Arrival and First Days


I tend to follow the same drill when reaching a country.  Depending on my arrival time, if it is dark I practice the alternate yoga pose to the airline pretzel pose; I lie down and try to acclimate to the local time zone.  If daylight out, I proceed with the business of reaching a new country; get local currency, buy a cell phone or SIM, and check out the closest birding spot.  I try to stay awake at least till dark, counting on being so exhausted I will sleep when given the chance and so, begin the process of acclimation. Melatonin, sleep aids, avoiding carbohydrates (the very stuff of airline food), avoiding alcohol, and various other techniques are recommended by seasoned travelers to help with jetlag.  I don’t tend to use any of these, and undoubtedly suffer for it.  I do take ear plugs to screen out the roar of the engines or small child seated nearby, and a neck pillow if my journey is overnight.  Something I recently discovered on my plane to Costa Rica and on to SFO was the 3-prong plug under the seat.  I no longer need worry about running out of battery life for my laptop.  I know, this is probably nothing new… but it was a welcome find and allowed me to write up my trip adviser reports before reaching the hubbub of home.

To have a good idea of what to expect when you reach a country there are lots of planning web pages available.  I’ve found Trip Advisor a good source for everything from how to use your iPhone while visiting, to nuances of car insurance policies.  Thorntree by Lonely Planet includes lots of information about border crossings, transportation logistics, cash machines, and less expensive hotel alternatives.  Bird Forum often has good information on birding sites, locations, guides and useful hints for major cities as well as national parks and recreation areas.  And of course many peoples’ trip reports include helpful hints for entry.

Border Crossings

In my experience, crossing borders by plane is more reliable than crossing by ground transportation, particularly if your language skills are marginal.  There can be considerable chaos at a ground border crossing, and I’ve encountered proportionately more grumpy officials with time on their hands when walking.  That said, if connecting through a USA airport from another country, you will need to go through immigration, collect your bag, clear customs, recheck you bag, and go through security, again.  Regardless of your nationality or final destination, this takes more than an hour, and sometimes more than two.  Be sure to allow at least two and a half hours for you and your luggage to reach your next plane, and more if you originate from an airport that often experiences delays.  I recently saw Houston security personnel allow line jumping for folks who were short on time, but don’t count on it!  Also, if you have two separately booked flights that connect in the USA, be sure to have a printed ticket, boarding pass, or record of your continuing flight because they won’t let you turn on your phone to show your electronic copy.

One request, if you have wheeled hand luggage and are in a crush to reach immigration, do be considerate of your fellow travelers, and watch where you are rolling!  My toes are still a bit sore.  Similarly, backpackers are notorious for swiping others aside with their large, heavy, unfeeling humps.  I include myself in this category and apologize now for all the travelers I’ve unconsciously whacked with my backpack when turning to look at something, or stepping backward unexpectedly.  Immigration and security processes are impersonal, aggravating, and stressful, a little consideration and compassion goes a long way!

Hotels in Big Cities

Before arrival, I typically book my first night or two in a likely hotel at my port of entry, but finding a hotel in a strange city can be a gamble.  Thankfully, there are lots of hotel review services available online.  I typically choose my hotel first by proximity to local birding locations, and then by looking at reviews.  A search on Bird Form will quickly give birding locations in most major cities of the world.  Google maps or other online map services like Nokia’s “Here” will then supply a list of nearby hotels.  When possible, I like to use the same hotel when I leave as when I arrive because the familiarity smooths the chaos of packing.

If at a loss for a birding area/hotel combination, a trick I learned was to look on Google earth for a large green space without military affiliation, then query nearby hotels.  For an overnight in Kuala Lumpur recently, I used this technique and found a nice hotel on the airport side of downtown next to a large golf course, small forested area, and a lake.  It didn’t provide me any new Asian birds, but it was nice to have the open space nearby.  In well-traveled locations, birding community forums will often contain a discussion of hotels near airports with birding opportunities.  In my experience, these and ones available on Google are in the moderate to higher price range for the country.  If on a budget, another alternative I’ve used is to search for hotels with gardens in guides directed toward backpackers.  These may or may not yield good birding locations, but they are often pleasant enough places to stay, and below average in price.

Cell Phones

A cellular phone (mobile phone) is for me, an indispensable travel resource.  Beyond making hotel arrangements, I can contact a driver when ready to leave a birding site, get real time information from fellow birders, and reassure a hotel of my arrival.  Cell phones have gotten me through several impasses when communicating with taxi drivers.  On more than one occasion I couldn’t pronounce the name of my hotel, nor navigate to it, so I simply called my destination and handed the phone to the driver for directions in his native language.

Many people now travel with their phone from home.  I prefer to buy a cheap “pay as you go” phone when I reach the country.  Once sorted and showered, one of my first tasks in a country, after getting cash, is to proceed to the nearest mobile phone shop.  Due to the international needs of this industry, I’ve never met anyone who worked in one of these places who didn’t speak enough English to help me sort one out.  Alternatively, if you already own an inexpensive unlocked phone, you may be able to simply buy a local SIM card.  Keep in mind there are different systems across the globe, so it may not always be possible to do this.

In Malaysia I paid about $80 USD for a basic mobile with an international SIM and service for one month.  It cost around $30 per month to keep it operating.  In Australia, it was about the same initial cost, though calls were slightly more expensive.  No fear, as mentioned, the people working at the cellular phone counters are very helpful and won’t let you leave until your phone is working properly.  Similarly, in most countries when I pull out my reading glasses and squint at the tiny numbers on the refill card, the person behind the counter will offer to add the minutes for me.  Much to their surprise, I’ll often tip them for their kindness, I am that grateful!  Check travel websites to find out which company has the best coverage for where you will be traveling.

If tempted to use your home phone, remember international roaming charges and data fees can be astronomical, particularly if you have service through a US carrier.  You may need to buy an international package with your phone company before leaving to avoid them.  A friend of mine racked up more than a $1,000 in data charges when forgetting to turn off his location finder in India.  Another friend’s service provider shut service off when charges seemed abnormally high.  Do check with your provider, for example, my phone will not work in any country but the USA no matter what I am willing to pay.

Couple tips for using your cell abroad.

  • Remember to have your phone in silent mode when birding.
  • Keep in mind that your taxi driver may not have the degree of literacy required to read a foreign language (English) text, so you may have to actually call them to arrange a pickup.  This is often the case where the country uses a different script.

Early Birding

I like this quote from Mary Kingsley, a nineteenth century British collector from her book West African Studies published in 1899 by Macmillan, London.  She is describing when first entering a forest in what is now Angola and it brings to mind the process I go through at the beginning of each trip.

On first entering the grim twilight regions of the forest, you hardly see anything but the vast column-like grey tree stems in their countless thousands around you, and the sparsely vegetated ground beneath.  But day by day, as you get trained to your surroundings, you see more and more, and the whole world grows up gradually out of the gloom before your eyes.  Snakes, beetles, bats, and beasts, people the region that at first seemed lifeless.

It is in these first couple days that you will probably see the most common birds, the ones that will be with you throughout the trip.  You’ve done your studying and your practice, so these ought to be easy and rewarding to identify.  However, the numbers can be overwhelming, especially with jet lag, so keeping track in a field notebook helps. Keep in mind that very often you will get more than one chance at identifying these first birds, so don’t sweat your slow eyes, jet lag, and lack of concentration.  I consider the first days in a country my warm up days; time to get my computer solemnized eyes working in this foreign environment and revel in the strange calls and colors.  It is a good time for picking out the common calls and joining feathers, names, and voices in real time.  For those on tours, you may not have the luxury of warming up.  For this reason, I recommend arriving at least a day or two ahead of your tour start, if possible, to acclimate and work on those first birds.  The tour operators are usually happy to either make a reservation or direct you to the first hotel of the trip.


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