When it comes to travel, I firmly believe a plan is only something to depart from, and that the serendipity of travel opens my eyes to a world where the arbitrary borders of fear and misunderstanding can be ignored.
What follows are my own tried-and-true guidelines for spontaneous journeying—literally—outside the box.
Brochures lie. They mislead. Almost every word ends in the letters st (best, greatest, finest, most). In fact, when someone tells me it’s not in the brochure, that’s precisely when I get interested in going there.
Be a contrarian.
Most travel signs should be disobeyed. Have an early morning flight from an airport with an upstairs departure area? Head for arrivals instead. No one is arriving at 7 a.m., and you’ll avoid getting stuck in that traffic. When you land, reverse the order. Don’t get picked up at the Arrivals area – that will be a zoo and refugee center. Head for the departures area. No one will be departing when you’re arriving. And never, never, never stand on line. Any line.
Abandon the word later.
A good friend of mine anguished over accompanying me on a trip to Peru, claiming he could always go another time. Plus, he claimed, he didn’t know anyone in Peru. “Does the word now ring a bell?” I asked as I pushed him onto the plane. Ten days later, high up in the Andes, and quite by chance, I introduced him to the woman who would soon become his wife.
Trust hotel maids.
People never talk to hotel maids, but they should. The maids know everything. And they’re willing not only to share their knowledge but in many instances to enthusiastically point you in the right direction. In Buenos Aires, one hotel maid took me to the neighborhood where she lived. Better shopping, better history—and dinner with her family! And all I had to do was ask …
Everyone may not be a fascinating storyteller, but everyone does have a fascinating history. Listen for it. I was visiting Shanghai by cruise ship in 1984. As I walked along the pier, heading toward a planned group bus tour of the city, a distinguished-looking, well-dressed man who looked to be in his early 40s rode up to me on his bicycle.
“You from the ship?” he asked in perfect English. “Yes,” I replied. “And do you live here?”
He smiled. “All my life!” When I remarked about his mastery of English, he startled me. “Actually,” he said, “this is really the first time I’ve been able to speak it since…1949.”
I never got on the bus. A few minutes later, 78-year-old Joe Cheng took me on one of the more remarkable journeys of my life—and I was with him for the next two days—and I got to experience part of the history of Shanghai through his eyes.
If it’s cooked, eat it.
Some of the more incredible gastronomic experiences happen without printed menus being involved. On my very first trip to Thailand, friends dragged me from the hotel at 10 at night and out to the streets. Their only advice: no raw vegetables, and don’t order ice in your drinks; and if the food is hot, it’s okay. It was better than okay. I ate some of the best satays and seafood in my life—and as a result, I now always head for street vendors.
Get on the bus.
Any bus. It’s not where the bus is going, but whom you meet along the way. When I was growing up in New York, I watched my mother do this all the time. People thought she was crazy to talk to other people. But, she told me, that’s how you meet people. And before long, she even knew the bus drivers. That always helped, because at least they knew where the bus was going. Then …
Get off the bus.
And create your own guided tour. I was traveling through the Philippine Islands when my bus pulled into a hotel driveway in Legaspi. There, parked along the side, were 10 motorcycles. I asked who owned the bikes. One of the bellmen said he was a medical student, and that he and the other medical students in Legaspi had formed a motorcycle club. I asked if I could rent one of the motorcycles. “I’ve got a better idea,” he said. “Would you like for me to round up the other club members and take you for a bike tour?” An hour later, nine motorcyclists, plus me, took off on a two day adventure. We were headed to (and through) half a dozen villages and ended up at an active volcano—a tour I’ll never forget.
Talk to taxi drivers.
Eleven years ago, I exited a Manhattan hotel, terribly late for the airport, and jumped into a yellow cab. “JFK,” I ordered, along with specific directions. “No, I’ll take you a better way,” the driver said in a thick Middle Eastern accent. Better way? “Hey, pal,” I shot back. “I’m from New York. Just take me the way that I want to go.”
“Let me ask you,” he replied. “What terminal do you want?” I told him Terminal 9. “Okay, we take my way, and if you’re not at Kennedy in 26 minutes, the ride is free.”
Deal. The driver then took me on a route I had never been on in my life. And, shockingly, 22 minutes later I arrived at JFK. The driver smiled. “You owe me,” he laughed.
I asked his name. William. Where was he from? Alexandria, Egypt. Was that his own cab? Yes. Then I had an idea. I took down his phone number and his cab number. And for the next eight years, William Megalla was my driver every time I came to New York. He then drove for other journalist friends. And then he drove for my mother.
One day, driving me into the city from the airport, he said he wanted to tell me some good news. His cousin Billy was getting married, and his family wanted to invite me as an honored guest to the wedding. Would I go? Of course.
Two months later, I was at that wedding. In Alexandria, Egypt! And I learned an important lesson: In New York, William was a cab driver. In Egypt, he was a god. The wedding took place at 10 p.m. inside King Farouk’s palace on the Mediterranean. Five hundred celebrating Egyptian Coptics, and a guy from New York having one of the great, and unexpected travel experiences.
It’s been said that you always miss the shots you never take … so take those shots! Once you let common sense and intuition be your guides, you won’t just see the world. You’ll see it with perspective, understanding, and you’ll return not only eager to tell your friends about your experiences – but you’ll take them, (yes, sometimes kicking and screaming) along with you on your return journeys.
*Excerpted from Peter’s newest book, The Complete Travel Detective Bible, out from Rodale October 2, 2007. Available wherever books are sold.