Who makes the best traveller: geographer, linguist or engineer?

Tony Wheeler
Saturday 29 September 2012 14:17 BST

So what is the ideal profession for a traveller? What mix of working skills translates best into the perfect blend for a life on the road?

Talking of translating, being a linguist seems like a pretty good choice. I long ago decided that when I come back in my next life I'm going to put a lot more effort into learning languages. One of my favourite travel lessons came from a language teacher who commented that we're all quite happy to claim we'd been to a place after the most fleeting visit. Some people will even claim they've been there with only a tick beside the transit lounge when you ask where they went. That's not good enough for me, but the language expert went on to suggest the same rules could apply to languages. "If you can say 'Yes', 'no', 'please' and 'thank you', you speak the language," he insisted. "Not much, it's true, but it's a start."

How about a geographer? Well that makes sense, although in these GPS-directed days you don't even have to be able to open the atlas or street directory to find your way around. Plus, I've always felt an ability to get entertainingly lost can add to the travel experience, even if my wife keeps disagreeing on that one.

A naturalist? Or some other occupation which relates directly to something that our travel experiences might be all about? What about an architect, an art dealer, a photographer, a chef, even a wine dealer? I think not. The last thing we want is a travel companion sniffing at the wine and sending it back for being past its prime when it was only the house red in the first place. Is there anything worse than the camera fanatic gassing on about his lens aperture and exposure time when the end result is no better than he could have done with his mobile phone? And do I really want to be ticked off for mistaking a lesser spangle-winged drongo for the greater variety?

In fact, in my travel-publishing days I often thought the best travel writers were engineers. At Lonely Planet we had a surprising number of them on the payroll. It could have something to do with my own brief in-an-earlier-lifetime engineering career, and it's true I can sometimes come through with the sort of important repair job that engineers are supposed to be able to provide as second nature. I've got a favourite photograph of a taxi driver in the Punjab looking on as I dive under his bonnet to fix things. The engine was cutting out because a battery lead was loose and I managed to fix it by jamming a paper clip between the battery terminal and the connector.

More important from a guidebook-writing perspective is the fact that engineers are very good at making sure all the square pegs are in the square holes, the round ones in the circular ones, and no important bits are left sitting on the floor at the end of the assembly operation. So cheap hotels don't get misfiled in the top-end category and the bus service from X to Y never gets missed out. They usually have linguistic abilities as well. Ever met an engineer who couldn't ask for "a cold beer, please" in every language he or she might encounter? Una cerveza fria por favor, ein kaltes Bier bitte, or bir dingin silakan – for when I'm asking for a Corona, a Becks or a Bintang.

Tony Wheeler is co-founder of Lonely Planet travel guides

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