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What’s the First Thing You Do In a New Place?

Buzz Poole
08/09/2011 - 00:00

Earlier this month, Seth Kugel, a.k.a. The New York Times Frugal Traveler, wrote a great piece about arriving in a new place: “When You’ve Got Those First-24-Hour Blues.” Although it is not something I’ve ever articulated before reading this piece, Kugel is right, a new place can be disorienting, especially if time zones and a language barrier are in play.

As a college student I spent a semester in Osaka, Japan, and I’ll never forget how my sleep-deprived nerves got the better of me as a van took me and other students through the humid night suffused with the colorful blaze of advertising I really didn’t understand. Yes, I’d studied the language a bit but I wasn’t any good, as every interaction since getting off the plane had reminded me, and self-doubt set in. Now, in this instance, I was part of a well-organized program practiced in acclimating visiting students to Japan, and as the first few days passed, the jet lag subsided and my confidence in faking my way through Japanese returned, I knew I’d made the right decision.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever returned from a trip thinking, Boy, that was a dumb idea. But from Japan to Costa Rica and Argentina, the first day on the ground can be frustrating because everything is new and you’re out of your comfort zone. Of course, these are the qualities that are supposed to excite us about traveling, and after that first day they do. You just have to get past those first twenty-four hours.

No doubt, overnight flights that wreak havoc on your sense of time can be the most frazzling because not only do you not know the best spot to grab an espresso, but the locals might be morning chipper when you are 3am exhausted. Having experienced this feeling all too much, I’ve developed a routine that helps me cope with lack of sleep and also familiarizing myself with wherever it is I am.

The key to my approach is muscling through the fatigue, at least for the first few hours. I know, I know. You can hardly keep your eyes open as you leave the airport and head for lodging. But once you get to where you’re staying I suggest heading right back out into the world. If it is too early to check in, check your bags; if you can check in, resist the urge to test the bed. Shower if you must, but then set out to explore the immediate neighborhood. Gather recommendations at the front desk, consult your guidebook of choice or just walk out the door with a map at the ready and decide which direction you are going to walk.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you head for the closest museum or walk for miles. This is about getting a feel for where you’re staying and enjoying yourself, no matter how tired you are. Eat something, have a drink, scope out the nearest metro stop, just take in the scenery. Once you’ve done this for a few hours, permit yourself a nap, but a short one. Head out again that evening and dine like the locals. By the time you hit the sack, your body will be happily tired and sleep you through the night, waking the next morning refreshed and knowing where you are and how best to get out and explore some more.

How do you deal with the first day in a new place?

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