by Ali Valdez
Kalimera! I left for one month to enjoy hosting a yoga retreat and see Europe. This included the last minute emergency addition of my eight year old and an extemporaneous jaunt to Rome the weekend the Pope, Oprah and 70,000 additional faithful were there.
It was the Mercury Retrograde, an ‘event’ that brings some yogis weakly to the knees but to this point in my life, had never really affected me.
There are no guarantees. None truer than when we embark on an exotic adventure. Good hearted yogis assume the world out there is just as love and light as they are but unfortunately, that is not always the case. This got me to thinking about writing an article that might be practical and useful. This will outline some precautions you can make for your safety and wellbeing. I will write more on my incredible time in Greece, etc. as well as share about the wonderful inner work we facilitated using storytelling, asana and embodiment of myth, but for today, how can my experiences be helpful, and not just inspirational to others…
My travels this fall were specifically Italy and Greece. I have traveled to both places numerous times but this last stay in Athens I had my laptop stolen from my bag. I carefully packed it in a non-conspicuous bag for when I was out of the hotel and travelled around with my laptop bag to not draw attention to the computer in the hotel room. This is a small Plaka based hotel (excellent location, everything else pretty much sucked, but that’s another story…) that did not have safes in the room. I have traveled mostly for business in Europe in the past and never had a problem. But this time I did. What was so bad about the experience was the blatant lack of response from the hotel staff. I was told to go back to bed by a chain smoking night clerk when I realized it was gone at 3:30am and that maybe I would find it in the morning. He then looked back at the TV and resumed watching.
Not that I was expecting Nordstrom caliber customer service, but this was a first in bad service and blatant hotel theft.
The next morning, new front desk faces were not much more helpful. They discouraged me strongly from going to the police then intentionally led me on a goose chase to find the police department. I was traveling with a Greek friend who spoke the language. I am also part Greek and love the Greek people and their culture, so this was a very disappointing experience for me but one that I quickly got over.
This did not ruin my trip but it did force me to rethink my perhaps too assuming and cavalier ways of travel because I have been lucky in the past and what advice I would give my fellow retreat travelers. Here is my short list:
1) Money, Paper or Plastic: Arrive with a plan and some local currency. Most places in Latin America prefer to cater to Visa and not American Express. Some taxis from the airport won’t accept credit cards at all. Exchange at your bank $200 or so or at an airport kiosk. Also tell them in advance where you are traveling and check your spend reports as you go. Don’t wait until you get back to see if there might be identity theft. I have seen this happen to me in some form or another in Hong Kong, Miami, and Manhattan so not just international travel can be cause for consideration. Always have a just in case, emergency back-up credit card that is not stored with the others in case a purse is stolen or lost, like a purse I left in a Heathrow cab on my way to spend a month in Willesden Green studying Tripsichore with Edward Clark.
The cabby and I connected a few days later and he drove from home in Oxford to deliver it back to me. He would have delivered it sooner but it was his birthday and he and his brother in law had shared a few too many pints the night prior. There are awesome people everywhere you go, too!
2) Pre-trip Reading: I always recommend the DK Guide Books and yes, they are expensive. Why? These books are fraught with pictures and a logical breakdown of countries to cities to neighborhoods. When I am first traveling to a location, I study my DK guide as I plan my trip. One, it allows me to prioritize and plan for efficient days without traversing back and forth across a strange city. Two, I have a photographic memory and can read that puppy on an airplane and get off knowing the town like the back of my hand. There are also apps for your phone/tablet devices. Use them PRIOR to the trip and get your bearings before landing. Hey, while you are at it, get a book that weaves characters and stories through places you are going to see, and not just Eat, Pray, Love.
That shit doesn’t really happen in Bali but happy for Elizabeth nonetheless.
Tibet, Tibet or even something like A Discovery of Witches, English Patient, Turn Left at Machu Picchu or Sense & Sensibility make for charming ahas! I cannot wait to return to Somerset and Bath, ahem Captain Wentworth! Edward Rutherfurd delivers fantastic historical novels on Europe. I even purchased one of his books, Ruska, for my teacher Andrey Lappa. I will read his book on Ireland prior to my trip there next October.
3) Technology: When you are on a vacation or yoga retreat, do you need a camera, two tablets, a laptop and your cell phone?
Asshole? Guilty as charged! Yes, I am THAT guy!
I would advise one small multipurpose device with Skype capabilities that can fit in your bag. Technology in some countries is insanely expensive (e.g. Brazil where a lame device can go for upwards of ten thousand reais.) What we see as obvious convenience or dazzling nice to have extras, for others may mean nice resell value. If the hotel does not have safes in the room, ask if they have a master safe or hey, if it needs to be in a safe, maybe don’t bring it at all. You can call or email in advance to know what to expect for security and plan accordingly.
4) Jewelry: See Number Two. I never understood why people go big with a lot of additional crap around their necks and wrists or on their ears if it’s not entirely necessary.
5): Traveling Alone or Females: Most of my guests on my retreats are women. My number one job? Make sure they feel safe and give them confidence that I have a plan. Have your airport to hotel transportation pre-arranged and back. If you strike it up with the driver, use them for your entire trip. It was a bit of a nail biter in Sao Paolo last year, per tech executives’ stories, but when I got there I felt completely safe and loved the city and my few weeks in Brazil.
In Athens, Maik and the group got so close driving us to and fro and everywhere in between, he invited us over for his wife to cook us dinner and have the kids play. He also was a great advocate when we were shipping goods back to the states, and a champ with our bags. Go tube and underground or afoot as much as you want once you have your stuff locked away somewhere. Many international airports have well lit metro stations connected inside the airport like London, Paris, Hong Kong, etc. which may be the exception just depends really on how much you want to navigate and drag your shit everywhere to save a few bucks after an uncomfortable, 10 hour coach seat plane ride and grueling non air-conditioned customs queue in Panama City at 4am. Email hotel in advance and get really specific providing time of arrival, carrier and airline number. Ask for your driver’s card immediately to getting into the cab so you have it.
As a woman and a former business traveler, I have been to places where kidnapping and ransoming is a risk. I have not let that deter me from traveling but will typically make sure I am escorted by a local man designated from my hotel or tour company who understands the culture, the language, etc. Every year I go to Bali, Wayan Jess is my driver. If I need more transportation, Wayan or my other drivers, take care of me.
Last year, I was in Mexico City recently and my driver, Gustavo, who I always use, wouldn’t even let me get dropped off at the Starbucks in Santa Fe one block down from the office I was visiting. On another trip to Mexico City I walked the entire city by myself fearlessly and had no issues. However, I am Mexican and look local which poses less of a risk than a possible tourist, especially one distracted by excessive technologies and wearing loads of jewelry. I think I am making my point now.
5) Reverence: Bali, Mumbai, Kathmandu, Tashkent, etc. are not your father’s Oldsmobile kinds of cities. Culturally, women are not viewed the same way in the United States and other parts of the world. It should also be no surprise that US citizens are not necessarily viewed well in other countries either. A man from Burundi who eventually married one of my college best friends shared with me that outside of our country, American women are perceived to be as the women they see on TV; e.g. everyone is like Madonna in her provocateur essence. This bums me out, of course, but doesn’t mean I am going to be disrespectful to other cultures in order to push my own. Being respectful of where you are and not forcing your culture or God given rights as a US citizen matters. I know it is very hard for vegetarians or food sensitive people to hear this, but when you visit a poor country and they offer you their food, they are probably offering you more than their whole family will eat that day. Be gracious, eat it once and don’t make a fuss.
As fun as it is to selfie out globally, Peruvians cringe at natarajasanas at the Machu Picchu sundial; boxsplit handstands in front of a sacred Balinese temple not so good for the karma amongst the locals; even at the Parthenon, guards were screaming at sweet little tree poses next to the caryatids. So if you are going to do it, do it quickly.
I hope this article is helpful for you planning your next adventure. Bon voyage!