First Timers

A venture overseas can change attitudes and shatter illusions. Here five travel experts share some surprising inaugurations.

First Timers

1. My First Roman Holiday

George Dunford, travel writer and blogger

As if I wasn’t worried enough by my first trip overseas, I had to read the section of my Roman guidebook called “Dangers & Annoyances”. It clearly told me that the second I got off the train I’d discover “thieves are very active in the area around Stazione Termini.”

Off the plane I was anticipating robbery. Catching the train in from the airport, I eyed the couple opposite me, convinced they were hardened thieves working this train for chumps who hadn’t read the Dangers & Annoyances section. When they pulled out a package I knew it was a trick. I braced myself in case they tried to throw it at me as a distraction. Instead, it was cheese. They ate for a while and saw me staring so they offered me some. It could be poison or, at the very least, a tranquilliser. But I risked it. And the soft milky taste was worth it.

“Mozzarella di bufala”, the man explained. He told me it was from his hometown, where he and his wife had just flown back from, so they had plenty. He wasn’t a thief, just a man proud of his hometown produce.

2. My First English Patients

Adam Stanford, marketing analyst

It started abruptly. While working at a crappy job in Adelaide, I occasionally surfed teacher websites, more out of curiosity than actual intent. Then there was an interesting job ad for a small school in central Japan, so I shot off an application. Eighteen days later I landed in Nagoya International Airport, pondering the question, Do I even like kids?

It turned out to be more like a passion and I spent a year there teaching kindergarten and primary school kids. Teaching, I quickly discovered, was a great skill to combine with travel; it allowed me to keep my expenses way down while getting a really rich experience of the culture. Who better to show you around town than one of your own students? And no classroom was the same.

In Japan the well-built classrooms were warm enough for me to teach wearing shorts and a T-shirt, unusual in such a formal country. In China, my classroom was only a few degrees above freezing level and my teaching attire was more like snow gear. In Russia I taught summer school and had no classroom at all, instead teaching the kids in the open air.

3. My First Jungle Night

Jolyon Attwooll, Lonely Planet author and previous Santiago Times reporter

The jaguars didn’t bother me much during the day. Adonis, our local guide who was leading us deep into the Guatemalan jungle, assured us they were elusive, shy creatures. The most recent time he had seen one was more than a year ago when he had surprised a pair in the act of jaguar love. Last week, he had spotted some jaguar spoor, which was probably about as close to the animals as we would get, he said.

But his reassurance meant little that night as I cowered in my hammock under the Central American stars. Now my mind turned every rustle into a prowling big cat full of murderous intent (probably to get back at the rude human who had interrupted a moment of feline passion). And, if it wasn’t a jaguar poised to spring, it was a poisonous fer-de-lance viper, picking which of my buttocks to sink its fangs into.

Tiredness calmed my overactive imagination and I dozed. Next day, big surprise: no death by either snake bite or jaguar mauling. We packed up our stuff and continued toward our destination, El Mirador, the site of the tallest temple in the Mayan world.

Although we may have questioned why we had left a perfectly nice beach to come here, that night no doubts remained. Just before sunset we took our places at the top of the unexcavated temple mound. A Mayan astrology priest had probably sat in the same place 2000 years before and honed his knowledge of the galaxy. Tonight, as with every night, spectacular pink shades streaked the western skyline. The sky darkened and, one by one, the stars shimmered into life.

4. My First Frankfurter

Brian Thacker, travel writer and author of Sleeping Around: A Couch Surfing Tour of the Globe

When I stepped out of Frankfurt airport as a young, naïve backpacker on my first “big trip” overseas, I noticed a couple of people dressed as clowns. In the underground train station I saw two more clowns drinking from large bottles of beer. Sitting opposite me on the train was another clown having an animated conversation with a court jester. I had no idea what was going on. My first thought was that because Europe is a season ahead in fashion this was the latest look. It was no laughing matter, though. When a rather intoxicated clown gave me a big bear hug I started to get a little freaked.

By the time I hit the streets after checking into my hotel most of the clown population in Frankfurt seemed to be rolling drunk, which meant there were a lot of very happy clowns. When I finally got the courage to ask someone what was going on, I found out that the Germans weren’t clown fetishists after all. It was actually part of an ancient festival called Fasching and, as well as dressing up, people danced, sang and drank massive steins of beer for three days straight.

I ended up having the most marvellous time and, by midnight of my first day in Europe, I had three clowns, an ape and a nun as my new best friends.

5. My First Passage To India

Rose Mulready, writer

I was expecting to come out of the airport doors in Mumbai and disappear in a locust crowd of beggars and taxi drivers. Everyone I knew had told me that my first few minutes would be terrifying. They made it sound as if I would have to fight to keep hold of my luggage, possibly lose an eye.

Instead, when I turned up in Mumbai after midnight, I found the airport all but deserted. I prepaid for a taxi at a booth and easily found my driver, and we set out for the city. Again I was surprised – where were all the people? Mumbai at night was a city of men and dogs. Men lying in the street, riding motorbikes, smoking cigarettes – but nothing like the jumbled hordes I’d been led to expect.

All night outside my window there was the soft music of bicycle bells. In the morning, I heard female voices and rushed to the window to see three women in bright saris – fuchsia, turquoise, daffodil – crossing the road.

I’d arrived in the city with a gruesome cold (ironically the only illness I would suffer in a year of Indian travel) so I spent my first day dazed in bed, watching Bollywood clips on MTV Asia and reading. When I finally ventured out in the streets, the first person to approach me was a street vendor who tried to sell me a giant dropsical balloon, almost bigger than I was. This made me laugh. “A smaller balloon?” he countered swiftly. Ah, the real India at last.

This is an extract from Lonely Planet’s The Big Trip, published by Lonely Planet © May 2015.

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