Travel is a tall, cold glass of lemonade on a scorching day. It brings not just refreshment, but a boundless sense of renewal and good fortune, as though a precious gift of heaven. It spreads itself like a welcomed frost over the troubled sea of thought, and keeps the mind smooth and equable in the hottest weather.
So, I've distilled a dozen lessons on how to stay cool and calm and untroubled while traveling this summer. Sip and enjoy:
1) What to Bring on Every Trip // From the Tropics to the Ice:
I was in Sulawesi, Indonesia, on the Equator, sweating up a storm, when I got the call that the Chinese authorities would finally meet with me about a permit I was seeking to run the Yangtze. But the meeting was scheduled for the next day, and it was January and snowing in Beijing. I didn't have time to shop, so I landed in my shorts and shivered all the way to the government offices. They must have taken pity on me, because they gave me the permit, though at a cost of $200,000, plus accommodations and transport.
What I learned:
a) Be prepared for all types of weather. Remember global climate change.
b) Always have a long pair of pants, and business wear, in case of an unexpected meeting.
c) Always have layers. Bring a raincoat, and a light overcoat, wherever you go.
d) Bring an extra month's supply of any critical medicine, just in case, and more cash than you expect to use.
2) The Importance of Cultural Sensitivity // A Tale From Papua New Guinea:
I was in Chimbu Province, in the highlands of New Guinea, scouting for a BBC film, when I came to a rope bridge. As I was crossing a painted local swayed across from the other side, wearing arse grass, pig tusks in his nose, and cassowary feathers in his hair. We met in the middle, and I smiled and waved for him to pass. But he reached over and put his hands between my legs, and squeezed. Then smiled, and let me pass. Turns out he was giving me "The Chimbu Handshake," a traditional greeting in which you check to see if a stranger is carrying a weapon under his grass skirt.
What did I learn?
a) Bone up on local customs before visiting.
b) When meeting a stranger, smile, sing or play the harmonica (play one)....these are all universal in language, and can break down cross-cultural suspicions.
c) Travel with a local guide who can interpret and anticipate for you.
3) How to add pages to your passport in a hurry // Getting Savvy in South Africa:
I was feeling pretty trick. About to embark with a group of philanthropists to South Africa, I knew I could get a visa at the Johannesburg airport, so didn't need to wait in long lines to pick up a visa at the U.S. consulate. But the day before departure I noticed I only had one blank page left in my passport, and South Africa, as most countries, requires at least two blank pages to allow entry.
What I learned:
a) You can actually add more pages in a day, if you visit a Passport Agency office, where passports and extra pages can be issued on-site. Appointments are recommended.
b) Documentation is required at some of the offices to prove an immediate need for the pages (such as an itinerary), and many charge an expedite fee.
c) If already outside the United States, you can visit a U.S. Consulate or Embassy. Appointments are required. In many cases, the pages can be added within an hour.
d) If you have two to three weeks, you can fill out the DS-4085 form (online here) and mail in your passport, along with a check for the fees and return mailing, and request expedited processing (otherwise it can take up to six weeks).
4) How to Avoid Festival Mistakes // Steering Clear in Spain:
I was in Pamplona to cover the fiestas of San Fermin, made famous by Hemingway, and was looking for the best vantage to observe the sprint. I didn't hire a guide, as I figured I could figure this out on my own. I found a deep door-well on Calle Santo Domingo, just down from the start corral. I positioned myself in this safe-haven at 7:45 a.m., and promptly at 8, two rockets set off, and the bulls were released. But a river of runners scooped into my door-well and pushed me out into the middle of the stampede. I ran as fast I could into the arena, and only later, looking at the photos posted, did I see that one bull had its horns inches from my back.
What did I learn?
a) When participating in festivals and events in cultures unfamiliar, use a local guide.
b) Read everything you can about a festival or event, so you understand the basics. If I had read the literature, I would have known that doorways on the route are not benign refuges.
c) Always wear fast shoes.
5) How to Take a Great Photo in the Field // Sharpening my Eye in Sumatra:
On assignment for National Geographic, I was covering an expedition making the first descent of the River of the Red Ape in Sumatra. Famed photographer Nick Nichols was taking the pictures, while I crafted the words, but I thought I would learn from the master, so whenever he composed a shot, I stood nearby and pointed my camera in the same general direction, though generally as he crouched or kneeled, I just stood up straight and fired away. But when I compared my results to Nick's, his were all brilliant, and mine, well, they all seemed a bit off.
What did I learn?
a) The basic element in taking a good photograph is composition. Cameras today sort out focusing, lighting and can trade stocks and schedule a haircut, but only you can get the composition right.
b) Remember the "rule of thirds." Imagine there are invisible lines -- two horizontal and two vertical -- dividing a photograph into nine sections. In many cases, you'll obtain a better picture if you put any natural horizontal lines -- like the horizon -- on one of your invisible horizontal lines rather than in the middle; and if you locate your subject -- such as a person or tree -- on one of the invisible vertical lines, rather than in the middle.
c) See if you can "frame" your shot. The frame might be a window, door, arch or simply a tree branch.
d) If you're shooting outside, make sure the sun is behind you.
6) How and Why to Pack Light // Liberated in Ethiopia:
Deep in the Baro River Canyon in Ethiopia, after a long day of portaging, I went to gather my bag, holding my clothes, sleeping bag and toilet kit, and it was nowhere to be found. Apparently, it had gone missing during one of the grueling portages. So, at that moment, I had no worldly possessions, save the torn shorts I was wearing, my socks and shoes, and the knife that hung from my pants. I slept in a small cave that night, rolled up like a hedgehog, with no sleeping bag, no pad, but I slept well. With the morning, I awoke fresh and energized, ready for the day, and though I had practically nothing to call my own, I felt a richness for the moment...I was with friends, on an adventure, and was touching something primal. In an odd way, this all seemed liberating...no accoutrements to weigh down the soul... just a clear, present reason for going forward, for being. And I allowed something that would be called joy to wash over me.
What did I learn?
a) It's good to travel light! It saves the soul, and the tendons.
b) Choose lightweight but tough luggage. Every pound counts, both at airline check-ins, and your own field pulls and tows, and portages.
c) Pack smart. You probably don't need five pairs of shoes, or three different sport coats. And maybe you can leave that portable espresso maker at home. Know what you'll use, and what you won't.