By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
It is said, “In Rome, do as the Romans do.” Oh, really! I seldom do when I travel. I may even do the opposite — to survive, to challenge myself, to drive my husband crazy, and to search for extraordinary experiences under unusual circumstances.
1. Is local currency necessary?
Our trip is full of adventures because we never plan everything. How could we organize all the details in unfamiliar territory?
In 2000, our cruise ship stopped at Casablanca, Morocco, for one day. We decided to see the royal palace at Rabat instead of looking for the site where the movie “Casablanca” was filmed. The palace location did not look complicated on the map. All we needed to do was to take the train, except we didn’t have any Dirham, the local currency. When we presented our U.S. cashier’s check at the train station, the man behind the counter refused it. He said in broken English that the train would leave in two minutes. We stood there, not knowing what to do. Suddenly, he took our money and told us to get on the train. Run we did, just in time to catch the train that already moving. We saw the palace with the instructions of a stranger, a German backpacker, after we got off the train. What happened to us was even more exciting than seeing Rick’s Cafe from the film, “Casablanca.” I later learned that Rick’s Cafe doesn’t exist, but instead a replica of the setting from the movie.
2. Disguise identity
“Where are you from?” is a common question people ask.
Sometimes, identifying yourself as an American may raise a red flag. Before 9/11, having an American passport meant security and access in the world. After 9/11, some countries target Americans for kidnapping and robbery.
During the Iraq War, we were in Salzburg, Austria for a Mozart concert. A German couple was sharing our dining table. The husband instantly held a grudge towards us when he heard we were Americans.
“So George Bush wants to be an international cop (provoking the Iraq War)?” It almost ruined my dinner. When I empathized with him, his tension eased up.
I don’t voluntarily tell local folks we are from America in some countries. In Asia, people tend to assume that Americans are rich, so they can be ripped off. If I want good deals, I tell them I am from Hong Kong. (I was originally.)
When the Chinese merchants hear that, they immediately think, “Hey, you are one of us.” And they reduce the price of their wares without me asking. Naturally, it opened the door for me to bargain more.
Do I look like someone who would hitch rides from strangers? Never mind if I should stick my thumb up or down. When you are overseas, you just have to trust your gut and sometimes beg for help from strangers.
If I didn’t hitch a ride, my husband and I would never have made it back to our cruise around the British Isles on time. There were other passengers who didn’t make it back on time and watched our ship leave. I never knew what happened to those poor folks.
In Glasgow, Scotland, we rode a taxi up the hill. When we left, there were no taxis. To walk down the hill would have taken more than half an hour, and we didn’t have time. So I stopped a car rather than thumbing.
“Can I get a ride from you down the hill?” I asked two guys who happened to be from Australia. It’s not how I said it, it’s how pathetic I looked — a stranger lost in a strange land. The Australians couldn’t say no.
After they said yes, my husband jumped in the back seat. It’s easier for a woman to ask for rides than a man, right? But if I had been alone, I would have had second thoughts of riding with male strangers.
The second time, I didn’t ask for a ride, we were offered one. Searching for the French playwright Victor Hugo’s house in Guernsey, a British island off the coast of Normandy, we approached a man for directions. But the gentleman said, “Hop in, I will take you there.”
Why did I accept? Honestly, I don’t think we would have found the site on our own. The driver looked trustworthy. If you feel anxious, you should think twice before getting in a stranger’s car.
4. Dress like a bum
You wouldn’t recognize me when I travel. Yes, I look like a bum. There’s a one in a thousand chance that I would bump into friends when traveling overseas.
I started packing light after 9/11 — just one small piece of luggage.
I stuffed my luggage with old clothes, which I would eventually discard. By the end of the trip, I would have thrown away most of the clothes I packed. (Bonus: I don’t need to do laundry when I come home.) My almost-empty suitcase would have room for souvenirs.
Travel guru Rick Steves said, “You have to be mobile.” He urges travelers to bring only one hand-carry luggage.
It’s funny. One time, a hotel maid chased after us when we checked out. She handed me my torn clothes, which I dumped into the garbage. “Madam, you left something.”
5. Secrets in connecting with strangers
When I travel, those random encounters with strangers are the best part of my adventures. At home, I flunk miserably meeting at new people.
I put on my Husky hat, and my husband his Husky t-shirt. Lots of people greet us. The University of Washington has a strong brand name in Hawaii and many U.S. cities. Surprisingly, when I put on my Seahawks hat, no one says anything. Go Huskies!
On the cruise in England, I learned from a Hong Kong woman that saying “Good morning with a smile” are magic words. It’s the best icebreaker. That’s how I met many strangers from all over the world on the ship. Every day, we dined together. I chatted with at least 50 people on the Princess Cruise. We never felt lonely.
Overseas, I play the role of an ambassador for both America and Seattle. It’s a way to learn about the outside world and let people know about America and the Emerald City.
Seattle is a good conversation opener. When I told people that I am from Seattle, many questions followed. Some said, “Bill Gates’ country.” Or “Sleepless in Seattle.” I responded, “And Microsoft, Starbucks, Costco, Boeing, and more.”
We met one family from South Africa on an Italian cruise. They insisted that we visit them in their native land someday. We might.
We still keep in touch with a nice Hong Kong couple we met on the cruise. Hopefully, we will visit them in Hong Kong soon.
6. Translation conflicts
I never expected to be an international interpreter on a Belfast tour bus in Northern Ireland.
“My French is excellent, but my English no good,” said a Chinese woman who lives in Paris, asking me to translate what the tour guide said. I regretted it as soon as I said “yes.”
The challenge was that the guide had a strong Irish accent. She was explaining the conflicts between the Irish Republican Army and the British, and the Catholics and Protestants. I could barely keep up with what she said, and then had to translate it into Mandarin. My native Chinese dialect is Cantonese. I was exhausted when the tour was over. It’s the toughest translation job I have ever encountered. The only consolation was the Chinese woman seemed to enjoy the tour.
Read part 2 next week.
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.