The 5 secrets to blissful travel

I know a couple of guys who just wing it. One took his bride on honeymoon to Mexico City. His preparation – buy the air tickets, pack, go. Another one went to Venezuela and then traveled down to Rio de Janeiro, taking only the essentials: a hammock, a mask and snorkel, and – as he might be on a public beach- trunks. And, yes, they had a great time although apparently, the New Year fireworks on Copacabana Beach were nothing to write home about. The Rio’s mayor answered disgruntled mutters from the Carioca by magnanimously staking his political career on making a real show next year. Real commitment politics.

Tambaba - João Pessoa - Paraíba by Marinelson Almeida - Traveling through Brazil

Tambaba – João Pessoa – Paraíba by Marinelson Almeida – Traveling through Brazil

However, there is a good reason why these guys can get away such insouciance. They are experienced travelers but more importantly, they speak Spanish fluently. I’m not sure how Carl coped in Brazilian Portuguese but he didn’t mention any problems. So in a way, they had spent many years preparing for this journey.

I can do similar things in many European countries and now Japan, but over the years I have a definite method to traveling which I have crystallized into 5 easy steps, the first of which is,

1. Go somewhere and stay there

Airline adverts give it away: The actual business of traveling sucks. You wind up work for a week or two, pack the bags, close down the house, muster any children, get to the airport, get through the airport to the plane; find your seat(s), watch the safety briefing for the umpteenth time, bump and waggle awhile; eventually have to use the tiny, toxic toilet (Ooh Pooh!); join the scrum to deplane; get through baggage claims, customs and immigration, and finally out into the open air; then find a taxi, get to the hotel, check in, get to the room and unpack. Easy peasy?

Vitesse au Sol 842km/h by Caribb

Vitesse au Sol 842km/h by Caribb

Carl ended up on his first day in Venezuela, chilling in his hammock hung in the garden of a restaurant perched on a perfect beach. Not too shabby, but you might like to a give a bit more thought to it.

First of all though, what is the point of the upheaval-cum-holiday? Perhaps, something to append to “chill and”. May I suggest “hang out with the kids” or “rekindle a bit of passion with the wife/husband”. We are all so weary of goals, goal setting and this is not it: It is a couple of minutes of wishful thinking. Perhaps this time you’ll do exactly what worked the last time – a good option -: Perhaps you will plump for something new. Why not be outrageous! My bucket list includes a cooking and language class near Firenze. Do you love animals? How about looking after elephants in Thailand? Perhaps you’ll like to meet girls/boys? Take in a meditation course in the Sierras.  Feeling jaded? Wild Fitness will fix that.

If the holiday comes with planned activities you’re done. Otherwise, you may need to flesh out your days with trips: museums, shopping, bars.  Then get in mood with a few films: going to Thailand, watch “The Beach”, going to London try “Notting Hill”, and as for Brazil,

[“Oba, lá vem ela” from Personalidade by Jorge Ben. Released: 1991. Track 4. Genre: Samba.]

The nice thing about this stage is – it can be delegated. In many, nay most, situations it should be.

2. Any fool can be uncomfortable

is a phrase from my second Aikido teacher. I believe that it is British Army advice on building a bivouac.  A little careful preparation will avoid a sleepless night either due to water running down the back of your neck or the enthusiastic sounds from the honeymooners next door.

Now the dreaded getting-there. Ideally you can go all the way there by train but usually, there’ll be an airplane involved. We’ve found the deals on Expedia to be the cheapest and best. Choose an airline with a modern fleet. Our worst flight was on United Airlines in a crusty old 747 and the best was Singapore Airlines in a brand new A345. This distinction seems to affect the quality of the food, the films, and the flight crew.

I like to travel during the late afternoon or evening. Airports are less crowded, almost sleepy. When I worked in Picardy and had finally figured this out, I drove to the terminal, unloaded my luggage (which all has little wheels) and gave the car to the car service guy; collected the e-ticket; wandered through check in, security and customs which had minimal queues; browsed in duty free, and bought a single malt to be collected on my return; ate smoked salmon and soft brown bread and butter downed with a glass of Chablis; rolled on and off the Air France plane with no fuss, luxuriating in French language awhile; collected my luggage immediately, and the rental car; drove to St. Quentin just in time for a café et cognac and a good night’s sleep. Pas mal!

If the delay between flights is more than an hour, it’s quite pleasant to shell out the thirty bucks and use a business lounge. It’s quiet, the seats are comfortable and snacks and drinks are on offer.

Fuji San

Fuji San

Also bear in mind that you may have to endure an obstacle race through the connecting airport, which may include racing from the long-range terminal to the local flight terminal and your departure gate, via shuttle trains, baggage claim, escalators, travelators, buses, baggage check-in, and miles and miles of neon lit corridors.

Your destination country may have a visitor’s visa which you can usually buy at the airport although a few, e.g. China, need your passport and a bit of cash before you go. Most travel agents have a service for this, for a price. I took the train up to Shinjuku and did it myself.

You could also keep a weather eye on the local politics but remember the media does like to dramatize riots and the like.

It’s also a good idea to have the required immunization and be prepared for local health hazards. Take lots of sun block.

I also recommend that you learn a few words of the local language – “Please”, “Thank you”, that kind of thing. These days you can get the basics from a podcast; good ones can be found at www.languagepod101.com. My wife reckons that she knows how to say, “Where is the toilet?” in more than thirty languages.

3. Shit happens

Susie in Zushi

Susie in Zushi

It does but not as often as we deserve. On our way home from Greece, we were camped in Athens airport overnight awaiting a very early morning flight and witnessed the cavalcade of fellow travelers taking their charted flight home. One fellow happily pissed (in a British sense) and sporting a bright red nose, cheerily chatted to a guard while his wife beckoned. On the third time, she screeched, “Bloody well come here, Alf.” Another younger couple pushed a trolley of cases towards departures, when the fellow, passed out and slid to the floor, right in front of Alf. The girl, poor little thing, tugged and beseeched her young man to awaken; finally, she then burst into tears on which the oaf floated up to consciousness, clambered up his trolley and the pair disappeared into customs. Other than your fellow travelers, modern medicine and a good line of credit will see off most problems.

Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

Photo by Redd Angelo on Unsplash

The obstacles on the way are designed to please the bureaucrats whose priorities do not include your welfare so their thoughtlessness has many opportunities to enrage you. Do not let them. Many glitches are predictable and can be avoided. Others give an opportunity for a little creativity. I travel with pens and paper which I give to bored children to scribble on; so quiet, contented children instead of noisy, grumpy ones. My wife hates flying so I invested in a magic rope trick which I performed à la Tommy Cooper in the check-in queue at Frankfurt. It was a great success especially with the child accompanying his father who was next in line.

The worst misfortunes, illness and crime, are on the whole rare. As one ages the probability of illness does increase, and this should be taken into account when arranging insurances and the like. Insurers are happiest when taking their premiums and like to keep you in the dark as to how mean they will become should you have the temerity to ask them for money. I had a camera stolen in Prague and got the normal police response – here’s a two-line report and thank you for your contribution to our economy. The insurers wanted lots of other things including the original receipt which of course I didn’t have. So I would do a dry claim run just to see what you’ll be asked for.

4. People are on the whole nice

Naughty Smile from Ravangla by By Sukanto Debnath

Naughty Smile from Ravangla by By Sukanto Debnath

On the whole people are nice. They will help out where they can and, sometimes, they will try quite hard to fix whatever is the problem.

After university, I took my girlfriend traveling through Iran, Turkey, and Greece. We had arrived at the bus depot in Shiraz in Southern Iran. It was hot, dusty and exceedingly different/foreign. I knew there was a camp site in the city but where? Neither Alison or I could read the Arabic script. Our plight dawned on me as we made our way out of the depot and to a nearby roundabout. Looking forlorn, lost but quite cute I shouted, “Does anyone speak English?” Soon we had a small crowd trying to communicate to us. They found a fellow who spoke German. After a few more trials the crowd located two beautiful groomed fellows who spoke excellent English who took us under their wing. The first stop was through the bazaar into a little courtyard where a fountain was playing and into an Arabian Night café and our first Sherbot (Persian lemonade). We found the camp site, next day. The guys, who I suppose were boyfriends, came from Basra in Iraq and I’ve always wondered how they fared in the subsequent revolution and wars.

These days, I’m a little more worldly wise and like to branch out into the world beyond the hotel doors. During the several trips to Thailand, I have taken a few lessons in the Thai language, done a wonderful cooking class at the Oriental, and of course, have had oodles of massages.

5. Make an album

Thai Album

Thai Album

I like to buy a picture album on the journey and fill it pictures, maps, ticket stubs, menus, money instead of just dumping the thousands of ill-considered snaps on Facebook, Flickr or some such, which is bound to bore the pants of friends and acquaintances. An album can be a minor work of art requiring careful consideration of which pictures best reflect your experience, how their order might tell a tale, how found objects are sewn between the images, what if anything should be written. It is a tactile remembrance of a time now passed. It is also a wonderful team project.

I started doing this on a visit to Thailand where I bought an album made of ‘100% elephant dung.’ When I took to work at a Japanese school where I taught English, I had immense fun asking the kids what they thought the album was made from, taking a deep sniff and offering it to a boy so he could too, and theatrically explain the words ‘100% elephant dung’ on its cover.

India Album

India Album

I have others but my prize is the leather one from India. Come to the kasbah, and see my wares, effendi!

So there you are: 5 tips to master the art of traveling slowly, enjoyably, tenderly, wittily.

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Featured Image: Photo by Agustín Diaz on Unsplash

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