or you’ll be there all day.
2. TIMING IS EVERYTHING
We all make mistakes, but time is the real killer. Give yourself plenty of room for error and you can still salvage the inevitable mixup. Leave it until the last minute and you’re screwed. If you’re catching a train abroad, I say aim to arrive at the station two hours before it leaves. That might sound OTT but if you’re in a big city and you go to the wrong station, or take the wrong metro, or traffic is murder, there’s a giant of a queue to get into the station, or you leave your passport at your hotel, it sure as hell doesn’t feel too long. And if all goes to plan you get a blissful bit of downtime for a coffee and a chill, while the less prepared traveller is racing across town looking at their watch in a panic.
3. ALWAYS LOOK BACK
Whenever you leave anywhere do a sweep of the taxi/café/train compartment/hotel room you’re walking away from, it might be your last chance. It’s easy to leave something crucial behind then it’s gone forever, and when you’re travelling solo you only have one pair of eyes and one head. There’s nobody else there to spot the passport under the seat if you’re feeling particularly tired or just having a bad day; you have to be on the ball every day. Take a little torch so you can look under beds or on the floor under your seat thoroughly, it only takes a few seconds. Get in the habit of doing this wherever you go and you could save yourself a hell of a lot of hassle later.
4. VIVE LA DIFFERENCE
Accept, no embrace the fact that you’re in a weird and wonderful country that and it’s life but not as you know it. That’s why you went away in the first place, isn’t it? You will get very easily upset if you want everything just how you have it back home. And when you find there’s no toilet only a hole in the floor, or you have to eat chicken’s feet to be polite (see below), or an old lady spits on the floor in front of you because you’re showing too much cleavage, don’t get fazed. It’s the little things, even the uncomfortable ones, that make travelling so special. Go with the flow while all this wonderful bizarreness is available, you’ve got the rest of your life for Big Macs and toilet seats.
5. WHEN IN ROME
Keep your eyes and ears open all the time, and watch what local people are doing. It’s their city, they know how it works and the little things that might not be done anywhere else. If you’re nervous crossing a road, wait for someone else’s lead and don’t be afraid to ask for directions even if it means just pointing at a map. The charm of a place is often the most subtly hidden thing, a quirk in the way life is lived. With the right kind of eyes you can pick up great little customs that might make your visit 10 times better; the clues are all around you.
6. KEEP YOUR CHIN UP
There are times when you don’t feel capable of putting one foot in front of the other, let alone negotiating the Moscow Metro with a heavy backpack. But it’s amazing what a positive attitude does for you. Smile through the pain, stay cheerful and enthusiastic and the universe often rewards you; a passer-by offers directions, you catch a lucky break, you meet a stranger who gives you that little boost you need. When you’re on your own you have to rely on your own resources because nobody else will cheer you up if you don’t.
7. KEEP YOUR HEAD
If you feel threatened keep a neutral demeanour; don’t overcompensate by being bolshie, but definitely don’t show fear either as this can invite the wrong type of attention. Be the grey guy, not aggressive or weak, just calm and collected even if inside your heart is pounding. There are good people everywhere in the world. But also in real life most people don’t do a damn thing to help when you’re feeling vulnerable so don’t expect too much sympathy. Stay focussed, keep walking and look as confident as you can even when you don’t believe it yourself.
8. GO WITH YOUR GUT
Respect the line between being adventurous and just plain stupid. You’ve got to push yourself out of your comfort zone if you’re going to experience those magic moments, but listen to your instincts as well. You develop a sixth sense as you travel and while you might be nervous walking down a street alone, or crossing a border, or doing a million other things, you can usually overcome this fear. But if your gut is telling you there’s something wrong, there probably is. Don’t be too proud to change your plans if you get that pang. You’re on your own, you don’t have to answer to anyone, so take control of all the decisions.
9. MANGE TOUS
Never refuse an offer of a drink or some exotic bit of food from a kind stranger, unless you really find the idea gut wrenching. Your body can cope with more than you think. Food and drink is usually the first bridge between two strangers, especially on a long train journey, and if you turn it down the first time it could be a very long ride indeed. And you could miss out on perhaps the most interesting character of the whole trip. And yes, that includes eating crickets, pigs tails and chicken’s feet, or necking brandy at 6 in the morning, it will always be worth that urge to gag.
10. CARPE DIEM
The end of the trip creeps up subtly and next thing you know you’re back home, in your old routines, your old self, no longer on the move. Yes, there are some bloody annoying things about travelling: the guy in the compartment of your train who slurps tea and smokes and won’t shut up when you’re trying to sleep, the endless lugging of backpacks around hot muggy cities, the surly officials, cockroach-ridden hostels, delays, language barriers, time zones, mosquitos, etc. etc. etc.
But none of that matters when you’re replaying the tapes in your head. Just the fact that you did it counts, and the wonderful moments that each little stumble was just a step toward. So while you’re out there, don’t meditate on the mishaps. There will come a day when you’d happily relive every single second, cockroaches and all.