Lessons in Travel

I sent birthday wishes to a friend recently, so that gave us a welcome excuse to catch up (over text, of course). She’s enjoying grad school and her new city, and she’s got some exciting things coming up on the horizon.

One of these opportunities is the option of attending a conference in Ukraine.

(Note that it’s just “Ukraine” now, not “the Ukraine.” Its article was dropped after the USSR dissolved. It remains to be seen what happens to the “the” when Russia takes back over.)

She asked me — for the very reason I just mentioned — whether or not I thought it was safe to visit the country, which seems to be in a precarious political situation.

I told her to stop worrying. “OH, Crimea River!” I shouted.

(I’ll be here all week!)

In all seriousness, I had to stop and think before I responded to her text. The ambitious traveler that I am, I would probably jump at the chance to go. But my friend, while having traveled a wee bit through her years, hasn’t been across the big pond just yet. Also — and I don’t mean this in a sexist or condescending way — but I might be hesitant to advocate a female friend visiting an environment so notorious for civil rights abuses… not to mention a country with borders being disputed by what could be our most volatile “frienemy.”

It got me to thinking about my travels and the times I’ve felt like a fish out of water.

The first time I traveled outside the country for business on my own was a short trip to Hong Kong in 2004. It was in the middle of the US election, so it was a very interesting time to find myself on the other side of the world.

I couldn’t tell you anything about the leaders of Hong Kong or China, so it took me aback how interested, and even engaged the society was when it came to our election.

Despite the hyper-political climate, Hong Kong was relatively easy to navigate for a foreigner who spoke no Mandarin or any other flavor of Chinese. The British influence was very much still noticeable, and more people spoke English than you might think.

Not quite as many people as Singapore, but then again, Singapore was an anomaly. Its official language is English, so if you’re an American looking for an uber-westernized Asian culture, this is your best bet.

Just remember, though — even though the lionfish spit, that doesn’t mean you can. That and chewing gum could land you on the caning block.

By contrast, the most helpless I ever felt as a traveler was in Japan (on the way to Singapore), when in my itinerary-creating cuteness I decided to fly into Tokyo, and then travel by train to Nagoya, where I would continue on to Singapore. I was chasing the A380, a relatively new aircraft at the time. The opportunity to sit in the upper deck of that behemoth took me on a voyage from Tokyo Narita airport to Nagoya, which was one of the most unnerving foreign experiences I’ve ever had.

I realized quickly that when you don’t know the alphabet, much less the language, you’re especially screwed when you’re in a train station. Lesson learned: a couple of wrong trains and a $200+ taxi to the airport. Smartphones had already become quite popular, but they don’t do much good when you can’t use the network.

Perhaps the most frightened I’ve ever been overseas was during a trip to India a few years ago. I’d never been before, so I was more intrigued than anything.

Upon arrival at 4am in Mumbai (which is considered a normal time to land in India) and retrieval of my luggage, I was accosted by numerous people in the arrivals lobby about transfer and taxi vouchers. I always make a point to ignore all solicitors in arrivals lobbies — they’re either trying to screw you or kidnap you and steal your kidneys. Maybe it was my weariness in the middle of the night after a long flight, but I ended up purchasing a transit voucher to my hotel.

Upon walking outside, it felt like I was in the middle of an angry mob. It was pre-sunrise, so it was pitch black, and what felt like thousands of people were darting in all directions. A man came up beside me and physically grabbed my suitcase. I started to protest and yell at him, but he yelled right back at me, screaming at me to follow him. He had full custody of my bag, so I didn’t have much of a choice.

I followed him to what looked like a doom buggy, and he threw my suitcase on top of it, strapping it down with rope that looked like it could’ve been stolen off an Indiana Jones set. I protested again, but he ignored me until he was done with the rope. Then he and his friend started screaming at me.

I was sweating and cursing at this point, certain that I was about to get kidnapped. I finally realized after a few minutes that these guys wanted a tip. I dug around in my pocket and found some rupees my dad had given me before my trip. An American $5 bill was mixed in with the coins.

One of the men grabbed the $5, and the other one started shouting at me for more American money. It was the closest to feeling mugged that I’ve ever experienced. I eventually found another Washington or two, and then tapped the driver on the shoulder, who sped off.

I soon found myself wishing that I were still getting mugged. The driver sped through all intersections leading away from the airport without stopping or yielding or so much as looking at oncoming traffic. In his defense, there were no traffic signals or signs whatsoever, so we fended for ourselves as we sped through 4:30am rush hour in Mumbai. The “vehicle” was open air, so at least I could reach above my head and continuously secure my suitcase on top of the car.

Somehow we made it in one piece, and we didn’t strike any road cows we passed along the way.

The next day after my meetings, I took a taxi to the nicest hotel (NOT where I was staying) in Mumbai for some much-needed pampering — which in this case meant cocktails and a steak. Yes, I’m one of those people who orders a steak in India. And after tasting it, I’ve regretted it ever since.

On my way back, I had a two-day layover in Dubai, which is the Singapore of the Middle East. Just about any American I know, regardless of how cultured, could make it in Dubai (though, admittedly, not on a tight budget). I remember there being a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips — one of my guilty pleasures — waiting for me in my Dubai hotel room. I remember removing my clothes, cranking up the air conditioner and cracking open that bag, wallowing in my luxury after roughing it in India for five days.

In all honesty, I’d like to give India another try now that I know what to expect. That initial visit to anywhere is often wasted on culture shock and learning curves — especially when you’re traveling alone.

I must say, though that I’ve been lucky in my wanderlust. I’ve had my insulin stolen in Manila, I’ve had prostitutes ordered for me (which I refused) in Beijing, I’ve lost my credit cards in Munich, and I’ve had a physical fight with a hotel room intruder in Amsterdam. (That deserves its own story someday.) But in no situation — aside from that Mumbai taxi, maybe — did I think my life was in danger.

My dad has some more dangerous traveling experiences, including being transported in an armored car though rioting mobs in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and trying to maintain a low profile as the only western-looking person on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan. Those are always his go-to scary travel stories. Luckily he stopped going to Karachi after the windows of his preferred hotel were blown out by a suicide bomber the last time he was supposed to be there. Thankfully, he canceled that trip at the last minute.

Thanks in part to my own personal luck, I have more of a cavalier approach to travel. Perhaps naively, I feel like there’s not much I can’t get through with steadfast determination and a little broken Spanish.

However, I’m starting to think that attitude might soon be considered outdated. With changing political climates and attitudes toward global travel, perhaps flying by the seat of your pants from country to country might not be the smartest game plan. We’ve already tried to ban travelers based on religion (shrouded in a “country-specific” plan), and this includes permanent, legal residents.

What happens when we go a step further and start banning people based on the stamps in their passport? Many Middle Eastern countries already do this — if you’ve got an Israel stamp, regardless of who you are, you’re getting right back on that plane (after a suitable level of harassment, of course). With the EU now considering enacting travel restrictions on US citizens — including requiring them to obtain visas — I’m not sure I would hop a flight right now, especially not without some intense deliberation first.

So in reliving some of my travel trials, tribulations & trivialities this morning, I’m strangely compelled to avoid telling my travel-weary friend to get her butt on a plane to Kiev. Whether you agree with the current administration or not, you have to agree that it’s a bit turbulent. While said turbulence hasn’t affected global economies just yet, it stands to be a bit more serious than any other temporary turbulence you might face midair. If Vlad elects to try to annex Ukraine just before or while she’s traveling, I’m not confident at all that our current government would take diplomatic steps to ensure the safety of Americans traveling in that part of the world. After all, when asked about Putie’s history of killing people, our president retorted, “We’ve got killers, too!”

I suppose he’s right, but these aren’t the types of remarks that encourage or facilitate tourism. I flew hundreds of thousands of miles right after 9/11 in a world that was weary of Americans and our president. I took a huge sigh of relief when George W. left office, thinking that it’d never be that bad again. It seems I was mistaken.

As the Doctor likes to say, there are plenty of fine places here in the homeland we’ve yet to see. This doesn’t sound like me at all, but I’m inclined to err on the side of caution when considering ambitious overseas travel plans these days. That doesn’t mean you should, too, but you should at least make sure your ducks are in a row, carefully weighing your risks against your rewards. Look up ground transportation options at each airport you travel through, and make sure you can at least anticipate what you’ll have to do.

Because if I can make one definitive statement, nobody likes a surprise “covered” doom buggy in the wee hours of the morning in Mumbai. If you navigate away from this page and retain one thing you read here, please let this be it.