Friday, 15 June 2012

How to take travel advice with a grain of salt

I recently saw a list of easy ways to be a good traveler posted on National Geographic’s website. While Nat Geo probably has some vetting process, meaning this dude’s advice may be a modicum more accurate than mine, I have concrete evidence that he’s pulling your leg.

Advice point #1: “Stop acting like you know. Taxi drivers and bartenders are your consiglieres, your guides. Don’t tell them where you want to go; ask them to point you where you should be. This also applies at restaurants. I gave up menus...simply ask the experts (i.e. people who work there) what you should be eating.”

Really? I guess you haven’t been where I have. I used this tactic in La Ceiba, Honduras, a somewhat sketchy port city. Having arrived at night without a guidebook, I simply asked my taxi driver to take me and my abundant load of coral-drilling gear to a hotel. He then took me to two “hotels” – the first so frightening that I though I might get shanked just looking at the room, and the second only slightly better (the single window faced indoors to the hallway; but at least there were bars on it to protect me from the proprietors). The upside was that it cost less than $10 for the night, and I had the choice of two single beds, one of which did not have rodent poop on it.

And while it sounds very romantic not to order from the menu, be careful where you do this. There are some local delicacies western palates are just not ready for (follow this link if you dare) . I haven’t been served monkey brains, but my father-in-law has (one thing you should always turn down..also spleen, it appears). Even in the western world, you may end up eating something un-delicious so as not to offend the restaurateur whose advice you took, as in Portugal where we ended up having to eat slimy, off-putting salt cod—twice.  

But I suppose asking for local advice may have prevented me from checking my husband and I into a brothel for the night in Panama…

Feel up for some Octopus jerky? Mmmm.
Advice point #7: “Take chances with conversations.

Sure, go ahead and chit-chat with your fellow bus-rider. But if you are in a place frequented by missionaries (like, anywhere in the “third world”), be ready to discuss the finer points of Christianity as well as how many children you have. If the answer is zero, and you are mildly attractive, be prepared for your conversation partner to offer up a family member willing to impregnate you.

Advice point #9: “Take people up on their offers. When someone invites you over to their house, or out to dinner, or on a tour — take them up on it.”

Find out what the offer actually is, first. A one-hour ride in a pickup truck is less fun when you are in the back.
But be ready for some real awkwardness, if you do. When a friend and I traveled to Spain and France, we took this advice to heart. We stayed in the miniature apartment of a friend of a friend of my boyfriend-later-husband, a thirty-something professional dude who really did not have any interest in two college girls sleeping on his couch when he was trying to woo some ladies home from the bar that night. But Paris is expensive, and he suggested the next morning we get out of his apartment and go to the Sacre-Coeur, which was rather breathtaking.

We were quite glad to take up my dad’s coworker’s sister on her offer to call if we ran into trouble in Barcelona, when we arrived at 2 am to find our hotel had given away our room and the entire city was booked out for the holiday weekend. The awesomeness of Spaniards? They had just arrived home from dinner when we called. And they let us sleep until noon, and then fed us Sunday lunch with the entire extended family.

This welcoming attitude is in complete contrast to that of two American girls we encountered before calling the sister—explaining our situation, and asking to crash on their floor, they suggested instead we sleep at the train station. Way to look out for each other, ladies.

So, there you go. You may have better luck than I have following this advice for an authentic travel experience. Or you may end up eating a cup of butter because you didn’t know what it was and having a discussion about dairy farming via charades. But I guess that’s what makes for fun memories.


  1. I'm not a big reader of blogs, but I like your posts. Your response to Advice point #1 made me laugh out loud. I remember my father adhering pretty closely most of these advice points on our family vacations when I was a kid. Once when I was about twelve we were visiting Thailand and my dad asked a taxi cab driver to take us (dad, mom, little sister, and me) to a place that offered Thai massages. The place we ended up at didn't even pretend to be anything other than a brothel; complete with a fishbowl area where scantly clad women paraded around so you could select your "masseuse". My dad tried to pretend this was totally normal for a massage studio, so we all got massages anyway.

    1. Thanks, glad you like the blog! Thanks for making me laugh out loud with your thailand experience-ha!