1. Always carry a pashmina scarf. It might look like a mere decorative object, but it is actually a complicated device out of a James Bond movie. In this trip, it has been tied in a knot worn to fit in with the Parisian girls, used as a shawl at a chilly Viennese concert, been a quick head covering at an Orthodox church and mosque, stuffed under a jacket for warmth, and used as a pillow on the train.
2. Keep your electronics light and on you at all times, along with your passport. I only had to have my passport stolen once (from a locked safe in a hostel in London) to learn that what stays on the body stays on the body. Great electronics: tablet, netbook and universal adapter. I put it into a girly purse so it just looks like I am carrying extra nylons and lipstick.
3. Which brings me to: don’t bother carrying lipstick and hair stuff when you leave the hotel. You are traveller. No matter how you try, you are going to look like a prison inmate. If you are going to be out all day, minimal preening.
4. Never ask for directions unless absolutely necessary. There is a whole planet of people who are more lost than you are and if called upon will give you the wrong directions. Every time. And you have something they don’t: a map. And besides, allow yourself to get lost a bit. It is how you get surprised and it forces you to adapt and to really learn the terrain. Columbus got to the Americas by getting lost. No discovery without work.
5. Never take a tour. Okay, if you are having a panic attack and the whole city looks like a cast out of Mack-the-Knife, then maybe a hop-on-hop-off tour, but otherwise, get a map (pop-out maps are the best). And review point number 4.
6. Pick hotels close to the train station. As someone once explained to me, I have been conditioned by Barbie and so need to pack something for every situation. A ball gown in case the prince comes, a winter coat, a spring coat, a bathing suit, a suit jacket, something for the gym, a selection of shoes for the whole gamut of sports and activities I could possibly want to do. So I have a heavy suitcase and being not far away has its advantages. Being close to the train station helps avoid being cheated by taxi drivers (who will know you are vulnerable in the first few minutes of being in a city you don’t know).
7. Public transit is safer than taxis. The more the merrier. You won’t get ripped off, and you will always be protected by the crowd whereas in a cab, you are at the mercy of the driver. Better yet walk, but pay attention to who is on the street. Stay on streets where there are women. More importantly, old women with canes. When you start just seeing groups of men, get off the street. Although, the area might be safer at another time of day.
8. Don’t bring your Canadian cell phone service abroad. Unlock your cell phone and buy a SIM card of the country you are in. Canadian cell phone rates are the worst in the world and are atrocious when you add roaming charges, so you are sure to save money on this one. You need a GSM phone which you can buy cheap in a foreign country if need be.
9. Don’t rely on the SNCF, the French railroad. I just saw a new report how suburban commuters in Paris are in danger of losing their jobs because the SNCF doesn’t show up. And avoid its spawn, Rail Europe. Any ticket that Rail Europe will sell you would have been bought cheaper on the corresponding national railroad’s site. And there is no customer service, plus the bureaucratic nightmares of dealing with them. Try Deutchebahn. Their e-tickets are much more efficient. I booked with Rail Europe because I was afraid that there wouldn’t be seats when I got to Eastern Europe and couldn’t book online. I found out I could have booked one of my tickets with Austrian Railways. The other one I had to rebook in Budapest anyway. And the third ticket that they would have sold me for 100 (for the reservation fee alone), came to 70 all inclusive and was easily bought in the station in Bucharest.
10. Use Google Translate to learn the essential words of a language. They are: Hello, Excuse me, Thank you and How much?. My ex used to add, “I love you” to that list, but let’s just say he travelled differently than I do.
11. Use the discrete setting on your camera and keep your camera small. If you actually want to blend in, it is better if you don’t carry a large knapsack with a Canadian flag on it, and then carry a large 12 inch lens. It is the way to get people who are interested in you for the wrong reasons: prostitutes, pick pockets, thieves, tour guides, beggars, pick up artists and sales people. Unless that is your cup of tea. Besides, you are not the centre of attention, the place is. Which brings me to number 12.
12. Shut up!! I now know that there is nothing worse than travelling with Canadians or Americans. They won’t quit talking. They bring the aura of Crescent Street around them everywhere they go, killing any experience different from anything back home. Instead, listen. Especially in the first few days. Try to see how people, move, how they talk, what the manners are. Introduce yourself slowly. The miracle of human difference and ingenuity will then reveal itself in silence.
While most people would rather lie on a beach and relax on their vacation, Sujata Dey, political attaché and freelancer, decided the time was right to orchestrate a multi-country tour through Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul, Sharjah, UAE, Delhi mostly by train. Come back to check future posts from Sujata as she makes her way through great train stations far and wide.