Just the process of stepping out of an airport arrivals hall into a melee of taxi drivers, or sitting next to a vocal rooster on a bumper-car bus journey, can be enough to erode the confidence of even the most adventurous traveller.
That’s when paranoia sets in, and the unfamiliarity of your surroundings can make your trip feel like an ordeal worthy of Odysseus. Fret not: everyone needs a helping hand from time to time. Here are five skills that’ll help you on your way.
1. Understand the rules of the road
The first is simple: there are no rules. You yell stop, the traffic continues regardless, and a truck held together with no more than a hope and a prayer, thunders towards you as if involved in a Mad Max death race.
From Africa and India to Southeast Asia, it’s almost a contractual obligation. If you glare forebodingly at the truck driver, he’s still going to come for you. If you boldly walk on, you might get mowed down.
That may be a teensy exaggeration, but consider this: according to the latest WHO report, some of the most popular countries to travel to in 2016 are the most dangerous in which to be a pedestrian. There were 24,896 fatalities from road accidents in Iran, for instance, while in Thailand the number of road deaths hit 24,237. Other traveller hotspots such as Vietnam, Oman, Brazil, and South Africa are equally as foolhardy.
It’s Wacky Races logic out there, so don’t forget to stop, look, listen and think.
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2. Know your maths
Paying for a meal or bus ticket in a new country can sometimes feel like playing with Monopoly money. Which means knowing your mental arithmetic for converting currency is a must.
In Zimbabwe in 2008, for example, the government issued a laughable Z$100 trillion note (the equivalent of US$300). As travellers to Victoria Falls around that time may well remember, it was easy to get fleeced if you didn’t know your sums, especially when counting-out paltry $500 billion notes (US$1).
3. Master the ethics of haggling
Look up the dictionary definition of haggling and you’ll find this: “to bargain or wrangle, specifically over a price or an agreement”. What it doesn’t say is how even the simplest of head-to-head transactions, be it over a rickshaw ride in Delhi, or an impulsive sombrero purchase in Oaxaca (a trap we can all fall into), can turn into an existential ethical dilemma. You may have got a bargain, but in return you’ve deprived a family and hungry children.
Conversely, you may have been ripped off by a scoundrel, leaving you kicking yourself for not knowing better. Maybe the dictionary definition should adapt to calling it immersion therapy.
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In real terms, bartering is no more than an age-old game like chess. Your opponent will never bet against themselves, so it’s just a matter of resilience. The provider also knows you can afford it more than they can, so the question is who has the greater need?
Learning the knack of recognising what a product or service is worth, not just to you but to the seller, takes time but is a key survival skill. Some say you should start at half of what is offered, others say two-thirds.
Even if you pay slightly more than you’d like, you’ll almost always come out richer for the experience. And remember, there’s no glory in saving a few pennies. Because nobody likes a Scrooge.
4. Learn improvised sign language
Let’s face it: few travellers have a grasp of Tamil and those Mandarin lessons at school just didn’t stick. Learning sign and body language can overcome these barriers, and even if you do speak a few helpful phrases, sometimes it’s quicker to save your breath and use your hands.
For starters, everyone knows the universal sign for “OK” (thumb and index make a circle while the remaining fingers point up) and “let’s rock!” (index finger and pinkie raised into a horn-like fist), but what about the less obvious ones? For budding surfers the Hawaiian ‘shaka’ sign is a must; it can be used to say anything from “take it easy” to “hang loose” (make a fist, extend your pinky and thumb, then shake your hand).
For swimmers, paddle boarders, or scuba divers, placing crossed arms over your head while in the water could save your life; it means “I need some help”.
In Italy, meanwhile, hand signals become a little harder, especially because the country is the king of the symbolic gesture. A mere flap of the wrist could meaning anything from “go away” or “I’m not interested” to “look at that asshole”. Make sure you know the difference to avoid a punch in the face.
5. Grasp toilet etiquette
When it comes to toilet tales, travel is the ultimate eye-opener. No story is off limits between dorm buddies, and every backpacker has a ghoulish anecdote about a nightmarish squat-job in Asia that’d put you off your lunch.
The first thing to do when you see a slab of porcelain on the floor rather than a regular-shaped loo is to be brave, place your feet on either side, squat down, and hug your knees Yoga-style for support. It takes practice but afterwards you’ll have thighs as strong as Rambo’s.
In squeaky-clean Japan, toilets come with all manner of electronic gadgetry and wash settings. Push the front and back spray buttons blindly while crouched on a state-of-the-art Toto Washlet and post-loo trauma will remind you never to do it again. On these terms, travel really is the best teacher.