You're eyeball-to-gun-muzzle with a soldier from the Mozambique National Resistance. You're late for a trade show in Djibouti and your plane is in Djakarta. You owe the Moroccan cabbie 1,000 dirham for a two-minute hop. They won't honor your traveler's checks in Ouagadougou. You have to be in Aswa n in 30 minutes and it appears reachable only by dhow.
Welcome to the world of globetrotting worker bees -- foreign service officers, international business managers, journalists, art dealers, buyers and sellers, consultants, military contractors, you name it. They've got a schedule to make in a foreign country that doesn't care about MasterCard, and the glamor has long since worn off.
And in this city, suffocating with international consultants, envoys and business managers employed by the State Department, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, philanthropic organizations, the Organization of American States, the Pentagon, the CIA and others, the compulsive jet-hopper is an indigenous species.
If you're one of those pro travelers, you learn to land with your feet running, your baggage claimed and your reflexes ready for the minefield of problems waiting for you, bureaucratic, logistical or alimentary.
"I bought a ticket in Indonesia for a flight and the plane never showed up," says Bruce Dale, staff photographer at National Geographic magazine and veteran of the Overseas School of Hard Knocks. In Indonesia, "people tried to sell me plane tickets to an island. There's not even a landing strip on the island."
"I was just crazed by the bureaucracy," says free-lance writer David Black, recently on assignment in India for Rolling Stone magazine. "You have to get tickets to get in a line, which gets you in another line, which gets you into another line, which gives you the information you're looking for . . . "
"The biggest problem in any place is lost luggage," says Ruth Noble Groom, who runs an import-export firm doing business for soft-currency countries from Romania to Jamaica. "In many underdeveloped countries officials will inspect your bags, put them on the conveyor belt and if you don't doublecheck . . ."
"It was chaos," says National Geographic staff writer Noel Grove. He committed the faux pas of contracting a Nigerian cabbie for the week and ignoring the line of cabs outside his Lagos hotel. "Fifteen people around me yelling at the tops of their voices, shaking their fists . . . "
Yankee wayfarer, you're on your own. It's every man for himself and the System -- if it exists -- against all. But the more you tackle the snafus, impasses, physical danger, mysterious diseases and pitfalls, the greater your international savoir-faire the next time, and the greater your conventional and not-so-conventional wisdom.
Tips from big-league travelers start frequently with the mundane.
"Never travel without a pair of nail scissors in order to open the fiendish food packets on the airline," says Chris Rosenfeld, wife of a former U.S. foreign service officer. "And I never go anywhere without a cotton scarf. It's especially good in the Soviet Union to carry food that doesn't come in packages, besides being something to tie your hair down."
"I have two sets of everything," says television producer Nancy Dickerson. "I buy duplicates of everything, one for use in Washington, the other for travel. I have three cosmetic cases -- cosmetics, the toothpaste, the skin things, the remedies for insect bites . . . I put them all in one big tote bag. Women who travel a lot, they have to do that."
"Stick with minimal luggage," says Philip Cutler, a consultant in decorative arts and furniture in countries like the Philippines. "Never, never take what you can't carry yourself. There's always the point where you can't get help, and there are certain places where you can't use a luggage cart."
"Pack Lomotil," says John McCarthy, director of the International Catholic Migration Commission, who travels 200,000 miles a year. "And travel light, travel light, travel light."
And eat light. Your stomach will do its best to mess with you right in the middle of of your rare audience with an African leader. It will force you to excuse yourself at the apex of your feasibility presentation to the Guyanese.
While some iron-gut travelers ingest such Third World treats as monkey brains with genuine gastrointestinal swagger, most avoid exotic delicacies and uncooked foods. They are particularly careful in sub-Saharan Africa, where unpasteurized dairy products often harbor tenacious tropical parasites that can cause anything from glandular dysfunction to blindness.
But local cuisine is often the safest, as well as the best, if one approaches it gently and avoids undercooked foods. Water is another matter. Some World Bank travelers abroad wet their toothbrushes only with gin. Even bottled water can be iffy in India, where hoteliers have been known to refill bottles from the tap. There, as wherever water is suspect, veteran travelers swear by beer. The local beers are usually not only safe but often very good.
"Follow the usual precautions for food and water but don't ever use the ice," says McCarthy. "Don't put your mouth to a straw. I wouldn't dare eat uncooked food except fruit I can peel. In the Orient they use night soil for fertilizer. I don't try to be adventurous with food."
In Islamic countries, alcohol is limited to smugglers. "People have been known to drive 200 kilometers to get gin coming over the Eritrean border," says one traveler who prefers anonymity. "People who don't even like gin." To keep the alimentary bogeyman away, he suggests "a slug of gin before you go to bed at night" to intimidate alien microbes in the gut.
Jet lag is unavoidable for overseas professionals. "When I arrive at a foreign place," says John McCarthy, "I go right to work. Otherwise you're fouled up for days. Find something to do until 10 at night. Don't go to sleep in the afternoon."
Not everyone agrees. ""Go to bed and get it over with," says international architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen. If you're jet lagged "you're really not worth anything." Jacobsen, who has already clocked 150,000 miles this year, recommends that the jet-lagged defer meetings until at least the next day. "You're not going to earn your fee. They'll wonder, 'Why are we paying this guy?' You're just about two beats off. Have a light sleep for four hours, then dinner, then go to bed. I've played it too often."
So you've packed lighter than Tinkerbell. You even had your tickets delivered to your office. On the plane you've snagged a window seat so you won't have to sleep on a stranger's shoulder. You packed an electric transformer for your hair dryer, as well as overnight supplies in your carry-on bag in case the unthinkable happens. You got a seat by the door to be first off the plane and the real connected eggs among you even finessed a diplomatic visa for that hassle-free breeze through customs.
But, Gentle Traveler, the problems have only begun.
Try getting out of Nigeria, for instance. Little can be achieved in Lagos officialdom without generous supplies of dash -- little cash tips that help you over the hump: "It's not only accepted, it's expected," says Noel Grove. "There were always hang-ups on money exchanges with rules so vague it was difficult to understand. You could be accused of having too many dollars or of taking too many nira the currency out of the country . . . You want out of the country so badly, anything that's likely to hold you up will scare you."
So, says Grove, "you add a little extra."
One American woman who didn't have that "little extra" found her own solution for escaping the airport in Lagos. She simply screamed until they let her on the plane.
"Gifts count for a lot," says Charles Cobb, another Geographic writer, who was assigned to work the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica. "The only way to work there in 1981 was to hook up with a gang leader and get beer, rum or cigarettes to him regularly."
These days of hostages and hijackings have forced a shotgun wedding between bureaucracy and security considerations at the world's airports.
Security arrangements in India have become "even more byzantine," says David Black. "You have to go through security six times -- everyone double-checks someone else's work . . . I bought a smooth, oval polished stone -- as common a tourist souvenir in India as a bronze Washington Monument here -- and one guy said, 'What's this?' I said, 'You probably know better than I do.' He looked at it and said, 'It could be a grenade.' I said, 'It could be, but in fact it's a rock.' He said, 'It is a rock but it could be a grenade.'
"We had this ontological discussion for about 20 minutes."
If India is a textbook bureaucratic impasse, Egypt's Luxor is, for many travelers, the roach motel of the Near East. You can check in . . .
"If you're flying down to Luxor," says Dickerson, "They give you a return ticket, but then they say there's no airplane back."
"We had the Luxor thing," says Sally Ann Hart, real estate agent and wife of an international entrepreneur. After finally locating a departing flight, they were unable to board because it was overcrowded. "I was crying," says Hart. "I was scared. We were the only two Americans left off. It was midnight and I was supposed to meet my children. I felt we were never going to get out. An airline manager felt sorry for us and took two Egyptians off who were airline employes . . . We were escorted to the plane by six teen-agers with machine guns, because they were worried there might be anger against us. It wasn't a power play -- I was just crying. The Egyptian people are sympathetic to mothers."
Perhaps the ultimate tip for the regular globetrotter is the attitude adjustment necessary for foreign cultures. If time is money in America, it's merely a dreamy interim anywhere from Madras to Tonga. To the traveler with a tight business schedule, pressing for efficiency is profitless. Bureaucracy is, at best, organized hindrance. The advice of many travelers for these situations: Load up with as much serenity as your Type-A personality can bear. The When-in-Rome rule applies only too painfully.
"Brazil is like one big carnival," says Hart. "You'll say, 'We have to get these papers signed.' And they say, 'Nonsense, eat another papaya.' Adhering to schedules there with my workaholic tendencies can be very frustrating."
"You've got to consider the culture you're going into," says psychological consultant James Schlotfeldt, who does business in Latin America. "You set up a meeting and they're typically 45 minutes late. You're going to be annoyed. I know they're going to be late, I know what would normally take a few days will take two weeks. I still get frustrated. If you went over to the other side and completely adopted their culture, though, you'd be less effective . . . "
Comes a time when it's too much to bear. You've seen 23 Catch-22s and you've had acquiesence overload for six months. "There's a certain point," says David Black, "where, if you suddenly start screaming loud and indignantly, all the problems start to vanish. Admittedly it's an Ugly American attitude."
Black says his father-in-law, who had business in India in the 1950s, had a different strategy. He took off his wristwatch and didn't put it back on for seven years.
The conventional wisdom here is, "Prevention Is Better Than Having to Scream." You learn how not to set yourself up for problems by keeping a low profile and yet being assertive when necessary. "In rough-looking countries," says Ruth Noble Groom, "I dress well. Officials think you look like you have good connections and they're less likely to hassle you." It's advisable, says Chris Rosenfeld, to be "authoritative." When challenged by immigration officials overseas, " give the firm answer, even if you've fudged the facts of it. Say 'I'm an immunologist' or whatever . . . "
The worst thing you can do, says Rosenfeld, is to say, " 'Oh, I'm just visiting. I just thought I'd like to see . . . ' "
"Keep a low profile," says Groom, referring to her travels behind the Iron Curtain. "Don't think it would be fascinating to get into political discussions on the street. You've got everything to lose and nothing to gain."
The ante rises considerably once the shooting starts. The Inter-American Press Association has published a pamphlet called "Surviving Dangerous Assignments." According to the document, "Thirteen journalists died on assignment in Latin America in the first six months of 1984." The survival tips run the Hunter Thompson gamut from "Always carry a white flag" to "Make certain your employer carries insurance that will adequately provide if you are injured or killed."
"When a man is standing there with a gun, cocks it and tells you to go away," an Associated Press bureau chief is quoted as saying, "then you go away."
In these hot spots, the American traveler is a loaded symbol of his or her country. "You go with the flow," says one journalist, who was ordered out of bed by armed Angolan troops in the early morning hours.
National Geographic photographer Bruce Dale has traveled to more than 50 countries, usually in jeeps and small planes ("I got lost between Ouagadougou and Timbuktu, and a couple of times in Alaska"). He doesn't worry about the toothbrush so much as the Swiss Army knife and the shortwave radio. When flying over wilderness he packs for disaster, which means flares or signal mirrors, a lightweight rain parka and a handgun loaded with birdshot for hunting birds. "I never depend on the pilot to have any survival gear."
It is Buddhist doctrine that "All Things Must Pass," but in the Third World it takes longer. Eventually you will get that visa and return home.
"The best feeling is the accomplishing of something abroad and coming home," says Hart. "Travel gives me a total new perspective when I come back."
Of course, the return home isn't always smooth. Culture shock frequently awaits the prodigal American. "When I come back," says James Schlotfeldt, who is away 300 days a year, "it's always an adjustment."
Says Hugh Newell Jacobsen: "At Dulles, they usually have one customs guy taking seven planes. Your knees lock and your eyes glaze over . . . "
"I'm gone about 60 percent of the time out of the country," says Ruth Noble Groom. "It's no way to live."
But when it's time to go back you're smarter. You travel lighter, you eat more wisely and if you've learned nothing from your past trips, at least listen to David Black: "Remember, you're not in America."