Here, in the spirit of all the advice-givers of our insecure era, are a few rules for happy travel to a place you have never been, based on a few researching-for-novel-writing trips I've taken:
1) Wherever you are, create a routine. It does not have to be elaborate; it can be as simple as having your morning drink in the same place every day. In this way, (repeated) time conquers the (foreign) space. On last week's trip to Nicaragua, for example, I went to the same dance class every morning, taught by a beautifully queenie and charismatic, slightly lazy instructor to young girls and big housewives and a few eager boy teens on a liability-seductive wooden floor strewn with nailheads in the hot center of Managua, across from the university site that has been a site for many student demonstrations. Something about dancing the cumbia across the floor every morning, the instructor sailing in happily always a half-hour late and animating the students, served as the perfect grounding device as well as an absurdist comment on all the recent, as well as older, political history of the country. In the Pyrenees, I used to have cafe au lait at the same small cafe across from the prefecture and learned too much about the local gossips this way.
2) Come with half the clothes and twice the money you think you need.
3) Any bit of language you know prior to departure will be magnified four-fold upon arrival, so try to have something proto-linguistic going on.
4) Read the local paper wherever you are.
5) Any contact you have prior to departure will, similar to #3, above, be magnified in its beneficent effects perhaps ten-fold. Even your uncle's old schoolmate's wife's sister's friend. It all helps. The only time this hasn't helped me -- I can think of one example -- was in Sri Lanka when a contact turned out to be something of a bibulous newspaper scion and, somewhere in my first month there, feeling romantically spurned, decided to publish a scandalous piece doing everything short of naming me in the tiny island's main English-language paper, going out to 18,000 people, turning me into something of a representative of the worst libertine ills of Western society, and quoting from a friend's letter to me he had procured and kept in his possession.
6) When moments of culture shock crowd, which they will if you are anywhere for an extended period, try to return to private routines of succor. Everyone has some form of this, whether it be yoga, writing a friend, keeping a journal.
7)Every interaction you have with anyone has potential for grace. Remember that.
8)Find the possibility of gratitude.
9) Learn the local way of doing laundry, cooking, etc.
10) Surrender all preconceptions. Discover others'.
11) A last addendum: except for in Calvino's INVISIBLE CITIES and in the salons of eighteenth-century London, the karma of the traveler is to forever be a listener rather than a teller of travel tales.
That's all for now.
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