Gayle Forman traveled around the world for a year with her husband, Nick. Her book about the trip is coming out next month (but she saved her best tips for us)
Gayle Forman traveled around the world for a year with her husband, Nick, and wrote about the trip in You Can't Get There From Here, which comes out next month. But she saved her best tips for us.
Take time off from your companion(s)
It's better to go to separate corners before a fight happens. Even if you simply adore the person you're traveling with--be it your spouse, lover, or auntie Mame--give yourselves some breaks. Long breaks, if necessary. After a quarrelsome period in East Africa, Nick and I parted ways for a month while he explored Zambia and Botswana and I wandered through South Africa. When we reunited, we no longer wanted to strangle each other.
Trust Third World doctors
Your first visit to a local clinic can be nerve-racking, what with your mysterious malady and the doctor's oldfangled equipment. But local medics know a lot about native diseases (the majority of U.S. practitioners, after all, don't have much experience treating malaria, dengue fever, and other exotic ailments). When a worm took up residence in his big toe, Nick visited a doctor in rural Malawi who gave him medication that killed and dissolved the interloper. The visit and drugs cost all of a buck.
Skip the taxis
Hiring a cab is fine for jaunts around town, but employing a driver for long-distance trips often results in disaster. In the mountains of Yunnan Province, China, our driver crashed into a horse cart and we wound up in the local police station for the day. En route to Almaty, Kazakhstan, our crazy hack, Murat, almost ran out of gas--twice--and took several hours-long breaks, turning a 12-hour drive into a 22-hour ordeal. For long hauls, stick to public transport.
Don't stress over a quarter
In India, I would often get completely inflamed when negotiating with rickshaw drivers because I knew those rascals were overcharging. Just as I was about to pop, Nick would remind me that I was freaking out over a quarter. Bargaining is a fact of life in much of the world, and, as a foreigner, you will be a rip-off target. Haggle smart, but keep your perspective.
Give money, not cigarettes
Marlboros cost less on the streets of Beijing and Moscow than at the duty-free, so attempts to grease palms with smokes will not be well received. When a border guard in Kazakhstan solicited a "gift" from Nick and me, I offered up a pack of Reds, and we wound up detained for a few hours. Had I ponied up the cash he was looking for, we would've saved ourselves so much trouble.
Just eat it
When Doctor Bi, the Chinese pediatrician who enlisted my help in writing a book about curing cancer through learning English (don't ask), invited us to lunch, I was thrilled. Nothing beats an invitation to dine with a local. I was less thrilled when Bi presented Nick and me with a plate of fluorescent-green eggs, what looked like long strands of leather, and some shiny, fatty, truffley stuff. I made it through the meal by not asking what anything was and eating with an open mind. It would have been harder to do so had I known, as I was later informed, that I'd been lunching on animal fat and skin, pig's ears, and tripe.
Leave the drugstore at home
Why waste space and money by toting value packs of Tylenol or Cipro or doxycycline, when in big cities you can usually find cheap generic versions of common meds? Heck, in Bangkok you can readily stock up on everything from Valium to Viagra. A good rule of thumb: If a disease is endemic, you can usually find a medication to prevent or treat it (at a fraction of what you'd pay here, and usually sold over the counter). One big exception, ladies, is tampons. Although I found sanitary pads to be ubiquitous, tampons were another matter altogether. By packing a year's supply of those tiny O.B.'s--they didn't even fill a large Ziploc--I saved myself from many an emergency.
Build vacations into the vacation
Being the constant stranger in a strange land--navigating foreign geography, culture, language, and money on a daily basis--is wonderful but also grueling. You absolutely need time off from your traveling routine. If you're camping a lot, splurge now and again on a hotel. If you're racing through cities, as Nick and I did, hit the coast. We took quarterly lazy beach vacations, tanning ourselves in New Zealand, Thailand, and Tanzania.
Bring U.S. dollars
Though most travel guides warn against carrying them, sometimes only greenbacks will do. On the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, dollars are the currency of choice, not the Tanzanian shilling. Traveler's checks aren't widely accepted there, so we had to exchange U.S. traveler's checks for Tanzanian shillings and then turn around and exchange the shillings for dollars, losing about 15 percent of the value in the process. Take advantage of opportunities to stock up on cash (like in hard-currency-starved Cambodia, where banks will exchange traveler's checks denominated in dollars for their face value in American bills).
Know when to be brave
Sure, the world can be dangerous, and, yes, prudence is a good thing, but sometimes the State Department goes over the top with its travel warnings. Kenya and Nepal are both on the current no-go list, even though plenty of tourists happily visit these places. Of course, terrorism is always a consideration, but if that's the main criterion for warnings, New York City is as dangerous as New Delhi. We skipped a stop in Yemen as was advised, but ignored the warning about India, where we had a grand time and got great deals because other tourists were staying away.
Embrace local beauty rituals
Here's my big admission. I'm a fake redhead. I wanted to stay red on the road, but accidents happened, like in India when a hotel beauty salon left me with dark-brown hair that looked hideous. (And I didn't want to strip out the color and totally wreck my weary locks.) Eventually I flagged down an old pilgrim woman who had the perfect shade; she told me to use henna with coffee grounds. Not only did I manage to restore my hair to its rightful red, but I learned a great tidbit about local life. Of course, this strategy has risks: An elderly barber in Saigon gave Nick the classic GI buzz.
Try being nice to touts
"Psst, you wanna buy a rug? You need a good hotel? You want a tour?" In the developing world, touts are omnipresent and pesky. But bear in mind that they're poor, and, relatively speaking, you're rich, so of course they want to take advantage of your presence. Refusing is fine (and necessary, unless you're looking to purchase 200 carpets), but remember your humanity. I had a rough time with the onslaught of neediness in Cambodia: dozens of people begging, offering me rides or shoeshines or newspapers or tours. Ignoring them made me feel terrible, and they still hounded me. Once I started talking to them, I felt less harassed and often met the human behind the sales pitch.