On the Serengeti, we saw a guide wearing a T-shirt that said, “Travel without knowledge is like a bird without wings.” Our twist on that truism is that travel without learning is like a race without a finish line.
After leaving home in October, Partout took 15 international flights, 16 intercity rail trips, and countless Metro, bus, tram, taxi, Uber, boat and other rides. Doris’s battered but trusty Fitbit reports we also walked 1,657,675 steps and climbed 2,736 flights of stairs.
Now that we are home again, at last, we have talked a lot about what we learned that will inform and improve our travel in the future. For whatever they are worth and in no particular order, here are our top nine road lessons.
LESSON #1: Travel is easier and more comfortable than ever
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know. Airport departures have become shoeless torture, and airplanes have become buses with wings. But on a long trip like this one, flights consumed only a fraction of our time. In so many other ways, travel is easier and more comfortable than it has ever been.
Vetting and booking everything from hotel rooms to tour guides is simpler because of the internet. Public bathrooms, once rare abroad and sometimes icky, are common, clean and free of charge in every country we visited except the Netherlands (where the Dutch tend to charge admission). AirBnB and VRBO apartments expand lodging options. Traveler’s checks have gone the way of the dodo bird, thank heavens, and credit cards are universally accepted for just about everything, everywhere, except in the Netherlands (which is essentially a cash economy for outsiders).
Takeaway: Travel more!
LESSON #2: Travel slows down time
Research indicates novelty makes time seem to pass more slowly. In this school of thought, childhood days are very long because everything children do is new and engages their brains while adult days fly because routine and familiarity leave the brain on autopilot.
We think they are onto something. On the road, no two days were identical and most were not even remotely similar. All that exploration and discovery had the odd effect of making each day — sometimes even each hour — seem to unfold in slow motion. At a stage in life when anything that slows down the clock feels like a gift, this was delicious.
Takeaway: See Lesson #1
LESSON #3: English has become the lingua franca, at least in cities
One of the biggest shocks of the trip to us veterans of the language dictionary days was how widely English is spoken and written.
In Lisbon, the Portuguese were essentially bilingual. In Africa, we never encountered anyone who could not speak some English, and most people at all stations of life spoke a lot of it. In the Arab countries, signs were all in English in addition to Arabic, including transport and museum signs. Even in English-averse Paris, locals came up to us on the streets to practice their English. We actually found ourselves longing a little for the good old befuddled days of language charades. Travel outside major cities and in many countries we didn’t visit probably still requires pantomime and pictures, but it was lingua angla everywhere we went.
The one exception to this generality was Spain, where the population remains stubbornly monolingual (much to the disdain of their Portuguese neighbors, btw).
Takeaway: Language is not the barrier (or the excuse for not traveling) it used to be
LESSON #4: Essentials are in the eyes of the beholder
We were able to travel so long and far because of five lovely home exchanges that provided us with comfy home lodging at no cost. When we were not exchanging, we almost always stayed in AirBnB and VRBO apartments, which are roomier and more economical than hotels and allow us to prepare some of our own meals. The down side of long-stay lodgings is that they are not as predictable as either homes or hotels, which resulted in some startling discoveries about what different people view as essential.
Toilet paper, for example. Essential or discretionary? One AirBnB in Spain and another in Cape Town had only a few squares on one roll when we arrived and no backup. Hand and bath soap? Not to be taken for granted. Something to wash dishes with? We began packing our own (right next to soap) because so many places were without them.
On the other hand, we never encountered a single kitchen or hotel room that did not come without tea bags and an electric tea kettle capable of instantly heating water. Maybe no coffee but tea for sure.
Takeaway: Dishwashing aids. Don’t leave home without them
LESSON #5: Ground transportation can be a budget buster
By the end of the trip, we had spent more money on trains and other ground transportation — Metros, trams, trains, buses, boats, taxis, Ubers, rental cars — than on flying. At some level, that makes sense: We spent more time on the ground than flying. But we are used to thinking of flights as our biggest trip cost.
On a short trip, they surely still are. On a long trip like ours, though, all those ground costs add up in a big but not necessarily predictable way. Muscat, Oman, turned out to be a big city with scant public transit and expensive taxis but great roads and cheap gas; we would have been better off renting a car at the airport and driving ourselves around. Cape Town has cheap and ample public transit/Uber to popular destinations but expensive rental cars and gas; we would have been better off without the car except for a few days to leave town.
Takeaway: Budget more or prepare better for getting around on the ground
LESSON #6: The doctor is in and pretty easy/inexpensive to see
Doris saw doctors for three minor issues on the road: a dermatologist in Seville, a travel doctor in Amsterdam and a GP in Cape Town. She also scheduled an appointment with an MD in Nairobi that she had to cancel. In every case, she could get a non-urgent appointment within 48 hours and sometimes the same day she called, all at a fraction of US costs.
What’s more, the physician she saw were more engaged. In Spain, the dermatologist used state-of-the-art digital cancer screening device Doris had never seen in DC to assess a weird spot on her leg. Not liking what he saw, the doc then personally scraped cells from the lesion and examined them under a microscope in his consulting room. (Has anyone ever seen a microscope in their doctor’s office in the States?) Then he prescribed a cream based on what he saw. Altogether, the visit lasted nearly an hour and cost 100€ (about $118 at the exchange rate then), plus 5€ for the over-the-counter med (which worked). In Cape Town, the MD also spent nearly an hour on a routine prescription renewal appointment — and then took Doris’s vitals and did the necessary blood draw himself. Cost? $78, including the lab work (with results back the next day).
A Dutch travel doctor was in the mix because the travel clinic where Doris went for her yellow fever shot back in Virginia said the same shot would cost less than half at the airport in Amsterdam. This proved to be correct, and the airport clinic was a breeze. Doris also ended up replacing lost prescription sunglasses in the Netherlands. She bought an extra pair while she was at it because two sets cost less than one in the States (and were vastly more fashionable). Hmmm….
Takeaway: Give medical tourism a try?
LESSON #7: Loss and damage are inevitable
Despite our most diligent efforts to hang onto and take care of our things on the road, and even though every airline delivered our bags unscathed and on the same flights we flew, we lost things.
- Prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Doris, before our first landing)
- Non-prescription sunglasses (1 pair, Louis, Dubai)
- Umbrellas (1 apiece, three guesses in which country)
- Electrical adapter (1, Doris, left behind in an airport hotel)
- Dollars (several thousand, both, see Lesson #8)
Things also broke or just plain wore out along the way. Doris’s iPad keyboard gave up the ghost. Louis’s Leica and Doris’s Fitbit both returned home patched up with adhesive tape because of parts that started falling off from constant use. Louis also essentially wore out his passport by adding so many stamps and visas that he ran out of pages and required an emergency replacement mid-trip. As the sign on a dog beach in Cape Town said, poop happens.
Takeaway: Never travel with anything we really care about except each other
LESSON #8: “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into”
We were birds with wings but we were foolish birds nonetheless.
It turns out the tourist visa Americans typically rely on to visit the 26 EU countries in the Schengen zone is good for 90 days in a 180-day period. In other words, without a long-stay visa, the window into Europe has its limits.
Based on our erroneous assumption that all we needed to do was step out and back into the EU to reopen the window (an error we learned through freak luck), we were holding tickets and reservations in the Schengen zone for 117 of our 150 days abroad — 27 days too many to be legal. We could have gotten long-stay visas from the Netherlands because of our family ties through Greg, but the Dutch would not consider our application until after we had been out of the Schengen zone for 90 days and were back home.
This was the only real hiccup in our whole adventure, but it was a humdigger and led to the most stressful and expensive lesson of all.
Takeaway: Do thine visa homework
The red stamp of our fate
LESSON #9: America casts a very, very long (and darkening?) shadow
We are used to sightings of the golden arches on every street corner and American pop music on every public playlist overseas. What was new on this trip were random people coming up to us to ask, “What’s happening to America?” And then finding out they were more than curious, they were really asking, “What’s going to happen to us?”
Citizens of other countries have always followed developments in the United States much more closely than we follow developments in theirs, but we found them following with worried eyes we have not seen before. All those clichés about America being a model of democracy and a mostly trustworthy world policeman turn out to be grounded in the idea that America really is the land of the enviably free and home of the relatively good.
On this trip, people from school children to grandfolk asked us questions like, “Is Donald Trump really crazy, or does he just act that way?” “Will he start a nuclear war?” “Will your Congress stop him?” “Can anyone stop him?”
The personal sense of insecurity and even peril we encountered is perhaps best summed up in the pensive question the physician Doris saw in Cape Town asked her. Part of the reason her appointment ran nearly an hour was that he spent close to 30 minutes grilling her about US political developments. Before finally turning to the prescription matter at hand, he sighed. “America has always been our beacon,” he said. “If that beacon goes out, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
Takeaway: People ask questions we cannot answer
Also in the rear-view mirror
We added three new items to our packing lists this trip that we will pack forever after because they proved indispensable.
- Portable chargers: We had to rely on our mobile phones to hold reservations and boarding passes because we didn’t have access to a printer on the road. This made keeping at least one portable phone alive at all times critical. We could not have done it without our portable chargers. They also assured we didn’t have to stop taking pictures halfway through a day of sightseeing because we had exhausted our phones or were ever without GPS.
- Portable coffee-maker: Some countries serve nothing but instant coffee, even in luxury hotels. Ugh. We also encountered a couple AirBnB hosts who did not consider coffee essential and provided no means of making it. Hmph. This nifty device, introduced to us by one of our home exchange partners, and a small cache of ground coffee kept us in bold fresh java all the trip long. (It sits on the rim of the cup. Since everyone seems to think tea is essential, there are always cups.)
- Grippy socks: Most of the world lives on tile or wood floors, not on wall-to-wall carpeting. Doris’s grippy socks (Abby’s term for socks with sticky pads on the bottom) made sure her famous feet were happy feet — toasty, clean and not flying out from under her regardless of what was under them.
Coming Next Season: Westward, Ho
If you have a question you wish we had answered, post it as a comment. If there are enough questions, we will post a PS. Otherwise, safe and happy travels of your own till we meet again.