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Guidebooks Miss Color

March 09, 1986|WALTER KANITZ | Kanitz is a Downsview, Canada, free-lance writer.

No doubt the Taj Mahal in moonlight looks like a picture out of a fairy tale and the view across the roofs of Paris from the top of the Eiffel tower takes your breath away. No doubt, either, that the wines of the Rhineland are gentle but treacherous. It's all in your guidebook and probably the reason why you bought your airline ticket.

But the book usually doesn't warn you to be prepared for the unexpected, particularly in the unpredictable manifestations of human nature. Yet the experienced traveler will tell you that it is exactly the unpredictable that gives spice to travel. Without it even the best-planned itinerary can fall flat on its face.

Taxi Conspiracy

A good guideebook will tell you how to get from the airport to the city and how much to pay for the taxi. But the book fails to mention that there is such a thing as a worldwide conspiracy of taxi drivers. Cabbies everywhere--Paris, Bangkok, Vienna, Hong Kong or Madrid--suffer from a chronic shortage of change. You, just arrived and not yet familiar with the coins and small bank notes of the land, and probably also unfamiliar with his lingo, will give him a bill bigger than the amount of the fare to be on the safe side.

You expect change, but he invariably indicates that he hasn't any. Not wanting to look like a cheapskate in a foreign country, you tell him to keep the difference, although it's a good guess that his pockets are bulging with coins. As a stranger you are lucky anyway if he takes you straight from point A to point B.

On my first train trip to Barcelona it took the cabbie more than half an hour to find my hotel and he charged me accordingly. When, after checking in, I looked down from my window, I saw the railway station below me just across the street, hardly 500 feet away.

Avoid Hassles

You can avoid such hassles by having a few one-dollar bills in your pocket. Every cab driver anywhere in the world knows how much the U.S. dollar is worth in his currency, and because he assumes that you know too, he'll think twice before trying to cheat you. A few dollar bills not only save arguments but may come in handy at other times, too. You can't rent a camel in the desert with your American Express Card, for example.

On my roster of unpredictable encounters, the case of the topless mailman definitely ranks high. The setting was the beach of a Club Med village on Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, 2,000 miles from my hometown.

As I was going in for a swim, a pretty, blonde woman, topless, of course, came out of the water and stopped cold in front of me.

"Hello," she said, and I, although slightly surprised, said "hello" too with remarkable presence of mind.

She continued. "Don't you recognize me?"

I said something about the face being familiar.

"I am your mailman," she said. "Don't you remember?"

Then I did remember. During the previous winter our regular mailman had to go to the hospital for surgery and she had taken over for him. I didn't recognize her without her uniform.

Foreign exchange transactions could also be tricky at times. My plane to Leningrad was delayed and when I arrived at my hotel, the Astoria, a relic from pre-revolution days, the dining room was already closed for the night, but room service was still available. The waiter delivered the food and handed me a bill for 21 rubles. As I hadn't had time yet to get Russian money, I told him to charge it to my hotel bill, but he shook his head sadly.

"We don't do that," he said in passable English. "If you don't have rubles, you can pay in dollars. You do have U.S. dollars, don't you?" He figured out that 21 rubles would come to 33 U.S. dollars and I paid him.

It was only much later that people in the know explained to me that the waiter, on the way from my room to the cashier's office, had replaced my U.S. dollars with 21 rubles, keeping the dollars for himself, for which he presumably got three or four times their official ruble value on the black market. I'll bet you won't find that in your guidebook.

Nor would you find "The Case of the Vanished Reservation." The typical locale is the airport of a Latin American capital that shall remain unnamed. The time is usually Christmas, when millions of natives joined by millions of tourists create a seasonal pandemonium that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Airline space is at a premium but you have no reason to worry, you think, because you have a ticket and a confirmed reservation in your pocket. So you walk briskly up to the check-in counter. The clerk looks up, quickly assessing you, and then looks at his flight manifest and says: "Sorry, senor , but you have no reservation."

Now you have two choices. You can raise Cain, which will get you nowhere, and the plane leaves without you, or you can surreptitiously slip the clerk a $20 bill--it will prompt him to scan the manifest once more and this time, miraculously, he finds your name.

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