Skim Vacations

A Few Useful Tips for
Trippers About to Go

Ah, to take time off. The exotic places you can visit, the cultural shocks that’ll enrich your life, the unexpected that may ruin everything. And that’s just the warm half-full bottled of water. Still, if you’re on the planning stages, let us help you with four brief, but oh so valuable, tips we’ve recently came across.
As we know how proud you are of your hygiene habits, we’ve prepared a quick advisory menu to ready you to get there and back in no time, no hidden fees included. Since it’s August, think of them as entertaining stories. But coming Fall, believe us, you’ll be thanking us profusely.
Let’s face it: Americans don’t always make it for the best travelers. So used to the culture of accessibility they take for granted at home, the notion of crossing town to get a regular joe (or as they call it now, americano) can be an added source of distress. Besides, the rest of the world never particularly cared for what we used to call coffee anyway, so don’t complain if you don’t find a decent cup around.
But there’s a mitigating factor that it’s usually grossly overlooked, whenever wary foreigners decide that want you to have done your homework and speak at least a few words on their language: there’s no time. Americans take the shortest time off of all industrialized nations, and as a result, they must do things in a hurry, even when it comes to relaxing. And don’t even let us started with calls and emails from your job.
So take pity on the brave, overworked U.S. citizen, who ventures abroad searchinf for that impossible dream of ignoring crowded airports, long overbookedflights, drunk travelers, and fed up flight attendants, while trying the qualified pleasure of catching up with missing sleep on strange beds. It’s maddening.

Americans are obsessive with cleaning their hands and seem often horrified with the notion, well accepted in other cultures, that the human body, well, stinks. Although in most tropical countries people take several showers a day, in the U.S. that single time is a luxury that can not be wasted. Thus the staggering profits usually posted by the toiletry industry.
But the way we conduct our business of washing and soaping and generally being out of our minds, so concerned about the optimal ways for doing it, can be downright wasteful. Cue Joe Smith, an Oregon lawyer and community activist, whose presentation about how to wash your hands (don’t laugh) is a perennial hit on YouTube.
On it, he offers a simple solution to the 571 million pounds of paper towels Americans waste every year. He calls it, the Shake and Fold technique. Easy to master, not even Smith may realize that it’s also a great skill to take along to the road, with the additional plus of being an excellent conversational piece, too. That is, if you can speak the language, of course.
It’s easy and it works: after washing, you shake your hands 12 times (why 12? watch the video) and then dry them on one single, folded piece of paper, all with amazing efficiency. You’ll probably use such technique more times before you even cross the border, and for those who won’t find towels in faraway bathrooms, well, you can still finish drying off on your clothes.

Now that you’ve practiced it a few times, you may forget all you’ve read above. The American Society of Microbiology (haven’t we told you how obsessed we are?) conducted a study about how clean hotel rooms really are, what are the most ‘challenging’ areas (not necessarily what you may think) and how prepared you should be for what you may find around.
First, the good news: the least contaminated surfaces in the average hotel room are the headboard on the bed, the curtain rods and, what do you know? the bathroom door handle. Not coincidentally, no one sleeps on the headboard, few hang on those rods, and, for some reason, we tend to keep hotel bathroom doors open at most times.
On the other (unwashed) hand, you’ve guessed it, the still avidly disputed TV remote, the bedside lamp switch, the phone, the carpet where you crazily sit sometimes, the toilet and the bathroom sink, are colonies of bacteria you should never touch with a 20-foot curtain rod. And yet, you can’t help it.
At least, no one has any business touching the housekeepers’ carts, those cross-contamination vessels that carry germs your body never knew exist. That’s why you should tip well those equally overworked cleaners who have up to 16 rooms to clean per 8-hour shift, and no more than half an hour at each: like most travelers, they’re likely to pack a lot of sick days too. Again, don’t even mention bed bugs to us.

If you’ve booked your flight to China, you may be happy to know that Beijing health officials have recently set new standards regulating the city’s public bathrooms. In what some saw as a response to the appalling reviews that circulated during the 2008 Olympic Games in the country, the guidelines include at least one radical ordinance: the two-fly limit.
So, if you happen to need to go, and find more than two flies buzzing around, you may complain about it to the keeper, if you can find one. The same if you see more than two ‘discarded items,’ in the facility, but no one advises you to inquire what exactly they are. We trust that, if you’d see one, you’d probably know what they are.
The rules, which also cover cleaning and the use of equipment and training for attendants, are unlike to impress a discriminating world traveler such as yourself. But since lavatories are plenty in touristic areas, and rare in neighborhoods, they may have the extra benefit of addressing a common problem for impoverished Beijing residents.
Don’t expect to find toilet paper or soap or even sinks in some of these ‘touristic’ spots, though. So, it’s advisable to carry your own paper at all times. By now, it’s also obvious that all that ecologically-correct training involved in properly drying your hands, mentioned above, may be of little use while in China. This vacation is starting to get on our nerves.
As any expert on global travel, you’re also well versed in the big-city phenomenon of squatters. You know, those pioneers who occupy, fix and turn habitable abandoned buildings, only to be evicted by the police when the area’s real estate market gets hot, and the neighborhood becomes fashionable. Well, you may forget all you think you know about it too.
If you’re traveling to Asia and Africa, for example, you’ll soon be painfully familiar with another time of squatting, the one exercised at the toilet. Don’t worry, we’re not about to get graphic here. But we need to point you to the right direction, for such an information may prove extremely vital, once you’re out there and need to go, badly.
Of course, you should know before you board a plane, what kind of experiences with which you’re about to enrich your limited worldview. But some unprepared vacationers fail to do their homework, and choose to learn instead about the trendy nightclubs and the local drug culture, all the while neglecting the simple facts of life.
Again, it’d be a mistake to think that in hot, humid weather countries people should be in any way lax with their personal hygiene. In fact, we never cease to be amazed by what we disgustedly observe in the jungle of our office, or what goes on after dark in some of the most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods this side of the income divide.
But there are, however, important tips to be learned, and few compare to the use of public bathrooms in places where running water, and paper, may be scarce. You see, most guides won’t tell you that since flush toilets were invented only in the late 1500s, squatting has been the way to go way longer, in the history of our kind.
You may rarely think about that, but some of your Renaissance heroes, and even philosophers that still guide you through the ethical and moral wasteland of your daily life, never knew about your treasured toilet paper, which was invented only a hundred years ago. In this context, researching and educating yourself about this lost art may be the real trip among your travels.
We’ll leave it at that, without getting to the particulars of corn cobs, Sears Roebuck catalogs, mussel shells, leaves, newspaper, sand, and other items, and what they used to be mostly known for. But may the links take you to a good primer on that department, and to a safe and rewarding trip overseas.
Remember, we’ve been cross-pollinating and cross-contaminating and exchanging germs and exotic bug species for thousands of years, and the alternative to getting a bit burned or a bit wet, a bit annoyed or a bit robbed in some foreign port, is soul crushing. Anything you may encounter out there definitely beats watching reruns of Desperate Housewives. Bon Voyage.

2 thoughts on “Skim Vacations

  1. Lisa at fLVE says:

    Good reminder to travelers to be parepare. Some places also have bathroom attendants and charges for toilet paper and such which is a rare thing to see in the US although I have seen it in an “old school” restaurant here too. I think that surprised me more than encountering this in another country. Lol.


  2. How refreshing. The human auto-immune system requires exposure to germs in order to remain a fighter. Cheers, Micheline


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