From my first days of international exploration, when I was still a wide-eyed college kid meandering Europe with my older sister, I recognized that whatever differences I see and experience in each place and on each expedition, there always seem to be threads of very familiar commonality as well. My sister and I dubbed these rather predictable elements of the journey our Rules of Travel. There is often a noticeably preset quality to certain places, events, and happenings that can make me feel, simultaneously, utterly out of my element and surprisingly at home wherever I roam.
For example, personal comfort is the lens through which I always view my current place in the world, so it’s only natural that such things as temperature, relative safety, quantity of elbow room, and other such characteristics always feel slightly less ideal than, well, my ideal. So one of our Rules went a bit like this:
Degrees of ambient temperature in the waiting area for a winter train are inversely proportional to the number of minutes before the train arrives.
That wonderful three-and-a-half month trip happened to be in the year of a record cold winter, when typically easy-rolling European trains were stranded or derailing, never mind having trouble keeping to a tight schedule, when towns that normally were undaunted by modest drifts of snow became isolated spots on a vast white map, unconnected by their accustomed transport and communications alike and filled with a cohort of folk ranging from the slightly mystified to the miffed, who were parked there perforce until such time as a bit of thaw or an intrepid snowplow should free them again. Needless to say, our itinerary moved in unpredictable fits and starts that found us standing for rather extended periods shivering on train platforms, huddled in our entire inventories of clothes layered together with a few sympathetic donations from relatives’ and friends’ closets, wondering not just when but if our train would ever arrive, and finding that it was essentially up to chance no matter how everyone tried.
Dashing through many a train station, airport, and tourist venue over the same trip, we had plenty of opportunity to observe a number of other repeated elements.
One obvious constant of student travel like ours was that funds were ever seemingly flush only in currencies not applicable in our present location; the corollary to this rule was that we always managed to arrive in said location on a Saturday evening, when the banks would not be open again for the exchange of funds into the local currency until Monday morning. By that time at least one of us was actively considering whether the peeling wallpaper in our shabby flophouse-du-jour had been applied long enough ago to have wheat-based paste behind it for the licking. Okay, that part was literal only once that I can remember, thankfully. The rest of it was pretty frequent, though, the Saturday arrivals happening oftener than they should to a couple of people who had somehow managed to get accepted for university studies. Sometimes, at that, arrival was on the tail-end of a marathon train trek meant to avoid overnight hostel fees en route but where we’d also regrettably neglected to pack more than one lunch for the whole two or three days, as the trains didn’t take our current currency either.
You see where this is going. Natural, practical brilliance, at least on my part, was never actually part of my traveling kit.
Another Rule: Escalator and pedway handrails are precisely calibrated to move at a rate relative to the underfoot surface that guarantees anyone holding a steady position of both hand and foot will arrive at the end of the stair or passage fully prone. For greater variety and increased adventure, some engineers build variable speeds into both surfaces’ mechanisms, providing the options of both ventral and dorsal arrival positions on the same equipment. It’s similar to the knowledge that all shopping carts worldwide are produced to assure that one wheel will consistently aim fourteen degrees further to the right, the east, or the direction of Purgatory than whatever direction the other ones are headed.
You might think from reading this that I am not fond of travel, or at least that I’m quite awful at it, but I’m really just more tolerant of uncertainty and willing to subject myself to chance than I generally give myself credit for being. In a way, I realize that I’m a living miracle. I am terrified of change and newness, easily intimidated, I have no natural compass sense, I’m forgetful and quickly confused, and I abhor discomfort. I stumble around, blundering little animal that I am, and forget all of the smart Rules I’ve ever known. But I’ve gotten to go gallivanting in a pretty good variety of really wonderful and interesting places, to meet fantastic people and see and do amazing things, and above all, I’m here to tell the tale. If that isn’t a fine endorsement of going with the flow as a traveler, I don’t know what is. That’s the only Rule that counts.