Everything I know about travel I learned from a PBS program called The Last Place On Earth. A century ago, Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer, and Robert Falcon Scott, a British naval officer, each set out to be the first to reach the South Pole. The two had completely different approaches to travel.
Amundsen had studied the Netsilik people on previous Arctic explorations. He dressed his men in animal skins, and they traveled on skis and hauled supplies on dogsleds. Upon arrival in Antarctica, he reportedly said, “We do not know this place. … Every step is unknown terrain. We have much to learn.” His men wintered in a hut, refining their gear. He didn’t let an initial mishap – a too-early start before winter ended that resulted in frostbite and the loss of several dogs – throw him off. Instead, Amundsen regrouped and waited a month before heading out again. He took only two pictures on the whole trip – one of them of his team standing at the Pole.
Scott, meanwhile, arrived with three motor sledges, along with ponies and dogs. His men wore wool and oilskin windbreakers. They brought along a complete china table setting, a tea service, and silverware. One heavy sledge broke through the ice as they were unloading it from the ship; the other two wouldn’t run in the cold. (The one person Scott had failed to include on the expedition was the engineer who had developed and serviced the machinery.) The ponies floundered in the ice and snow. Scott used his crew as beasts of burden, adding a fifth man for the push for the Pole without providing extra rations. Dehydrated, suffering from scurvy, and starving, the entire team perished – while hauling 30 pounds of rock samples – 11 miles from a supply depot.
The Scott expedition took hundreds of photos – of men sitting down to tea, the icebound ship, Scott’s birthday party, ponies pulling sleds, men pulling sleds, men trying to fix the motor sledges, a cook baking bread, Scott in his den, a dog listening to a gramophone, one man’s sledding rations for a day, the group standing around the tent Amundsen had left at the Pole.
Don’t be that guy.
When you travel, be prepared. Don’t overpack. Dress appropriately. Don’t take a piece of equipment for which you have not read the owner’s manual. Hydrate. Focus. Do not mistake arrogance for confidence. Be ready to eat almost anything. Bring your own trail mix. And leave the gramophone at home.
I met the woman who became my wife atop a mountain called Alta in Utah, USA, in a torchlight ski parade on New Year’s Eve. She was South African and just barely willing to interrupt her world travels to marry and raise a family. She has taught me how to travel – how not to be the guy who hauls everything in luggage the size of a trailer, who tries to communicate by speaking basic English slowly and loudly, who eats at McDonald’s in Peru, who views every misadventure as a crisis rather than as part of the very nature of travel.
When you travel with Sue, the only requirement is keeping up. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
If it doesn’t fit in a backpack, you don’t need it. If the desk clerk or tour guide sees you with your carry-on pack and asks you where your stuff is, you win. My wife lived out of a backpack for three years. It can be done.
Slow down. You have time. The biggest challenge in travel is adjusting not to the time zone, but to the rhythm of local life. Spend four hours in a cafe. Find something to watch, to talk about, and to savor.
Be prepared. Read the brochure, the guidebook, the website, the checklist. But keep it to yourself. No one likes a self-appointed expert.
Avoid the hotels that would require a new wardrobe. It’s why I don’t write for Travel and Leisure.
If you’re not willing to wash a pair of underwear in a sink, don’t bother leaving home.
If you can’t speak the language, hire a college student. Local university students can act as translators – they are cheaper, less formal, and more fun than professional guides. If you think you can speak the language because you’ve been listening to tapes for six months, be warned: People have been Rosetta Stoned to death, and deservedly so, for offenses such as grabbing a passerby in Paris to ask “Ou est le bureau de poste?” only to find they were standing in front of it.
If everyone is looking at one thing, turn and look in the opposite direction. Out in the country, you may see something more interesting. In the city, you’ll see the pickpockets.
Visit the second-tier towns. Bypass the famous shop-til’-you-drop cities where you’d find the same brand names you see at home, priced in a currency you don’t understand. If you can’t travel without shopping, head to the countryside. Seek out a specific kind of tea and go to the plantation. Find a tailor or craftsman whom you’ll need to visit more than once. You’ll build a relationship and come home with something worth having.
Don’t export your culture; absorb theirs. On your first day in a new country, buy a shirt like the ones the locals are wearing. In all likelihood, it won’t come in your size. That says all you need to know about their lifestyle and diet, and yours. Leave it behind when you go home. No one wants to see you in that Sergio Leone poncho that seemed so perfect in Peru.
Use one of your interests – food, wine, art, sports – to unlock the world. But realize this: Going somewhere to ski is not travel. Going somewhere to play golf is not travel. A skill you already have can be a key, but it will unlock a narrow part of the world. So look around. Otherwise a trek in Patagonia will be just another 12 days on the treadmill.
Keep a journal. Go on, I dare you. At the least, it will keep you quiet. As for tweeting, posting to a blog, or making daily updates to your Facebook page while you’re in a different country, no one cares. You aren’t there for your fans, your friends, or your followers. You are there to find out who you are and where you are. Choose a topic, one that reveals itself on the first or second day. Get to know one thing well. Photograph clouds. Observe the size and color of windows and doorways. Listen to the sounds that water makes, in all its forms, on a single hike. Notice the tastes or smells of a city. If you are going to write about a place, don’t stop until you have found something for each of your senses. (Actually, that’s good advice even if you aren’t going to write.)
Think before you shoot. Photographers used to carry rolls of film, each with a maximum of 36 exposures. Digital photography is endless, unthinking, and intrusive. How many group shots do you need? How many shots of yourself do you need?
Stand in your own shoes for one minute. When will you be in this place again? Absorb the moment.
Know when you need a guide. My family has kayaked, climbed, and hiked on four continents. Respected outfitters attract like-minded adventurers who share a passion, a basic skill, and a reasonable fitness level. Guides are there to handle the transitions – booking passages and hotels, providing meals, translating – leaving the day open for you to enjoy the waves, the ruins, the incredible granite spires.
In Peru, we found ourselves stranded in Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, during a nationwide strike. The road to Cuzco was closed by barricades, road blocks formed out of boulders, broken-down automobiles, and bonfires. Our guide, Manuel, tracked down a private bus driver and we left after midnight, kids huddled in sleeping bags. At each road block, Manuel would get out, share pisco or cigarettes with the strikers, and after an hour or so of camaraderie, get back on with permission to proceed. Encountering a narrow bridge that had been set afire, we left the road and bounced across the alto plano for hours. At dawn, we joined a long line of vehicles stopped by a major blockade. The farmers had bullhorns, leaders, and spectators. After an hour of diplomacy, Manuel poked his head in the bus and asked if anyone had toothpaste.
He then wrote on the windshield of our bus “Long live the striking farmworkers!” We were waved through.
Always travel with toothpaste.