Tips For Traveling Overseas: “A Mission a Day”

When we have an extended stay in one place we flesh out the day with a “mission”. A mission is any task you need to accomplish which will, by definition, be more difficult in a foreign country.  It could be buying mustard (which sometimes comes in a tube) or acquiring train tickets. These missions present endless opportunities to wander into new areas of the city and engage locals you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Sometimes they turn into absurd adventures.

shutterstock_132709769Recently we were in the southern Sri Lankan town of Galle and wanted to purchase train tickets to the capitol of Colombo.  We hailed a tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) for the trip to the train station. The driver agreed to wait while we bought tickets.  The attendants in the train station informed us that they did not sell first class train tickets, we must go to the mobile phone store in the bus station.  After thoroughly investigating the buss station and finding no mobile phone store, the tuk-tuk driver walked us across the street. We climbed dark stairs to a second floor office where the first clerk had no interest in talking about train tickets and the second said we could only buy them on our mobile phone (which I had – but my “international travelers” phone package did not allow for the purchase of train tickets). We could order them on line, he told us finally.  So we went back to the hotel and ordered, discovering you must print the receipt and take it to the main office of the mobile phone company.  Another driver found the office and tickets were issued.  What we expected to be a 15 minute task turned in to a full day’s outing.

The train trip was very nice, very comfortable. There were two couples in the entire car.  Apparently they have succeeded in making the task so onerous few are willing to pursue it. The question is why.

Occasionally these missions take a surrealistic turn and create opportunities for future stories we have dubbed “Stupid Tourist Stories”. These are the tales of things you, the traveler, did which you know will become a funny story around the local’s dinner table that evening, a story in which you came off as a stupid tourist.

An example: We were in Prague shortly after the Berlin wall came down.  It was not the tourist mecca it is now. Few hotels and restaurants, virtually no tourist information existed.  We rented a large room and bath which featured a single burner for cooking.  We thought we might cook in the room some nights, so we went shopping. For some reason we wanted sour cream, but were unable to identify it in the little shops (we have a bias towards the kind of packaging we are familiar with, so you may not, for instance, recognize milk in plastic bags when seeing it for the first time.) We went in search of someone who could translate “sour cream” into Czech. In the center of town we passed a travel agency with “We speak English” emblazoned on their window.  So we went in and asked, with apologies, whether the young woman would write the word for sour cream on our paper.  She immediately called the boss.  The boss listed to our request and haughtily replied “This is a travel agency, we do not sell sour cream”.

Every time you go out to book train reservations, buy sour cream, or manage to locate rubber bands – you learn something new about the country, its cultural norms, and how they think about you.  It is what travel is about.