50 Random Thoughts About Travel

house sitting dogs
Sometimes you get to meet the nicest animals when you are house sitting. That's Pepe on the left and his brother Fernando.

I was actually sitting around yesterday morning thinking. Yes, it happens some times. Of course, it doesn't do anyone else any good unless I somehow communicate those thoughts. “If only I had a machine for recording them, and if only I had a means to disseminate them,” I mused.

Oh wait…

Here they are. The numbers are completely arbitrary, as you will soon learn.

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Fifty travel rules (actually more guidelines) that I follow. I suppose you could call them tips.

1. Sometimes use a guidebook. Sometimes don’t. To all those people who say, “I want to see things that aren’t in the guidebook,” I say, “you’re fooling yourself.” First, that quaint place you ran across probably is in the guidebook, if the book is any good. Second, use the guidebook as a suggestion list, not a commandment. It’s not the Bible.

2. There’s a difference between traveling and changing positions. Taking an airplane flight is the latter. To achieve the former, I suggest, in order: trains, buses, bicycles, walking, standing, looking, listening, sniffing.

3. It’s ok to veg out in front of a television now and then, especially if you can find one broadcasting in English. If you can’t find English, I recommend watching sports in a bar with the locals. The more fútbol you watch, the bigger your vocabulary gets.

4. Eat in local restaurants, and, if you see something on another person’s table that looks good, ask them what it is. It’s a great way to strike up a conversation and improve your diet at the same time. If the waiter automatically hands you an English menu, think about changing restaurants. Unless, of course, you’re in Asia and you have no freaking idea what a local menu says.

5. Read books. It’s fun to try something written by a native of the country you're visiting, or that takes place in that country. I try to do that for every country we visit. Here are some books I like. And some more recommendations.

6. Get a Kindle, iPad, or some sort of tablet. See above. You can’t carry all the tomes you’d like with you.

7. Travel alone sometimes. Even if you are traveling with someone, take a day or two and go in separate directions. You need your own time to follow your own nose and think about what you’re seeing. If you’re with someone else, you just can’t always do that.

8. Study up on the history (or literature) of where you are going. We had a little lesson in that recently when we told an indigenous Mexican woman that we’d lived in Spain. Her response: “I hate Spain.” Think about why that might be true.

9. Don’t make too many plans. Inevitably, you will hear about something else you might want to see as you’re moving around. You don’t want to miss it just because you’re scheduled for a museum that day.

10. Take an organized tour now and then, especially if you can determine the guide has knowledge about the site, and can get you places you might not otherwise be able to get to. If while you are on the tour you want to wander off by yourself for a bit, go ahead. Just don’t get lost. Or go ahead and get lost. Unless you're in a wilderness.

11. Learn to say at least “please,” “thank you,” and “where is the bathroom?” in the language of every country you visit.

12. Eat street food, but be careful to eat what the locals are eating. If they’re not lined up to buy from that cart, you shouldn’t be either.

13. Make sure the water is boiling or the oil is bubbling at the food stand. See number 12 above.

14. Just because you’re determined to eat local doesn’t mean you have to eat bugs. If people ask you if you had the crickets on Khao San Road in Bangkok, you can always lie.

15. Learn to eat with your hands.

16. Wash your hands often.

17. If you just feel like having the burger and fries at a Hard Rock, that’s ok once in a while. Just don’t buy the t-shirt.

18. Learn to be comfortable stooping instead of sitting when it comes to toilets.

19. Carry Immodium, and, if you’re a woman, toilet paper. A dose of antibiotics you get from your travel clinic is not a bad idea either. Make your own first aid kit.

20. Wash your hands often. That bears repeating.

21. Nachos are not really Mexican food. Don’t eat them when in Mexico. They’re soggy with tomato sauce and terrible.

22. Margaritas are Mexican food, and they make them with real lime juice instead of a crappy mix like in the US. Order them often.

23. Don’t drink alcoholic drinks from unmarked bottles, especially in strange places. It might be antifreeze and you might end up blind–or worse.

24. Chicha, the local “beer” in Peru is an exception to the above. It tastes terrible, but if you want the authentic Inca experience, you should try it once. My advice is, when you pour some on the ground before you drink in the traditional offering to the Earth Mother, be generous with the Earth Mother.

25. Eat yogurt. It’s good for your guts.

26. Forget the Coca-Cola and drink the local fruit juice. It’s better.

27. Drink coffee. Every country's is different, and it doesn’t cost as much as Starbucks.

28. Pack light. Light quick drying clothes are best. You’re going to look out of place if you want to go to the opera, but what the hell. Also, you generally won't see the same people twice, so you can drop the whole “I need a varied wardrobe” concept.

29. If you’re in a spot where everyone around you is speaking English (and you’re not in England) pick a direction and walk for ten minutes in that direction. If you’re still hearing only English, you probably are in England.

30. Go to sports matches. Baseball in Mexico, soccer in Peru, jai alai in the Basque Country, kick boxing in Thailand. If you’re lucky, you might even end up in the owner’s box at the soccer match, as we did in Cusco.

31. Play street ball with the kids. Even if you suck at fútbol, they won’t care, and neither will you.

32. Some days, leave the camera at the hotel.

33. Don’t look at your phone unless you are alone in a bar, and there is no football on television. (OK, I break this rule a lot.)

34. Occasionally tell great big lies to somebody and see if you can get them to buy it. Don’t ever admit it.

35. Rent a car. Drive around outside of town and see what you run into.

36. At some places that look interesting, look around for a caretaker and ask to be let into a place you otherwise wouldn’t see. This has worked for me at a church in Mexico, a medieval gate in the walls of Toledo, at a famous Spanish cathedral (where we got into the crypt and treasury,) Roman ruins under an Italian restaurant, and, believe it or not, the Pope’s private chapel (OK, in that case, I knew someone.) Tip them generously.

37. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to someone’s home, always accept. Take flowers.

38. Don’t pet or tease stray animals. And stay away from monkeys. They steal whatever isn’t nailed down and they also bite.

Mona Lisa Louvre
When you go to the Louvre and you get to the Mona Lisa, actually look at it. Don't get in the line to take a picture of it. The original is better.

39. Go to the museums, big and little. There’s a reason why The Prado, The Uffizi, The Rijksmuseum, The British Museum, and The Louvre are famous. They’re great. Allow lots of time and do stop and stare for a long time at the best stuff. There are lots of little museums that definitely are worth it, too. One good painting or sculpture or piece of indigenous art can make your day.

40. For pure art “Wow!” it’s Italy. Spain is good, but Italy is better. The food is much better in Spain, however.

41. Carry a copy of your passport separate from your passport. Same goes for copies of credit cards. In fact, you might leave your passport at the hotel and carry the copy with you. (Check with the country you are in, though. Some police require the real thing to be produced on demand. For some, a copy is fine.)

42. If something really sucks, keep it to yourself. The time I most hate being a foreigner is when someone who is from my country, or one like it, is loudly declaiming, “The stuff in that store is complete crap,” where the store owner and all his family can hear it. “No, thank you,” works just fine. Try it. Even better: buy something now and then. It's not all crap.

43. Don’t ever argue with a foreign cop. There’s no percentage in it. Explaining is ok. Saying, “I’m sorry officer, I didn’t know,” is better.

44. Contrary to popular belief, not all foreign police are corrupt. But, if it comes to a bribe, try to let a local intercede for you. He’s more likely to know the proper amount anyway.

45. If you go to Vegas – and you should – stay Downtown, not on the Strip. I like the Golden Nugget, myself. Go to the best show you can find at the half price ticket booth. I like Penn and Teller and Shin Lim, but then I'm a sucker for magic.

46. Consider being a house sitter. We’ve done it a couple of times and it gives you a chance to really get to know an area and some regular people – and probably some animals.

47. Learn at least one other language well. That probably means living in another country for at least a year. You will be amazed at how much it opens you to another way of thinking.

48. Learn to use your camera. Wean yourself from the Auto setting. As much as possible, try to take pictures of people. They’ll usually let you if you smile at them.

49. Make a packing list. Update it as you realize you’re taking stuff you don’t need, or need stuff you don't have. I try to error on the side of “less is better.” If you absolutely have to have something you didn’t bring, chances are you can buy it.

50. Don’t get really drunk like you did when you were in college. It’s dangerous for many reasons. Trust me, I’ve seen things.

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30 thoughts on “50 Random Thoughts About Travel”

  1. Good tips, Tom. Some new to me, others heard, others worked out already. If I may add a couple…

    1) Toilet paper is to be carried by everyone, all the time.
    2) In Latin America, have some U.S. Dollar bills with you at all times (particular reco for crisp and pristine U$20 bills).
    3) Credit card good, letting card out of your sight bad. Eg, not even a hotel receptionist taking it back office for 10 seconds, it only takes a ready machine and a one second swipe to make holes in your bank balance unknown to you.
    4) A pair of good boots that will do for any situation from swanky restaurant to long hike. Own some.

  2. Otto, 3 is a particularly good one. Hadn’t really given that one a lot of thought since most places outside the US have little machines they bring to your table. I’d add 3a, which would be to cover your hand when you put in your PIN into a cash machine. As for 4, I always have dark colored trail shoes, which serve the same purpose. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wow. Great list! I like your tongue in cheek sense of humor. I would put sense of humor at the top of my packing list and I bet you do as well. My husband and I are just gearing up for some great retirement travel/expat living adventures so I’ll keep these in mind. You are obviously a seasoned adventurer. Thanks!

  4. Good tips. I would add that in Turkey I always carry one of those bath plugs that fits any size plug-hole. Makes the washing of small garments in cheap hôtels a whole lot easier.

  5. A sage list, but like all wisdom, it needs some amending; or maybe just a little softening.

    1. What’s wrong with eating bugs? In Oaxaca I wondered what those garlicky chewy things were in my salad until I examined them too closely. But I discovered grasshoppers can be tasty.
    2. If you’re going to India, men as well as women should carry toilet paper.
    3. In some locations, renting a car and driver is easier and probably cheaper than renting a car. And you get your own personal guide in the deal.
    4. When I went to India this winter, I carried with me a can of dog repellent (non-harming)after reading in the New York Times of wild packs of dogs roaming New Delhi. I never saw those packs, thankfully, though I saw a lot of dogs. As to petting, that too was something I thought I would never do, but then, as I was walking a street, 100 feet away from me a dog spotted me, began wagging its tail wildly, and ran to me. Friends do come easy for me, so I wasn’t going to reject this one, and I returned his affection. After walking with me for a few blocks, I knew I had to do something, and because India takes over your mind, I began to understand that the dog was actually an old friend of mine, reincarnated. I thought about it: it was Dave Ray. So I stopped at a restaurant, had them scramble a few eggs and fed it to Dave, who loved it, though the restaurant personnel thought I was crazy.

    • Steve. What’s wrong with eating bugs? Well, first off they’re bugs. Not sure I need to elaborate.
      Men carrying toilet paper, absolutely. I did on the Camino, although it’s not a staple in my day pack normally when I’m most places.
      Hiring a driver is definitely a good idea. We did it in Bali and Turkey. Were very pleased with the results.
      As for dogs, most of our experience with dogs running loose was in Ecuador. Haven’t had my rabies shots. Don’t intend to test out the theory of avoidance.
      I am so glad you met Dave Ray’s reincarnated self, although I should have thought Dave would have come back as a higher being than a dog…if there is such a thing.

  6. Finally! a practical list of tips that made me a) think, b) laugh, c) practice some squats for my travel toilet training.
    Glad you found me on the blue bird network, and glad I finally had time to surf around your blog!

  7. My husband and I have another rule: Always pack a good pair of earplugs. They are invaluable for letting you sleep in any Italian hotel without A/C and with noisy scooters driving past the open window all night.

  8. Wow, such fruitful travel suggestions! You point out and describe nicely as you’re experienced traveling throughout. The new comer must be benefited through reading this post. Have you ever been to Bangladesh? I hope you’ll like it http://bit.ly/1QdnTuq

    • we have not been to Bangladesh. I thought we would add it when we go to India, we hope next year. However, we’re going to Asia this fall. Perhaps we’ll add it in.


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