I have done a fair amount of travel. Not as much as some folks, but a good amount for most. Countless cities, in I believe…twenty five countries to date. With all this travel (some of it reckless; fair enough) and kaleidoscope of experiences, few crumbs of undeniable facts get tossed in your lap. Sometimes these crumbs are thrown at you by an orangutan, sometimes they are spit at you by a cobra; either way, you gather some rock solid truths. These things I hold dear, like gold. These nuggets of wisdom turn into rules after a while. So as not to suffer any regret after returning home, I try to adhere to them in a somewhat fanatical manner. The top of my list, the most important rule I adhere to while travelling is: Never, EVER, pass up the opportunity to lick a snake.
I am not a “Travel Blogger” by any stretch of the imagination. I go places and I experience them, I do not evaluate them. Sometimes I put these experiences into words and publish them for public consumption, strictly by way of telling a story or sharing an inspiring moment. Not to promote, recommend or advise. I just do what I do. Sometimes that finds me in a ten seater plane flying around Mount Everest or buries me in a narrow rock tunnel 250 feet below the North/South Korea DMZ. Sometimes I may be balancing on the balcony of a Rajasthan fortress built in the 1500’s or getting too close to the edge of a waterfall on the Bangladesh border. The point is, when I arrive at some place new, I want to feel it, smell it, taste it. Not through the eyes of a tourist, but as a local.
Again, just by way of telling a tale, I will explain how I tackle day one in any new locale. Hotel, rest house, campsite or hostel, job one is to always unpack my toiletries. No matter the time of day or night, I will shower and brush my teeth. Then I secure my passport and now I am already too late to get out the door, usually to the closest McDonald’s…that’s my own personal demon that I don’t feel the need to explain.
There are several first moves I like to make depending on the location. If I am in a big city, I will normally take the city tour bus, the hop on-hop off one…and stay on it. Just to get the feel of the place and the lay of the land, making notes where to head back to on my own. Always accost the desk clerk…I mean ALWAYS. After they show you the tourist map kept under the counter, (they will circle the “excellent” shopping areas and “nice” restaurants) smile and ask them where the good shit is. When they ask “What good shit?”, reply “ The shit my mother doesn’t want you to tell me about.”Most of them will laugh and fill you in where the red light district is (a must visit in any city for me) and point out the more unsavory areas that may or may not have things worth seeing. At the very least, you will get the name of a good underground club or two. Oh, and when you are in a foreign city asking about shopping, don’t inquire about malls, for God’s sake; ask where the local market is, preferably a night market.
If you are in a more rural setting, the desk clerk thing may not be an option depending on the language barrier you’re facing and your overall ability to communicate with the country bumpkins. Smaller hotels in smaller destination locations may not have the type of worldly staff that understand you want the real truth on their sleepy little ville. So I will normally hire a local taxi driver to “show me the sights”. This can end up being between a one hour to three-day contract, depending how good he/she is. After a little one on one time, the cabbie will get to know you and will better understand what you’re after; unless he/she is drunk ( Montreal and Rhodes) or a madman/woman driver (Jaipur) or a budding grifter (Kathmandu). Stay on your toes.
For the true rural excursions, I tend to rely primarily on Tripadvisor. Boring, I know; but accurate and in most cases, has a surprising amount of information on little known destinations. Another great source of intel for deep country adventures are roadside diners. I don’t mean Denny’s. I mean small family owned diners or even better, a Roadhouse(Dhabas in India). The proprietors of these greasy spoon establishments are a wealth of information on local folklore, facts, myth and legend.It was an old man in a Dhaba making us lunch that led us to the Dadhikar Fort hidden outside Alwar, near Bala Quila in Rajasthan. Don’t be afraid to ask! That is exactly the small pearl of wisdom I am offering here. Don’t be afraid to ask, to do, to explore, to try. So many treasures can slip through your fingers in just a fleeting moment…if you freeze at the very second you should be clenching your fist.
In Berlin, I took the standard public Third Reich Tour (there is nothing wrong with joining a hotel offered tour once in a while. You don’t ALWAYS have to be a Lone Wolf!). The guide on this tour was ex Brit Military. He had been stationed in Berlin for over twenty year and done extensive research on The Nazi Party. Also, he had flown to Russia specifically to see the fragment of Hitler’s skull put on display by the Russians in 2000. That impressed me to no end, he was hard-core.
The point here is this, while we were standing over Hitler’s bunker, I broke him away from the herd and asked EXACTLY where Hitler’s remains had been found. That took some guts. I was very skittish asking the question. As a matter of fact, it took me most of the tour to work up the nerve. He said quite loudly “Common question.” Getting the rest of the tour group’s attention, “No one knows for sure where the remains were found as the Soviets kept the details secret for so long. Somewhere in this area is the best guess, as this is where the rear exit of the bunker was. ” He waved his arm in a large and very unspecific circle.
I was embarrassed, feeling I had asked a silly question; but I would survive a little embarrassment and our group seemed satisfied with this new piece of unsolicited information. After a short time, the tour guide walked over to me and whispered, “Do you see the other tour group there under the tree?” he nodded in the direction. “ Yes…” I replied. He smiled and winked, “ In front of the tree to the slight left” and walked away from me. Later that day, we went back after the tours had finished and I stood on the spot where Hitler was cremated. I have no idea why he kept that information from the group, or why he chose to share it with me. But I asked, and he did.
Creepy? Damn right, and in all probability, not what YOU are looking for in your holiday schedule. All I am pointing out is, if you don’t take the chance and ask, you will NEVER know. If you don’t take the chance and do, then you will NEVER experience. I stood on the beach in Naples, Florida one morning and watched a four seater sea plane take off for Key West…I wasn’t on it.
The person I was travelling with was not comfortable with the offer this private pilot had made us. It was a chance meeting, on the beach, a friendly chat, and all of a sudden “Hey, I am heading to Key West today. Toss me $100.00 and you can fly down with me. Take the day to explore the island while I do what I have to do, you can watch the sun set, have a surf and turf dinner and we’ll be back by midnight.” This was received with a flat out “NO” from my travel companion.
As I watched that plane disappear, I swore to myself, I would never miss an opportunity like that again. I hated the feeling it gave me. Now I realize I was strangling my wanderlust in its very infancy, literally murdering a piece of me I didn’t even know existed yet. I did my time in normal society, and now…well, now I am able to NOT miss those opportunities.
There have been times that attitude has backed me into some sticky situations, sure, but they were all worth it in the end. Whether in a riot at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, my vehicle surrounded by communist protesters in Cuba (years later, confined to my hotel room in Nepal for the same reason), flat on my back for five days with raw oyster food poisoning in the Everglades (I seriously thought I was going to die), in the middle of a military coup in Venezuela…hell man, I even feared for my life after stumbling into a vampire coven (true true true!) in Belgium, they were all FANTASTIC experiences.
Yes they all caused a dirty diaper at the time, but by hook or by crook I’m still here! Alive and kicking.And now I wouldn’t trade any one of those experiences…not a single one, not even for a sack load of gold doubloons…