International Travel for the Uninitiated
By David Barratt
May 21, 2009
As many of you may know, I moved to New Zealand last year. Basically, I came over here on a whim with no place to live and only the money I had in my pocket. Somehow, through trial and error and a ridiculous amount of divine intervention, it all worked out. So if you're planning an extended overseas trip this summer, here are a few things I've found out through tenuous and uncertain floundering that might help you.
When in Doubt, Don't Bring It
Customs vary from country to country. Make sure to check the government website of the country you're traveling to so you can assess what items might cause a problem. When going through a customs line, you'll make it through quick if you don't have to declare anything. So if you're uncertain about whether an item will need to be declared, just don't bring it.
Liquidate, Liquidate, Liquidate
Pack absolutely only what you need. When packing a suitcase to go overseas, remember that you'll have to lug that heavy beast through several airports, through customs, on buses, trains and goodness knows where else. Ever the procrastinator, I started packing for my indefinite stay in New Zealand about four hours before I had to go to the airport. I tore through my clothes, remorselessly throwing out anything I hadn't worn in two weeks or more. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a group of friends who set upon the discarded clothing like a pack of ravenous hyenas. So, there's about a 20 percent chance that if you see people in Orlando wearing cowboy boots, vintage tees or newsboy hats, they used to belong to me.
If you pack light—using the rule that if you haven't worn something in the past couple weeks, you probably won't again—your back will thank you, and you'll have room to bring souvenirs home with you.
Don't Sleep the Night BeforeThis may seem counterintuitive at first, but if you're flying out early in the morning, pulling an all-nighter can make sure that you sleep through your flights and hit your destination well-rested. I slept for almost two days straight on my way to New Zealand, and on long-haul flights that's a blessing. Otherwise, your only option is to watch the in-flight movie which is usually something of the cinematic calibre of Norbit. After five minutes of that, you'll beg to lose consciousness.
Stay Up Until at Least 10:00 PM Upon Arrival
The time change involved with international travel can mess you up for days. Upon arriving in a new and foreign environment, you'll be filled with excitement and want to see everything. This will last approximately 20 minutes. Then, you'll be lambasted by a wave of exhaustion that will make a coma look lively. As Michael Bluth would say, keep your head down and power through. If you can make it through that first day and go to bed at a normal time, your body will naturally fall into a sleep rhythm that suits the time zone. Otherwise, you can look forward to weeks of being wide awake at four in the morning.
Look for Deals
Forget flash hotels and fancy restaurants. Cheap and cheerful is the way to go. Youth hostels are a great value, and you'll meet fellow travelers (though they're not always the friendliest). If you invest in a Youth Hostel Association card, you can get discounts on lodging, vehicle rental and various activities. It more than pays for itself.
Depend on the Kindness of Strangers
I started off in New Zealand staying at a youth hostel surrounded by a trio of surly Germans who never spoke a word to me. This was before the current administration's election, so Americans were not the most popular folk. After being in the country a couple days, I went to a twentysomethings church service and met a guy named Lex. He immediately offered me a room at his house, rent-free. I stayed there for two months and made a life-long friend.
It's a bit sticky taking strangers up on their offers, especially in a highly paranoid, crime-ridden society. However, friends of friends can generally be trusted. Instead of sticking with tour groups or hanging out with fellow ex-pats, make every attempt to immerse yourself in the culture. You'll make some great friends and learn more about the country you're visiting in a few days than a tour group could teach you in a month.
This list has hardly been exhaustive, but it's a good start to get you on your way as a globe-trotting adventurer. Soak up as much culture as you can, immerse yourself in the local customs and come away with an experience you'll remember for a lifetime.