Trip tactics: Rio to Bali, she gets lost, listens closely, makes deals

Trip tactics: Rio to Bali, she gets lost, listens closely, makes deals
Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira reaches for a Mexican vase in the Santa Monica offices of (Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Every destination has lessons to teach, and so do most travelers. In "Trip Tactics," we ask seasoned travelers for tips, confessions and war stories.

The traveler: Armenia Nercessian de Oliveira, a longtime United Nations officer and cofounder of the global fair-trade web retailer


The tricks: Basically, Nercessian de Oliveira says, "I love to lose myself in the places I go." But kids, don't try all of this at home.

For instance: Unless she can wangle access to an elite lounge, Nercessian de Oliveira hates airports and spends as little time in them as possible, frequently defying airline requests that she arrive two hours ahead of her departure time. This has caused a few missed flights over the years, but she reckons that trade-off has been worth it.

She always books a hotel for her first few nights in a city – and she tries to pre-arrange her transport from the airport to that hotel. But the rest of the stay's lodgings she leaves open. She might miss out on a hotel that's been booked up in advance, but this way she can choose lodgings on the spot, based on first-hand observation and local advice. Sometimes she ends up in a nicer hotel, sometimes in family's spare room for $5 a night.

She talks to taxi drivers, vendors, waitresses, busboys, maids -- everybody. And listens well. As a result, people remember her, which opens up all sorts of advice and invitations. (Sometimes, haggling with local merchants, Nercessian de Oliveira reveals that "I am very lucky. Give me a discount and you'll see.")

And in all these places, Nercessian de Oliveira likes to rent a car and drive herself around, city and country. This, says her son-in-law, Novica co-founder Roberto Milk, says, is despite the fact that she is "one of the worst drivers in the world." Yet somehow, Nercessian de Oliveira points out and Milk admits, she's never had a significant accident.

Nercessian de Oliveira does, however, tell the story of zipping for three hours along a deserted highway from Sarajevo into the war-ravaged Bosnian countryside in 1995, marveling at what good time she was making. When she reached her destination, horrified locals told her, "You took the mined road!"

As Nercessian de Oliveira readily concedes, these are not tactics for everybody. But she does urge all inexperienced travelers to stretch a little, to "immerse yourself in the culture. Don't stay on the path from airport to hotel. Try to go to a local market. See how people live their daily lives." And if you possibly can, she adds,  "learn at least some words of the language." That might be tough if you're going to China or an Arab country, says Nercessian de Oliveira. But many other languages, she says, just aren't that difficult.

At least they weren't for her. After growing up speaking Portuguese in Brazil (with an Armenian father), she learned  French, then English. Then Spanish. Then Italian and Russian at the same time, because she was studying in Russia with a bunch of Italians. You need not be fluent in anything to make a good impression abroad, she says, but you should learn enough to demonstrate your interest and respect for the local culture.

Nercessian de Oliveira, now in her 60s, made her first overseas trip (to Paris, Prague and Senegal) alone at 17. She traveled more while studying sociology and political science at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro and later serving as a professor of sociology.  After marrying filmmaker Xavier de Oliveira and starting a family, she spent all of the 1980s and most of the 1990s working for the U.N., mostly on refugee and human-rights, mostly in Latin America, the Balkans and Switzerland. As she advanced from mission to mission, the family collection of paintings, masks and sculptures grew.

In 1999, she cofounded Novica with her daughter Milena (who also acts under the name Mina Olivera) and son-in-law Milk. Though she and her husband remain based in Rio, that move set her off on years of business travel, scouting and signing up artists and artisans in countries including Ghana, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Peru and Thailand. The Santa Monica-based company, which has about 115 employees worldwide, sells items on behalf of about 15,000 artists and artisans, who set their own prices and give Novica a share of revenues.

Nowadays, with three grown children and five grandchildren, Nercessian de Oliveira remains Novica's president of international operations. But she's cut her travel down to about four months of the year. A decade ago, she was often on road eight months per year.

Best travel buy: an around-the-world ticket. In Casablanca in 2000, Nercessian de Oliveira paid about $4,000 for an RTW ticket that not only gave her business-class seating but allowed her a dozen stops while circling the globe, along with access to elite-traveler lounges in airports all over. She's bought several RTW tickets since.

Worst travel buy she'll admit to: a knockoff puppet. In Bali, Nercessian de Oliveira said, she paid about $50 for a puppet said to represent an ancestral spirit – then found out it was a fake, worth about $5.

Roads not yet traveled: Laos, Cambodia and Bhutan – in part because it's become so widely known as a global "happiness capital."