Being a great guest

(Part 5 of 5 in Parkour Travel)

This post is entirely rules, tips, and ideas about how to be an insanely great guest in someone’s home. It’s organized into three sections. The first two sections are meant to get you thinking about how your host, and other guests, perceive you. The third section is focused on the day-to-day details of living in an unusual space. It’s meant to get you thinking about solutions to problems, and ways to make travel more enjoyable.

tl;dr: Empathy.

For my purposes here, empathy is the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another person. I’m not suggesting that you must continuously empathize with everyone. I’m suggesting that empathy is a tool that can be used to inform your plans and behavior. Simply put, artfully using the soft skill of empathy will transform you into a great guest.

Why Bother?

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Why? Because decent human beings treat other human beings decently. (Did I need to write that? I hope not.)

If you are not already motivated to improve and to be a good guest, consider these benefits:

Lubrication: If your host likes you, they’ll interact with you more, you’ll experience more of their life, knowledge, and culture, and they may even help you more by driving you somewhere, or introducing you to someone. There is a wide margin of experiences which you cannot plan. But if things are going well via your being an awesome guest, then you’ll more often find yourself invited into that margin by your host.

Pete and Repeat: If you want to be invited back, you need to be a good guest. If you enjoyed a first visit (with your host, to the community, to the city, to the country), you’d probably enjoy a second visit. Notably, second visits are logistically easier because you know the lay of the land. So it’s a double-win if you visit again. Rare and valuable are hosts who become true friends through repeated visits.

Avoiding self-sabotage: Invitations generally only appear when meeting someone in person, so new invitations are fairly rare. If you are an annoying guest, your reputation will quietly precede you, and invitations won’t be extended.

Lead from the front: We are social animals. (Everyone varies as to how much social interaction we prefer, but no one is an island.) So it’s wise to help weave the social fabric by setting a good example. An excellent way to save the world is to be the change you want to see in the world. Be the traveler who breaks the ice, (appropriately of course,) who dives into the distasteful chore, who finds ways to include everyone, and who kicks off the cascade of cohesion and camaraderie.

The Cardinal Sin

Invitations are never extendable to others; Never invite another person to your host’s home.

Invitations are never extendable to others; Never invite another person to your host’s home.

Corollary: Be cautious with social media. Avoid, revealing your host’s exact address, or the details of their private life.

Here are cringe-worthy examples I’ve seen: Someone you’re training with needs to use the bathroom? Someone needs a place to stash their belongings? A place to shower? A place to crash for the night? No, no, no and no. You should always and forever consider yourself a guest. Guests are, by definition, not the host and only the host can invite others.

Treat your host’s home like a magic kingdom. It’s a rare privilege, reserved for the select few, to even know where it is located, let alone be permitted to glimpse the interior. Only your host may pierce that veil and reveal the kingdom to those whom they alone choose.

I’ve spoken to many people, and there are differing views held by persons in the guest role. Some incorrectly believe that a guest’s behavior may change, pushing, or crossing, the boundaries I’m describing, based on the host and the situation. (Pro-tip: Be the host and then you can do whatever you want. Until then, you are a guest.) The guest’s role is unwavering. Hosts and their “homes” vary widely from open-door, dog-pile, continuous-house-parties, to Zen-temple-like retreats of peace and quiet known to only a select few. The boundaries of acceptable behavior are set by your host, will vary widely, and are usually not explicitly detailed. But that variety in homes and boundaries does not change the guest’s role and responsibilities in the least.

Lead from the front, be considerate, and practice empathy.

15 Suggestions

Be careful what you wish for: Your host may go out of their way to arrange something you didn’t actually want. If this happens, you should follow through with what you asked, enjoy it, and remember to pass your heartfelt thanks to your host. (Ask me the story about the swimming pool in Japan.)

Be predictable: Since, as a good guest, you are actively paying attention to how your presence is imposing on your host, you can work to minimize friction and problems. Once you start to see how this works, you’ll think of a myriad of small things you can do to be predictable. Think about your communications from your host’s point of view. (Here’s that empathy skill again.) Always let your host know what to expect.

Everyone has routines: Your mission is to figure out your host’s routines, and to figure out what their intentions are. (The later is much harder than the former.) Do they want no disruption of their normal routine, or do they want to get up early to do things with you? Do they want you to feed yourself, or do they deeply enjoy cooking and sharing meals? The inroad here is found by realizing that your goal is to make your interaction with your host, and your affect on them, intentional.

Sleeping: The biggest challenge is to tease out when your host expects to sleep and expects to awake, and to try to fit yourself to that. This can be hard to do well. If you wait too long, they will eventually ask you, and it can get awkward if you give an exact response—”I go to sleep at 9:30 and get up at 5:30″—if that is significantly different from their normal routine. I usually open the conversation about sleeping by mentioning what time I need to get up (for an event, transportation logistics, etc..) But, challenges can still arise because sleep is the thing I’ve arranged my life around, and it is rare that I encounter others with this same level of attention to sleep.

Scheduling: Of course, if you have a specific thing to do (event, train, plane, etc), and they watch TV (or play games, etc.) at night, you should join them a little, but then go to sleep. Hopefully your sleep spot is out of the way. Sometimes sleeping on the floor is great because you can say goodnight and head off to your nest. Sometimes sleeping on the floor is a problem if your assigned space is the common space where staying-up is happening. Know your schedule in advance and factor that in when planning where you’ll sleep.

Bed: In the morning, stow your bed by putting your sleep system away or putting the sofa back together. If you’ve found yourself in a guest bedroom, make the bed.

Bathroom etiquette: This is hero-level stuff done by dream guests. If the shower is in the only bathroom, before you head to the shower, politely ask if anyone would like to use the bathroom. Always bring all your own bathroom stuff, (soap, shampoo, whatever you need, you should be able to carry it when traveling.) Leave absolutely nothing in the bathroom. (If there are multiple guests, the bathroom can get insane.) The exception would be your towel: If you’re the only guest, it should be hung neatly to dry in the bathroom. But if there are lots of guests, your towel needs to go dry in your sleeping space. (If you have a tech towel that dries quickly and shower before bed, it will dry by morning in your sleeping area.)

…and more Bathroom tips: Showering at night keeps the bedding cleaner, (your host’s, or yours if you’re using your sleep system.) Technical clothing that dries quickly can be washed with you as you shower to dry as you sleep. Take cooler showers to save hot water for others, and to make less fog in the bathroom. Always run the fan. Next, imagine you are being timed while in the bathroom. …and imagine there’s a line of people waiting. …and then imagine yourself waiting desperately in that line to use the bathroom. If there are many guests, get yourself presentable as quickly as possible, and then crack the door while finishing up the things you can do while dressed. Most people will knock on the door if it is cracked open. You can then pause your work to politely step out for them.

If you are handy: Fix things. But only if you are absolutely sure you can succeed! Sometimes you can just leave things a touch more organized, more clean, or less broken, then when you arrived. Do not make a big deal of it nor point out what you’ve done.

Disappear during the day: Not only you body, but all your stuff too, should disappear! Either carry everything with you whenever you leave, or have a large bag to leave at your host’s. (There are large, packable duffels that take up little space when stuffed.) This enables your host to move all your stuff easily if needed. (It also tends to keep children and pets out of your stuff.) If you do this well, instead of your host feeling like you’re there for three days, it’s more like three, separate, one-night visits; They have fun sharing a meal, some conversation, then everyone’s asleep, and then it feels like your visit ends in the morning.

Refrigerators: Use the fridge, but remove all of your stuff. Seriously, no one will eat your left-overs, (except obviously useful items like eggs.) If your host gives you a tour of the fridge, (literally, or by mentioning it in passing,) then do eat/drink their stuff. If they do not mention it, do not touch their stuff. Mastery level: change your eating habits so you don’t eat breakfast. Find your lunches and dinners out-and-about and place zero food-load on your host. Then, if they want to eat socially, you can add that back in.

Not seen and not heard: By default you should be invisible, and as quiet as a mouse. Make no noise, don’t watch TV, play games, etc. Let your host lead. If they want to interact, make noise, watch TV, playing games, etc., then join in!

Before arrival: Tell your host how and when you are arriving (“My train gets in at 4:30, so it will be about 5 by the time I get to your place by subway.”) This way they know when to expect you, and that you are not expecting them to pick you up. Then, if they want to offer you a ride, (or whatever,) they can. You should always be thinking: All I need is shelter and a bathroom; Anything else is icing on the cake. (wifi? electric power?! food?!! …omg awesome!)

Intentional updates: Your host should always know when to next expect to hear from you; This means you make the effort, not that you nag them. When you leave for the day you might say, “I’m not sure what time I’ll be back. I’ll send you a message after lunch.” …or, “I’m going to be late this evening, I’m having dinner with so-and-so.”

Oops happens: When things go wrong, own up to it immediately. If you break something, tell your host. However, if you ask, “can I fix/replace this,” most people will lie and say to not worry about it. Instead, you must first figure out how to fix/replace it, and say, “I see there’s a home depot across town. After breakfast I’ll take the subway over and get another one of these.” Sure, you will miss the morning of the event you came to attend (!), but you broke it and you should be the one who misses half a day fixing it. You’ll learn a hard lesson and be a better person for it.

Review: After each visit, take the time to think about what went well, what went badly, and wether your visit matched up with your expectations. Continuous improvement is the key!

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A Traveler’s Mindset

(Part 4 of 5 in Parkour Travel)

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

~Lao Tzu

A traveler’s mindset is the foundation for being a successful traveller and for being a good guest. I didn’t set out to develop any particular mindset when I began traveling. I simply started traveling, and only much later did I realize my mindset had changed.

In my Travel Gear series, I describe my habit of reviewing after each trip. While I began by reviewing the things I had packed for each trip, I soon realized I was spending more time thinking about what had gone well, and not so well. As I examined my mindset, I was drawn to experiment and refine, to try more challenging trips, and to push my comfort zones.

Which brings me to my traveler’s mindset:

Plan
Be flexible
Be positive
Move forward
Slow down

Plan

To be good at planning requires knowledge, but not simply knowledge of my destination. Rather, I discovered it was most important to have knowledge of my own strengths and weaknesses. For the things I am good at, the situations where I’m comfortable, in these areas I can do less planning. But in areas where my skills are weak, or situations where I’m uncomfortable, there I need to focus my planning.

Here’s an example of a strength for me: I’m not a picky eater and I have no dietary restrictions. So I never worry about food, and I hardly ever plan meals; Wherever I travel, people eat and there is food. (I’m happy to fend for myself, help cook, or team up with others.) So in the realm of food, a sufficient level of planning for me, is to carry a plastic spork.

Here’s an example of a weakness: It bothers me when I’m late for scheduled things, or when I miss out on things because of transportation. That it bothers me is my weakness. Until I can overcome that weakness, I try to avoid transportation issues. That means I prefer to be responsible for my own transportation whenever possible. I’ll be the person who coordinates buying the plane tickets, figures out the train schedule, or rents the car.

The next component of good planning is to know my bookends. In any trip, there are firmly scheduled components, such as major transportation legs, or an event being attended. Bookending is the idea of planning out as much of the time and actions leading up to the scheduled item. Once I’ve planned my bookends, I’m free to do any level of planning — including “none” — between the bookends.

After the bookends I search for unknowns. This is basically a litany of questions that I’ve learned to ask myself: Do I have my passport, visa, and host’s address for immigration control? Do I need foreign currency, working credit card, or cell phone data plan? Does my phone even work on the local cellular system? Have I sorted my transportation from the airport? If my phone dies, what must I have on paper (plane ticket, host’s address for immigration, host’s phone number)? Do I speak the local language, or do I have some needed phrases written down that I can point to when searching for help? Do I know the weather? Do I know the laws and customs? Do I have the necessary electrical adapters? The more I travel, the more I think to ask myself, and the more things I might plan for to avoid problems.

At this point I have a skeleton plan. I can convert my bookends into a basic itinerary and pass that to my hosts, and to my family members (who invariable love that they will know where I will be.) I can use my skeleton plan to coordinate with others traveling with me. People with less travel experience, who couldn’t setup a trip of the same complexity level, will be able to join in; They can match transportation (plane tickets, etc.) to my bookends and coordinate with the same (or different) hosts, and so on.

Finally, when talking to my hosts, showing that I’ve done some planning helps them understand I’m not going to show up and expect them to take care of my every need. I can also ask open-ended questions like, “I’ll be in city on date, with some free time. Any suggestions?”, to fill in other parts of my travels.

Be flexible

I should be accepting of change. That’s obvious, right? But I have too often been the stick in the mud, and I have too often seen inflexible people cause friction. The bookends in my plans are the inflexible parts of my travels, and knowing them provides the security that enables me to relax and be flexible the rest of the time.

I try to never be that person who responds negatively to suggestions without having an alternative. My personal rule is to never say, “no,” to a suggestion unless I have an alternative. I had to learn to either get off my lazy butt and go with the flow, or to take the initiative to plan and suggest. Meal planning is the easiest example. When I get hungry, I don’t wait for someone to say, “lets get food, how about X?” and then I’m all, “No. Meh. No,” to each of their ideas. Instead, when I get hungry, I make up a plan for food, and then I say, “I’m getting hungry. What about X?” Maybe there’s another plan they had in mind, and I get to practice being flexible and rolling with their plan.

I think of planning as a sort of currency: If I want to have an opinion on the question at hand, then I have to buy-in with some planning. If I’ve done no planning, then I’m not entitled to an opinion, and I should be maximally flexible to adapt to the plans of others.

At the same time, I had to learn to avoid “false flexibility.” That’s when I used to agree to go with the plans of others, but then quietly — or worse, passive-aggressively, or even openly — dissing the experience once underway. An example of this, which I see too frequently is when people think dinner is going to be an inexpensive, quick meal, but the group’s opinion shifts and everyone suddenly heads to the expensive brew-pub. People then get grumpy about the expense. Too bad! Learn to be flexible. If money is that important, then you had your chance to counter-suggest; “Hey guys, I need to eat on a budget. Can we get food for like $15?” (And really, if you want to have an I-need-to-eat-on-a-budget opinion, you should buy-in by doing some planning to find a possible spot.) But once you’ve agreed to go with the plan, you should spend the money and enjoy it; Or peel off entirely. Never be the passive-aggressive jerk who goes along and drags his feet the entire time.

The easiest way for me to begin learning flexibility was to directly plan to be flexible. I sometimes plan blocks of time intentionally left open. (“Friday, until bookend begins at time, I will wander around the city.”) This taught me to be comfortable with big swaths of unplanned time. It taught me to be aware of my surroundings and helped me learn to adapt to the opportunities that arise.

Planning to be flexible also has a subtle effect on my hosts and others traveling with me. If I say, “I’ve nothing planned today.” This creates an unspoken, subtle suggestion that perhaps I’m hoping my host will fill in some things for me to do. The unwritten sub-text might be, “I’ve nothing planned today, can you entertain me?” But instead, if I say, “I’ve planned to spend the day wandering around the city,” this still leaves open the opportunity for my host to suggest activities, but it also makes it clear that it’s equally fine to simply leave me to my own devices.

Be positive

It took me a long time to develop a positive attitude. The big turning point was when I came to understand the Fundamental Attribution Error. The error is that we tend to attribute the causes for other people’s actions to themselves, (that driver cut me off because he’s an aggressive narcissist,) while tending to attribute the causes for our own actions to external circumstances, (I cut you off because I’m making up time lost to some unavoidable delay I encountered.)

There’s debate in psychology circles wether this attribution error is “fundamental” in the sense of being an inherent trait of how we think, versus just being a very common way of thinking. Regardless, I found it was pervasive in my thinking, and practicing thinking about what I was thinking was a fruitful exercise.

Lessons cautioning against this sort of attribution error appear in many places, including:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

And from Epictetus:

Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?

As I traveled more frequently, I learned the power of positive thinking. Initially I began by using sugar-coating positive thinking, “I’m going to have fun!” But that is weak medicine. Over time, through intentional and conscious practice, I learned to use positive thinking to dig deep for actionable items: What can I do to solve this problem? What is good about the current situation? What can I say now that would express my appreciation for what this person has done? What can I do with my spare time now, which would create a fun opportunity for all of us later?

Being positive also appears in the way one commits to choices made: not the choices themselves per se, (to go to this event or not, to take on a responsibility or not,) but the way in which I express those choices. Sure, making choices takes time, as I have to consider options, weigh existing responsibilities and allocate free time. But, when it comes time to choose:

Everything in my life should be a, “No,” or a, “Hell yes!”

Simply saying, “Yes,” is not commitment; it is in fact a, “No.” Saying, “Yes,” but not realistically planning, is in fact a, “No.” Unrealistic planning, not allocating money or not allocating time, are more variations of, “No.” On the other hand, “Hell yes!” is the passion and fire that make life worth living. That is what I mean when I say I must be positive with my decisions.

Move forward

I tend to move forward, towards the next scheduled thing. This cultivates an attitude of forward momentum and is closely related to the idea of bookending. Generally, wherever I am, if there’s no specific reason to stay, I’ll move forward, and the closer I get (in time and space) to the next thing, the more I relax and slow down.

For me, 15-minutes-early is, “on time,” and on-time is “late.” Of course, it doesn’t have to be exactly 15 minutes; the longer the journey, the earlier I plan to be. Something like 20% seems to work well — so an hour early on a 5 hour drive. And I don’t mean “the map engine says five hours, so I’ll leave six because I want to stop for lunch.” I mean, five hours on the road, plus an hour for lunch etc, that’s a six hour journey. Then I add 20%, leaving about 7 hours of travel time. When you’re padding in this much time, everything becomes a leisurely journey!

When I travel with others I try (gently) to get them motivated and moving early enough. Only then do we find we have enough time to move at a leisurely pace — to pause for a cup of coffee, to stroll down the side streets — without worrying about wasting too much time.

Once I started thinking about momentum, and moving forward, I found I was visualizing my next actions. “I should do laundry. I should get up early tomorrow and do my laundry. I should shower now and go to bed, so I can get up early and do my laundry.” Invariably, the more I think ahead, and move forward — physically move towards the next thing, or just pick off tasks I can do now, rather than later — the more I find myself with free time and flexibility.

Slow down

Which brings me finally to the best part: Slow down, leave space and enjoy life.

I find I have a certain pace to my normal life, I know how much I can pack into a day, and how long I need to get from one place to another. But when I’m traveling, I purposely plan a slower pace. First of all, things often take longer than I expected, so things work out better when I’ve expected that by leaving extra space and time in my schedule. When things go as planned, or take less time then expected, I suddenly have time to notice things, or go on little adventures.

My entire traveler’s mindset leads to this, “slow down, leave space and enjoy life” end-goal. Unexpected conversations with new friends, a 10 minute walking tour of a neighborhood that’d I’d never have known to plan for, a spontaneous meal, a suggestion by someone that I’d have missed if I hadn’t been relaxing with free time.

In short, without my mindset, I’d miss all the good stuff, and end up simply travelling.

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Why Travel?

(Part 3 of 5 in Parkour Travel)

What shall I find?

It’s funny, I thought, if you could hear me, I could hang on, somehow. Silly me. Silly old Doctor. When you wake up, you’ll have a mum and dad, and you won’t even remember me. Well, you’ll remember me a little. I’ll be a story in your head. But that’s OK: we’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?

~ Doctor Who

When I travel, I am writing my story.

I am not travelling in search of something.
I am not travelling to escape.
I am not travelling as a search for fulfillment.
I am not lacking some key experience that I can only find by travelling.

What shall I find? …nothing in particular. And then I’m free to find everything.

What shall I experience?

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

~ Mark Twain

I travel because I want to meet new people. I want to learn about their culture, their ideas, their hopes, dreams and passions, their way of thinking, their language, their ancestors, and their philosophy.

I travel because I want to see things. The world — all of it, near and far — is an amazing place. I want to see new vistas, new architecture, new mountains, new valleys, new weather, new plants, new animals, and new art.

I travel because, in the end, I am just a story. There’s no finish line, no definition of “having arrived”, “having suceeded”, or “having it all”. Hearses do not have luggage racks. I am not taking anything with me. I can spend my days sitting at home, collecting and counting and organizing my things, toiling to create a pocket of order in the chaos of the universe. Only, I remain absolutely certain that everything I collect, create, organize, build, and buy will not matter to me in the end.

In the end, I am just a story. And I’d very much like to enjoy the writing of it.

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Ultralight, by Leo Babauta

(Part 2 of 5 in Parkour Travel)

The freedom that resulted was so incredible. We felt liberated. We could travel faster, farther, happier. Sure, we gave up a handful of comforts, but in return we got the comfort of being unburdened.

Recently, Leo Babauta put together a spectacular book on travel called, Ultralight. I’ve only recently begun reading it, but it covers a great deal of what I wanted to say. And — as with so many things Leo writes — it’s written better than I could hope to do myself. So for now, start with this book (it’s a very affordable Ebook). I expect some of what I add to this series will be commentary and thoughts on what Leo has written, and some will be from the notes I’ve already compiled on my own.

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Introduction

(Part 1 of 5 in Parkour Travel)

I’m putting down my thoughts on “Parkour travel” for two reasons: First, I’ve found it immensely fun and rewarding, and so I hope to encourage others to travel. Second, I’ve seen enough things first-hand (as a host and as a guest), and heard enough stories, that make it clear that some bits of helpful knowledge are not universal. In this second area, I can only hope to raise some awareness.

This series will necessarily cover a wide range of ideas which I’ll try to cram into a few broad categories. Eventually, I’ll share my thoughts on all of the following (and more): Why travel at all? What do I mean by ‘Parkour travel’? How to be a good guest? Where to go?

This series is not about the nuts and bolts of traveling lightly and enjoying the experience. Although that’s a closely related topic, it’s an entirely separate series.

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