Tidewater Traveler - January 2010


The “Art” for Traveling with Numbers


George W. Sellers

   Numbers are often confounding as a new year begins. Shall we say “two-thousand-ten?” Or shall we say “twenty-ten?” Or, is it possible that we are comfortable enough with our new year to just say “ten?” Most of us who were born or graduated last century usually refer to our birth year or grad year at the familiar level, such as “forty-eight” or “sixty-six.” But there’s just something about the pattern of speech for the years of this new-fangled century that keeps us from using the common, shortened, familiar versions of numbers to identify the years.
    New year? Numbers? How long will it take you to stop writing 2009 on your checks? (If you still write checks.) Numbers? The extent to which numbers penetrate our lives has been emphasized by the popular TV series by the same name - NUMB3RS. So, what does this topic - numbers - have to do with travel? More than you might suppose at first consideration.
    Three months ago I had the privilege of escorting a group of fourteen folks from Maryland throughout the Peoples Republic of China for about two weeks. (Did you notice how many numbers are in the previous sentence?) One morning while standing on the deck of a river cruiser on the Danning River, I noticed that Art, one of the gentlemen in my group, was punching buttons on a pocket-sized calculator.
    At first I wondered if the magnificent scenery on this incredible tributary of the Yangtze River was not adequate competition for his attention. And then, as I continued to watch, it occurred to me that Art was using the calculator to enhance his appreciation of what he was seeing and hearing as the boat cruised through the cliff-lined gorges. The guide was pointing out water-level marks, shown in meters. She was discussing the rate per day that the water level was rising as a result of the huge new hydro-electric dam down-stream from our location. Again her numeric references were metric. Art was using the calculator to convert what he was learning into more familiar, more meaningful terms.
    I watched Art and his calculator throughout the remainder of the trip and became convinced that traveling with a calculator is a pretty good idea. Consider kilometers vs. miles; kilograms vs. pounds; Celsius degrees vs. Fahrenheit degrees; time zone differences; and currency exchange rates. A simple calculator – let’s call it a travel calculator – can bring understanding to the unfamiliar.
    Disembarking the tour bus at the end of the day and someone asks, “What’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?” Cloudy with a high of twenty-eight degrees, the guide says in fairly fluent Chinglish. (The language spoken by Chinese tour guides when addressing American tourists.) “Twenty-eight – sounds cold remarks,” one lady. Remember, we’re not in the USA, the only country in the world (I think) that still reports temperature in degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, and still measures length in inches instead of centimeters. Here is where you may wish you had paid attention in eighth grade science class. Multiply the Celsius temperature times nine. Divide the resultant product by five. Finally, add thirty-two and you will know the temperature in Fahrenheit. Oh, dear! Is that what I missed on the day I skipped class? For folks who like accuracy, that’s the way to do it. But if you are trying to decide how many layers of clothing to wear for tomorrow’s adventure to the Great Wall of China, try this. When you hear a Celsius temperature, just double it and then add thirty. Doing it this way is not exact, but it is quick and most people can do it in their heads. And all the traveler really needs to know is whether to wear a fur-lined parka or a short-sleeved shirt.
   “Forty Yuan!” barks the small-framed lady at the market table, and as she speaks, she types the numerals four and zero into her hand-held calculator and turns it around so the number is visible to shopper. “U.S. dollars?” says the shopper. The Asian vendor punches a few more buttons, turns the calculator display toward her potential customer and shows her a new number. We all remember looking up the currency exchange rate on the internet, checking the board at the hotel desk each morning, but now the situation requires a quick application of knowledge and data. Where are Art and his calculator? Like a caped hero, Art pushes buttons and shows the display to the shopper, who then shows it to vendor. Knowledge is power! Think about the role of the calculator in this exchange. Not only was it a quick and convenient way to determine the familiar value of the numbers being discussed, but the display of numerals on the calculator screen was used to bridge the language gap, allowing the shopper to clearly communicate the amount she was willing to pay for the item.
   “Ten kilograms! Is that all?” remarked one of the travelers upon hearing the weight limit for carry-on luggage on the domestic flight from Beijing to Xian. Another said, “Where’s Art? How much is that in pounds?” To be exact, one is expected to multiply the number of kilograms by 2.2. But for most travel applications, just doubling the kilogram number will tell you approximately how many pounds. It makes great breakfast conversation to hear someone say, “I stepped on the scale in my hotel room this morning and it registered only eighty-two. I need one of these metric scales at home – it makes me feel wonderful!”
    Sign along the motorway – Xian – forty-three KM (kilometers.) I wonder how far that really is? Well the answer is – forty-three kilometers! While the rest of the world understands and relates to a distance of forty-three kilometers, we in the USA have a different frame of reference. So, to give meaning we must convert the distance into miles. Again, there are two ways to do this – the exact method, using a correct numeric conversion formula, and the quick way, allowing travelers to gain perspective without too much digital distress. You can, if you wish, consider that each mile contains 1.609 kilometers, and then apply the appropriate math to make the conversion. But a quick method for travelers to get a fair estimate of kilometric distance converted to miles is: drop the last digit and multiply what remains by 6. In the example above, drop the 3, and multiply the remaining 4 times 6 for a result of 24 miles. Not exact - but for most purposes it produces a reasonable approximation of the correct distance in miles.
    Thanks to Art, I have given more attention to the role of numbers in travel. Perhaps, before submitting this article, I will see about increasing my stock holdings in a travel calculator company.

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.