We were sitting right in the middle of a Tunisian highway. It was me, a frantic taxi driver yelling his face off in a language I didn't speak and a dead taxi, which was not so much dead as it was spewing large amounts of smoke and dark flecks from its opened hood.
Cars whizzed by, honking enthusiastically while they veered inches from our bumper, the drivers leaning out of their windows to yell at us as they drove past. It was my third day living in a new country. I was overtired and overwhelmed. The tears started to come.
Sound familiar? OK, maybe you haven't gotten stuck on a highway in Tunis with a broken-down cab and an absolutely hysterical driver (or hey, maybe you have). But whether you've moved to a new and unfamiliar place, or you've made the decision to go on an adventurous vacation somewhere unknown and different, here are some tips that might be useful along the way.
Think of them as little life lessons, from one traveler to another:
1. Figure out the money situation.
If you'll be dealing with a different currency, familiarize yourself with it before you hit the airport. Make sure you keep those currencies in separate areas of your wallet, or you'll be pulling out dollars and cents when you're looking for euros. Even if all you have time to do is quickly Google what the different bills and coins look like, get yourself an idea.
There are currencies where coins mean nothing, and currencies where you can live off the coins you've accumulated. Figure that stuff out before you end up handing all your change as a tip to the taxi driver, finding out days later you tipped him the equivalent of $50. (Not that that happened to me or anything ... I have excellent taxi luck.)
2. Get organized.
This is the partner of figuring out the money situation, and I mention it because I am not what you might call an "organized person" by nature. I'm not even going to try to tell you to pack ahead of time, but what I can tell you is, the little things matter.
Travel neatly and comfortably. Stick your liquids in a clear bag, and your electronics where you can whip them out easily. This may not seem important now, but when you're rummaging through your bag in a crowded security line, with the sweaty guy behind you all up in your business, it will suddenly jump to priority.
Also, under no circumstances should you forget your moisturizer. You may be a manly man, but you will want to hydrate and replenish on that plane, especially if it's a long flight.
3. Do your research, and ask the locals.
If you're going somewhere where the culture is different from your own, a little bit of research is the respectful thing to do. Check out what might be different from what you're used to, and what behaviors could be offensive to the local population. Even better, once you arrive, ask the locals if there's anything they think newcomers have to know.
Not only will people appreciate it, but you'll also save yourself a fair amount of trouble. For example, in some countries, green and red mean the opposite of what they do in the States. So, if something is locked, it's green. And if a taxi is free (there's my taxi again), its light will be red. Most importantly, by being curious about customs, you'll get to learn about how other people live differently from you, and that is always, always a good thing.
4. Don't be afraid to be embarrassed.
And definitely don't let being embarrassed stop you from making an effort with the language. If the taxi driver (yes, there's an unintentional taxi theme going on here) insists on going left when you're sure you told him to go right, and you no longer feel it is advisable to rely on your faulty French, making high-pitched noises in the back of your throat while pointing frantically in the correct direction won't work. You will get laughed at.
Here's the thing, though: It's totally OK to get laughed at. It's going to happen to you, just like it happens to everybody. Don't let it stop you. I say this as someone who has, in the past, let it stop her. And boy, do I wish I had learned that lesson earlier. Keep your head high, and do your best. Do not let that feeling of being mortified stop you from asking for directions in Spanish, Italian or Arabic, or from going exploring.
Side note: This goes for fear, as well (especially fear of the unknown experiences, people or food you'll encounter). You can — and should, in my humble opinion — acknowledge that you're scared. Unless there is a truly excellent reason for it to stop you, don't let it. That being said, if what you're afraid of is an oncoming train, do get out of the way.
You may not need this advice, but I certainly did. I have a perennially furrowed brow; I can't help myself. Doctors will make thousands on me one day when I freak out and turn to Botox. People very often tell me how serious I look, and how surprised they are when my personality turns out to be much less stern than my demeanor.
If you add I'm shy to the fact that my, “Crap, I forgot to buy marmalade at the grocery store. What will I eat for breakfast tomorrow?” expression apparently looks really, really pissed, the result is a definite air of being unapproachable. This is (usually) not at all what I'd like to portray.
So, from one unintentional frowner to the others out there: Smile often, especially if you're in a new place, or if you're feeling insecure in that new place. It helps.
OK, back to that Tunisian highway and those tears. When the cab driver got back in the car and started to thump the dashboard, I asked him if I could help. It was a pointless offer because he didn't understand me, anyway. I just didn't know what else to do to make it better. But what he did understand was my expression and my upturned hands. People will listen to how you portray yourself physically, not just linguistically.
He smiled at me, which in that moment, felt like the ultimate victory. We sat in the car and talked soccer (mostly by waving our hands around and saying “Totti” and “Champion's League”) while the engine cooled down. And then, we trundled slowly back to the hotel.
Then, I grossly overtipped him (but that isn't the point). I had an adventure I wouldn't have otherwise had. I learned that making whooshing sounds while windmilling your arms will make the other person understand the engine has overheated, and you need to wait a bit. Also, Tunisians love Italian soccer (which is great, since I do, too). We said all that, and we didn't even speak the same languages.
And that, I think, is the point. Safe travels, everyone. Go forth and explore.