What Makes a Good Traveler?

Apologies to my readers for the rather long radio silence on Joburg Expat. I wasn’t completely idle over the last 3 months, however.  I finally accomplished a feat I thought would be a monumental blog renovation project, which turned out disarmingly easy: Adding SSL to my site, meaning you’ll no longer be scared off by Google from entering my domain. If you’re a blogger on WordPress with the same issue, I’d be happy to be of help, though I suspect everyone else has already figured it out and I was the last holdout.

Anyway… I am currently reading a book that I admit I dowloaded solely based on its intriguing title: “What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding” by Kristin Newman. It’s a memoir by a Hollywood comedy writer who spends several weeks each year traveling the world and “doing as the locals do,” by which she mostly means dating incredibly sexy men she has no intention to enter long-term relationships with. When she returns home, she becomes her regular old workaholic self for the duration of the TV season, until her next adventure.

One of her adventures has her stuck with a less-than-ideal travel companion, a woman named Sally.  Counting off all of Sally’s faults and world-traveler faux pas results in a list she recommends “you use when interviewing your next potential trip partner.”

In my opinion, it’s one of the best lists I’ve seen describing what makes for a good traveler – and, by extension, expat.

What Makes a Good Traveler

by Kristin Newman

  1. You are open. You say yes to whatever comes your way, whether it’s shots of a putrid-smelling yak-butter tea or an offer for an Albanian toe-licking. (How else are you going to get the volcano dust off?) You say yes because it is the only way to really experience another place, and let it change you. Which, in my opinion, is the mark of a great trip.
  2. You venture to the places where the tourists aren’t, in addition to hitting the “must-sees.” If you are exclusively visiting places where busloads of Chinese are following a woman with a flag and a bullhorn, you’re not doing it.
  3. You are easygoing about sleeping/ eating/ comfort issues. You don’t change rooms three times, you’ll take an overnight bus if you must, you can go without meat in India and without vegan soy gluten-free tempeh butter in Bolivia, and you can shut the hell up about it.
  4. You are aware of your travel companions, and of not being contrary to their desires/ needs/ schedules more often than necessary. If you find that you want to do things differently than your companions, you happily tell them to go on without you in a way that does not sound like you’re saying, “This is a test.”
  5. You can figure it out. How to read a map, how to order when you can’t read the menu, how to find a bathroom, or a train, or a castle.
  6. You know what the trip is going to cost, and can afford it. If you can’t afford the trip, you don’t go. Conversely, if your travel companion can’t afford what you can afford, you are willing to slum it in the name of camaraderie. P.S.: Attractive single people almost exclusively stay at dumps. If you’re looking for them, don’t go posh.
  7. You are aware of cultural differences, and go out of your way to blend. You don’t wear booty shorts to the Western Wall on Shabbat. You do hike your bathing suit up your booty on the beach in Brazil. Basically, just be aware to show the culturally correct amount of booty.
  8. You behave yourself when dealing with local hotel clerks/ train operators/ tour guides etc. Whether it’s for selfish gain, helping the reputation of Americans traveling abroad, or simply the spreading of good vibes, you will make nice even when faced with cultural frustrations and repeated smug “not possible”s. This was an especially important trait for an American traveling during the George W. years, when the world collectively thought we were all either mentally disabled or bent on world destruction. (One anecdote from that dark time: in Greece, I came back to my table at a café to find that Emma had let a nearby [handsome] Greek stranger pick my camera up off our table. He had then stuck it down the front of his pants for a photo. After he snapped it, he handed the camera back to me and said, “Show that to George Bush.” Which was obviously extra funny because of the word bush.)
  9. This last rule is the most important to me: you are able to go with the flow in a spontaneous, non-uptight way if you stumble into something amazing that will bump some plan off the day’s schedule. So you missed the freakin’ waterfall—you got invited to a Bahamian family’s post-Christening barbecue where you danced with three generations of locals in a backyard under flower-strewn balconies. You won. Shut the hell up about the waterfall.

So true, right? Of course, this all applies to us, you and me. We are such good travelers. We are soooo open-minded and go-with-the-flow-y and amenable to all sorts of disgusting-looking food offered to us by well-meaning strangers, it’s ridiculous. It’s just those pesky other travelers (aka expats) who exhibit any such annoying traits.

(Also quaint: The reference to traveling during the George W. years. Haha – if she had known what was to come two presidencies later…)

I also love this snippet of wisdom further on in the book:

“If I had gone on the trip I originally booked, I would have been with older, rich, married couples. It was a reminder for me that reinforced my travel rules—don’t overplan, and don’t book expensive trips if you want to meet fun, single people. The experience also illuminated another fact: regardless of how you travel, as you get deeper into your thirties you might be the only person your age out on the road at all, whether it’s in the hostels with the twentysomethings, or on the fancy cruises with the sixtysomethings. In your fourth decade, your compatriots are mostly at home, working, raising humans, getting husbands through rehab, living for someone besides themselves. Suckers. That’s what I told myself.”

That last part perhaps explains why I bought the book in the first place. As the poster child for that fourth and fifth decade of life she so fittingly describes in one depressing sentence, I needed to vicariously live through someone who seduces a gorgeous Argentinian priest named Father Juan – just one of many other escapades Kristin shares in her book with much wit and self-deprecation. Please not the “live through someone” part – because my life  is glaringly devoid of anyone name Juan, or gorgeous, let alone a priest.

Do you, like me, enjoy living through someone else’s escapades, because it is a) way cheaper, and b) much less fraught with complications such as jealous husbands, a subpar travel companion, or putrid-smelling yak-butter-tea?

In that case, I highly recommend Kristin Newman’s book:

And, if your taste veers more towards outdoor adventure and the complications you’d rather live through second-hand than directly are frozen toes and the perils of using a drop toilet at 16,000 feet altitude, may I suggest another read*:

*Coming out soon on audio. Stay tuned!

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