“Why do you think the Sphinx doesn’t have a nose?” our guide asked as we looked up at the mammoth statue bearing a human head on a lion’s body. “Because Obelix broke it off,” I replied instantly. I got a couple of stares from our tour group and the guide gave me one of those smiles you reserve for your drunk friends when they insist that they’re making absolute sense. Only my mum chuckled; she was the one who introduced me to the pint-sized, yellow-whiskered Asterix and his larger-than-life, pig-tailed bestie, Obelix – the intrepid, indomitable, large-nosed Gauls and their friends from around the world. I devoured their madcap comic-book adventures while I was growing up, seeing the ancient world (the series is set in 50 B.C.) through their eyes. With them, I’ve climbed the Swiss Alps, travelled to the Dead Sea in search of black gold, and encountered the original inhabitants of the New World. And yes, I’ve scaled the Sphinx with them too.
With yesterday’s release of the latest title, Asterix And The Missing Scroll, I thought this would be the perfect time to share travel tips from my favourite explorers.
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If you’ve ever read Asterix, you’ll know that luggage isn’t a concern for the Gauls. No point worrying about which pair of trousers to pack when there are Romans that need thumping, right? In fact, apart from a few instances, I’ve never seen any of the Gauls in different outfits. The Gauls’ must-haves include a menhir and the druid Getafix’s magic potion that gives the drinker superhuman powers to bound out of any situation. Packing just the bare essentials is something I have tried unsuccessfully to master, but there’s one packing tip I’ve fully imbibed from the Gauls: Always take the dog. As we see with Obelix and his adorable Dogmatix, not only do pooches make fun travel pals, but they’re also great at helping you wriggle your way of out sticky situations, like when you’re trapped in a chamber underneath the Great Pyramids.
Almost every adventure in the Asterix series begins with Asterix and Obelix signing up for a wacky task halfway around the world. Rescue Getafix from a horde of vicious Visigoths? Sure thing. Represent the village at the ancient Olympic games? Of course. Pretend to be gladiators in Rome to save the village bard from the lions at Circus Maximus? Absolutely. These may not be our everyday adventures, but you never know where the unexpected could lead you. Travelling gives us a chance to be bolder than we usually are, to be more than a creature of habit. On your next trip, if an opportunity that isn’t life-endangering comes along, say yes when you feel that invincible, bring-it-on, magic-potion-induced sensation, and be open to what may come.
One of my favourite characters in the series is Pegleg, an old seafarer with a wooden stump for a leg. He’s part of a crew of not-quite-bloodthirsty pirates who invariably have their ship sunk by Asterix and company during one of their many run-ins. More often than not, Pegleg summarises each unfortunate meeting with a pithy Latin saying, my favourite being alea iacta est or “The die is cast”. There are many possible interpretations of this saying, two of which are “there’s no turning back now” and “whatever has to happen, will happen”. Heading out on a trip always comes with a lot of anticipation, and some anxiety thrown in for good measure. The universe and all its gods (Toutatis, Jupiter, Brahma, Thor, take your pick) have already plotted your path for you, obstacles and all. So rather than fight those hurdles, go with the flow. More often than not, the good stuff makes up for the unpleasantness.
A little homework before your trip can save you a lot of unwanted trouble. Get a sense of the cultural etiquette and guidelines to navigating a new place; it will help you have a richer experience and understanding of local rituals and customs. We don’t have to learn the hard way, like our Gaul friends, that diving isn’t allowed in a Roman bath and you shouldn’t turn your nose up at local eats, even if it is warm beer and boiled boar in mint sauce.
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Take back more than a fridge magnet. Usually the sights and sounds of our trips fade away soon after returning home – but not for the Gauls. If these seasoned travellers see something they like, you can bet they’re going to make it a part of their lives back home. Like the time Obelix decided to change the shape of his oblong menhirs to resemble Egypt’s obelisks after returning from the land of the Nile, or when he introduced his villagers to the passionate dances of Spain’s nomadic tribes. Embrace the aspects of a new culture that you love, soak it all up and take it back home. Maybe a trip to Italy introduced you to the wonders of espresso and pushed you to buy a fancy coffee machine so you can start your day right. Or a long break in Singapore has you adding the suffix “la” to most of your sentences (My mother did not take kindly to that habit, and put an end to it within a week).
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If your gut isn’t waving a red flag when you see a stranger, say hello. Chat with people you meet at train stations or on a flight, or even the cashier at a local grocery store. You never know what you might learn: maybe there’s an underground bar that makes the best White Russians or an upcoming holiday when everything will be shut. Conversations can lead you off the map, bring you cheer, and even lend a couch, much like our Gauls.
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I mean IRL (in real life) and not updating your Facebook profile picture or going crazy on Snapchat and Instagram while you’re travelling. Share the flavours and the sounds and sights of your journeys with your friends and family when you’re back, and make sure it’s over a great meal. Swapping stories with the people who make a place home is the next best thing to being on the road, and as the Gauls taught us, it’s best done while digging into hot roasted boar.
Now go explore this beautiful planet of ours, with nothing to fear except the sky falling on our heads.
Published on National Geographic Traveller India – October 2015
Cover Photo: Kamakshi Ayyar