As I prepare to go on the biggest travel adventure of my life I have to admit to myself, and to you, that I am a pretty poor traveller overall. The following is a (not even exhaustive) list of the essential travel skills that I currently lack and having talked to lots of people on the road, I am pretty sure I am not alone in most of these.
A brass neck
I realise that this term might not be familiar to everyone, so allow me to explain; having a brass neck is when you quite confidently and unashamedly ask for, or do something that you are not entitled to; for example, requesting extras or just going to the front of a queue if you are running late. I simultaneously despise and envy brass-necked people, and am therefore totally passive-aggressive towards them when I see them succeed.
My lack of brass neck puts me at a massive disadvantage when travelling because my British upbringing has indoctrinated me to believe that any tiny deviation from my own accepted social norms is unreasonable, and I cannot switch this off even when I am thousands of miles from home. For example, I swear that I physically CANNOT violate the sacred British rule of ‘first come, first served’, even if I am the only person in the whole train station actually queuing, and the thought of asking for an upgrade, or being difficult in a restaurant makes me want to cry. I fully accept that I need to harden up a bit.
The ability to haggle
My haggling skills are laughable. I know what I need to do and I can run through my opening line in my head till kingdom come, but I just fall apart in the face of even the most reasonable of salespeople. My main failure is to approach any haggling situation with the idea that one of two bad things is going to happen – I am either going to pay far too much, or embarrass myself by not offering enough. I really struggle to see the whole experience as the mutually beneficial thing that it is. The whole business of haggling is a painful reminder that I really don’t know the value of anything when I am out of my comfort zone.
Confidence in the face of authority
It only takes one glimpse of a Thai police officer in that super tight brown uniform to make me break into a guilty sweat and scuttle out of sight. And don’t even get me started on border guards and those little “we both know what is about to happen here” smiles. I know that a calm, confident demeanor is the key to sailing through encounters with authority. Despite this knowledge I adopt a hideous rictus grin that suggests that I have two kilos of heroin about my person, or that I am a woman on the edge who will pay any amount of money to find herself elsewhere as soon as possible. As you can imagine, neither is conducive to an easy passage in many areas of the world.
To my eternal shame I am unable to conduct myself in any language other than my own. I know a few basic phrases in French and Spanish but I could easily be out-conversed by a three-year old. It could be worse I suppose, my husband was once told by an Indian guy on a train that he really needed to work on his English.
There is nothing complicated about either map reading or remembering which way you went to get somewhere, right? So why can’t I do either? I actually love poring over a map; many of them are things of great beauty. They suck me in with their linear simplicity but when I get out into the hot, sweaty reality of the world they bear no actual resemblance to the chaos in front of me. Then, to make things worse, I am so busy trying not to look like the bewildered tourist that I so clearly am that when I finally admit that I am lost, I have no idea which way I came. While it is undoubtedly true that getting lost can lead to joyous unexpected discoveries, it can also lead to being mugged or having to pay through the nose for an unscrupulous taxi driver to convey you two minutes around the corner to somewhere you thought was miles away.
However, even as I type this I am thinking of all of the times when my uselessness has provided me with great travel memories. I am remembering all of the sweating and stammering and giggling and suppressed rage that goes along with doing things wrong abroad. When I read other traveller’s tales, the stories I enjoy the most are always the ones where everything goes tits-up and they have to deal with the ensuing fallout. So, although I like to think that I will now have plenty of time to work on my weaknesses, they do provide a myriad of opportunities for laughing and reflecting, so I will embrace them heartily in the meantime.