Traveling to other countries ''on your own'' as opposed to being a member of a tour group has both advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that it provides excitement and first-hand experiences otherwise missed. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that it provides excitement and first-hand experiences otherwise missed.
My wife, Louise, and I once traveled the remote tributaries to the Amazon in an old Peruvian boat, constructed around the turn of the century. The poor old double-decker had a small, single diesel engine and a radio that worked from time to time. Rust holes penetrated the hull above the water line. There were about 16 small cabins, each equipped with two bunks, staggered for height as they were attached to the walls at right angles to each other. The cabins were so small that each bunk ran the full length of its wall and one bunk was shorter than the other was as it ran out of wall. There were two toilets that were add-ons on the deck and these little on-board outhouses also served as showers. The river served as recipient of the flush as well as the source of shower water and drinking water, if you chose to use the free stuff. There were nine paying passengers (all Americans), eight crewmembers, all Peruvians. One American spoke reasonable good Spanish, one crewmember spoke reasonable good English. It was a nature tour (of sorts). We toured small remote villages, hiked the Amazon jungle, fished for piranha, and ate monkey meat and whatever else the crew could trade for. The boat had no refrigeration, no air conditioning, and the little room fans only ran with the engine was running.
It was in this boat, on this trip, where I learned my definition of a ''developing country.'' Our little boat was pulled over by the Peruvian drug police. We were told to get off the boat at a little village and to line up in a straight line. The drug police spoke no English. Our guide (the only crewmember who spoke English), told us to smile and say ''hello'' when the policeman approached us. There were a few smiles and a few nervous laughs. The guide looked at us and said again ''Smile and say 'hello''' and he sounded unusually serious. The drug police carried fully automatic weapons, wore military fatigues, Vietnam era American combat bats, and military baseball caps. The rifles were intimidating in the remote jungle village, miles from anywhere- no roads, no electricity, no radios, except our little intermittent one on the boat. As they say, they would have never found our bodies- a little blood and into the river, and the piranha would have taken care of it. But while looking at my well-armed drug police, I could not help but note that none of the troops had shoelaces for their boots.
Our guide offered them American beer (warm of course) that cost more than a day's wages. After each had consumed several cans, they became ''best buddies'' and gave us a tour of the small village, showed us how they made grain alcohol from squeezing sugar cane in an all-wood hand-made press. After the tour, we were allowed to return to the boat and continue unharmed.
To me, the definition of a ''third world country'' is one that provides automatic weapons for its soldiers, but does not provide shoelaces for their boots.
While traveling in Italy, I learned that every terrible thing that you have heard about the driving habits of the Italians in big cities is understated. Be wary of traffic jams, even when walking on the sidewalk. My wife and I were nearly ran over by a small Italian car traveling at considerable speed, in reverse, on the sidewalk. The driver must have become impatient with the wait and found the sidewalk, cluttered by only a couple of tourists to be an attractive alternative.
I also learned at the Rome Airport that many (most?) of the European countries don't understand the ''civilized'' approach of lining up (''queuing'' if they're English). When a national strike occurred, people swarmed, pushing and prodding to try to get to airline desks, car rental desks, and rail connection desks. It was almost more than I could stand after an overnight Atlantic flight. I showed great restraint however. Of course the 18- year-old Italian soldiers equipped with automatic weapons at about 10 feet intervals may have had something to do with it. I frankly felt at greater risk with these young kids with guns than I did from the possible terrorist. The terrorist would never make it through the pushing and prodding crowds.
While traveling in Zimbabwe, I learned the problem with Africa- no middle class. In Zimbabwe, the government was run by the blacks. The blacks, once in office, gained great wealth. The rest of the wealth was owned by the small white minority who had run the country before the revolution. The majority of the blacks, who were not in government, lived in poverty. Some in the large cities went to crime, as unemployment was extremely high, approaching 50%. Crime was rampant in Harare, the capital. In the rural areas, the black majority lived a life of subsistence farming. The aides epidemic was extremely high, although estimates by the government and by international organizations varied wildly.
I couldn't imagine how a country could be stable with these conditions, and overlaid with high inflation, now approaching 50%. Recent racial tensions stirred by the current government haven't caused me to revise my concern. Violence seems likely on a grand scale, in a land so beautiful, and in a land where despite all the poverty, nearly everyone is multi-lingual.
We have friends who live in Zimbabwe. They visited us in our home before I had been to Zimbabwe. I remembered a comment that was made upon arrival at our home that baffled me, but I didn't ask for an explanation. Our friend said, upon walking around our yard, ''It is so open here.'' When we visited them about a year later in Harare, Zimbabwe, I understood his comment. Their beautiful house, pool, garden, and yard, were enclosed in a high stone wall, topped with razor wire. The yard was patrolled by dogs at night and they had a private security service under contract as police were unreliable. The doors of their house and guest house had steel gates that closed and locked over the outside of doors at night. The windows were barred at all times. This was all done due to the crime that was so prevalent in Harare. I then understood his comment about our home- It is so open here.
We take a lot for granted.
New Zealand won my heart. It is the world's geography in microcosm: glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, mountains, green sheep-grazed pastures, rain forests, and parrots & penguins. There are cities that look like the US, cities that look like old England, cities that look like Scotland. If you can only visit one country in your life, make it New Zealand.
Tahiti (French Polynesia)
Tahiti is actually one of the islands that make up French Polynesia. One reads of people visiting there and never coming home, taking up the life of a beach rat, watching ''topless'' young Polynesian women. It is a temptation. The pace of life is entirely different, particularly once you are off the island of Tahiti.
The truth is that it is hot, really hot, and it forces you to slow down and relax. Moorea, a near-by island is much nicer than Tahiti and can be reached by small plane or by ferry. The only topless women I saw were European and American. The water is spectacular, the sunsets even better. French wine, French bread, and the locally brewed beer were good and cheap.
Off the shore of Moorea, I learned to be careful of my assumptions. We had taken a small outrigger canoe, paddling out near the edge of the coral barrier around the beach. I wanted to look down into the water. As the canoe was narrow and prone to tip, I leaned to the right, so that my weight, now off-center, would move toward the side of the canoe where the outrigging was located. I figured it would help stabilize the move. I was wrong. The outrigging doesn't work as a float. It works as counter balance (weight at the end of the poles). The stable side for gazing into the water is the side away from the outrigging. This lesson nearly cost me my camera and an unplanned swim.
Renting a car and doing the bed and breakfast in the rural small towns can't be beat. If time allows, plan ahead and rent a small cottage for a week so that you can unpack and do day trips out from the cottage. The Scotts enjoy Americans, but seem to becoming hostile to retiring English who are moving north and buying real estate upon retirement. Some Scots feel that an invasion is underway that is pricing their land and homes out of their own reach.
History is a relative thing. I recall checking into an old home for bed and breakfast along the west coast of Scotland in Fort Williams. The house had a fine view of the harbor, a beautiful old staircase, and I had an image of it belonging to an old sea captain. I asked the owner about the history of her fine home. She said there wasn't much of a history as the house was only two hundred years old.
It is not as good as some say, nor is it as bad as some say. But it is expensive, polluted, and decaying. Don't drink the water, eat salads or vegetables washed in the waterand the one that caught us- don't drink the orange juice as it may be reconstituted orange juice, made with the local water.
If you like architecture and European history, or are on your honeymoon, you could do a lot worse than Venice. We found it enchanting, despite a national strike that canceled our flight from Rome to Venice, that also resulted in the loss of most of my wife's luggage.
Venice is a lot like the Grand Canyon. You feel obligated to visit it as it is so well known. Seeing it so much on posters and TV, you expect to be ''underwhelmed'' when you finally get there. But it does, like the Grand Canyon, exceed beyond posters and flat TV screens. As the say ''ya gotta see it to appreciate it.''
It is civilized. The biggest danger for a tourist is stepping out into traffic after looking the wrong direction for on-coming traffic- they drive on the left. With a little practice, one can easily master the fundamentals of the indigenous language.
There is clearly ''something about Paris.'' Go during the off season. Cool damp weather is a much better traveling companion than thousands of tourists. Parisians have regained their composure during the off season and are very helpful to the lost or baffled tourist. Warning about Paris: best pickpockets in the world. American Express should use Paris as its ''poster boy.''
Such are my observations as a foreigner, a Midwesterner making my way through strange places, learning that I have assumptions on the commonality of man that are fundamentally flawed. We are not all the same. We are not inherently better or worse than those across the sea. We are merely different- biologically, culturally, and all that follows. If you remember this, and make an effort to adjust to the culture, the climate, the medical facilities, and the politics, international travel will be more rewarding. If you insist on a burger and fries and a Holiday Inn, take your vacation in Indiana. It would ''love to have ya,'' and you'll be happier.