After you pack for your trip and are on your way, you've got one big hurdle out of the way. The dream has become reality! When you arrive you will settle into a guest house, perhaps see a few sights, and feel very excited about life. All is great, for a while at least. The problem is that most seasoned travelers will agree that you simply cannot go about for several months at a time doing only touristy stuff. There comes a point of saturation, when you need a few days (or weeks) of decompression in the form of a change of pace.
So what constitutes a change of pace? After some time on the road, you will inevitably start to think about your long term objectives for your trip. Not surprisingly, for most travelers this means that you will want to meet the locals, make friends with them, hang out, learn about their way of life and teach them about yours. If you don't do this, you will realize that your entire trip is in danger of becoming one big movie, always moving past you but never letting you jump into it, behind the scenes. You may catch scents here and there, perhaps via a chat with a man at a bus stop or at your guest house, but this is hardly living much of a different life than what you have back home. How can you break through these personal barriers? (See also 10. how to meet locals.)
If you've taken the time to travel half-way around the world, then you certainly have an interest in the people there. Take France, for example. We Americans are always told by our friends that the French are rude, yet they also personify the perceived ideals of love, romance, beauty and fine cuisine. We visit France in droves. The fact is, if you have the right attitude then the whole world can be your friend, at least initially.
To meet people you need to be open and patient, and demonstrate curiosity about the local society. You can practice this with your everyday activities. For example, don't always eat in the tourist restaurant, with the English menu and the white people. Go around the corner to the unnamed cafe, with no English, no foreigners and lots of boisterous conversation. Chances are you'll get a lot of stares, but soon enough someone will either beckon you to sit with them, or come join you at your table. This won't happen every day, but it will happen more often than not. Don't always ride the big, fast tourist bus. There is always a local alternative. If you don't see many locals on your bus, that's because they're riding the cheaper, slower one. Don't always settle for the guest house that is first recommended to you. If it sounds too expensive, walk around and check some others nearby that might have fewer amenities.
In general, the poorer the country and the more difficult the communication, the friendlier the people will be. English is widely spoken in wealthy Malaysia and Singapore, and consequently it's harder to meet people. The folks of Bangladesh, Burma and Cambodia are among the friendliest in the world. They might speak only a few words of English or French, but they'll still want to know a lot about you. Be inquisitive. Ask them lots of questions and answer all of theirs. If they invite you to visit their homes, go for it! This is the chance you've waited for to break through the boring tedium of daily sightseeing.
This frame of mind of openness can be expressed in every aspect of your traveling life. If you're not in a rush and have a general interest in getting to the other end of town to see a particular temple, leave the guidebook behind and start wandering in that general direction. Poke around in small shops and say hello. If you're a little lost, ask for directions. The locals know the streets a lot better than your guidebook does. Pulling out your guidebook map in the middle of town indicates that you're not interested in talking to anybody and that you think you can take care of yourself. If you're in Bangkok, staying on Khao San Road, don't spend all your time there. How are the 7-Elevens, cybercafes, big screen TVs, bootleg music stands, ganja smokers and hair braiders different than some bizarre mixture of Disneyland and Telegraph Ave. back home? Get out there and explore the genuine Thai aspects of that fascinating city. Then take a moment to examine your clothes. Can people label you as American, English, German, Dutch, Japanese or Israeli based on your appearance? Or do you blend in nonchalantly as some wandering international citizen? Become at ease and in-sync with your surroundings, and soon enough youíll feel like you belong there.
A great way to quickly work your way into the social scene in rural SE Asia is to take up any opportunity to share a few drinks. Yes, I mean alcoholic ones. Villagers ferment and distill their own rice whisky or toddy palm alcohol everywhere. This is called "liquor hall" (from rice) and "htanyei" (from palm) in Burma, "lao-lao" (from rice) in Thailand and Laos, "sra saw" (from rice) and "dtuk tnao" (from palm) in Cambodia, and "tuak" (from rice) in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. The palm alcohol is about as strong as beer, but tastes sweeter. Itís similar to Mexican "pulque," which is derived from the maguey cactus. If your group runs out, offer to buy some more Ė typically about 20-50 cents per liter. Women generally donít drink, but they are always welcome to sit and chat with the group while the men pass around the bottle. Before long youíll be one with the villagers, youíll all be singing and dancing, and theyíll talk about you for years down the road, just as youíll recall your times with them as some of the highlights of your trip. Finally, donít be surprised if youíre offered a trip to the local brothel to finish off the evening. Sadly, this is commonplace in much of the third world. Remember that AIDS is now rampant in SE Asia.
Liquor hall and fried "nga" go a long way in Burma.
Buy "dtuk tnao" from these guys in Cambodia.
The art of bargaining is one facet of daily life in which you get to frequently practice your skills of cultural awareness. Remember that very rarely are people trying to milk you for every bit of money you have. Bargaining is a way of life, and is simply a method of reaching an agreed price at which both parties will be happy. Many SE Asians regard it as something which is fun to do. With time, you will too.
After youíve been in the region for a while, youíll get a general feel for how much certain things should cost. Even if you donít, you can always ask a third party, such as a fellow traveler or your guest house owner, what the going rate is. If someone is asking too much, then you can say so with confidence. If they refuse to come down, you can always go somewhere else, because you know what the price should be. Donít haggle for minutes on end trying to bring them to their knees over what amounts to a few cents. A dollar might be worth a lot to them, but like everyone else in the world, they need to earn a profit on the goods and services offered.
I cannot emphasize enough the need to learn phrases in the local language to greatly facilitate your assimilation into the local culture. Take a couple days to learn how to say the following words and phrases, using a phrasebook or a friendly local:
- my friend
- thank you
- good bye
- how much?
- food: rice, chicken, fish, beef, pork
- drink: water, tea
- verbs: want, eat, go
- numbers: 1-10, 20, 30, ..., 100, 1000
Consider this as a bare minimum vocabulary. You'll have the opportunity to use this vocabulary in nearly every personal interaction, whether it's greeting a man on the street ("Hello, my friend."), ordering food in a teashop ("I want chicken rice."), asking directions at the bus stop ("I want go Phnom Penh."), buying something at the market ("How much?"... "one hundred fifty kyat"), or bidding adieu to a helpful man ("Thank you, my friend. Good-bye.").
If youíre going to be in one country for a few weeks, or if youíre just really interested, then you may want to get serious about studying a language. In addition to friends you meet along the way, a great avenue for learning how to read and write is through elementary-level school textbooks. Since they are written strictly in the local language, the learning curve is quite steep, but all the more rewarding later on. Generally these are available for purchase at small bookstores in every town, since they are rarely provided to students free of charge by the schools. Theyíre inexpensive (under $1) and vary widely in quality, but if you check out a few you should be able to find one that guides you through the alphabet and demonstrates the proper way to "draw" individual letters. Theyíre also quite informative from a cultural standpoint, since they frequently contain drawings, photos and other tidbits that relate to childhood in that particular country.
"Piesa Khmei, Moouy" Ė Khmer Language, One
Learning small bits of Asian languages is not as difficult as it may sound, even if youíre traveling to many countries. Just as French, Spanish and Italian are related Romance languages, many Asian languages belong in the same family and share words and grammatical structures. Youíll find that a lot of the basic vocabulary listed above is useful across borders. The three big language groups youíll come across are:
South Asia Mainland SE Asia Maritime SE Asia
Hindi Khmer Malay
Nepali Thai Indonesian
Burmese is more related to Tibetan languages and Vietnamese has heavy Chinese influence.
Many words are universal, and youíll find that "coffee", "hotel", "dollar", a smile and a handshake are widely used and understood.
Of course, I cannot put in words here everything that you must know to get yourself psyched just right for your trip. In time you will begin to form your own traveling habits that may or may not jive with what Iíve written. Regardless of all that youíve heard and learned for yourself, the ultimate in proper "attitude" for an extended trip is "the groove." This is a feeling of complete bliss, contentment and comfort with oneís surroundings that extends far beyond political boundaries and guides your daily way of life. Early in your trip travelers in "the groove" can be recognized as those who do not fret over missed buses, who enjoy bargaining with a smile, who are comfortable trusting locals and who are the most mobile. Not all travelers reach this state of enlightenment, but my goal here has been to point you in that direction.
In the early days of your trip, if you find yourself continually frustrated with cultural differences and self-motivation, try to learn something from veteran travelers who are in "the groove." During the first week of my travels in Africa I was spending a lot of time on my cot at the YMCA in Accra trying to figure out how to increase enjoyment of my surroundings. Two things were already clear: I was WAY too worried about all of my stuff, and I was not trusting the local people enough. I needed a new perspective on travel ease.
Fortunately, along came Jerome and Marcos, two Swiss guys I met at the Burkina Embassy. They had traveled separately, solo, overland from Europe. Jerome had come by bus, rail and thumb while Marcos had come by bike. These guys were totally fascinating because they let me see what travelers were like after being on the road for months at a time. For one thing they were very happy, but perhaps most startling was what they were carrying... almost nothing! Jerome and I met one morning to catch a bus to Cape Coast. As I heaved my 20 kg backpack through the city, struggling to keep up, Jerome effortlessly strolled ahead with a small sack slung over his shoulder. When we finally found the right bus, I was sweating profusely and had to pay double just so my backpack could ride with the smelly fish up top, while Jerome just hopped in and set his bag on his lap. He then bought fresh pineapple for me from a bus-side hawker. Isnít that stuff dirty? He told me he had never gotten sick, except for malaria which he treated just by getting some chloroquine at the local medical clinic (see 12. health on the road). He did not take prophylaxis. He carried just two shirts and did his laundry in a bucket. Marcos slept in a sarong. Both of them exclusively ate street food, not at the expensive restaurants which I had stuck to my first couple of days. Why didnít any of the guidebooks tell me all this stuff beforehand? Needless to say, Jerome, Marcos and I became good friends, and it is to them that I owe much of my early insight into minimalist travel.