My daughter is setting off on her semester abroad in college. She chose not to go on a college-sponsored program in some sunny and warm spot, where she might be surrounded by other American college students. Instead, she chose to enroll in a university in the chilly, damp and often gloomy U.K., to follow her passion, costume design for the theatre. Needless to say, I am very proud of her adventurous spirit.
People much smarter than I write extensively about how to get cheap airfares, good hotels and great meals, so I will skip that. Instead, I want to share, for readers and for my daughter, a few of the lessons I have learned on the art and science of traveling.
ALWAYS keep some money, ideally small bill, in your shirt pocket, pants pocket, outside of your purse, etc. Yes, opening a purse or wallet in a public place is never smart, but in my experience it is not thieves that I need to worry about, but my own stupidity in terms of dropping my wallet, credit cards, etc.
PICKPOCKETS and bag thieves do exist, but I have had very good luck, so far, in not falling victim. I try hard NOT to look at the ground as I walk, or to be zoned out listening to music or to be distracted by my smart phone. I use the phone and listen to the music, but I also have an eye and ear out for what is around me.
ZONING out is fine in situations where the risks are low. On airplanes, on trains or buses that are moving between stations, etc., that is when I check out mentally. When the train or bus comes into a station, I come back into the real world and watch. A part of me is watching in terms of safety, but most of me is enjoying the tableaux that unfold in front of me on the platforms of the bus and train stations.
SITUATIONAL AWARENESS is something I work on, paying attention to what is happening around me. If I am in a crowd and I am not happy with what is going on, with my own mental state or with someone near me, I will routinely head for a wall, stop, gather my thoughts and let the flow of humanity keep moving.
VOLUNTARILY GIVING UP SITUATIONAL AWARENESS is rarely a wise move, yet that is what many people do when they go out drinking. My wife jokes that the reason she married me is that I am her permanent designated driver, since I do not drink. In college, I was regularly the sober buddy that my peers who were indulging depended upon. Certain places may seem safe, but I use an escalating series of clues, mostly from the people around me, whether to to let down my guard.
EYE CONTACT is probably the most powerful safety protection tool I have. I am always making eye contact with people I encounter. It tells the “bad guys” that I am paying attention to them and they should target someone else. The “good guys” smile and we both are happier for having had the shared moment. I occasionally feel the need to stare “through” people rather than at them, meaning my underlying attitude is very serious, even harsh and that comes through in my look when we make eye contact.
EACH PERSON I encounter who works for me, as in selling me coffee, taking my bus ticket or giving me directions is someone I try to look at in the eye and someone I try to talk with, if briefly, to acknowledge their humanity. Most of the time the recipients of my attention appreciate the acknowledgement.
THE IDEA OF A VIBE, whether a person, place or thing, was an idea that took me a long time to get. When I am not sure, I certainly “trust my instinct” but I also pay attention to an escalating series of clues. The best example of this was on a train in Morocco recently. There a man was starting to chat with me and then offering me snacks. I noted that he did the same thing with everyone who entered or left the train compartment, which I found reassuring. Had he only focused on the women or the foreigners (like me) I would have been more suspicious. I ate the snacks he offered and he ate some of the ones I offered him in return (and we both lived.:)
JUDGING people is an art not a science. Having not showered can be a political statement about consumption in some subcultures or a sign of more serious trouble in others. Occasionally, I will change seats, stand rather than sit or change train compartments if I am uncomfortable. As a man, I know that I am at a slight advantage here.
FOLLOWING the leads of others around you is wise in many situations. A train compartment full of people is safer than one with only one person. Another example of that is when I am out at night, working (or even just walking.) When I am in an area with hundreds of other people I usually feel pretty safe. When that same area suddenly empties out, I usually leave.
DRESSING appropriately is obviously important, as in women not showing too much skin in more traditional cultures, such as India. Stereotyping of women based on dress, is a real thing, even if we think of it as simplistic or even wrong. So, a little caution goes a long way. Even in Europe, I tend to dress rather boringly. My near-uniform of khaki trousers and cotton button front shirts is usually formal enough to let people know I respect them enough not to wear jeans, but it is also casual enough for me to comfortable when I am working.
CULTURAL CLUES are important things to pay attention to no matter where you are going. Because many women in more traditional cultures will not shake hands with men, I usually wait for any woman I am meeting to put her hand out in greeting. This is true even among women who live in the West.
GREETINGS in different cultures are quite significant on many levels. The Western practice of shaking hands is said to have originated with the idea of showing the person you are meeting that your hands are empty, that you do not have a weapon to threaten them. The pan-Asian greeting of two palms pressed together in front of one’s chest is so much more welcoming (and it solves the cross-gender contact issue.) My personal favorite is a greeting common in much of the Muslim world, where I touch my chest and then gesture towards my guest suggesting that what I am saying is coming from my heart.
CULTURAL SENSITIVITY can also be practical. The classic example of this is the fact that I wear slip on shoes most of the time. They solve the problem of removing my shoes easily when I enter an Indian household. It also solves the problem of getting wet and dirty shoes off my feet easily in miserable winter weather. Finally, it serves me well as I go through security checkpoints at airports.
LOGISTICS do matter. A simple example of this is to always know the last train/bus home from wherever you are to wherever you need to go. I learned this one the hard way when I had to spend a night trying to “sleep standing up” inside a phone booth in the Isle of Skye in Scotland. I had arrived too late to make the last connecting bus to my final destination and I had too little money to afford a hotel room. So, now I compulsively check the last train/bus anytime I am traveling, even if there is NO chance I will push my luck and stay late.
DESPITE my inclination to throw stuff back into my bag, whether my back pack or my rolling bag, I say to myself, “stick with the plan since the plan has saved your ass many times.” Then, I pause and I put things back in an orderly fashion, in the place where they belong and in a way I can visually account for everything. I do this calmly rather than getting agitated. I risk a few glaring stares from people behind me but …..
GETTING AGITATED is something I try very, very hard not to do. The few times I have ever had a problem or lost something, invariably involved my getting distracted then agitated, then bang, I have screwed up. I want to get off the average airplane, bus or train as fast as the next passenger, but if I am not ready, I will stay in my row, gather myself and let others go first.
ANTICIPATING unfolding events can prevent those same unpleasant glares. Before boarding a plane or a train or a bus, I go to a quiet(er) corner, figure out what I am going to need and move that from the rolling bag to the back pack. The art of this step is never putting anything on the floor or on a nearby chair. Again, the issue is less safety than it is the risk of forgetting to put that stuff back.
ONE place where I do have a high level of paranoia is on buses. I prefer to sit by a window, over the luggage door so I can watch the luggage go in and out of the bus. I have never had a bag stolen, but the way bags go in and out of buses so quickly and with no one checking ownership, that leads me to worry.
RESPECT for elders is karmic. I often give my seat to older people, pregnant women, etc. when traveling on on public transit. The irony is that I have been doing this for so long that, as I age, young people now occasionally offer me their seats. I think to myself, when that happens, that “those youngsters had parents who raised them right.”
KARMA follows each of us wherever we go. I recently gave up an aisle seat on a train so a couple could sit together rather than being stuck four rows apart. I have complete faith the universe will pay me back for that good deed in the future.
DIFFERENCES are half the fun of traveling, so I try not to let my worst fears drive my decision making. If I wanted to be perfectly safe I would never travel. If I never traveled my life would not be half as rich. So far, it has been worth the risk.