THERE THEY are, all in a row on my desk - ball point pens from the Mena House Oberoi, Taj Mahal Intercontinental, Rambagh Palace, Soaltee Oberoi, Dusit Thani, Shangri-La, Fujiya. Bright reminders of some of the best hotels I've ever stayed in, and they were all on my recent eight-week air package tour around the world.
Lawrence Durrell wrote in his introduction to Freya Stark's "The Journey's Echo" that we are in an age where the tourist has replaced the traveler. I wasn't quite sure what he meant until I got back from my trip.
Up until now I have traveled casually, either because I was living abroad with my husband on his overseas assignments or in connection with my own job. In either case I could take a side trip or a long weekend before or after a meeting or even sign-up for a short post-convention tour. I had met many people in their own habitats. There is a sort of security in traveling through familiar part of the world that you don't have when you decide on your own to strike out with a group of strangers in strange lands. Should I make the commitment? Could I survive as a member of a world tour?
Like a wine-tasting, a round-the-world package tour is, after all, just another giant introductory offer. Why not try it and see what you like?
Your local travel agency is truly a supermarket with racks full of colorful tour brochures - dozens of itineraries for a wide variety of budgets, and a choice of airlines and ships. More than enough to make me smack my lips in greedy anticipation. We looked for a trip that would balance the well known tough sightseeing countries (i,e., India, Egypt) with the luxury spots where we could rest up and live it up (Hong Kong and Singapore). Few world tours include Europe, and if they do it is only for a brief stop. Apparently the customers for world tours have "done" Europe.
Our tour included a week each in Egypt, India, Indonesia and Japan, spelled by split weeks in Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Nepal, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. Our week in Indonesia was a cruise aboard the Holland America's S.S. Prinsendam. Our airlines were various local internationals and nationals; Northwest Orient was the only U.S. airline used. We traveled east from New York, returning to New York.
What are the other people going to be like? It's blind dating all over again. Are you going to be struck with a bunch of ignoramuses for eight weeks? If you are as lucky as we were, you will find a group of seasoned tourists, very professional in their attitudes without any pushy closeness.If some personalities occasionally get on your nerves, think of yourself as a sociologist or blotting paper that just absorbs.
It was a relief to discover almost everyone had been to several of the scheduled stops before - we didn't get so many dumb-dumb questions that way. We were a group of 21 plus a tour leader. In each country we also had a guide who stayed with us for our entire stay and was in charge of transfers, buses, local sightseeing and so forth.
One of the group was a widow who had traveled most of the route before. She went only on the sightseeing trips she really liked and spent the rest of her time writing post cards, shopping and reading. When she showed up on the bus at 9 a.m., we could be pretty sure it was to be a good trip. Not surprisingly, the tour member who became our unofficial spokesman for compliments and complaints alike was an experienced trade association executive. A guilder from North Carolina asked such interesting questions about construction techniques at various sites that we all learned something of the building trades.
One advantage of the prepaid package tour is that you don't have to keep changing money. A good tour leader will advise you not to change money back to dollars at the airport. You will need local currency only for stamps, taxis, street market purchases and so forth.
But tour agencies should take note of the grumbles of their members where small tips are needed going in and out of mosques and temples, when you have checked your shoes or cameras, and for the men who drive the elephants, camels, horses, donkeys, carriages and boats that you ride along the way. As local gratuities are usually included in the overall price, why don't the guides pass out the equivalent of 50 cents or whatever in local money on the bus before it stops? This would rid the air of a lot of misunderstanding on the part of the embarrassed tourist and the local person whose livelihood is dependent on tips. The people I'm speaking of are not beggars, they are employes.
Let every tour member be alert at check-in counters. The tour organizers of our trip goofed on a sticky bit of protocol that could have been difficult. One couple dropped out of the trip and were replaced by another the day we left New York. Someone forgot to telex the name change.At the airport in Istanbul, the officials did not like the last-minute substitution as we were leaving for Tel Aviv.
Security checks are especially thorough in the Middle East and Asia. Long lines at baggage counters are followed by body frisks of each person inside the men's or women's check booth. Everything may be taken out of your handbag, carry-on case, coat pockets. It's frustrating to look at your naked toilet articles, beat-up Kleenex box, paperback book, scraps and pencil ends laid out on a counter and then try to fit them all in again under the beady eye of the guard. One guard sprayed herself generously (a halfbottle's worth) with my perfume. Just grit your teeth and remember safety is for everybody.
We found ourselves in some news-related situations. In India just after the Pakistani's carried out the death sentence on former Prime Minister Bhutto, riots broke out near us in Agra and Varanasi.
We spent 10 hours on March 27, the day after the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, in the airport in Sharjah in the United Arab Amirates, enroute from Cairo to Bombay. The excuse given was a sandstorm. But, while we sweated as the mercury hit 117 degrees, British Airways and other airlines operated normally. Was it surprising that our tour members believed this was a case of Arab retaliation against the Egyptians?
A good tour leader can make or break the journey. Our leader in New York was able to get early access to the seating chart for the long overwater night flight and reserved 11 rows of three seats for us. Two people sharing three seats is a big improvement over two sharing two. On another occasion she was able to upgrade the hotel in Jaipur from Clark's American to the Rambagh Palace, thus giving us a real Maharajah's palace with mosque-like rooms, rose gardens and a fancy swimming pool house where there were trapezes to swing out over the pool.
Consulting quickly upon arrival with the local guides, our leader was several times able to offer optional sightseeing opportunities for a quick decision by the group that an hour later would not have been possible. Such an opening happened in Jordan. There was unexpected time - thanks to a good driver and little traffic - that we could spend a half day at Jerash, the Greek city built in 200 B.C. Next day we were to see the legendary red rock city of Petra. Our day on horseback and picknicking in the canyons of Petra was even better because of the contrasting Jerash trip.
Although this was a group tour, there was nothing to deter you from doing your own thing. One of our members, a dentist from Oregon, always checked in with the local dental association. We had a couple of Rotarians with us. They enjoyed the fellowship of local members at the weekly Rotary International luncheons in various cities.
In Bangkok, I telephoned Princess Chumbhot, a delightful international octogenarian we had met at dinner in Switzerland several years ago. Her Suan Pakkad palace is a museum, open to the public on some days, but not on our itinerary. She invited me to tea and then we saw the special treasure of Suan Pakkad, which is a small wooden building on stilts. It is the Lacquer Pavilion, and inside the walls are covered with scenes executed in gold leaf on a background of black lacquer. The beautifully restored panels, painted by artists of the 17th century, are unique - they depict a style of period costume not seen in any other antique Thai artwork.
In Moslem countries you may have difficulty getting a drink; some days are dry days, some restaurants are dry and in some hotels alcoholic drinks can only be served in rooms. Travelers and tourists both have long since learned to carry their own supplies. In Japan you may experience a shock of another sort when you find that a bucket of ice delivered to your room in Hakone will cost you $10.
Our week on the Prinsendam cruising through some of the 3,000 green islands of Indonesia with a full moon overhead was a welcome change of pace. The ship is very clean with a varied international menu and occasional Indonesian dishes. Displacing 9,000 tons and carrying 370 passengers, the Prinsedam makes most of her own water in three huge conversion tanks. The water passes U.S. Health Department specs - it's a real homestyle surprise to turn on the faucet and know the water is okay. We joined the ship in Jakarta, made sightseeing shore stops in Bali, Suabaya and Medura and completed our cruise in Singapore.
It was quite a trip and my enthusiasm is still intact; in fact my lusty thirst for more travel is gearing up again. The tour agency delivered what we purchased within all reasonable bounds; we were a healthy group - we had to call a doctor only once in eight weeks. Perhaps that was thanks to experience and good preparation.
I'd like to go back to see if the Blue Mosque is really blue inside on a sunny day and to stand on a street in Katmandu and be able to see the snowcovered Himalayan peaks. I'd like to spend a month in India.
Among the 12 countries, 24 cities, 23 hotels and more than a dozen guides, I'll remember best Vishnu, our guide in Nepal, who was so proud of his Peace Corps training; Tad in Japan, who had prepared pre-recorded tapes to play on the bus with various sorts of ethnic music and short history lessons. Sherrif was a graduate student in Egyptology and had the good sense, occasionally, to stop talking and let our imaginations run free as we tried to absorb the vivid history of ancient Egypt.
I guess the scene I'll remember most is the absolute quiet of the morning light breaking over the Nile at Aswan, as I sat on my balcony at the new Cataract Hotel with my binoculars picking up every goat and rock, the Nilometer across on Elephantine Island, the tomb of the agan Kkan. Then the sun arrived to light the stage, the felucssas slithered through the water and the day had begun - probably not any differently from rush hour 5,000 years ago.
Do's and Don'ts
Do buy the package tour that includes "a la carte" dining, if you can. This means not only can you eat what, where and when you like in the hotels, but you can have room service at no extra charge. When you are too tired to move or want to get away from the group, nothing beats a moonlit dinner on your balcony.
Do consult your own physician. Ask about anti-cold and stomach settling medications and about immunizations you might take in addition to the international health requirements.
Do carry a hardside suitcase. Of the 26 pieces of luggage that our group of 22 carried, only the hardsiders were not punctured, torn, ripped, squashed or bent.
Do take a carry-on case no greater than the international airlines accepted size: 22 in. x 14 in. x 9 in. You will avoid unpleasantness and extra charges. Get one with both shoulder strap and hand grip.
Do bring more money or travelers checks than is usually suggested to cover the rising costs of extras and souvenirs.
Don't expect bargains. There aren't many. Do some research, shopping in our own fine jewelry stores and antique and decorator shops before you leave. Your dollar usually buys more of the same quality at home.
Do research at the library before your trip, buy a good travel guide, but don't carry travel books with you. Do pick up all the itineraries, brochures, hotel handouts, magazines, and other freebies you can lay your hand on while abroad - they are loaded with valuable information.
Don't feel you have to bring a camera if you don't take better pictures than you can buy in slides, glossies and postcards. You'll avoid all that worry about security x-rays ruining your film. (But do bring pocket-size binoculars, preferably with zoom-action.)