Friday, August 3, 2012

Five tips for traveling and living (150th post)

Fairly soon will be to the one year anniversary of starting traveling around the world. I began in August 2011 in Perth, Australia and last week I was in Perth, Scotland (hosted by river forecasters at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency). I gathered 43 new stamps in my passport, including for such places as Iran, Nepal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Given that this is also the 150th post on this blog, it seems time to reflect on the experience of traveling. Before I started, I sought all kinds of advice on the Internet and from friends and family. Many people said much the same thing (e.g. every new traveler packs too much stuff). Some of the advice was contradictory (e.g. “don't put all your eggs in one basket” vs “sometimes you can only cross a river successfully with a running start”). I got myself in innumerable unfamiliar and unpredictable situations, but a few mantras saw me through. Even if you are not traveling, maybe these are still words to live by.

  1. When clean and dirty laundry mix, it all becomes dirty laundry.

    In some contexts “dirty laundry” means secrets and things in one's personal life, but for traveling this is literally a good idea. I have a bad habit of mixing sorted items in with junk, making it all junk. Or I will organize my pack in the morning and then dump out its entire contents in the evening, only to have to organize it again the next morning. At work, I will clean up some data or edit some writing without marking what is finished or not. Similarly, I spend too much time re-reading old emails to see if there were any follow-up items I am missing. Mixing the bad in with the good leads to unnecessary re-evaluation of the good and less attention to the bad.

  2. Asking for what you want increases your chances of getting it.

    People will stop and give you a ride if you stick out your thumb, more so than if you simply look forlorn in the rain by the side of the road. When you approach others, you also have more control over the interaction. Otherwise, you will be at the mercy of that “friendly stranger” who pounces just as you get off the plane/train/boat/bus; that person does not have your best interests in mind and should be avoided. Criminals will seek you out, but the random person you seek out for assistance is not likely to improvise some way of taking advantage of you.

  3. There is no use in continuing to worry about something until you have new information.

    One time in India the first leg of my flight was canceled and the airline opted to hire a driver so I could make my connection in the next city. The drive was going to be four hours long but my next flight was leaving in three hours. If I missed the flight in the next city, there would be a cascade of problems following down the line. The driver understood the urgency and was tearing down rugged roads, weaving into oncoming traffic and at times riding with two wheels up on the sidewalk. Four hours is a very long time to stress and stew in my own juices, but there was nothing new I could do to affect the situation. 


    Typical view from the back seat of a breakneck taxi ride.

    Instead, I set a time after which I could start worrying again and briefly thought of a few conditions that would cause me to reconsider the plan (e.g. a car accident). I did not think of what to do after an accident happened, I only said I would have to reassess at that time what to do. I could have thought through contingencies A, B, C and so on, and continued to second guess the best course of action but it was going to be wasted effort. Instead I took in the scenery and thought of other things. Eventually, the ride took three and a half hours but I made the next flight because it was delayed (as one learns to expect in India). The moral is that problems of your life will not be resolved in your mind.

  4. Satisfice – pick the satisfactory and sufficient course of action.

    A few days ago I missed the last train out of a city, it was getting dark and I did not have a room to stay in. Since I was going to take the first train out in the morning I did not want to pay much. I wandered around asking about prices and found they varied by about five British pounds. However, I spent an hour walking so my time was worth less than minimum wage.

    When considering the costs, I should have taken into account the big picture- the price of the room, the value of my time, the effort of carrying my pack and so on. There were intangible benefits of getting exercise and seeing a relatively scenic part of town. But what was I giving up by continuing to shop around? What could have I been doing instead? Rather than finding the absolute best price I should have thought about what I was willing to pay, chose the first place that met that price, achieved closure and moved on. When I am indecisive, it is often because I am not being honest with myself about the true total costs and what I value.

  5. Always ask yourself “should I be in this line?”

    This rule made it on “the list” after trying to make it to a connecting flight in a Chinese airport. The signage was poor and I just assumed I should follow the others and get in any line I encountered. The longer the line, the more I thought I should be in it. I waited in customs lines I didn't have to, declared currency under the reporting limit, went to the wrong terminal, left security and had to come back in, lined up for domestic when I was going international, lined up for international when going domestic, queued up for the ladies bathroom, and so on.

    Now I handle lines by first asking what the line is for and then investing a few seconds to find the fastest lane to be in. Despite my “satisfice” advice above, people too often go to the first lane they find, not bothering to discover the distant unused lanes at the ends. Knowing this, some people do purposefully go to those end lanes, so my strategy is to pick the second to the last lane. Also, I see how many officers are serving a queue- some lanes in passport control have one officer, a few have two in series, meaning that line will go twice as fast. The same applies for picking the line at the grocery or going through a toll booth on a road. There are good reasons why you should not switch lanes mid-wait, best explained by this video:

    Know sometimes though that the Bureaucracy is just out to mess with you. I once waited in a line at a Mexico border only to be told I needed something from another counter. When I got to the front of the next line I was greeted by the same person asking “how can I help you?”

If you enjoyed this, please feel free to share your own travel mantras in the comments below.