What skills can I learn to become a better traveler
January 5, 2011 8:01 AM   Subscribe

I am planning to take a year and travel India (mostly) and maybe a little Nepal and bits of S.E. Asia. I have over a year before my planned departure and would like to start preparing both physically and mentally. What skills can I learn to make me a better traveler.

I am looking for things I can start doing over this time that will prove beneficial for when I start traveling. Some examples I am thinking of.

• Start a walking regiment
• Break in Shoes
• Get used to walking with backpack
• Start learning Hindi
• Learn some knots

I am not looking for packing lists or itinerary help, just physical or mental skills I can start developing now for travel later. Thank You!
posted by travis08 to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Are you going to be taking a camera? I took a couple of photography classes before a trip to Cuba and was so happy I did.
posted by shornco at 8:10 AM on January 5, 2011

Get a base of shared cultural reference: it doesn't really matter what, but something that'll provide material for conversation. Pick one or more or invent your own:

- read books about or set in the region (there are lots of great Indian novelists that write in English: Vikram Seth is my favourite)
- watch Bollywood films / music (or find other stuff you like that's made in the places you're going to)
- start following cricket
- Indian cookery lessons
- as you said, learn some Hindi

Then you'll be able to have hilarious conversations about an actor or sportsman; conversations which can be used as the base to lead into more interesting topics.

Extra plus plus if you can find local clubs/lessons/whatever where you are and meet people from the places you are going. Then you have people to visit and piles of local tips.
posted by squishles at 8:12 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

A good thing to learn is people skills:

- How to make conversation easily
- How to talk to people from other cultures
- How to read people

In my experience, one of the single most important things that affects how someone travels is how well they ride the balance between stepping into the unknown and when to say no and walk away.

Apart from that, start training yourself to need less. You don't need to be uber fit or able to walk miles with a backpack. Those things are useful, but if you are active as you travel you will acclimatise to walking distances, carrying your pack etc. But travel noobs move about the place with tons of stuff, and half the kitchen hanging off their backpack. Why? Clothes are cheap, shoes are cheap, and very few places are that far from a store that sells perfectly decent kit. The savviest traveler I met traveled across the Middle East with a 30 liter daysack. Apart from a camera, his passport and money - the last two never left his person - everything he had could be replaced for less than $100.

Finally, and related to my first point - have one party piece. A joke. A magic trick. Whatever. Something to break the ice. It seems rather trite, but you could do worse than learn a few bar tricks that don't require knowing someone's language or having uncommon props so you can while away time, and gain enough kudos to get the benefit of the doubt.

Finally, finally. Learn how to budget. And learn how to make decisions on the fly. I.e. you might have the best itinerary planned, but you get somewhere and someone recommends the best place ever you can't miss. My most memorable and enjoyable travel experiences have always been when the plan got ripped up after I'd arrived.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:14 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Off the cuff, I would say start taking more public transportation, buses, trains, etc.

not sure where you're from, you might already be doing so but someone who is used to transporting themselves in their own car might find being thrust into a bus jammed with people a little scary.
posted by p1nkdaisy at 8:15 AM on January 5, 2011

Learn a bit about Hindu religion. It will enable you to contextualize much of what you see, and without it many things will make no sense.

It's also something that you can use in SE Asia. Despite the nominally Buddhist or Islamic religious base in many countries there, there's a lot of cultural heritage flowing through from the days when they were Hindu.
posted by Ahab at 8:20 AM on January 5, 2011

Also, learn how to say "no". With a smile. But firmly. And repeatedly.
posted by Ahab at 8:27 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Learn to poop crouched on the ground, and with a glass of water to clean rather than toilet paper. If you can train yourself to do this you'll be so much more at ease travelling through India.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:21 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ahab's advice to learn to say "no" forcefully but kindly. Even though I was used to homeless people in the US asking for money, beggars in India present a whole new level of guilt/frustration/sympathy. Continually turning down dirty, unclothed, sometimes disabled women and children asking for money was the hardest part of my stay in India.
posted by hefeweizen at 9:23 AM on January 5, 2011

Learn another language. or 2. Any additional language, even phrases, greatly expands your ability to communicate.
posted by theora55 at 9:34 AM on January 5, 2011

Go to Indian restaurants and check out the food so at least you know know some dishes you like and can order them when traveling. Travel to other, closer, foreign countries like Mexico/Canada/Caribbean (assuming you are from the US) so that you will get used to traveling in a foreign country.
posted by MsKim at 9:35 AM on January 5, 2011

Patience... Things won't happen on time, they won't be as expect, and you will often find yourself with little control over the situation. If you are the type of person that gets frustrated with this, you should work on learning to go with the flow. If this isn't an issue for you, great!

Also, take some pictures of your hometown (buildings, people, transportation, landmarks, etc) that you will bring with you on your trip. Then show them to people when you meet them - locals (and other travelers) usually enjoy seeing what your life is like.
posted by jshort at 9:46 AM on January 5, 2011

Being able to sleep on a bus/train is quite useful.

One thing I'll mention: I'd consider starting your trip in Southeast Asia. Travelling there is a lot easier than India, so it might be easier to get your feet wet there first.
posted by backwards guitar at 10:21 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

An abiding sense for, and appreciation of, irony and absurdity. This applies to travel (and life) in general, not just your desitnations.
posted by dzot at 10:33 AM on January 5, 2011

Go to Indian restaurants and check out the food so at least you know know some dishes you like and can order them when traveling

Wrong. A majority of Indian restaurants in the west serve stuff that isn't served in restaurants in India. I really don't think any advance prep is necessary unless you're a super picky eater. If that is your case then try out Indian restaurants in your area that expats go to. Preferably with someone familiar with the food.

Also, this is a handy thing to have if you're planning to travel to south India.
posted by special-k at 10:38 AM on January 5, 2011

I'm going to take this sentence by sentence from your post. My advice is mainly going to pertain to India.

am planning to take a year and travel India (mostly)

Please be aware that India only issues visas for 6 months at a go, valid from date of issue. And they must be issued in advance, by the consulate. Which means that it would be almost impossible for you to spend more than about 5 and a half months in India. If you're an American, it's possible to get a 10 year visa, but those visas still limit your stay in India to six months at a time (and I believe there are requirements as to how long you have to be out of the country between visits). Nepal and Southeast Asian countries also have their own visa processes which may or may not work well with your planned year of travel. This is the first thing you need to think about when planning a trip like this.

What skills can I learn to make me a better traveler.

Mental and emotional flexibility. General resourcefulness. Kindness, graciousness, and openness to other cultures. How to chill the fuck out, in general. I can't speak to Nepal and Southeast Asia, but in India the main hurdle you will have to deal with is the fact that the culture is extremely different from North American/"Anglo" culture, and the country very much moves at its own pace and does things its own way. No amount of knot-tying is going to get you around this. Also, if you were to pick up any concrete skill, I would suggest learning to squat.

Another good thing to do now would be to read up on the history, culture, food, arts, spirituality, and the like for the countries you plan to visit. You will get so much more out of your trip if you are informed about what you are experiencing.

Start a walking regiment

Unless you live in a seriously car-dominated part of the world, or the purpose of your trip is going to be trekking/hiking/mountaineering, I wouldn't worry too much about this. If you do plan to do one of the big treks in Nepal, there are a lot of training regimens out there. However, I think that's more like hiking and less like walking to the corner store. Rickshaws are so cheap and distances are so short that I didn't have a problem with walking around in India.

Break in Shoes

Unless you normally go barefoot and don't own any comfortable shoes at all, I wouldn't worry too much about this. When I went to India (I'm female), I brought a pair of comfy low-profile sneakers I could remove easily and wasn't too worried about getting dirty (Chuck Taylors, if you must know), and a pair of flip flops. Since I went in the winter, my feet needed some adjustment to the flip flops - but that's what a week in Goa is for! I later ended up buying a nicer pair of sandals, which I broke in while I was there, to no ill effect.

Get used to walking with backpack

Again, things might be different if you have a disability or if you are going from bedridden to backpacker in the space of a month, but I didn't find this to be a concern (and again I am a lady). Your main pack is going to go from hotel to train station to hotel. You will not actually be carrying it on your person all that much. Even if you're staying somewhere in walking distance to the station, you're going to be walking under a quarter of a mile with your pack on at any given time. What you should be concerned about is figuring out a decent packing list and making sure you're not packing way too frakking much stuff. For India I used a 65 litre pack, and in hindsight I brought way too much stuff. If your pack is so heavy that you have to practice walking around in it, you have too much stuff.

Start learning Hindi

This could be a cool project to get you psyched up for your travels, but it's not all that necessary. A very large portion of Indians speak English, and you're not going to encounter many communication problems in terms of English vs. Hindi. You may face a language barrier in the southern part of India, however. I found that this wasn't a big deal, but it definitely tested the mental/emotional flexibility and graciousness that I mentioned above. The only time that language barrier was an issue for me (in a remote bus station in a random part of southern India which was well off the tourist trail, trying to go somewhere tourists don't usually go), smiles, hand-signals, and the kindness of strangers got me through it.

A much bigger concern in terms of language is that you prepare yourself for the fact that South Asian English is its own dialect which isn't always mutually intelligible with American English (can't speak to communication issues you'd face if you're coming from Britain or Australia/New Zealand). You will be in a lot of situations where, even though you both speak English, communication is poor. People will not understand your accent. The weirdest thing is that certain cities (especially cities with a colonial past) will have English language place names, which the local rickshaw-wallahs will have their own idiosyncratic pronunciation for. Which means you can get into a rickshaw in Pune or Kolkata and ask for something like, "Mayfair Road", and have the driver not understand you at all. This is where the flexibility and general ability to relax about things will come in handy.

Learn some knots

Can't speak to other countries on your list, but I have no idea how knowing different knots would help you travel in India.

Good luck and have fun! If your trip goes off according to plan, this is going to be an amazing experience. Frankly, I'm jealous!
posted by Sara C. at 10:38 AM on January 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

A majority of Indian restaurants in the west serve stuff that isn't served in restaurants in India.

This is only half true.

It's true, for example, that Chicken Tikka Masala and Lamb Vindaloo are dishes made for European tastes, and outside of tourist restaurants they don't really exist in India. However, most vegetable dishes are somewhat authentic and will give you a realistic idea of what North Indian (especially Punjabi) cuisine is like. Hell, my Punjabi best friend actually makes things like eggplant curry, mattar paneer, and aloo ghobi at home, from his mother's recipes. They are not terribly different from what you will get in local Indian restaurants.

If you live in a part of the West where there's a large South Asian population, this is even more true. Try to find restaurants that cater more to the South Asian community. If you live near a really big South Asian enclave, there are also likely to be restaurants devoted to different Indian cuisines, for instance South Indian and Indian Chinese (Indian Chinese is amazing and you absolutely have to try it if at all possible).

Restaurants that advertise themselves as vegetarian (or halal) are going to be your best bet for authenticity in the US/UK/Australia. You should consider going mostly vegetarian while you are in India. It's a more "authentic" way of eating (e.g. you will find it easier to eat in local restaurants if you aren't looking for a "meat and three" equivalent), and it will also lessen the chances that you will get sick while you're in India.
posted by Sara C. at 10:52 AM on January 5, 2011

Organize all your important documents, banking, and information ahead of time. For example, make online and paper copies of all credit cards, bank cards, passport, visas, travel insurance policy, and important phone numbers and addresses. It's a huge relief not to have to scramble for that stuff if there's ever an emergency. It's also useful not to having to worry about logging into secure sites in dodgy internet cafes.

Read some long-term travel blogs or books to get you into the vagabonding mindset. Ie. Keep and open mind and expect the unexpected. Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel is a good place to start.

MuffinMan's suggestion to learn a party trick is great! I remember an Italian couple kept an entire train car of Indians entertained with making balloon animals for kids.

Photography is another great universal icebreaker, so maybe practice getting comfortable taking pictures of strangers. Learning to sketch quick portraits could work as well. I met a photographer in an Indian cafe who snapped Polaroids of people and handed them out. While we were sitting there, a group of kids from a neighbouring house came running out laughing and waving. In their hands, they had Polaroids that this photographer had taken from his last visit, three years prior!

Good luck and have fun!!!
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 1:14 PM on January 5, 2011

India is a tough place to start international travel. In my two months there, any adult who approached me was lying to me about something to get my money. In contrast, anyone who I approached was friendly and helpful.

For example, as I approached a train station, someone in an official uniform informed me that the train station was closed (a portion of it was under construction) and tried to redirect me to the bus station. I talked to someone later who fell for this con and they were taken to a "bus station" (a faked up official office) where they were hard sold on a tour package bus trip and told this was the only way presently to reach their destination. Often these cons involve several people, so you think you are receiving independent confirmation of the facts. Also, the cons have read often the Lonely Planet guide and will pepper their lies with facts from the guidebooks to confuse you.

I had traveled in Morocco previously, which was even worse, but prepared me for the general misinformation and multi-person con schemes in India.

Seriously consider going to a beach in SE Asia after India to shake off the PTSD and remember why people travel for fun. It will also give the antibiotics a chance to finally kill all the bugs that had liquefied your innards the whole time you were in India.

All this said, you should still go to India.

Trekking in Nepal is great, too.
posted by sisquoc15 at 2:12 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

By the way, spending the upcoming year learning as much as you can about the culture, history, religion(s), arts, and cuisines of South and Southeast Asia will either prevent or offset a lot of the difficulties and burnout sisquoc15 describes.
posted by Sara C. at 2:37 PM on January 5, 2011

Work on making your digestion as hardy as possible - I love spicy food, generally have the constitution of a horse and rarely suffer digestive problems but on top of a stressful few months at work, a bit of a personal crises the week before I travelled and some very last minute visa worries it took only 3 days in India to give me the worst digestive problems I have ever experienced. A whole box of Immodium did nothing at all to fix me up. What helped eventually was fasting and sleeping and I was fine again after 2 days and stayed that way for the rest of my trip.

But a friend of mine suffered for almost a week with his first digestive upset and continued to suffer regularly at some level for the rest of his stay (several months). His system just could not cope with the powerful spices. But as he enjoyed the food so much he did not let this prevent him from eating it and he suffered as a result. So if you have a sensitive stomach or prefer bland food you could work on broadening your culinary horizons because you will be eating very different food and it will affect you differently.

Oh, and when you get back home be prepared to never enjoy Indian food in the west again either, unless you are lucky enough to be invited home for dinner by any nice Indians you might know.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:01 PM on January 5, 2011

Jumping back in with a comment about food (and hygiene).

If you want to minimize the number of times you get sick, eating a mostly vegetarian diet is the way to go. It's not hard to do, because in most bottom end local restaurants, on trains, in train and bus station cafes, and on flights, you often only have the choice of "veg meal" or "non-veg meal." At temples, in holy towns, and at many big events (weddings, religious festivals, etc) eating vegetarian is frequently your only option.

In terms of what "veg-meals" are, they're commonly thali meals [2]. These range from rice, watery dal, and a little bit of pickle through to rice plus dal plus padad plus paratha plus curd plus 10 or 12 curries and pickles all arranged on a giant steel plate with a whole lot of little steel cups (katori) and smaller plates around the outside. If you find a truly good thali, it's likely to be the best meal you ever eat.

In Nepal, this style of meal (the simple version) is just called dal bhat (dal and rice), but often includes a little bit of "turkari" (veg curry). The way to spot a dal bhat restaurant is to look for a building with a green curtain instead of a door. Seriously. I've noticed this, my friends have noticed this, but none of us have ever managed to find out why. We just accept that food is behind the green curtains.

Getting ready to eat Indian food day in day out is something you want to do before you leave. You need to eat more (volume wise) on an Indian veg diet than you would on a western non-veg diet. In particular you need to eat a lot of rice. Practice beforehand, because getting a couple of cups of cooked rice down at each meal is not something that most westerners are used to. We eat a little bit of the rice, and proportionately too much of the curries and pickles. Properly speaking, the rice should be the meal, and everything else is just be there to flavor it.

And as others have mentioned above, get yourself used to slightly spicier food. Most Indian food isn't madly hot (although some is), but the fact that so much of what you eat is spiced in one way or another can begin to put you off your food if you're not used to it. Again, practice, and you'll get used to it. But if you don't, the way to deal with that once you're there is (again) to mix small amounts of the spicy things in with your big pile of rice. And if you end up eating something too hot, reach for the curd.

As an afterthought on a different topic.. Even if you're not planning to go trekking, keep up the walking before you go. Despite the omnipresence of autorickshaws and taxis, you will probably end up doing more walking than you're used to.

And it's sometimes just nice, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, to join the flood of people on the footpaths leading into and out of a big city. Those rivers of humanity are a big part of what India is, and letting yourself become part of them is not something you will forget.
posted by Ahab at 9:09 PM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Where are you from? How were you raised, in terms of class & religion? What parts of India do you plan to travel to? Do you have any acquaintances there already?
posted by anildash at 11:00 PM on January 5, 2011

Take some boxing classes.

You'll be in foreign countries where you'll stick out like a sore thumb and with a limited command of the language, you'll have difficulty talking yourself out of a tight spot.

Being able to knock someone on their ass and run might save your life.

This has nothing to do with where you're going. I would recommend this to anyone travelling by themselves anywhere. There are rough characters in every country, and foreigners are a always a favorite target.

On the brighter and possibly more practical side of things, every country also seems to have beautiful people. As it turns out, a few months of boxing does wonders for your physique. Just sayin'.
posted by edguardo at 3:47 PM on January 6, 2011

Being able to knock someone on their ass and run might save your life.

I can't speak to the entire planet, but for India this is a terrible idea.

You do NOT want to get involved with law enforcement in India (and yes, they WILL throw a white guy in prison for breaking laws, and yes, beating someone up is illegal in India just like it is in the USA).

Furthermore, 99.9999999999999999999% of locals you encounter while traveling are perfectly ordinary folks who mean you no harm. It is highly unlikely that you are going to encounter violent crime while traveling in India.

Here's a story of something that happened to me in India.

I was on a train through a remote part of the countryside. While often I'd find myself among upper middle class English speaking families, this time my fellow passengers were a lot more rustic. I got up to use the restroom, making sure to bring my daypack. Because you can never be too careful, right? Mission accomplished, I proceeded back to my seat. Ten minutes later I went to grab a book from my daypack. It was gone. Shit! Fuck! Nightmare scenarios went through my brain. I looked around at my fellow passengers. One particularly uncouth paan-chewing ugly vest wearing bumpkin was missing. Along with my bag. Shit! Fuck! What am I gonna do???? Seconds later, my uncouth bumpkin came up the main aisle of the train, from the direction of the restroom. With my daypack. Which he handed me politely, with a sideways head wiggle, and said in the best English possible, "You must be careful, madam!" I had left the daypack in the restroom.

Moral of the story? Good hearted people who are going to notice your foreignness and mean to help you stay out of trouble far outnumber people who see you as an easy target for crime.
posted by Sara C. at 4:25 PM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

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