We do not receive wisdom. We must discover it for ourselves after a journey through the wilderness that no one can take for us.
– Marcel Proust
I’ve had a blessed life. My travels have taken me to more than 50 countries, some of them many times over. I’ve learnt a lot in that time. I’ve learnt how to pack light, I’ve navigated my way around Tokyo and I’ve driven in downtown Los Angeles in peak hour traffic.
I could give you lots of advice on how to be a savvy traveller, but I’d rather tell you what I believe it takes to be a wise traveller. And there’s a difference, as you’ll see. So here are my top tips for travelling wisely.
Follow Your Instincts
While it helps to seek advice from those who have travelled before you – and some of my best experiences have come from other people’s recommendations – your gut instinct is generally the right one. I had lesson 101 very early on in my travelling life when I was planning a trip to Taiwan in the days when no Aussies went there.
I consulted a friend whose parents had just returned from Taiwan and I asked her how long I should stay. I was told they’d spent “three days and that was two days too many”. My gut instinct told me they couldn’t possibly be right. I went for four days and it wasn’t enough. I’ve been back numerous times since and I’d go again in a flash.
Take Copious Notes
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.
– Oscar Wilde
Now, of course, you’d just pull out your iPhone or whatever other device you have to occupy yourself during idle moments. Nevertheless, it helps to keep a diary or notes recording your experiences in minute detail. It’s so easy now to have a photographic record of where you’ve been. It’s not so easy to recall conversations, flavours, smells and all the other minutae that make travel interesting. And while you think you’ll remember, believe me, you won’t.
I love looking back at the diaries of trips I did many years ago. I can recall standing on top of the Twin Towers before they came down. I can reminisce about visiting East Berlin before the wall came down. I’ve forgotten so much but when I read my notes, so meticulously kept, all the memories come flooding back.
Keep Your Eyes Open
The traveller sees what he sees.
The tripper sees what he has come to see.
– G K Chesterton
Be observant. Keep your eyes wide open. Don’t have preconceived notions.
A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.
– Lao Tzu
While a certain amount of planning helps, make sure that there is room for spontaneity. Allow serendipity moments to happen. That’s what I did when I was travelling the world at 16 and met a couple of good looking Swedish guys, and the motto has held me in good stead ever since.
Mind you, I could have done without the surprise of being caught in Japan during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, when I was holed up in a hotel for five days with only the clothes I was wearing. But it did teach me how few possessions I need to travel with, and it certainly taught me to take things as they come.
Be Open To New Tastes
I could have done without the frogs and turtle in China, or the water beetle in Cambodia for that matter. But I would never have experienced the exquisite figs stuffed with foie gras in Bordeaux if I’d left my tastebuds at home.
Travel With Empathy and Without Prejudice
Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
– Gustave Flaubert
Perhaps the most important thing you learn from travelling extensively is that people have the same needs the world over. Everyone wants to be fed, clothed and loved, and believe it or not, people are generally kind, decent human beings, regardless of where they are in the world.
While it’s important to travel with empathy, I would caution, however, against giving to beggars. This is a controversial one, and it definitely takes a steely resolve to resist from giving money to someone like the chap I saw in Cambodia who was missing all four limbs. But some people deliberately maim their children to elicit sympathy and, by giving in, you could be encouraging it.
Equally, there have been unsettling accounts that volunteering your services in overseas orphanages can do more harm than good. Travel with a conscience but do your research and find an appropriate charity to donate to if you wish.
Don’t Be A Cheapskate
By the same token, please don’t be a cheapskate. The dollar that you’ve just saved in Bali could have made a real difference to someone’s life. While it’s fun to bargain, and certainly expected in many countries, please don’t be an ugly tourist, don’t raise your voice, and don’t be rude or condescending. Keep it friendly and everyone is happy.
Leave Only Footprints
Be polite. Have some manners. I once travelled with a woman – ironically, a devoutly religious one – who had so little respect for her fellow human that she would go up to people with her big long camera lens and poke it right in their face. Just because someone is having their hair cut on a footpath in Asia doesn’t mean they want to be photographed. Courtesy is appreciated everywhere in the world.
Respect the local culture. If the locals don’t want you to climb all over Uluru, consider their feelings and oblige. Having respect for other people and their culture also extends to having respect for the earth on which we tread. Travel lightly, travel responsibly and travel intelligently. Leave only your footprints.
Travel Without Fear
We were standing on the steps outside a jazz club in the Portuguese city of Porto watching the rain pelt down and wondering how we’d get back to our hotel without getting drenched. A guy on the steps turned and said laconically, “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall”. We got talking and he offered us a lift back to our hotel.
Normally I wouldn’t accept lifts from strangers but I was with my partner, and man that rain was heavy. Suddenly Oscar didn’t seem like an axe murderer but more like the musician that he in fact was. Two nights later, we dined at the restaurant where he told us he was performing, and we had a terrific night. Yes, you do have to be sensible but you don’t need to be afraid.
Travel With A Sense Of Humour
In a village in Lombok renowned for its pottery, we were introduced to a man who our guide told us was “just one step from heaven”. With his flowing white beard and calm demeanour, he certainly looked like a godly being, but as we could only communicate with hand gestures, it was hard to know whether the guide was referring to his age or his character.
We negotiated to buy four of his bowls and while we were busy fiddling and photographing, he was wrapping them carefully. When we got to our hotel that night, we discovered he’d given us only three bowls. They weren’t expensive so it didn’t matter, but you know, I would have liked a set of four … Still, there’s no point getting hung up about a missing bowl, is there? We had a good laugh about the miscommunication and to this day we fondly recall our encounter with the man who was one step from heaven.
Travel With Purpose
Travelling is not just about ticking a whole lot of places off a bucket list, as fun as that might be. As with life itself, I think you need to travel with purpose and with meaning. The light bulb moment for me came when I was travelling in England in 2003, four years after my mother died. It was the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation and suddenly my mother was watching over me.
When I was a kid, mum was always banging on about how she had been in London for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. Now I finally understood how that trip had shaped her destiny and mine. Imagine, a girl from the bush, from a humble Queensland family, taking herself off to the other side of the world so soon after the war (and meeting my Dutch father on the ship coming home). If I ever wondered where my love of travel came from, the answer was staring me right in the face.
Give As Much As You Receive
Spread love wherever you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.
– Mother Teresa
Give as much as you get, and I don’t mean money or material things. I had the privilege of visiting Burma in 2006, when few westerners were travelling there, and certainly not to the remote villages along the Chindwin River that we were cruising on. One day I was sitting outside a temple when a man on a motorbike pulled up and started talking to me. He went home to fetch his eight-year-old daughter so that she could practise her English with me. She arrived on the back of his bike, dressed in her finest frilly frock, and shyly spoke to me while her proud dad beamed from ear to ear. Everything in life goes around in circles. I probably made her day (even her year, perhaps). But she also made mine.
To move, to fly, to float, to gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.
– Hans Christian Andersen