21 Sep 5 Friyays: September 21
As this posts, my husband and I (Dr. Donnelly) are wrapping up our vacation. We’ve hit up a few cities in Japan courtesy of Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas, and have eaten our way through this trip to places we’ve never been. Both Dr. Hinson and I are avid travelers (ask us about the time we learned that Brussels was under the tyranny of the motorcar, for example) and also have tons of experience in international travel from our time as expats. While most other lists of this kind are going to tell you what to pack (wet wipes, eye mask, ear plugs, and dry shampoo are all essentials in my bag), I’ve focused my list a little more on getting the most out of your experience. After all, you may never pass this way again, so you best honor the moment you’re in.
All of those blogs telling you to hydrate? They’re not lying. A: planes are dehydration machines and b: your body is not used to wherever you are. You cannot drink enough water, I promise. Budget for bottled water, and remember that many international locales do not offer tap water in the way that many American restaurants do. You will have to pay for bottled water and YOU SHOULD DO THAT. Tap water may be fine, but there’s always the sneaky city where it’s not. Barcelona, for example, is not a place where the tap water is safe and we learned that the hard way.
Eat the Peasant Food
The late (and great) Anthony Bourdain made his career on this point. The best food in every culture is always the stuff that sustained them for centuries. In Ireland, it’s seafood, beef, and potatoes and therefore the best seafood chowder you will have in your damn life will be from that island. In India, it’s a variety of curries that’ll make your mouth water, and on and on and on. Additionally, even if it’s not the tastiest food (ensima from Malawi, I’m looking at you), it’s one of the quickest ways to connect to the place you are. The best small talk? “What’s good to eat around here?” Let the locals tell you where and what to eat.
Pack for the Worst Case Scenario
Murphy’s Law is alive and well in international travel and taking the risk that it’s not is simply not worth it. Even if your period is not scheduled at all, pack tampons. Rarely have stomach issues? I don’t care, pack a sleeve of Immodium. Pain relief, a mini first-aid kit, Preparation H wipes, the ear wax drops you only use once and awhile… pack ’em all. The travel size aisle at Target is your friend. Nearly everywhere you’ll go has a chemist and you’ll most likely be able to get a version of what you need, but never at 3am when you inevitably need it and it’s always a bit of a hassle. Even in countries where you speak the language! The stories I have about trying to get a Mucinex-substitute in Belfast… it doesn’t exist! I had to buy three things when I was used to one and just started having my mother send me some in care packages.
Avoid Your Fellow Citizens
There is a certain variety of tourist that goes overseas – say an American who goes to the U.K. for vacation – and they only go to the super tourist spots and eat mostly at McDonald’s. They may wander into a pub for fish-n-chips, but they’ll never really speak to anyone who isn’t in their group and they’ll not really venture far from their comfort zone. If that is you, God bless and enjoy yourself, but we are different people.
I have absolutely eaten at McDonald’s in nearly every country I’ve been to and lived in (a: because the menus vary so much and that’s fascinating and b: because travel budgets are real and wise), but I’ve also found holes in the wall in Paris to try frogs legs, been the only English speakers in a noodle shop in Hong Kong, and learned more about every place I’ve been simply because I’ve sought out spaces off the beaten track. I do the foam-finger tourism spaces (your Towers of London, your Ring of Kerrys, your Empire State Buildings) because seeing those things are fab for sure. However, I can’t recommend highly enough digging deeper into the Lonely Planet guide and going to the overlooked museums, or the out of the way parks for the best people watching. In other words – don’t do any tourist space just because it’s famous. People live everywhere you’re going and they do fun things in those spaces. Find those! Be safe, be wise, but be adventurous.
Note: this does not extend to matters of safety. I tend to stay in Hilton or Marriott affiliated hotels because I know I can guarantee safety there and I know what to expect. If I can’t afford a hotel in the city I’m in, I choose a chain hostel (like Generator) or an AirBnB that’s personally recommended to me by a friend or literally a friend’s house. I am fierce about being safe where I sleep. I do not tromp through dodgy areas of town by myself and I make sure to research those before I go. When Erin and I travel together as two ladies, we are much more vigilant than I am when I travel with my husband.
Be where you are
Put down the phone, y’all. Even for photos. Just put it down sometimes. Just breathe and look and savor. Imagine what your life would be if you lived where you’re visiting. Snap photos that will bring you back to that feeling, not ones that’ll just look good on Instagram. Turn on airplane mode and listen to the sounds of the city, or the lake, or the mountain around you and center yourself. Take this trip – whether for business or pleasure – and remember that you are a piece of a vast human tapestry that existed long before you and will exist long after. Your part to play is vital, but so are you. Breathe deep in your sense of self, be grateful, practice hope, and travel well.