Goodbye SA, konichiwa Japan…and a few hiccups!

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Any person who has done any travelling at all, has usually experienced at least one hiccup somewhere along the way. I am no exception. In fact I have experienced a few ‘hiccup’ episodes. Although not so funny then, they do make great lessons and great travel stories.

I had never thought of going to Japan, until two weeks before I flew. In those two weeks I ran around like a mad hatter trying to get all my bits and bobs in order. When the departure day very quickly arrived and the tear jerking goodbyes had been said, steering forward and not perplexing too much about my impulsive decision seemed like a good idea. I did feel a bit squeamish when I thought about the recent earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear disaster that happened only a few weeks earlier, but I was ready for the adventure…or so I thought.

I flew with Singapore Airlines (highly recommendable). The first leg of my journey was still rather ‘normal’, surrounded by many of my country folk. The lay over in Singapore was brief but pleasant. I was going to change my South African Rands into dollars while at the airport, but ended up getting side-tracked. I would later discover that this was a BIG mistake.

After an encounter of the third kind with a pair of chopsticks and a feeble attempt to use them on my flight, I resorted back to my familiar and faithful friend – the fork. It was on board this flight from Singapore to Tokyo that I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling that I was experiencing what I had only ever read about in books – CULTURE SHOCK! It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only Caucasian and everyone around me spoke gibberish. A bit of a late realization, but I think some Japanese vocabulary would have been useful before I left home.

Arriving in Tokyo after a 21 hour flight and very little sleep, I was cleared through immigration only to be stopped by security. I greeted the guard with the only Japanese word I knew ‘konichiwa’. Perhaps, not the best thing to do, as I then ended up having my bag searched which only added to the current anxiety. I then proceeded to the exchange bureau to change my cash. To my horror they would not change my currency. (In fact, nowhere in Japan do they accept South African rands). With no credit card as a back up, this did leave room for panic, but fortunately I had a prepaid hotel room waiting for me. Thinking nothing could possibly get any worse, I jumped onto what I thought was the correct shuttle bus and headed for my hotel. It got worse! I had shuttled myself off to the wrong hotel. Trying to explain to someone who does not speak a word of English that you need to go back to the airport is a game of gestures. After a while and a bit of awkwardness the driver took me back to the airport. I made it to my hotel – eventually – contacted my family, and then my future employer and went to sleep.

After a good rest, things got better, the shock wore off and another chapter in my not so ordinary life began. This was one cultural experience that no book could ever fully prepare anyone for. Once a person realizes that language, culture and just about everything they thought they knew about the world, is not everything, they start to see the world differently. Scary at first, but it’s an amazing place filled with so many languages, cultures, races, ethnicities and people. It’s a big, big, wide world.

For anyone voyaging off to a new country short or long-term, here are some, mostly intercultural, trip tips:

#1 Always change your currency into dollars, euros, or pounds BEFORE you leave your home country, especially if you don’t have a credit card and your currency is ‘unpopular’.

#2 Dress down for the airports. By this I mean don’t bother with a belt, hat or boots. They will just be a burden at the security checks. Wear easy slip on shoes. For the ladies-some airports let you carry on nail sets with nail files and nail scissors, but some don’t so rather pack them into your check-in luggage to be sure you won’t have them confiscated.

#3 Get ready to be overwhelmed by sudden culture shock. Of course, if you have done no research on the country you are going to and cannot speak more than one word of the language this feeling will be dramatically increased. Do some research, buy a phrase book and brush up on basic vocabulary before you head off to a country where English is not a first or second language (mostly for long stays, but could be handy for short-term visits)

#4 International roaming on your phone may be useful in places where you cannot buy a SIM card at the airport (like Japan).

#5 Know where you are staying and have the address (and a contact number) written in the language of the country you are visiting or staying at.

#6 Be patient with language and cultural differences (this is a toughy). Not every culture works on the same clock or logic that you do. You’re on new turf, the rules may not be the same.

#7 Be prepared for some changes in bowel movement if your diet changes. In the same token, be ready to accept that some toilets in some countries are squat toilets. Determining the direction in which you are meant to face can be a challenge to those who are unfamiliar with them.

#8 Always have a plan B. If things go wrong it is useful to have a backup plan. Not my strongest point, but something I am learning can be useful at times.

#9 If you think it won’t get worse, it might, but it will always get better…and if it doesn’t make sure you can get back home.

#10 adjust, adapt, practice patience and never stop learning about yourself, life and others.

That said, a journey with no hiccups, bumps or hurdles might be easy, but might not be nearly as entertaining.

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