Tips for the solitary traveler

In our highly structured and relatively dangerous world, spontaneous adventures for solitary travelers are generally regarded with fear, confusion, or disbelief.

Fear: “Why would you DO that?!”
Confusion: “WHY would you do that?!”
Disbelief: “Why would YOU do THAT?!”

Naysayers may sometimes be wise people, so don’t throw them off entirely.  Still, don’t let them get too far under your skin.  Remember that the world is big and there is much to explore, experience, and understand.  Think of Ibn Battuta, Saint Brendan, Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark, Captain Cook – pick your role model and know this: when you go, you may know what you want but you won’t know what you’re going to get.  It doesn’t actually matter if you’re going upstate, down river, or overseas.  To make it there and back and still enjoy the ride, here are a handful of tips for the would-be modern adventurer.

1) A leopard in scuba gear will never be taken for a tuna fish.

When looking to blend in, go where it’s possible.  If you are the solitary chick in a sea of Arab men who are high on sports, you will be noticed, even if you are cheering for the right team in your djellaba and headscarf.  If you are a wandering, white artiste looking for a lonely, creative retreat and you find yourself heading to Zanzibar, stop and check a mirror.  A stiff dose of reality is good for the blood – like a malaria prophylactic.  When the Zanzibari “immigration officer” pulls you out of the stream of humanity descending from the ferry and tells you to fill out a form for a stamp in your passport, you won’t even ask how he can tell the difference between a Kenyan, a Ugandan, a Tanzanian, and you.  When that pesky buzz of beach boys, tour guides, boat operators, vendors, and taxi drivers descends on your every street-wise step, you will send them on their way with grace.  No slapping, no drawing of blood on either side.  You do not and will not ever blend in.  Embrace it or go elsewhere.

2) What lovely spots you’re wearing, Tigger.

Check your branding.  If you wear a “Property of the LIONS” sports t-shirt in the Detroit airport during a losing season (which is, apparently, often), expect lots of questions.  You will have to explain to every security guard and ticketing agent that the t-shirt actually says the “ISK LIONS” and that you in fact live in Kenya and that you don’t really know anything about the Detroit Lions.  If you are on a Tanzanian ferry but are actually from Belgium and happen to be traveling south along the eastern side of Africa until you reach Cape Town, you can be sure that the bright red Turkish-flag t-shirt is what started the conversation that gave you away.  Branding begs questions.  And questions will blow your anonymity factor to pieces.  Unless of course you are actually looking to “network” with the Israeli businessman who happens to work with a multinational telecommunications company and who was just in Turkey last week.  “Here, take my card.  I’ll be in Cape Town next month.”

3)  What’s in YOUR wallet?  No … your other wallet.  

Money greases the wheels of the world.  Obviously, if you are planning to strike out in any direction, make sure you have enough to get where you’re going and home again.  That shouldn’t even need to be said.  So what is really important?  Keep more than one kind of grease in your pocket, your luggage, and the sole of your shoe.  You don’t need a small fortune in cash.  (Who wants that kind of stress?)  It just needs to be in three or more different forms: local currency, major international currency/ies, and plastic.  Two kinds of plastic are better than one, and both should be cleared for travel.  That way, when it’s two in the morning and you’re standing at the train station trying to go to the airport, when the automatic ticket machine rejects your plastic and there are no ticket tellers anywhere in sight, when the train doesn’t show up and the voice on the other end of the service phone tells you its been canceled, THEN … at the very least … you can flag the lonely cab or random civilian and hand him hard cash of some value.  Even if it is twice the price of a train ride or normal cab, you have at least not missed your flight waiting sleeplessly on a cold, damp bench for the first-shift ticket teller to show up.

4) A little more like Livingston, a little less like Stanley. 

The famous explorer David Livingston was well known for traveling light.  It served him well – he survived longer, saw more sights, and made more friends than most all the other European explorers to Africa of his generation.  Take what you can carry and carry what you take.  When you have an unexpected layover in Paris and the thought of fourteen hours in CDG brings tears of pain and grief to your eyes, when the unsought moment to sip coffee on the Seine and stroll through the Latin Quarter taps on the window of passport control, you will not want that satchel, and guitar, and the thirty-pound rolly-bag with the wobbly wheel.  You’ll work up a sweat before you’ve caught the first metro.  You’ll knock things over in the tiny shops you attempt to explore.  You’ll take up an entire table at the cafe and people will have to step around your stuff.  The eye-rolls will say it all: “Crazy tourist.  Where is she going anyway?”

5) Go, Go Gadget Snack-Pack Pillow-Jacket!

Every wait and every detour has a finite end.  In this natural world, there will always be a flip to the coin, an up to the down, and a cool to the heat.  There is nothing that cannot be endured, and patience is always rewarded.  It just gets exponentially more difficult to wait when you’re tired.  Ghoulishly so when you’re tired and hungry.  But tired, hungry, thirsty and cold?  The planet might actually come loose and crash into the sun.  So, to keep it spinning on the right orbit, pack smart.  This does not mean heavy — being prepared and packing light are not mutually exclusive.  Packing smart means packing multipurpose.  The wrap skirt that sometimes doubles as a towel can be a pillow when you’re dozing on the terminal floor waiting for the 5am flight that was delayed until 10.  If you make your bag the pillow, the skirt/towel can become a blanket.  Also, somewhere in that pillow/bag, pack a snack.  A little something will always fit in a corner of whatever you’re carrying.  The nuts and two crackers that you saved from last week’s flight might make the perfect emergency breakfast when you have to leave your hotel before dawn to catch the early ferry only to discover that the boat will be four hours delayed, the street vendors won’t show up for two or three hours, and you’re out of cash anyway.

So there you go.  Five tips for the road.  Marco move over!

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