10 Tenets of Foreign Travel

I leave for Peru in six days, and just finished my last major packing push (many minor campaigns and LP_PERU_cadjustments to follow, I’m sure). I’m going through each of the pre-trip emotional stages: terror, exhaustion, excitement, terror. And I’m already certain I’m going to forget something essential. Of course, when you’re packing for a three-week trip for a country you’ve never been to, it’s pretty difficult to say what’s going to be essential. No two trips are alike because no two countries are alike. Morocco was nothing like Barcelona was nothing like Ireland was nothing like Norway was nothing like Italy was nothing like Alaska. And when you’re traveling on the cheap, you pretty much plan as much as you can and then make do to the best of your abilities. There are no guarantees–hot water, electricity, drinkable water, all the amenities of the first world fly right out the window. What passes for polite behavior in California has the potential to gravely offend someone in another country. So, I’m nervous, thinking about all the stuff that can and might go wrong. Which is my normal. I go through all the bad stuff, mentally prepare myself as best I can, and then just let go once the plane lands. Maybe other people do it differently, but that’s the best I’ve got.

With that in mind, I drafted a list of 10 Traveler’s Tenets. They ain’t pretty, but neither is what happens to your digestive system in a third world country. And I truly believe that once you accept the tougher realities of traveling–and especially traveling on a limited budget–you can better appreciate each country’s unique beauty, personality, and charm.

1. I’m going to be homesick. Sometimes for a boyfriend. Sometimes for cats. Sometimes for the security and comfort of my own bed.

2. If I plan on using or wearing it for the next three weeks, I’m carrying it. Uphill, downhill, in the rain, in the heat, and whether the road is paved or not.

3. There’s going to be pain. If I’m lucky, it will just be some blisters or aches from an uncomfortable bed. If I’m less lucky, it will probably be food-related, and I’ll be lucky if it doesn’t interfere with my itinerary. There are also long, cramped stints on buses or planes; numerous bugs that bite and burrow; altitude shifts to contend with; and a hot sun eager to do me the honor of making me significantly less pale.

4. I’m going to look like a complete idiot. It might be while I’m exhausted and hauling my luggage through an unknown city; it might be because I don’t understand the language and customs; or it could just be the result of vomiting for an entire day because I ate something that did not agree with me.

5. I’m going to spend an inordinate amount of time with another person. She, or in this case he, is going to see me tired, sick, disheveled, exhilarated, confused, and lost. And I’m going to see him in each of these conditions as well. And there aren’t going to be many opportunities to escape one another’s company. This is going to require patience, empathy, and a little more patience. Because the person you travel with can make or break a trip. That might sound like an exaggeration, and perhaps even a little unfair to the country you’re visiting–there are 30 million people in Peru and I’m telling you that one person who doesn’t even live there will play a major role in establishing my perception of the country, but that’s just the simple truth.

6. Just because I have an itinerary doesn’t mean that I have control over my schedule. This is a big one for someone like me who thrives on punctuality and efficiency. When a schedule says a bus leaves at a certain time, that might very well mean they’re kinda sorta shooting for around that timeframe, but who knows? And if you freak out over every late bus, or every bus that winds up with a flat tire, or doesn’t show up at all, you’re going to ruin your trip. I try to work around this by planning a very loose itinerary with plenty of cushion time.

7. I’m going to hate the sight of everything I bring with me on this trip by the time it’s over. My backpack will make me gag. I won’t want to go anywhere near my clothes for another year, at least. The sight of a transparent plastic toiletry case will induce a panic attack. (Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one.)

8. Toilets are different in different parts of the world. In some cases, there might not be any toilet at all. It might sound silly, but worrying about bathrooms or lack thereof comprises the bulk of my fears and concerns as a traveler. I packed a 12-pack of toilet paper in my luggage. That might sound like overkill, but it’s just my method of attempting to regain some control over a situation I can’t control at all.

9. People are pretty much people. I don’t have to assume everyone in a foreign country wants to rob or take advantage of me, but I do have the disadvantage of not speaking the language or fully understanding the culture. I have to be alert, and make damn well sure that I’ve got my eyes on my possessions at all times–exactly like I would in any city I hadn’t been to in the United States.

10. Traveling is an incredible privilege, and whether I wind up homesick, lost, physically sick, exhausted, or at odds with my traveling companion, I will remember that I am lucky that I have the opportunity to see another part of the world, to learn and explore and connect with people from a different culture.

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