World Tour Planning 101: Who Needs a Map When There's Malbec?

Seriously? You’re ordering spring rolls? That’s your research plan for Asia?

My New Zealand travel planning isn't much better; I rented the TV show Flight of the Conchords. (I think Brett and Jemaine are giving me a pretty good sense of what Kiwis are like.) I also picked up a couple of bottles of New Zealand malbec. 

Meanwhile, Rob, has been feverishly booking flights, accommodations, hikes, camping, car rentals and activities all over New Zealand — the first leg of our family's year-long trek around the world. 

He’s a researcher, a mapper, a Guidebook Guy.

I prefer flying by the seat of my ass.

I’m in charge of planning the South East Asia part of our tour. (I know, I know – I wouldn’t trust me as far as I could throw a map either.) Most of my information about Vietnam, Laos, Bhutan, Thailand, Cambodia, Tibet, Myanmar comes from novels. And spring rolls.  But I hear the beaches are nice, the food is good and they adore children. Good enough for me. Let’s go.

I’ve traveled a lot and one of the things I love most about travel is the unexpected adventure that unfolds when you throw yourself into new situations, embrace people, and sink your teeth into authentic experiences (as opposed to other people's experiences that are written about in guide books).

Map, shmap, I say.

Here is a random page out of my travel journal that illustrates what I'm talking about when you ditch the Lonely Planet and Fodor's.

I once signed up to volunteer with an organization in Ghana, West Africa where I would be one of several international volunteers, along with locals, helping to build a school. I found the organization on the Internet and it seemed legit enough. (This was long before organizations like Free the Children made International Volunteerism trendy.) 

When I arrived in Accra, Phillip, the administrator from VOLU was supposed to be at the airport holding a placard with my name on it. I was so excited as I stepped off the plane!

But then I wandered aimlessly inside and outside the airport for what seemed like hours looking for that Daria placard. It didn’t exist.

It was dark and late, I was alone, in a city of 2 million people in Africa. I didn’t know a soul. And there wasn’t exactly a Holiday Inn next to the airport. There also seemed to be a rolling power supply, because the lights kept going out all over the city.

It was starting to occur to me that maybe this organization that I’d found on the Internet to which I’d paid some money to cover my living expenses while at the volunteer camp, might not actually exist.

Now what?

The one thing my “minimal planning” approach to life and travel has taught me— you have to be resourceful, embrace the moment – even if you’re scared shitless because you’ve inevitably landed yourself in another sketchy situation.

There was a man from another organization holding up a sign that read Ariana. Should I just say that I'm her?A girl then de-planed and they greeted one another. Damn, there goes that plan.

I asked him if he’d heard of VOLU. He hadn’t, but he said there was room at their hostel, I could stay there for the night and we’d sort it out in the morning. Sounds good to me. I wouldn’t be sleeping in the dark streets of Accra. Yahoo.

In the morning, we found out that VOLU did in fact exist and they were on their way to pick me up. Phillip said I’d given him the wrong arrival date, even though I was pretty sure I’d forwarded him my airline itinerary.

My Voluntary WorkCamps of Ghana Identity Card.

When we arrived at VOLU – it turned out that I was the only international volunteer.

When I signed on, they claimed that projects were a 50/50 split of locals and internationals from places like North America, South America and Europe.

Okay, so, it’s just me then?

Phillip said he was hopeful that there would be a few more volunteers coming in from France. But they hadn’t shown up yet. Maybe he lost their itineraries too? Regardless, I’d be shipped out the next day to a remote, rural area with no electricity or running water to start construction on a school where apparently, I’d be the only white woman. Some people might have bailed at this point. But, not me.

I spent the day by myself, wandering around Accra, a bustling hub of a city with markets and people everywhere. About a thousand different people asked me if I’d sponsor them into Canada. Sure, why not?

I returned back to VOLU that evening; it doubled as a hostel where volunteers stayed until they are sent off their volunteer camp. Phillip told me he was going home for the night and that the man in the shack out front would take care of anything that I needed; he was a security guard. See you in the morning.

What? You’re leaving me here? By myself?

(Again, you can’t really linger on these details too much when you don’t spend a whole of a lot of time researching the organization with which you’re be volunteering.)

I played checkers and War with the 8 year-old daughter of the security guard. At about 9 p.m. he told me to go inside because they were heading home and he needed to lock up.

What do you mean, heading home? You’re locking me up in here? Alone?

The building could only be locked from the outside, he explained.  So as I went inside and I could hear the lock clacking behind me. I lied down in my bunk, read a little and then tried to sleep. What if there was a fire? How would I get out? This is crazy. After hours of hypothesizing about worst case scenearios, I realized there was nothing I could do, so I finally drifted off to sleep.

At 1 am I awoke to the lock opening and flashlights flickering on the floors and walls. (Speaking of worst case scenarios.) 

Nobody knows I’m here! I practically don’t even know where I am! How will anyone back home be able to find me? Or my body!

I wondered if it’d be better to lie still and be quiet, or start screaming, trying to locate necks with my teeth. Okay, maybe a little planning and research wouldn’t have hurt. So far this volunteer experience in Africa has been a bit harrowing.

“Allo, Daria? Allo?” It was the French volunteers. I’ve never been so happy to see French people in my life!

Maude and Etienne, my fellow French volunteers, in front of the Volu office.

The rest of this Ghana volunteer experience was just as comic and epic and insane as the start. The camp was run by a certified lunatic who effectively made the French volunteer Etienne his servant; he wore a bedsheet most of the time, talked about himself in the third person and was effectively high as a kite for 3 full weeks.  I was sent into the village twice to see the District Chief to beg for food for our camp. I walked 3 miles through a snake-infested field bought a pig, slaughtered it, and then carted it three miles back to camp in a wheelbarrow. 

I gradually realized as I got acclimatized to my new environment that all of this was simply the way things worked. You can't apply your cushy North American systems and expectations to a developing West African country. What seemed a little nuts to me was standard operating procedure over there.

By the time I left, we had a school under construction and I'd worked side by side with locals, 7 hours a day, for three weeks. I can't really imagine a better way to get to know a country and it's people. 

After my volunteer term was finished, I visited all of the historical and tourist places that were written about in the guidebooks. They were interesting, but they were effectively a checklist of things to see and do. They weren't the experiences that would change me, that would define my time in Ghana.  

On our last day the entire village held this incredible ceremony for us.  We had to wear tradtional cotumes, sing, eat and drink weird stuff. But they named me their village's honourary Queen! I tried to rock that title back home, but everyone told me to fuck off. 

So, as we plan this year-long adventure, for the sake of my family’s sanity, maybe I’ll tuck a guidebook into my backpack. But I sure hope we stumble off the beaten path and embrace some good old fashioned adventure -- the kind you'd never find in a guidebook!

Bring on the spring rolls and Flight of the Conchords. With a side of Syrah.

Not all those who wander are lost.  -J. R. R. Tolkien -Inspirational Reading Quotes
Daria Salamon7 Comments