Discovery is at the heart of travel. New places bring with it new tastes, sights, smells, and sounds. This creates stimulation. It can also, unfortunately, create anxiety. This is especially true when traveling to a foreign land where language, food, custom and culture are totally different. How does one grapple with the minefield of “new” while also tapping into its pleasures?
Travel books, guides and articles are certainly a great way to get a sense of a place, its people and practices. But as a single woman who travels all over the world, I’ve found myself in sometimes dangerous and sometimes awkward situations that guidebooks don’t have an escape hatch for.
In all my years of jetting the globe, I’ve created my own escape hatch. Here are some do’s and don’ts for being a traveler, male or female:
Asking questions is obviously helpful if you’re lost or looking for a good restaurant. But I find that asking questions about the history of a place and the customs of its people not only enriches my experience, it also signals to my hosts that I’m interested in them. Who doesn’t want someone to be interested in him or her?
Asking is especially helpful when I’m unsure about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Questions show that you’re trying. So, even if you do commit a faux pas, that you’ve been preparing not to will win you sympathy points.
Mind your money
Until mobile wallets are as mainstream as Coca-Cola, don’t assume that everyone around the world uses credit cards and has small change. When traveling, cash is king. (It also saves a hefty sum on credit card charges). But also don’t assume that you can carry around big notes. Most interactions will require small change: taxis, bus fare and tips.
When in Rome, dress like the Romans
Yes we all know not to wear a halter-top in Riyadh. But did you know that it’s custom to remove your shoes before sitting down at some meals in Tokyo? Knowing the dress code isn’t enough. Know the dress customs. And always bring something fancy. There’s no need to swap your sneakers for sequins. But it’s nice when you can tie on a scarf or pop on a broach for that unexpected cocktail party or dinner invitation.
Be kind not right
Sitting in a meeting in Pakistan, a man cut me off asking why I was speaking at all. My inner Gloria Steinem told me to speak louder then burn my bra. But all that would have left me was braless. Women should have the right to speak whenever and wherever they want. And I did. Rather than making a political point I continued to assert myself without lecturing or being rude. At the end of the meeting the man told me I had made excellent points. That wouldn’t have happened if I had fumed. Keep cool. And always, always keep kind.
Sometimes a banana isn’t a banana
Because so many Turkish words had infiltrated the Bosnian language, I didn’t bother learning it when I landed in Sarajevo. Problem with that was that one day when I thought I was asking for a banana I offended the grocer by asking for a husband. Learn to speak a few words and sentences of the local language. When you don’t know or understand something, go back to the first Do on this list – ask.
No one wants to get sick overseas. But it’s ridiculous and rude to avoid all local foods and offerings. Exercise common sense when eating abroad. Don’t skulk with your power bars when there is so much interesting local fare. Especially outside the United States, food tends to be fresher (and thereby tastier). Sure you don’t want to wash down tap water in Mumbai. But what a crime it would be to miss the city’s soft shell crab.
Other helpful tips
- Write down your passport number, date when it was issued and where it was issued. Do the same for your credit cards and wallet contents. Hey, you never know.
- Emergency numbers. Write ‘em down.
- Bring a portable umbrella.
- Bring insect repellent – trust me on this one.
- Bring antibiotics.
- If you’re a woman, it may be helpful to bring a wedding ring. I wear one and it does make a difference
- Download useful apps like Skype and WhatsApp to help you keep in touch affordably. You can buy a local phone card and SIM in most countries. Letting your iPhone or Blackberry roam is dangerous.
- Listen to local music and read a novel by a local writer – they’ll be a far more interesting and unique guide than any Frommer’s.
Elmira writes about global innovations and entrepreneurship on Entreventures on Forbes.com. Over the past several years, Elmira has worked to support start-ups in emerging markets at Endeavor, served as the Chief Spokesperson for the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo and assisted former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, an advisory board member for the Turkish Women’s International Network and Turkish Philanthropy Funds and a mentor for the Women Innovate Mobile entrepreneur incubator. She is a regular speaker on innovation and start-ups and is currently writing a book on the obstacles to global entrepreneurship.