Foreign Travel 101

I absolutely live to travel. It’s my reason for being. I’ve been to 22 countries, and I suspect that I have many more miles to go before I take that final sleep.

It has never been very far from my mind that I’m really a lot luckier than most people in terms of travel. According to this article, 40% of Americans never leave the country, 10% have never left their home state, and 76% wish they could travel more than they do currently. That’s a crying shame.

Based on those statistics, it’s safe to assume that for many people who are traveling abroad, it’s a trip of a lifetime for which they feel ill-prepared. But never fear. All of the advice I’m about to give you has come from years of trial and error.

First, read my blog post entitled Foreign Travel Advice for Americans. Even if you aren’t American, you’ll find it helpful. This is a very detailed post that discusses all the homework one must do prior to any trip. The more you do ahead of time, the less stressful and more fruitful your travel experience will be. I can’t emphasize this enough. For every hour of legwork you do in advance, you’ll save yourself days of hassle on the voyage.

Next, take a peek at my blog post entitled Packing for Your Trip. This is a master packing list I’ve made over time. Take that list, eliminate those things that don’t apply to you, your trip, or the season in which you are traveling, and what you have left should be a very thorough packing list for any holiday. But do yourself a favor and pack light. You have no idea how much time you’ll spend schlepping your luggage from pillar to post. So if you don’t absolutely need something, leave it home.

But it occurs to me that neither of those two posts actually gets into the nuts and bolts of building your trip. Package deals complete with tour guides are very easy and convenient, but frankly, I find those experiences to be soul-sucking. I’d much rather have a do it yourself trip, so that’s what I’ll describe below. Some of this is pretty basic, but it will come in handy if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

  1. Determine how much vacation time you have.

  2. Get a good, up to date guidebook of the country you’d like to visit, and read it cover to cover, highlighting the things you feel you absolutely must see, and, in a different color, the things you’d simply like to see.

  3. Also, talk to friends who have already taken this trip. They will be your best sources to determine what can or should be skipped, and what absolutely should not be missed.

  4. A good guidebook should be able to tell you how many days you need for each location. List your must see destinations, and how many days they should take. As hard as it may be to do, you might have to eliminate some of your must sees based on the time you have available. On the other hand, if you find you have a surplus of days (you lucky devil), you can start adding in your “like to see” destinations as well.

  5. Print out a line drawing of the country in question, and then pencil in the must-see destinations to determine which places are close together, so you can decide what route you should take through the country.

  6. Don’t forget that you’ll likely lose a half a day each time you move from one city to the next, so try to cluster your locations into hubs, and stay in central locations. Believe me when I say that it’s an absolute horror to stay in a different place every single night.

  7. Now that you have a sense of where you’d like to go, and in what order, it’s time to determine when to travel. Most guidebooks will tell you the high, shoulder, and low travel seasons for the country in question. Choose carefully.

    1. In low season, things will be cheaper and there will be fewer crowds, but certain destinations will be closed. Check before you go. It would be very unfortunate to arrive and discover that the one thing you wanted to see the most is shuttered for the next few months.

    2. On the other hand, high season is usually high season for a reason. The weather is optimal and there are a lot of exciting things going on. But the massive wall of humanity, along with their screaming children, can be a misery.

    3. I try to do shoulder season. It’s slightly less expensive and slightly less crowded than high season, and slightly more is open than in low season. If you can’t do that, at least do the very beginning or the very end of high season, especially if it means school is in session and the kiddies are less likely to be chewing on your ankles.

  8. Okay, great. Now you have a basic idea of where you want to go and when, and what you want to see. Let’s find out if it’s even possible. First of all, check into flights to and from home, and see if they’re available on the days in question. I highly recommend that you try to do your international flights on Monday through Thursday, rather than going on the weekends, as those weekday flights are usually much less expensive. But shop around. Visit Kayak.com, for example, and then check the website of the airline in question to see if an even better deal is available. Don’t forget to take advantage of any mileage points you’ve accumulated through credit cards. Don’t put this off until the last minute. The more lead time you have, the more options and price ranges will be available. You’ll find that once you’ve reserved those flights, the trip will seem even more exciting and real.

  9. Once that is done, it’s time to figure out how you’ll get from place to place within the country. Should you travel by train, bus, rental car, or domestic flights? Again, your guidebook will give you great advice along those lines.

  10. Once you have a sense of how you want to get around, and a basic skeleton of your itinerary, now check to be sure that your transportation mode is available on the desired day. No sense in planning to take a ferry to the Isle of Capri on a Sunday if the ferries don’t run on that day. Adjust your itinerary accordingly. (If you’re a museum buff, it’s also important to make sure the museum in question will be open on the day you plan to visit.)

  11. Once you’ve got your itinerary and your transportation nailed down, it’s time to reserve your hotels. Think about your budget. Decide whether you want to stay at 5 star hotels or Airbnbs or hostels or, if you’re really brave and don’t require luxury or privacy, check out couchsurfing.com. Read up on all the possibilities. Visit their websites. Check availability. Then make your reservations.

  12. Now the trip is really shaping up! It’s time to figure out what you’d like to do from day to day. What sites will you visit? How much time will it take? Take your guidebook seriously if it recommends advance reservations for various venues, and plan accordingly.

Don’t overpack your itinerary. Allow for things to go awry. Contrary to popular belief, the trains don’t always run on time. You may wish to linger longer than you anticipated. Who knows? A local might befriend you and invite you to attend a wedding. Experiences like that are priceless. Give yourself a little padding and be flexible.

Above all, remember, this is supposed to be fun! Do the work in advance and then relax and enjoy the trip! Bon voyage!

This spring, we plan to spend a few weeks in Italy! I’m so excited! I’ve wanted to explore Italy in depth for decades. But except for a brief, 12 hour taste of Venice (which was at best a cruel, frustrating tease), life just kept getting in the way. Rest assured I’ll be blogging about the experience in future posts.

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On Being Taken Care Of

I know someone who used to get really irritated when her husband took care of things for her. She was a strong, independent woman and it really bothered her when he’d step in and take charge. It was the main thing that would spark arguments between them.

I, too, am strong and independent, so I can kind of get where she was coming from. After all, one of my first full sentences was, “I can do it myself!”

But here’s the thing. (Yes, there’s always a thing.) In every long-term relationship I’ve ever had up to this point, I’ve been the one taking care of things.

I planned the trips, organized the doctors’ visits, and kept our financial house in order. I was the writer of lists, the finder of lost keys, the maker of reservations, the problem solver. I was the one to say, “Don’t forget you have that thing today.” I kept track of the birthdays. I bought the gifts. I turned off the burners on the stove. I made sure the lights stayed on.

Because of that, to others I looked like the nagging fishwife. I was the bad guy. What no one on the outside seemed to realize was that somebody had to drive this thing, or our ship of state would have foundered on the rocks.

It was exhausting. It was stressful. Unbalanced relationships always are. I felt more like a mother than a lover.

Now, for the first time in my life, I have someone who wants to take care of me. Man, this feels weird. I’m not going to lie.

In all of my 53 years, I’ve never known what that was like. Ever. I’m struggling with the notion that I deserve it. I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. But I like it. A lot.

I like that he is willing to go to doctors’ appointments with me. I like that he likes to drive, and usually knows where we’re going better than I do. He remembers to put the concert tickets in his wallet. I like that he makes plans and lists. I like that he reminds me of things as much as I remind him.

Is this what it feels like to have someone give an actual sh*t about you? Well, alrighty then. I’ll take it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to turn into an albatross around my husband’s neck. I certainly know what that feels like, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

No. I want to do my part. I want this to be an equal partnership in the aggregate. (Realizing that on some days one of us is bound to be in better shape than the other, and that’s okay.)

But that will be a challenge for me. Because that means not doing every single solitary thing myself. It means learning to sit back sometimes and say, “Go right ahead, honey.” It means not having to worry about keeping track of everything. What a concept.

I’ve never been able to do that before. It feels like, for the first time, I have a chance to catch my breath. I think I could grow accustomed to this. I’m certainly willing to try.

I just need to learn not to feel so guilty when I’m not on point. I also need to make sure that I keep up with my end of things. I need to not lean too hard, and make sure that he will never doubt that he can rely on me, too.

Most of all, I never, ever want to take this for granted. Because, like a fragile flower, this marriage needs nurturing by me, too, in order to bloom.

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My Very Last Vacation

I live for travel. I used to go to a different foreign country every two years. I miss that. I hope to get back to that financial place again at some point. I also hope to have someone to travel with again one of these days. Traveling alone isn’t nearly as fun. Who knows what the future will bring.

One thing I do know, and that’s that I will take my very last vacation someday. I fervently hope that I don’t know it’s my last one at the time that I’m taking it. That’s a little too bittersweet for my liking.

No, I’d much rather take a lovely tour of Italy and then come home and be hit by a crosstown bus as I’m crossing the street to the bookstore to buy the guidebook for my next trip. If I have to shuffle off this mortal coil, I’d like to do it while planning for an exciting future. I don’t want to slowly circle the drain while gazing fixedly down that dark and moldy hole.

Half the fun of travel, for me, is the anticipation. The planning. I like to read everything I can about my destination, because nothing pisses me off more than coming back home to discover that there was something really spectacular within walking distance that I didn’t see. That leaves me feeling like I didn’t do my homework, that I’ve shirked my responsibilities, that I’ve failed myself.

I don’t have the luxury of returning to places I’ve visited again and again. The world is too big. There’s way too much to see. So the end of each vacation is kind of like a little death. I mourn the amazing place I’ve just been, because I know that the odds are high that I’ll never see it again. If I had to couple that mourning with the concept that I’d also never get to see anyplace else again, ever, it would be entirely too much to bear.

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I’ve Come Undone

I am at the end of my rope. I’m on the ragged edge. I’m losing it.

I’m buying a house. I’m packing, I’m moving. I’m making changes and updating and getting rid of stuff. I’m doing paperwork. I’m documenting. I’m panicking that I won’t get everything done on time, or I’ll forget something important. And I’m doing this all by myself.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My realtor and my loan officer have been great. But there is no one whom I can wake up in the middle of the night when I’m having an anxiety attack, unless you count my long-suffering dog, Quagmire. There’s no one to lighten the load. There’s no one who will shoulder the burden, even for just an hour or two, to give me the tiniest of breaks. I can’t say, “Honey, could you please make that particular decision? I’ve had it.” I’m fresh out of honey.

I’m going to have to hire people to help me move and clean and modify and repair, because lord knows no one is stepping up to volunteer. And I don’t have much money. I wish just one thing about all this would go smoothly. Just one.

I wish I were Amish, or something. Because it really does take a freakin’ village, and it feels like there’s no civilization for miles.

But I take a great deal of comfort from the quote below. This is growth. It may look like chaos, but it’s growth. I’ll just be glad when it’s over.

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Plan “Be”

I can’t remember where I read about this concept, but it appeals to me greatly. Just be. Live in the now. Don’t dwell on the past or worry about the future. Pure bliss.

It’s not as easy as it looks, though. For example, I’m in the midst of planning my vacations for the year. Obviously, that’s future stuff. And I came across my diary from high school, and have been reading it. Past stuff.

Much of this blog is about past experience or future dreams. And I’m a little stressed because I’ve been sick as a dog for the past few days, so I don’t have as many future blog entries waiting in the queue as I usually do.

Past, Future…see how many times I’ve bounced from one to the other in just the PAST few paragraphs? Why is it so hard to stay in the present? Do we not value it as much?

In truth, the present is the only thing that is real. The way we remember the past changes over time, and we view it through our own biased lens. As for the future, it may not come about. You could be hit by a bus tomorrow.

Heaven knows that the way I had my life plotted out in my high school diary certainly never came to be. Sometimes I look in the mirror and say to myself, “How the hell did you get here?” Sometimes that’s an angry question. Other times it’s infused with gratitude and awe.

But there I go again, reflecting on the past. I’ll have to work on that. Sometime in the future…

past future

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Keep Your Distance–Demolition in Progress

I have this friend who is a great guy. In many ways, he’s the male version of me. He loves to travel, is liberal, and is a bit of a science nerd. He’s curious about the world and the people in it. He’s got a lot of stories to tell and he’s fun to banter with. For a brief, shining moment, there, I had a massive crush on him.

But here’s where we part company: His very existence is a slow motion train wreck. He has no steady employment and no steady address. There’s absolutely no stability in his life whatsoever.

I may be biased toward my Capricornian sense of organization and planning and order, but it seems to me that if you are that much of an eff up in your 50’s, you’ve had to put a great deal of time and effort into it. Granted, unexpected things can happen, and you never know when fate is going to kick you in the teeth, but to consistently operate without a stable foundation for your whole life long requires a certain skill set that eludes me.

Okay, to assume I know what’s best for everyone may be typical of me, but even I realize that that’s not particularly realistic. And yet I have to say that I have watched this guy make certain choices that were bound to have disastrous results. It almost seems as though he does these things to himself on purpose. Chaos is drawn to him like a moth to a flame.

The only reason for this that I can think of is that it’s a highly effective way to keep people at arm’s length. It’s a rare individual who will voluntarily run into a burning building, after all. And this amazing, lovable guy is a towering inferno.

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Just One Step Ahead

I don’t think I’d be very good at chess, even if I found someone with the patience to teach me how to play. I find it very hard to strategize. Thinking 3 steps ahead seems to confound me. If I were on Survivor, I’d be the first one voted off the island.

Having said that, I am extremely good at thinking one step ahead. I can anticipate accidents waiting to happen and take steps to prevent them. I can also figure out the immediate consequences of my actions.

It never ceases to amaze me that more people aren’t good at this. If they were, here are the kinds of things they would be thinking:

“Maybe I shouldn’t stop and chat with someone right in the middle of the grocery aisle, because other people are trying to shop.”

“I really need to make it a point not to throw my cigarette butts on the sidewalk, because some poor non-smoking schmuck is going to have to clean them up.”

“Actually, I shouldn’t be smoking in the first place, because my loved ones do not want to see me die a horrible death.”

“If I abuse this child, he’s going to have problems as an adult.”

“If I drink (or text) and drive, someone else might get killed.”

“It is a good idea to spay or neuter my pet to avoid generations of suffering strays.”

“If I don’t vote, or I vote for a third party candidate, Donald Trump might win.”

“If I don’t pay my taxes, infrastructure and support agencies might not exist when I need them.”

“It’s probably not a good idea to come to a dead stop on a drawbridge when a 2000 ton gravel barge is bearing down on it.”

To me, thinking one step ahead comes easily. Apparently this is rare, though, because I see people not having the thoughts above all the time. And it renders me speechless.

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Learning to Fall

The other day at work I had Fall Prevention training. As a bridgetender, there will occasionally be moments where I’m called upon to work at a dangerous height, so this training is essential. The fact that I never received this type of instruction in my thirteen years as a bridgetender in Florida tells you everything you need to know about the difference in work culture here in Seattle. My current employer actually cares if I live or die. Yeah, yeah, part of that is due to litigation, I know, but I genuinely believe they value me much more than my former employer ever did. Heaven knows they pay me more.

The class was actually rather interesting. Not only did I learn how to properly inspect, wear and maintain my harness, but I learned some basic physics. To oversimplify things to an extreme degree, there’s no point in attaching your harness to a 60 foot rope if you’re standing on the edge of a 40 foot drop.

I also learned something rather fascinating. If you do fall and you’re dangling in a harness for more than a minute or two, expect to pass out cold when you are finally rescued. That harness is going to cut off the circulation to your legs, so your body will be taking all the oxygen out of the blood in the lower half of your body to survive. So when you finally stand up again, all that deoxygenated blood is going to rush to your head, and, basically, it’ll be lights out. You can count on it. They don’t show you that in the movies.

But of course, since I live in my head most of the time, I also learned a few philosophical truths along with everything else. Learning how to fall is important. If you do it right, you’ll survive. It’s okay, it’s even attractive, to be vulnerable, but it’s also critical to have contingency plans and put serious thought into everything that you do. Prevention is key, but plans are necessary, too.

It’s also about educated faith. Trust the equipment, but inspect it first. If you’re going to fall, make it a knowledgeable fall. If I had a coat of arms, I think that should be my motto.

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[Image credit: mubi.com]

Exercises in Futility

I used to know a guy who would crash into things every time he entered a darkened room. I mean, every single time. So one day with the lights on, I asked him to move through the room as if the lights were off. He strode in no differently than he would if the lights were on. Arms down at his sides, same speed, everything. Because of that, he frequently walked right into walls and furniture, if he didn’t trip over something and wind up on the floor, that is.

Then I got up and showed him how I walk through a dark room, although it astounds me that I had to do so to this very day. I said, “First, I stand on the threshold and picture where all the furniture is, and where I want to go. Then I put my hands out in front of me and sweep them back and forth as I slowly walk to make sure I’m not about to bump into anything. Then I lift my toes while walking so as not to trip.”

None of those were things he had ever attempted to do up to that point. He just seemed to accept the fact that when he walked into a room, he was bound to crash. I don’t know why. Maybe he didn’t think he deserved better. Maybe he didn’t believe he had any control over his destiny.

I find that to be quite maddening. For God’s sake, mitigate your damage whenever you can. Be proactive. Show some initiative. If you have a problem, do all that you can to at least attempt to solve it.

I’m firmly convinced that if the two of us were standing in a field and someone started shooting at us, he’d stand there waiting for the bullet while I was busy diving for the nearest ditch. Why wouldn’t you do that? I don’t get it.

I also once knew a man who lived in his chicken coop for two years because the roof on his house was leaking. So he fixed up the chicken coop. He even piled bales of hay against the walls for insulation. I asked, “Why didn’t you just repair the roof of the house?” He said, “I was too busy fixing up the chicken coop.”

That utter lack of common sense makes me want to chew gravel.

Is there some concept of long-term planning that is missing in these people? Do they set themselves up for failure intentionally? Or do they just not care?

I know another guy who hasn’t paid taxes in at least 5 years. Apparently he’s too busy putting out the short-term fires in his life to look up and see the raging inferno on the horizon. Eventually he’ll wind up in jail for tax evasion, and somehow he’ll convince himself that that’s someone else’s fault. But he’ll still be the one in jail.

Maybe the worst mistake of all is even trying to understand these people. Maybe that’s the true exercise in futility.

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Checkmate

I’ve always wanted to learn to play chess, but I’ve never found anyone with the time or patience to teach me, and I’m far too lazy to become self-taught. But I’ve come to realize that it’s not the game itself that I crave.

What I really want is the leisure time to spend hours in pleasant communion with a friend, talking, testing my cognitive abilities. I picture us sitting on a wide veranda on a summer evening, the warm glow of the lights from the kitchen illuminating the chessboard, with crickets and fire flies bearing witness as the bug zapper crackles in the background and iced tea leaves sweaty rings on the table. That sounds like a heavenly way to pass the time.

I also need the discipline I could learn from chess because one of my fatal flaws is that I’m virtually incapable of thinking more than one step ahead. This has caused disaster in my life on more than one occasion. Long range consequences, contingency plans, they seem to elude me. Chess teaches you to plan, to anticipate.

I hope there is chess in my future, but that’s far too many steps ahead for me to figure out.

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(Image Credit uunions.umich.edu)