Debunking Travel Myths

(Originally published in Main Line Life on July 9. 2008)

It seems that every time I am about to go on a trip, some well-meaning friend or another feels compelled to offer either a last-minute dire warning, or a negative comment on something I am looking forward to in my travels.

A nervous Nellie of the first degree, these types of proclamations can throw me into a fretful fit at worst, or at best cause a night or two of restless sleep.

However, as I’ve traveled more, and further, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to assimilate the information declared as fact by these same nay-sayers, but not necessarily to act upon it. For example, a few years ago, on a trip to China, all I heard about was how I shouldn’t eat any of the local food. One friend said that she brought along several boxes of granola bars, and she subsisted on these and not much else during her trip.

I did bring an emergency bag of M & M’s. Remember the guy who lived for a week on a bag of M & M’s in the wilderness? However, every meal my travel companions and I ate in China was delicious, and not one of us ever got ill. Although it became a sort of running joke that we only saw three dogs in our nine days there.

I even survived a flagrant disregard of the warning to eschew ice while there. I had my first ice cubes at a Starbucks in Beijing, and moved right on to Singapore Slings at the China World Hotel.

Similar doom and gloom predictions were offered up before a trip to London and Paris, with a three-day side trip to the English countryside. (English countryside! Mad cows! Hoof and mouth disease!)

Not to diminish the real problems the British endured from these two blights, I have to record here: the countryside was gorgeous, green and lush, and the only cows we saw stood docilely in the fields with no evidence of foaming mouths or crossed eyes.

Giddy elation sets in as one tests out these dire travel warnings, and they come up empty.
After several trips to London, I have firmly put to rest another gloomy myth; that all English food is boring and inedible.

Prime rib of beef at the great London restaurant Rules was fabulous. Lamb in the dining room at the Manor House at Castle Combe? Marvelous. From the Sunday brunch at the Dorchester Hotel, to tea at Fortnum & Mason’s, to fish and chips eaten on the run at Victoria Station – dare I say it – all delicious.

Off to Paris, where another myth was promptly debunked: All Parisians are rude to Americans, especially Americans who don’t speak French.

Who better to send that theory out the window than my husband and myself, two goofy Americans whose knowledge of French stops with Merci and Bonjour. Our first experience in Paris was a taxi driver who took us from the train station to our hotel. He was happy and proud to point out the sights to us – sights he sees every day. Smiling at us as we gawked like star struck country bumpkins at his city’s magic.

And, let’s not forget the biggest fable of all – those rude French waiters. Not. As my husband and I bumbled our way through menu pronunciations, we had nary a haughty toss of the head, or snide rolling of the eyes. Only bemused smiles and patient suggestions, usually in English, which resulted in our enjoying every restaurant we ate in.

Sometimes the most dangerous doomsayer of all can be our own inner voice, giving way to irrational fears. I have vacationed in Montana (don’t you worry about bears?) a half dozen times in the past several years, and the first few times I was in the wilderness I couldn’t relax for a moment, knowing that snakes, bears, and mountain lions were waiting around every bend in the trail, ready to pounce on me. A fellow hiker helped me overcome these paralyzing fears by asking me the following succinct question, “Kathy, how many times in all your years of hiking and backpacking have you ever actually seen a real, live snake or a bear?”

Well, never, of course.

Sure, there are places where it is in our interest to heed very real warnings, especially during these troubled times of random international terrorism. I’m not big on visiting places with continuing political unrest and armed guards roaming the streets with sub-machine guns, and I carefully avoid hurricane and monsoon seasons.

But the intrepid traveler will do well to sort out the real risks from the mere hand-wringing hype, and make up his or her own mind. And leave the granola bars at home.

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