When travelling to unfamiliar locations it is important not only to manage expectations but also to ensure that ambitions remain realistic and consequently achievable. The blue-sky-and-sunshine images found particularly in travel brochures do not necessarily reflect what you may experience. Neither do they make clear the extent of problems arising from delays, frustration, inefficiency, incompetence, poor weather, heat, dust, filth, low hygiene standards, smells, disease, insects, rats, crime and so on. If you travel the world you will, at some point, have to contend with each of these and many other issues – sometimes all at once. Guidebooks and travel videos provide information about the best experiences and places, but the reality of ordinary streets can be quite different. Make sure you read the relevant down-to-earth Lonely Planet or Blue Guide to get the most realistic overall picture before committing to a journey. Also make sure that what you plan to do is within your physical capabilities.
Journeys in can seem endless and may be exhausting. Uncomfortable forms of transport have to be endured, language barriers overcome and stomach upsets survived. The result can be a low level of tolerance and extreme frustration. In China a traveller might be told "You can't fly on this plane because the British designed it with too few seats!" Suggesting the the alternative of the train might provoke a response such as "You wouldn't want to go on the train!" The golden rule is to relax, and stay fit and calm. General tiredness, lack of sleep, dehydration, different food and dodgy water are common travel companions, so learning to cope with them is essential. Break journeys where possible, plan sensible stopover periods and try to avoid the accumulation of tiredness. When combined with changes of time zone, jet lag, and inadequate or irregular meals its effects will, in any case, eventually force a halt. Dehydration is not only a potential problem in hot climates, but also in dry air at high altitudes and after a bout of sickness. It is wise to carry a bottle of distilled water whenever possible and make sure you maintain an adequate intake of fluids.
Travelling alone is a very different experience to travelling with another person or in a small group. When on your own you are easier for others to approach and hence more in touch with local people, but also more vulnerable to scams and generally less secure. In any case you may be seen as "rich" just because you are there. The majority of people in the world cannot afford to travel and do not own cameras, so you are consequently a potential target for petty criminals in some areas. The best defensive strategy is to dress down, leave non-essential valuables at home and carry in the street only what is absolutely essential. It is equally important to resist the onset of paranoia and get on with achieving your objectives in a responsible and level-headed manner. The lone traveller must also return to an empty hotel room with nothing but silence for company, so a strong, independent frame of mind is an advantage. Travel photography can be a lonely experience. Medical or health issues should be dealt with promptly because there is nobody else to keep an eye on you, and problems are often easier to address in their early stages. Doctors are not always immediately available but can be found in most places. Exhaustion, sunburn, stomach upsets and dehydration and are all common in the first few days of a journey.
On arrival take a gentle walk, shower and go to bed as near to the normal local time as possible. This begins your recover from jet-lag. Eat and sleep properly, and rest before rushing around after a long journey. It generally pays to look after yourself because you will adjust more rapidly. A fresh mind is also more creative, makes better decisions and saves time in the long term.
Try to fit in to your new surroundings as comfortably as possible. As a foreigner you will stand out and be noticed, but it pays to dress respectfully and behave in an unobtrusive manner. Treat everyone as an equal and carry a ready smile, and you are more likely to be welcomed. In an unfamiliar culture it is easy to make gaffs, so think before diving in. Assess the local environment as quickly as possible and get some advice on what you should and should not do. There are risks everywhere, and it is important to understand them. Self-preservation is important.
It may sound cynical, but serious travellers should expect to be ripped off at some point in every journey. It is better to come to terms with the reality of risk and to accept that, eventually, you will fall victim to petty theft. In Rome there are all sorts of clever scams to relieve you of your valuables, in India your camera bag may get slashed with a sharp knife, and in Colombia hustlers may jostle you in the street then surround and rob you. New scams spring up all the time and there will always be one you have not seen before. Otherwise you will just get overcharged because you look naive or wealthy. Take care and remain alert but don't let the loss of a few dollars spoil your day.
Additional problems are bribery and corruption. In some countries bribery is almost the norm, and is undertaken openly in public places. In South America people can sometimes be seen bribing their way onto aircraft, and a doubly confirmed reservation can suddenly become "wait-listed". Passengers may seen climbing over an airline's check-in desk to help press the keys on the computer while thrusting handfuls of cash at airline staff. Official corruption is also rife in some areas of the world. Travellers are commonly fined for "incorrect parking" and "for turning around on a toll road", neither of which may have ever have been attempted, and may become the victims of "miscounted" bank notes in a variety of apparently respectable banks. However, it would be unfair of to leave this subject without admitting that travellers may also be obliged to resort to bribery. The writer has bribed his way onto a military helicopter in Nepal, albeit in desperate circumstances, and has opened a good number of doors with US$10 notes. It may therefore be worth adding a final note of caution; offering official bribes of any sort is risky and consequently not recommended.
Women travel photographers face circumstances somewhat different from those encountered by their male counterparts. Those who understand the issues, and are culturally sensitive, can gain some advantages from their gender. They can flirt just a little with men to achieve their aims, and they may find it easier to gain the confidence of local women and children. Male subjects may also feel less threatened by the presence of a woman in vulnerable or domestic circumstances. However, it is also true that women photographers may get taken less seriously. Western notions of equality of the sexes, women’s rights and political correctness are completely unknown in much of the world and may be regarded with derision. It may not be to your liking but that is how it is. Remember that one woman cannot change the world, and should not try. Women travelling alone also inevitably attract unwanted attention although it may arise from nothing more than curiosity. In some cultures it is not considered reasonable for a woman to be alone or without children. Beyond the west it may also be the norm for a woman to look away or down when she meets a man’s glance. Once again it may not suit you, but conformance will attract less problems.
Dress is perhaps a more sensitive issue for a woman than a man, so it is worth considering how particular attire will be perceived by others. It is generally best to dress conservatively, and in a manner sympathetic to the local culture, without going native. In some societies everyone "knows" that western women are easy; the way some people dress and behave in resorts may have led to this notion. A confident but not brazen approach is probably the best bet.
Men travelling alone can also attract unwanted attention. They may be accosted by groups of prostitutes determined to find custom, or pestered by other men to whom a white skin may seem attractive. Some may even be pursued to their hotel room where the unwanted visitor may become persistent and, for a short period at least, unwilling to leave. Male photographers are also regarded with immediate suspicion if they approach children. This obsession is currently at its worst in western Europe and North America.