As some of you may have discovered after reading my bio, I’ve been traveling for most of my life. I’ve been through it all: trips with lost luggage, trips with terrible weather, trips with language barriers, trips where I got massively lost, and trips with grossly incompetent companies. There are enough horror stories out there to scare even the bravest of new adventurers, so I’ll keep mine to a minimum, but it occurred to me that something that many guidebooks lack is a section on Traveler’s Advocacy.
No, it’s not a magical organization designed to assist travelers in negotiating reasonable room prices or provide free translation services. Simply put, it’s a kind of mindset you grow as you become more experienced with travel- a combination of spine and intuition that allows you to know, among other things, when to hold ’em, when to fold ’em, and when to show ’em what you’re made of. It’s not something that’s easily taught, because each person advocates for hirself differently, but there are general guidelines that are applicable to each person’s experiences as they globetrot.
The first guideline I’d suggest is work on walking that fine line between nice and spineless. Often when we travel, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the complex array of transportation systems, busy people, and (possibly) strange locales. Add weather complications to the mix, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for chaos. If traveling between Point A (where you are) and Point B (where you want to be) is so important, it’s worth the time and energy to swallow some of your frustration and confusion and be nice to the people who are supposed to facilitate your travel. Being a jerk, which seems to work for some people, only gets most of us to Point C (out on the curb on your ass) and makes the travel employees less pleasant for others to deal with. At the same time, however, it’s also worth it to have a spine and advocate for your place in transit. Case in point: when I was stuck in Atlanta for 30 hours, it was because Delta insisted that it needed to board its red carpet customers first. The only reason I ever got put on a flight was because one of the employees recognized me from his earlier shift, 24 hours prior. After 15 hours, with flights running on schedule, it would have been more than reasonable for me to be a little firmer about getting on a plane.
The second guideline I’d suggest is to brush up on your pantomime, or let go of any performance anxiety you might have. If you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, you’re going to do a lot of dancing around and waving your arms. Alternatively, you can do what my partner did and use Google translate to write notecards in the host language before you leave that have critical phrases such as “I don’t speak ______” on them. Regardless, whichever you use, be patient: sign language isn’t universal, and it may take a while before you and the person you want to communicate with to settle on the meaning of your gestures. It’s worth knowing, too, that in some parts of the world people will use their social networks to translate your madness. On Okinawa, for example, Nick and I failed at pantomime in a little shop and were amazed when the shop owner decided to call her friend, who spoke a tiny amount of English, to translate for us over the phone. Between the friend and the pantomime, it all worked out, and the three of us laughed about it over a cup of tea in the back of her store afterwards.
The third guideline I’m going to pass along, which is less amusing, is to know how to keep yourself (and, if you have any, your stuff) safe wherever you’re going. One of my friends told me a story about traveling in Italy, in which his hotel room was burglarized and his replacement stuff was stolen out of his rental car two days later while parked in a friend’s driveway. This kind of awareness, about keeping yourself safe, isn’t just about knowing where to hide your things, what neighbourhoods to avoid, or having a black belt. It’s also about knowing the local resources- laws, police, informal networks- that can support you in case something DOES happen. For my friend, that meant going inside to explain to his friend what had happened; 20 minutes after his friend called some of the neighbours, all of the stuff was returned to his car. Sometimes knowing these resources isn’t easy to accomplish in advance, in which case I suggest seeking out other, more experienced travelers or recommended hotel/restaurant/museum guides to offer advice.
Above all, enjoy the adventures and roll with the punches. You’re never going to be completely in control of any travel experience, so keep a good sense of humour when things go awry, for as long as you can. Just be ready to put some of that Traveler’s Advocacy into practice when you reach an impasse.