Thursday, May 31, 2007

The conversation challenge

One of the great things about traveling is the way you find yourself talking to all kinds of people about all kinds of things. Once you hit the road it seems like no subject is too personal, especially if you’re talking to an attractive Scandinavian backpacker and have a mojito or two under your belt.

Don’t you wish you could really get to know people like you do when you’re on vacation? While it might be hard to track down a Scandinavian backpacker in your local bar, perhaps you’ll find that the light of kinship flares just as brightly in the eyes of a tractor mechanic or chartered accountant from your very own home town.

If you manage to get chatting in your local diner, congratulate yourself. But if you really want to take the conversation challenge, try this one. Here’s a list of five questions: if you can get your prattling partner to answer at least three of them (and try to work them into the thread of the conversation—don’t just blurt them out) you may just get that ‘I feel like I really know you even though we just met’ experience.

  • What did you dream about last night?
  • What was the best toy you ever owned?
  • What’s the worst illness you’ve had?
  • When did you last play sport?
  • What’s something you’re particularly good at?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This man won’t ‘aggle!

What could be more evocative, exotic and downright entrancing than a market in a distant land? And what interaction is more treasured by the traveler than a bit of back-and-forth with a foreign merchant? There’s nothing quite as satisfying as bagging a bargain, particularly if you’ve had to fight damn hard for it. In fact, saving yourself a few pennies while depriving an artisan of a square meal may be the quintessential travel experience.

You bring home souvenirs from far-off lands; you bring home recipes, phrases and diseases. Why not bring home the art of haggling? Just imagine the excitement and variety you’ll bring into the life of your Safeway customer service attendant when you introduce this concept to your everyday shopping.

Of course, there are rules for haggling. Next time you see a fetching little sweater, an in-home theatre system or a McDonald's Happy Meal you just have to have, ask yourself, ‘what is this really worth to me?’, then take the item to the checkout and suggest something about 50% lower than that. Smile, keep your tone light-hearted, and never get angry or offended. If the checkout attendant offers you a cup of tea, take it! Sometimes it’s worth pretending you don’t really want the thing: turning around and walking away can bring an instant drop in price. And always remember, it’s as much about the interaction as it is about the final price.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Get outside

When was the last time you went camping? It doesn’t have to be hardcore – there’s every chance your town has a campground (it might be disguised as an RV park, a caravan park, a state park, national park or reserve, or it might be your back yard) where you can pitch a tent and still have easy access to bathrooms and takeaway food.

If you don’t have a tent and no one among your family or friends has one they can lend you, try an outdoor gear or sporting goods store – many will rent you one for the weekend.

Even if you only do it for one night in your back yard, sleeping outdoors, hearing all the outdoor noises, breathing fresh air and waking up with sun can really reinvigorate you and make you feel like you’ve been on an adventure.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Your very own guide

If you had a copy of every guide book to San Francisco, you could wallpaper the entire Vatican with their pages*. So much has been written about Los Angeles, Sydney, London, New York City, Paris and Bangkok that a traveler visiting one of these cities can not only find out the best value-for-money restaurant in their neighborhood, they can also get guidance on what’s a good topic for conversation with their airport cab driver, the most appropriate cheer for the local football team and where they can get a hot stone massage and nightingale guano facial.

But what about visitors to your town, huh? What kind of help do they get? Even if you do live in a top tourist destination, you’ll likely find that the big travel publishers have only written up the most obvious hot-spots in the city and missed most of the places that you hold dear.

Write your own guide: that’ll show ‘em. It’s not that hard to do. Start out with a list of your favourite restaurants and places to shop. Describe each of them, give an idea what they cost, then call them to check their opening hours. If you’re feeling ambitious, make a map. If you’re still keen, add some must-see visitors’ spots (these might include a hill with a great view of the sunset, your favourite boarded-up factory or a particular bus route: this is about what you like, not about what’s ‘popular’), some details about the best ways to get around town and perhaps a bit of local history. Got some good photos? Stick those in too. And there you have it: a guide you can give to friends or family who come to visit, or even to friends or family who already live here.

*not an actual fact

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Snap happy

Think of somewhere in your town that tourists love to visit (if you live in really tiny town you might have to go on a daytrip to do this excursion). Go there, and take your camera with you. Your mission: to photograph the tourists.

How you do this depends on the kind of person you are. You could take surreptitious candid art shots of tourists taking their own photographs (how post-modern). Or you could politely ask them to pose for your camera in front of the attraction, and ask them who they are, where they’re from and what they came to see, then write a little bio to go with each photo.

If you prefer to be part of the finished product and you live near a really popular attraction, try standing near people as they're lining up a shot, then walk in front of the camera as they press the shutter. Do this twenty or thirty times, and you could end up in photo albums in Madrid, Sydney, Osaka and Toronto.