back to the Black Table

I spent the better part of last year flying into airports where the runways are paved with pea-gravel and the luggage codes look like twenty-point Scrabble plays. Along the way, I made a few mistakes and learned a few things. So next time you find yourself in a nation where the major industry is sustenance agriculture and your hotel is still decorated with bullet holes from the last coup, follow these rules for a smooth ride.

Observe Protocol
When passing through rural villages in Africa or Central Asia, seek out the mayor or chief and treat him as if he were Louis XIV and you


were the visiting Duke of Salzburg. Gift him with a baseball cap or a pair of sunglasses. It is likely that things will fall magically into place shortly thereafter -- a mat on the floor, a meal of curried goat, a night of conversation.

Listen Wisely
Well-meaning locals in war-torn countries will often try to tell you that you absolutely can't travel to a certain region or talk to a certain high official. They are


frequently dead wrong. Smile, nod and then make the attempt anyway -- you may be surprised what you can accomplish.

Trade Up
On your first day in a capital city, find the luxury hotel -- one where the U.N. and Red Cross staffers hang out. You're not staying here, but this place is your new living room. The bar will be a premier gossip-mill, the concierge speaks English well, you'll get help with phones and taxis and the lobby bathroom will be the cleanest in town. Walk into the place like you own it, and you'll likely never be asked if you're a paying guest. If that happens, your response is: "I hold business meetings in the bar."

Get Around
Never buy first-class tickets when taking a plane, unless you really enjoy paying top-dollar for mediocre champagne. Always buy first-class tickets when taking an overnight train, unless you really like sleeping with livestock. When exiting a moving train, always toss out your luggage first. If you jump with it strapped to your back or in your hands, it will knock you off balance when you land. Plus, like Cortez burning his ships at Veracruz, throwing the bag first helps you commit to the decision. When taking taxis or rickshaws, never get into the first one. Solicit a range of offers and then agree on a flat rate.

Method Act
If you don't speak the language, a sheepish smile and some pantomime can go a surprisingly long way.

Baksheesh, Part One
But always learn three key phrases: "hello," "thank you," and "small fine." This last is what you'll have to offer police officers who harrass you for no purpose. The local euphemism in French West Africa is café (coffee); in Portuguese Africa, it's gazosa (soda pop). The

    standard street bribe for cops and civil servants should be set according to economic indices at an approximate ratio of 1000:1 -- in other words, in nations where the per capita income is $1,000 a year, you should start the bidding at $1. Offer more and you're setting yourself up for a real shakedown.

Baksheesh, Part Two
Try to haggle your bribe downward and don't do what I did in Mexico City. Sick of the mordida and on a tight schedule, I simply drove away from my arresting officers, zigzagged

  down a few side streets and then -- once I was sure I had lost them -- removed my license plate with a screwdriver. Interagency communications are pretty bad in Mexico so I made it back to Texas with no trouble, but in retrospect, this was a pretty stupid thing to do.

Baksheesh, Part Three
If you have the time to gut it out, simply say: "Let's call the embassy." Then take out a pen and ask for the officer's names. This can either free you immediately, or set you up for a long wait in a darkened lobby before they finally let you go.

Not Just Anybody
If you need outside help in a nation where the U.S. does not have a diplomatic presence, call the British, who have been known to help stray Americans in trouble. Any Scandanavian nation is your second choice. Call the French embassy only as a last resort. Nothing against them personally, they just suck in a crisis.

Walk Like a Man
When disembarking at the airport, put on your best New York scowl and act like you know what you're doing, even if you don't. Uncertain body language is like blood in the water for robbers, touts and con artists, all of whom lurk outside Customs like skycaps.

Come Prepared
Carry a pocketful of ballpoint pens. They make handy, non-


monetary gifts for street children. Many schools in poor countries can't afford to give their students anything to write with.

An All-Purpose Conversation Starter in Youth Hostels
"Hey, are you from Australia?"

Look Before You Leap
It was one of those weird rainstorms that takes place in bright sunshine. I was in a jungle


in Brazil, sitting on the banks of the Paranaiba River watching a train of odd squirrel-like creatures swing from the trees using their tails. Something atavistic about this scene inspired me to get naked and jump into the river. I splashed around for a good hour and was feeling quite pleased with myself until later in the day when I found out the Paranaiba was a secondary sewage artery for a nearby city. The doctors were never sure what caused the week of feverish vomiting when I got back home, but the hepatitis test came back negative.

Divide and Conquer
Stuck with a middle seat on a flight? Here's a trick: Ask the counter agent to look at the manifest and put you in between two people with the same last names. Married couples will sometimes ask for the aisle and the window in hopes of homesteading the whole row. Split them up, and you'll be able to swap with one of them.

From the Bookstore:
About those travel guides: Let's Go kicks ass, Lonely Planet can be tin-eared and inaccurate, Time Out is good only for bars, and Fodor's is pretty much worthless unless you're a graying foodie.

Trust the Magic
Something is going to happen to you. You are going to be invited into somebody's hut for dinner. You will laugh until your sides hurt at somebody's story of trying to cook a crab on the beach. You find the sunlight hitting a cliff in such a way that you wish it could remain that way for a week just so you could stare at it. The brakes will fail in your Land Crusier and you will spend the night in the grass. You will be given an unexpected 500-watt gaze by a gorgeous person. You will learn more than you ever thought possible about a town and its people after staying there barely a day. You will be amazed at how much there is going on in this world every single minute, all the life swarming everywhere, so unaware of itself, and how narrow a slice you will ever be privileged to experience. If you trust the magic enough, you may realize that the slice you had was pretty good.


Tom Zoellner is a writer in New York City. He'll trade you for the window seat.