My heart’s pounding harder than the drills that wake the neighborhood at ungodly hours; breath fluttering faster than eyelashes at a speed dating event. No, this isn’t panic, or love at first sight – it’s sheer excitement at being off traveling again.
Having traveled solo for many years, I have the routine down pat. Clothes looser than an alley cat’s morals for the journey; plenty of fluids on the flight.
Then there’s the big smile for passport control. But no jokes; they don’t like jokes. I know, I’ve tried, and usually ended up in a back office while they trawl their computer for proof that I’m an international terrorist. They’re always disappointed; I’m always late. I’ve learned it’s not worth the hassle.
Big smiles are useful tools, though. I’ve lost count how many places I’ve managed to get in to see, as a result of a cunning manipulation of facial muscles. Smiles aren’t just for officialdom, but for getting to know people on your travels. Court the locals and you’ll find out where best to eat, or stay, or hideaway beaches that most tourists will never find.
Know when to keep a straight face, though, or avoid eye contact altogether, if you want to stay safe.
Public transport is brilliant for soaking up atmosphere. Taxis might be quicker but being squeezed in with locals, like a lone snapper in a box of sardines, certainly gives you heaps of the sights and smells.
If you’re a nervous traveler, worried that the fly-spattered window is the only thing between you and a 500-foot drop into a canyon, then sit behind the driver. It might feel like being on the Dodgems at Blackpool beach, but at least you won’t see what else is on the road, and can enjoy the scenery.
Talking to fellow passengers will take your mind off the driver’s apparent death wish while helping you explore the culture. At this point, enter advanced lying skills. An upright individual, lying is not second nature to me. Until I travel. Then, to stay safe, I have no qualms about doling out the porkies, passing off more lies than a bed salesman.
If possible, don’t sit beside a man on public transport, and you can probably avoid the lying routine. A pal has an alternative – she has ‘go-away’ dust jackets that she puts round whatever she’s reading. ‘Abnormal psychology’ is her current favorite for chasing off nutters.
A Top Deck courier I know has an even more extreme attitude towards personal safety. She goes far beyond the usual advice to cover her shoulders and adopt local customs. Her hassle-free policy includes wearing a wedding ring, dying her hair and using different colored contact lenses.
Blending in isn’t just about choosing what you wear but avoiding things that label you tourist: flashing a map in New York guarantees attracting attention. Mind you, when I got lost there and furtively thumbed my A-Z, I was deluged with advice from kind New Yorkers. Not a mugger in sight.
If deciding to seek help, beware the rule of the ‘Obviously Local’: the more local a person looks – and that includes wearing curlers and carpet slippers while walking a dog – the more likely they are to reply: “Sorry, love, I’m just visiting here myself.”
When traveling alone, it makes sense to let people know where you’re going. However, telling your folks exactly what you’re up to before it’s a done deal isn’t always to be recommended. I was due in Burma just as the civil insurrection started that led to it becoming the Myanmar Republic. So, I did the ET routine. “Don’t worry!” I said, “I’m going to go to Bangladesh instead, so don’t panic about me getting caught in riots.”
Unfortunately floods that started simultaneously with my arrival meant I was stranded there. Pictures of people perched on rooftops like storks and stories of typhoid and dysentery made constant viewing at home; for the first time since my travels started, my parents knew exactly where I was. Wanting to save them worry, I’d increased it instead.
A neat way round that’s to create a postcard diary. Each day, send home a dated postcard of where you’ve been visiting. If anything goes wrong, people can work out the last place you were, and when you get back you’ve a pictorial record of all the places you’ve been.
That’s not their only use: traveling in a land where you don’t speak the language, they can be a means of getting to see that temple, castle, or work of art you wanted to track down. I’ve flashed a postcard of where I want to go, and been shoved on the right bullet train in Japan and given more non-verbal directions than John McCrirrick doing tic-tac at the races.
Although traveling solo, you don’t have to stay alone. There are plenty of tour companies that specialize in singles, often with a particular theme. I’ve found using budget accommodation a reliable resource for finding like-minded individuals. Alternatively, meet people while taking a tour of the local sights or attending a class (learn to cook in Paris, do art history in Florence or meditation in Bangkok). The adventure starts when you close your front door.
So here I am at the airport, dragged from bed by a pack of yipping alarm clocks (I’ve got several spares to ensure I never miss that early flight). The research is all done: websites checked, guidebooks read, maps bought and I’ve teased myself with all the things I’m going to do. With passports, tickets and currency safely stowed (not forgetting copies of important numbers and spare cash planked in different places), I’m shaken, stirred and licensed to travel.