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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Top 5 destination essentials

So, you're going away and you're going it alone? I've convinced you to forget about the guide. You're definitely not doing a tour, because they're no good for you either. Okay, well, highly specialized tours are excepted. So let me dream for a moment: a musical journey through South America with David Byrne, a Middle East trip with Robert Fisk, a round-the-world-in-80-meals tour* with Anthony Bourdain, a global surfing safari with Kelly Slater (that last one is Terry's choice). Dream on.** So, how do you cope once you get to the destination? How do you find your way around, order meals, quickly get acquainted with a place? What are the destination essentials you need to take to guide you when you're there? And note that you should buy them before you leave home because they won't always be available when you arrive. Let's go for a top 5:
1) a phrase book - never, and I mean NEVER, go anywhere where English isn't the official language without a phrase book. Even if your guidebook tells you everyone speaks English. Think about it: how would you feel if someone came up to you in your hometown and started speaking another language? My guess is you probably wouldn't like it. If they at least began with a mis-pronounced and stilted "hello - how- are - you? - do - you - speak - Swahili? - No? - Ok.." you'd be more patient when they started miming. There's no excuse for not learning the ten travel language basics*** on the plane. And if you're travelling with a loved-one, the drinks are free and it's a long flight, it's even fun.
2) a dictionary - a phrase book is never enough. They're generally not very well thought-out and never, and I do mean NEVER, include the right phrases for the right moments, especially in emergencies. Like when you need to say to the Turkish-speaking vet: "The stray cat we've adopted has worms" and "Will the four kittens she has had on our terrace also get worms?"*
3) a good map - don't expect that the airport/hotel/tourist office/book stores at the destination you're visiting will have good maps. They almost always don't. Try to get a map that's as detailed as possible (compare it with maps available online) and one that has place names in English and in the language of the country you're heading to. If you're planning on hiring a car and driving at all, you'll need it.
4) a guidebook - even if you've booked all your accommodation online and organized transport, a guidebook still comes in handy. Don't treat it like your bible though; it's a guide, that's all it is.
Leave it in the hotel room sometimes. But guidebooks make a great starting point. (More on choosing guidebooks and what to look for in a future post.)
a spare mobile phone - make sure it allows you to pop a local SIM card in and make that one of the first things you buy when you arrive. Load it up with lots of credit. So, who are you going to call? For starters, instead of heading to the first touristy restaurant you see on the square, you're going to do what the locals do and call a good restaurant ahead of time to make a booking... but let's save that - doing what the locals do - for another post.

* Only to casual beach-side places where you can eat with sand between your toes of course.
** More on our dream trips in another post.
*** Let's save these for another post too.
**** I'll save that post for another time also. Or maybe you don't need to know that story.


Travellerblogue said...

A great series of posts on guides and self-guiding - you have it spot on. I must admit, though, on those rare occasions when I've grudgingly found a specialist guide, I have been the better for it. A recent example: someone to identify and explain the flora and fauna of the Amazon.

Lara Dunston said...

Thanks! And thanks for commenting. I totally agree with you that specialist guides can enrich the experience, especially when it's something like flora and fauna in the Amazon. Essential!

I also had a guide once in the Amazon and he was amazing - on one part of the trip we spent 3 days doing walks through the jungle discovering what all the plants were (and how deadly some were!) but also the medicinal qualities and everyday uses and it was eye-opening.

On a recent 3-day trek in Thailand, however, our guide would simply point at something and say "don't touch - poison!" and I'd ask him the name and he'd have no idea. Yet he does this trek every week. And supposedly has university qualifications, so he's perfectly capable of doing research to find out the names of those plants. And this is the thing that irks me.

We had one indigenous guide in Australia who really enlightened and inspired us. As did another guide in Thailand. Both of which I should post about, shouldn't I? And then I should put a call out for good guiding experiences perhaps?

But on the whole I find that guides are just not as good as they should be - especially a lot of the personal guides I see couples hiring (whose conversations I eavesdrop into!) in cities in countries like Syria and Turkey. I think they think they need them as it's all going to be too much for them to deal with if they don't get one. But I think a lot of the time they find they didn't one. Learning to tell the difference is essential I think, don't you?

I especially hate to see people so distracted by guides and not soaking up the atmosphere, as I've said, but I also hate to see guides ordering lunch for them in Arabic (or whatever) - if they're going to do that at least teach them a few words. Figuring stuff out for yourself is part of the fun and satisfaction of travelling! Don't you think?

Travellerblogue said...

Agree completely - and great post on learning the basics on the plane. Using "thank you very much" in the local language as often as possible is probably the single thing that improves a trip for me. I've also found a great way to meet locals is to ask how to pronounce certain phrases (this is especially true as a woman, as I've found this kind of request isn't seen as too forward).

Lara Dunston said...

Travellerblogue, I'm glad you agree. I still get a thrill - after years of living in the Middle East - when an old man or woman, especially, smile at my "Salaam Aleikum"... they still don't expect foreigners to speak any Arabic, which is kind of sad really. But I love seeing those smiles.

Sarah, thanks! But I'm sure Bourdain help find you some vegan options wherever we are. He's such a cool guy isn't - so passionate about food! I love anyone whose favorite place to eat is barefoot on a beach with sand between their toes. I think I feel a post coming on... :)

Thanks to both of you for your comments!