Saturday, July 14, 2012

Top Tips from a Travelling Writer

Two of my favourite things are, of course, writing and travelling. I am totally addicted to both, I confess. Looking at the world through a writer’s eyes makes travelling even more interesting in my opinion, because your imagination is working overtime wherever you go, absorbing everything.

Everyone learns something different when they travel so I wanted to share a few of the dos and don’ts that I have discovered over the years of car, train, plane and camelback travel.

#1 Don’t forget your notebook and camera.
I never travel without either of these. There are just too many sights I will want to refer back to, too many sensations and ideas that arise. After you’ve captured things in your mind, snap some photos, sketch some images and write out some words. They’ll all come in handy down the road.

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus
#2 Leave Botticelli alone!
It may seem obvious to some but if you do appreciate art and other ancient things don’t snap pictures when you should not be doing so. In the Uffizi galleries in Florence rests Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It is a beautiful work of art, loved by millions of people. In the gallery, it is surrounded by large pictures of crossed out cameras and signs in various languages telling people not to use flashes etc. But, when I was there, that didn’t stop thirty or so people from snap-flashing away. Totally bad form and destructive to the art!

#3 Bring Snacks!
This is not only true when you are travelling with kids. If you are in some remote spot and the hunger hits you hard, you’re going to want something to fill the gap. Also, if you are out on a desert highway and camel meat kebabs are not to your liking, then you’d better be prepared.

Cretan Donkey
#4 Keep you ears open.
Wherever you go, you will always be able to catch some wonderful local expressions that can add some colour to your narrative. For instance, if you are speaking with someone about marriage, you might hear them use ‘Better to tie your donkey, than to have to go looking for your donkey.’ Or, if perchance you happen upon a funeral on some remote Peloponnesian hillside, you might catch someone saying ‘Now that we’ve found a priest, let’s bury the living ones too.’ Okay, so perhaps something is lost in translation but at the least, these little gems will be great for dinner parties.

#5 Spell it out! R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Unless you want to end up in a scrap, some dingy jail or with a bad case of the evil eye, you should always show respect for the people and places you are visiting. I have seen far too many of my fellow travellers acting unkindly toward their hosts and it gives the rest of us a bad name. I can still hear one blustery person throwing the menu back at the owner of a traditional estiatorio in Athens and saying “Ain’t no goddam biscuits and gravy!” Or the time our small group was invited into a Saharan troglodyte dwelling and offered flat bread by the lady of the house and tea in her best and most valuable cups. Almost everyone of the people I was with ignored her completely as if she was a beggar. We were in HER home! That day I saw a dark side of tourism. If we want to be respected, we should also do the same courtesy to others. Buying a plane ticket does not give one the right to treat people like crap.

Travel Dictionaries
#6 Learn some words.
I’ve found that when I travel in other countries, it can be a little embarrassing to leave my comfort zone and try another language. However, the entire world does not speak English and for me, travelling is about experiencing other cultures. It is amazing how welcoming people in other countries have made me feel just from my trying to use a few words in their own language. Language is about communication and travelling, about other cultures. Even learning how to say hello and goodbye to someone in their own language will earn you a tremendous amount of good will.

#7 If you want a picture, it’ll cost you!
I was quite taken aback the first time I went to the Coloseum in Rome and saw another group of tourists agree to take pictures with some friendly legionaries outside the ruin. Living history! I thought. Great! But once the tourists snapped their pictures (the girls in the group having been groped to boot), the legionaries began demanding money from them. There was a lot of yelling and a bit of a scuffle before the tourists ripped themselves away from their aggressors. The armour was cheap and crappy anyway, I told myself. Another example of photos for pay is when I was in Tunisia and there was a Berber man with a baby camel at one of the roadside stops. The thing was so fuzzy and cute, the others in our group promptly set about snapping away. They were completely baffled when the man thrust his palm into their faces demanding money for the pictures they had taken of his baby camel. Before you snap, make sure it is indeed free or that you are ready to pay.

Camels in North Africa
#8 Get your haggle on.
One of the oddest things for me when I started travelling was the whole idea of haggling. Why bother when here (in North America, say) the price on the tag is the price you pay most of the time. Not so in other countries. One example is when I was in the market in Tunis. I wanted to buy some silver bracelets as presents and went into one particular shop to look. Of course we were pounced on right away. Luckily, my French came in handy and a banter began between myself and the trader, a young guy wearing Pittsburgh Pirates hat and smelling strongly of garlic. His prices started out very high and so, I made to walk away before he came into the street to call me back. We repeated this French-language, ritual bargaining four times before we settled on a deal, the guy muttering to my friend how I was a thief. When I had my goods, he called down the street, telling me to come back another time. Now, in North America, the tone of our haggle might have been misconstrued as preliminary to fisticuffs. But there, it was all part of the experience.

#9 Be ready for anything.       
This might sound paranoid but, one can never be too careful. Sure, you are not walking the streets of ancient Rome after a midnight visit to the brothel or baths, but you are in a place that is strange to yourself. Awareness serves well so, before you dive into a packed market place, your bag dangling freely off your shoulder, remember that pick pocketing is an age-old profession. I might have mentioned this example before but I always think back to a person in one of my groups whose purse was sliced open with an exacto knife to get at the contents. Luckily, she was a bird watcher and her massive binoculars blocked the thief’s hand from getting in.

Temple of Apollo
Ancient Corinth
#10 Not everything is a souvenir.
Let’s just get one things straight. It is not ok to take a chunk of an archaeological artefact home with you. Defacing ancient monuments is a pet peeve of mine – call me picky. If you want souvenirs, go to the gift shop for a replica, of which there are usually many. The ruins have stood for hundreds and thousands of years so perhaps they have earned the right to stand a little longer. I don’t care if you (insert name) were there in 2004 – let it be!

And last but certainly not least…

Bottled Water is your Friend
#11 Don’t drink the water!
Clich├ęd but oh so true. If you are travelling far from where you live, there will be parasites in the water that you are not used to and these things can make you sick and ruin your trip. Sure, you could get some first hand experience and material to write about a character having a fever of some sort in an exotic location but really, do you want to have that experience? When in Tunisia, when the rest of our group was gorging themselves on goat and camel meat, my friend and I opted for the soup. They boil soup, don’t they? I thought. The answer is NO, they don’t boil the soup. In fact, they don’t even simmer it for very long. Well, I’ll spare you truly gory the details but let me just say that it is most difficult to write or take pictures or enjoy anything at all when you are fever-ridden, shaking and doubled over with cramps for two days. Luckily for me, that happened at the end of my trip and so, the first part was A-okay!
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