“Look,” he whispers, pointing outside. “Beautiful!”
I look out the window to see a red sun streaking the sky with bands of pink and yellow. Beyond the train tracks, the mighty Nile glitters with orange spangles of light. It truly is beautiful.
As I soak in the colors, I wonder why the boy has taken the trouble to show me such a simple moment.
It’s not long before I get my answer.
“Please,” he says giving me a solemn look. “Baksheesh.”
For a moment, I’m not sure how to react. After all, baksheesh may be an accepted Eastern form of tipping — but this is the first time I’ve been asked to pay for a sunset.
When Mark Twain visited the Pyramids in 1866, he reportedly suffered “torture that no pen can describe” from the various Egyptian pleas for baksheesh. One hundred years before that, a French visitor complained bitterly about the amounts of baksheesh it took just to dig up and steal a decent mummy.
These days — while its no longer legal to climb the Pyramids or rifle through mummy pits — baksheesh is still a thriving racket wherever tourists are found.
Take my recent visit to Luxor. Whenever I took out my map, some enterprising soul would hustle over and offer me directions. Whenever I entered a tomb, children would fight over who got to fan me with a piece of cardboard. Had I been eating corn on the cob, I’m sure one of them would have produced some dental floss.
If there is any saving grace about baksheesh, it’s that Egyptians use it among themselves as well as on tourists. Most Egyptians earn low wages, so tips and payoffs are seen as a way to provide incentive and supplement an income. Nobody in Cairo, it is said, can get basic services such as mail or electricity without slipping a little baksheesh to the right people.
So, as with any local custom, the best way to get the hang of baksheesh is to watch how the natives do it. Thus, I no longer hesitate to plunk down a few piasters when I get fast and friendly service in a coffee shop, or when the baggage-handler climbs on top of the bus to fetch my bag.
In the end, the baksheesh ritual becomes a matter of trusting your instincts and acting like you know what you’re doing.
And this is why I reach into my pocket and give the boy in the blue jacket 50 piasters.
After all, 15 cents isn’t such a bad price to pay for a sunset — and I might have missed it otherwise.
To hear the audio version, read by Rolf, visit Savvy Traveler
I read with interest a recent study by the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce, which rated the behavior of tourists from all the world’s industrialized countries. Consistently ranking last in the study — bottoming out in categories ranging from airline etiquette to podiatric hygiene — were travelers from Great Britain. “This settles it,” a TATTC spokesperson was quoted as saying. “The British are the worst tourists in the world.”
Actually, I’m just kidding. There is no such thing as the Trans-Global Association for Travel and Tourism Commerce. I made it up just now, because I know that people like to obsess over international rankings, and I’ve been looking for a chance to poke fun at the British.
Mind you, I don’t really think the British are bad tourists. To the contrary, I’ve usually found travelers from the U.K. to be friendly, well read, and quite prolific in their wanderings. You can find Brits in all corners of the world, from Valparaiso to Vladivostok, and they most always make good travel companions.
The problem I have with the British, however, is that — to a bigger extent than other travelers I’ve met — they seem to be obsessed with stereotypes of national character.
I used to think that British travelers were just disproportionately gung-ho about bashing Americans (apparently, we’re noisy, over-religious, and we’re supposed to use a “u” when we spell “color”). Over time, however, I’ve discovered that Brits also hold strong preconceptions about nearly every nationality in the travel milieu, from the Swiss (officious and dull), to the Japanese (unimaginative and over-polite), to the Argentines (narcissistic and sex-obsessed).
In fact, were I to base my perceptions entirely on the basis of Britannic generalizations, I could very well conclude that the world’s worst tourists are roughly categorized as follows:
Before I go any further here, I will admit three things. First, I realize the circular logic inherent in making generalizations about the generalizations of British travelers (and I apologize if you happen to be one of those Brits who isn’t a nationalistic busybody). Second, I realize that half the readers who’ve stumbled across my column this week have skipped straight from the headline to the above list, and are now typing angry things in the comments section below (especially if they happen to be American, French, German, Israeli, or Canadian). And, third, I’ll concede that the British fixation with national character reveals an impressive knack for world geography (in contrast to us Americans, who associate “Vienna” less with a European city than with canned snack sausages).
Were I a more meticulous analyst, I might posit that this British tendency is the cultural residue of Victorian-era self-superiority (vivid examples of which can be found in most any 19th century British travel guidebook, one of which described Valencian Spaniards as “perfidious, vindictive, sullen, mistrustful, fickle, treacherous, smooth, empty of all good, snarling and biting like hyenas, and smiling as they murder”). Since I’m no scholar, however, I’ll just point out that the British affinity for stereotyping their fellow wanderers is a mostly harmless amplification of what all travelers do from time to time.
The problem here is that assessing your travel companions by nationality is rarely an earnest inquiry so much as it is a dull parlor game — an empty exercise in rhetorical one-upmanship. The worst travelers in the world are, after all, the rude, small-minded ones — and rude, small-minded travelers can hail from any nation.
Moreover, most hostel-lounge arguments about which countries export good or bad travelers fail to take in the local perspective. A few years ago, a survey conducted by international tourist offices found that the oft-disparaged Germans and Americans were rated most favorably by host communities around the world. This rating didn’t hinge on cultural or aesthetic opinions, but the simple fact that Germans and Americans spend money more generously than their tourist counterparts. Economic benefit, it would appear, was more important to local hosts than the common traveler obsessions with fashion, geopolitics, and collective behaviors in tacky backpacker nightclubs.
My point, then, is a simple one: The next time you find yourself in a heated argument over which nation produces the best or worst tourists, this is probably an indicator that you’ve been spending too much time yapping in hostel lounges and not enough time outside having engaged adventures.
And that, in its own way, means you’re a bad tourist.
Get to know something about a place before you go there. Read novels and travel books about the region, and study guidebooks to learn about customs, manners, and cultural norms. Learn a few phrases of the language (such as greetings, thank yous, numbers, and food terms). Keep in mind that culture expresses itself at an instinctive level — not an intellectual level — and that different standards of time, courtesy, and personal service may apply in far-off lands.
2) Listen, and ask questions.
On the road, make it a habit to talk less and listen more. Travel is hardly the time to extol the virtues (or shortcomings) your home country; instead be curious about how people think in the place you’re visiting. Ask follow-up questions. Seek to maintain open-mindedness, which is a process of listening and considering — of muting your compulsion to judge what is right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper, and having the tolerance and patience to try and see things for what they are.
3) Avoid arguing politics.
Avoid political proselytizing, regardless of which end of the political spectrum you think you represent. At home, political convictions are a tool for getting things done within your community; on the road, political convictions are a clumsy set of experiential blinders, compelling you to seek evidence for conclusions you’ve already drawn. If you really are liberal and enlightened (or conservative and informed) you will stop yammering about politics and learn something about the culture you’re visiting.
4) Avoid traveling in large groups.
If your sorority or church group or wiccan pilates club decides to travel to Paris or Quito or Bangkok as an eight-some, do everyone a favor and split into groups of two. This will make you less noisy, less self-enclosed, more approachable, and more open to what’s going on around you. If nobody wants to split off from the group with you, tackle the day solo. I guarantee that you will have more memorable adventures on your own than with a big group of travelers.
5) Give respect and you get respect.
Having rigid stereotypes about individuals you haven’t taken the time to know is silly in all contexts. As a representative of your own country, the best way to win respect is to show respect to everyone you meet. Odds are, your hosts will return the favor.
We spent a couple of weeks researching Sulawesi and found very little information for independent travel on the island. Then, I lucked into Dodo Mursalim’s contact details on a TripAdvisor forum.
Dodo turned out to be a gold mine of information and he bent over backwards to help us do Sulawesi our way.
He rented us his little house behind the mosque for a fraction of what the cheapest hotels in Makassar could offer, and it has a kitchen and washing machine! He arranged an 8 seater van rental for us for the price of a much smaller car through any of the agencies we’d contacted on the island (car rental on Sulawesi can be expensive!) and he was willing to let us self drive, which is not commonly done on this island, with terrible roads and questionable signage. He taxied us all over Makassar for three days out of the goodness of his heart, helped arrange our three days on Samalona island, and sent us off on our road trip armed with his recommendations for hotels in various towns and a list of phone numbers of contacts in different places.
Dodo has an almost uncanny network of friends and cohorts on Sulawesi.
Four separate times during our very unplanned journey around the island, complete strangers would walk up, shake our hand and say, “Mr. Dodo says, “Hello!” He wanted me to make sure you knew that his recommendation for a certain hotel is full… or can I help you with a guide… or do you need help finding….” He was attentive to the highest degree, calling to check in with us, calling ahead of us to be sure that the arrangements we had made (independent of him) and just mentioned in passing, were properly sorted and awaiting us suitably. We have never encountered a tour guide of his calibre anywhere in the world, but certainly not in the developing world, where we expect things to go a little haywire.
Nothing goes haywire on Mr. Dodo’s watch; nothing.
He also does magic tricks, tells jokes, and speaks nearly perfect English. If you’re inclined to an adventure on Sulawesi, have Mr. Dodo be your man on the ground in Makassar. He can arrange any journey you want, guided, or solo, and he’ll take care of you like you’ve never been taken care of before.
Contact info for Dodo Mursalim
http://dodopenman.blogspot.com (visit this page and you’ll see our picture and entry in his guestbook!)
Last week, I heard that a friend of mine had been in a serious motorcycle accident in Bali. A serious accident – broken ribs, fractured pelvis, collapsed lung. He wrote about the experience – about his injuries, about being restricted to the fetal position in the hospital and now, 2 weeks later, being able to finally stand up for the first time. All amazing things to hear for someone that you care about, but what really struck me about his story was the stranger who helped save his life. A Balinese man, Kung, dropped everything and drove him to the hospital. He then stayed by his side, even skipping meals, to update friends and family, to contact the right people and to translate.
This isn’t a one-time occurrence, not even just once this year. In February, while several of us were riding Urals across the ice roads of Siberia, another friend of mine was in an accident and suffered a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula. Blood everywhere – rushed to the hospital. Many of us were spread across Siberia and weren’t even aware of the accident until days later. Again, a near stranger – in this case a mechanic we had met in a town many kilometers away, dropped everything and rushed up to meet him at the hospital. He then helped translate and ensured things were taken care of.
From my own personal experience, we wouldn’t have been able to make it through Mongolia without the help of strangers. Our ambulance (Volga) just wasn’t the right vehicle to tackle that type of terrain (surprise, surprise) — especially after a freak storm turns the Gobi Desert into an enormous mud bog. We were pulled out of the mud several times by passing truckers and had locals pitch in and help us locate parts to fix our failing steed. After one of our toughest days, and after I plunged off the road and crashed the ambulance into a huge steel pipe, we were taken in by a kind man named Bolt. He gave us a warm meal and a safe place to stay for the night. The next day, when one of our team members decided that he’d had enough, Bolt helped him make arrangements to make it to Ulaanbaatar and fly out.
Again and again, I’m struck by the incredible kindness of strangers and how I, or my friends, may not be here without their generosity. And then I think about whether I live up to these ideals. If I’m honest – sometimes I do, and other times I don’t. I’m generous with my friends and I try to help strangers out when I can, but too often, I pass people and think, “Someone else will help them out.” I want to help, but usually I’m late for X or have Y many things to do. I let my urgency overpower their need. But, I’m making progress. Over the last few years – especially since my trek through Mongolia, I do that less and less. I realize that it’s more important to push back on my “urgent priorities” and focus on the importance of helping someone truly in need. I am beginning to live up to the examples that these strangers have set.
While I don’t look for anything in return, I these actions often pay dividends. I’m reminded of another story from Siberia. After an incredibly hard and frustrating day, we were forced to backtrack many kilometers. We were disheartened and incredibly cold. Along the way back, we saw a man walking in the darkness with his son. We learned that their snowmobile had died and they were trying to get back to town. We gave them a lift and when we arrived at their home, they invited us in. Trust me, after freezing all day, the thought of warming up for a few minutes was irresistible. That few minutes quickly turned into a whole evening. We were invited in to clean up in their sauna. (Oh man, I wish I was a better writer – simply to convey how incredible a hot sauna is after you’ve spend the day trying to keep your fingers and toes moving.) Then we were invited to sit down and share a home cooked meal with them – one that never seemed to end. Then we spent the night getting to know each other, sharing stories and finally they made room for us to sleep in their daughter’s bedroom. (Again, if only I was a better writer – having a warm place to sleep after camping our first night camping out in -32C weather was… incredible.) What we did was kind, but in the grand scheme of things, relatively small. We saved them from walking several kilometers back to their home. The evening they gave us in return was one of the best nights of the entire trip.
So – here’s my question for you. When was the last time you helped a stranger? I don’t mean donating to charity (which is noble) or giving someone a couple of bucks or even giving someone directions. When was the last time that you saw someone in need and went out of your way and really put in the effort to help them out?
Many of us give credence to the Golden Rule – let’s make sure we live up to our side of the bargain.
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.
Serendipity is a funny thing. The mind-blowing intersections of fate and intention that lead a person down paths heretofore unconsidered is, without question, my favourite aspect of travel.
We sat, last evening, in the formal dining room of Sir James Wallace, a Knight of the Realm, so honored for his philanthropy. How did we come to be sitting there, eating off his privately commissioned silver, discussing art and opera? We picked up a hitchhiker.
In this case, a hitchhiker who turned out to be a micro-biologist and one of the most interesting travelers we’ve run across in a long while. He tossed his pack into our van and regaled us with stories of crossing China, a protein-per-penny breakdown on the nutritional value of chickpeas, and how Shakespeare and the Brownian theory related to travel. It seems he impressed Sir James as well. He’s now ensconced in the Knight’s mansion-cum-art gallery as the “artist in residence.” He’s creating a planetary mood ring on commission. I can’t tell you how, that would spoil the surprise and endanger his beautiful idea, the intersection of art and computer science.
When considering who he might share his good fortune with, he thought of us, and so we were invited to a private piano concert earlier this week, and dinner last night.
This has got me thinking:
The path would have been entirely different if we’d said, “No,” to any number of tiny questions along the way.
I’m a believer that the Universe conspires to help us, but we have to give her some material to work with.
Serendipity is one of the reasons we travel: in search of those unexpected, delightful connections between worlds that we would not otherwise have a door into.
Have you experienced this? Talk to me about serendipity and where it’s taken you!
This year we’re celebrating Christmas in Borneo. Last year we were on Cape Cod, in the USA, the year before that, Guatemala, the year before that, Canada, the year before that found us in Tunisia, camped in the cold on the edge of the ocean of sand.
One of the most interesting parts of our journey has been discovering the differences in celebration around the world. In Tunisia, we were the only one’s celebrating Christmas at all. In Guatemala, we enjoyed the processions, broke a pinata, and sewed stockings for 16 people out of local huipile fabric. Sometimes we’re lucky, and family joins us in some far flung place, some years, we are completely alone.
But we aren’t. Not really.
As long term travelers we learned, early on, the value and necessity of creating community as we go. We actively look for other folks who are out of their element and draw them in to celebrate with us. In Tunisia, this was a missionary family for Thanksgiving. In Guatemala, it was a whole houseful of backpackers who slept on our floor, stacked like cord wood, in front of our fireplace. Even when we were cycling for a year, we always carried two extra sets of plates and forks so that we could invite people to share a meal, cooked on our camp stoves, at the drop of a hat.
We have a few family holiday traditions: stockings of some sort are always hung (and filled!) We always read A Christmas Carol aloud. The kids make decorations. We make a few cookies if we have an oven. And, we find people. There have been very few holidays that didn’t include friends or strangers in my life. I was raised by people who took it upon themselves to welcome the world, the sick and poor to the rich and ridiculous, and it’s a deep rooted part of our family culture.
We’ve just arrived in Miri, Malaysia, where we’ll spend Christmas this year. We’re on the hunt for some people to have in to celebrate with us. What are your Christmas traditions on the road? How do you create community wherever you go?
Here’s the deal: free housing, living in a beautiful island and some fun work. Oh, and the boss is far away and can’t micromanage you. Sound too good to be true? That’s what Meg and Tony of the Landing Standing blog experienced in their post titled Housesitting in Thailand: live for free in paradise.
Meg described the setup here:
For 4 weeks, we were housesitting on the beautiful Thai island of Koh Samui. The house itself was a luxury villa/mansion perched on top of a peninsula on the Northeast side of the island that boasted panoramic views of the Gulf of Thailand from every room in the house.
. . . Not one but TWO swimming pools, a jacuzzi, a full gym, a media room, a Snooker room, a pool-side bar and entertainment system…. The list goes on! This place was over the top and we were so excited to be spending the month there!
Sounds like something out of the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
By now you’re wondering how to get in on this. Meg helpfully explains what website she used and the process of connecting with the house owners. She also stressed that this type of luxury situation might not be the typical housesitting experience.
A Canadian girl I knew had a ninja tip to share: read up on your competition. Check out the profiles of other prospective housesitters. Pick up tricks on how to write a warm, personable profile that attracts house owners. Learn the right things to say that build up trust and rapport that gets people to give you the keys.
Have you ever done housesitting? Please share your stories in the comments.
A couple weeks ago, giant hospitality sharing website Couchsurfing has launched his new Android application you can download for free here.
I must admit, it was about time. Travelling a lot and being an active Couchsurfer, I was really stoked at the user unfriendliness of the famous website over a small smartphone screen. I am no technology geek nor I rely too much on devices during my travels, but I also seldom renounce to my amazing Couchsurfing experiences. Thus, I just felt so frustrated about the lack of browsing facility on a mobile device, which is actually what most travelers these days use as soon as they can connect to a wi-fi signal.
The new application has a nice look, with a pop-up menu on the left side that easily connects to your inbox, profile and a short list of settings. The user profiles have been reduced to a vertical scrolling tab with all the relevant information condensed in blocks. To see more and actually send a Couch request, you have to slide the screen horizontally to the right in order to access to the different screens. The same clunky procedure is needed to access to the actual Couch Request tab: there is a little button on the lower left corner of the screen you have to slide up to access to the request page and actually lodge your request. I must be honest, it took me several minutes to understand what I needed to do… I suggest to provide a simple screen for starters where these basic – and essential – functions are clearly explained at least once before usage.
What is quite sleek instead is the message inbox: you get a nice, chat alike record of the correspondence, and it is fairly easy to answer on the go, which is actually what most travelers needed. A good way to check for your last minute couch requests on the road.
I also think that another very important feature, the search option, may need some great improvements: first of all, some of the locations that actually have surfers come out empty when browsed on a mobile. The most popular destinations on the contrary work better, but do not list the users under the more organized referential and credential order found on the regular version, making it a bit of a “hit or miss” experience.
Ultimately, I am very glad something like this has been released as it has greatly improved what was a task of endurance I could not bear to perform on my mobile. Now, as long as I can see room for improvements, at least we are able to quickly connect and check the status of our latest Couch requests on the go. Overall, a much needed application that possibly has been rushed to the market without a thorough “on the road testing”… still, I am so glad it arrived! Anxiously waiting for an improved version two!!
A few weeks ago, Marcus Sortijas published an interesting piece on Vagabonding describing the Couchsurfing experience in the United States. As I am a Couchsurfing aficionado and have travelled more than 10 Asian countries using it, I would like to spend some words describing how this beautiful service works in another side of the world.
I would like to start introducing an important, ever present concept in Asian societies: a guest is considered as a gift from the Gods. Of course, only when it is a real, genuine guest. I feel important to describe this duality, because Couchsurfing in Asia works on the same, subliminal dualistic level: it is either great, or totally awful.
Why? Because you may be very lucky and get to experience unique moments of true hospitality and kindness with some of the most humble, accommodating people on earth. Or you may end up in the hands of some businessman – tourist operator, tour guide, hotel manager, shop owner, restaurant owner etc. – interested in giving you a free – and sometimes dirty – bed in order to push his/her services.
On account of my personal experience, most of this “second category” people are to be found in the Indian Subcontinent: flashy profiles peppered with a bunch of predominantly local users’ references are generally marks of the Devil. To cite an example, in mid 2010 me and my girlfriend visited Alleppey, Kerala. We were welcomed by an apparently friendly Couchsurfer who took us to an ayurvedic center he was working at. We were accommodated in a dirty room which probably caters to paying guests during the regular season, when it is actually cleaned and functional: there was no electricity for the best part of the day. That night we spent simmering in the horrid heat – our bodies the feast of a thousand mosquitoes biting as hard as a gang of hungry living dead – still remains one of our fondest travel horror stories.
This Couchsurfer talked to us for about 10 minutes during the whole stay, and tried to sell us a Backwaters’ tour a few times before giving up. At last, as we were about to board a little boat hours after our arrival, we found out that our host wanted to charge us three times the going rate.
Nevertheless, like the ying and the yang, Couchsurfing in Asia – and also in India, let me clarify – can also be a dreamy experience: to give some credit to Indian Couchsurfers, I must say that I have also received some of the most amazing hospitality in this country, and have been able to exchange deep, meaningful relationships with its Couchsurfing community. I have been treated as a family member, almost spoon fed daily – and free of charge – and brought to experience places and situations as deeply as it can get.
I have got to know Couchsurfers’ family members as my own, and have been helped immensely in many aspects of my vagabonding. If this is not enough, I can also tell you that the reason why I met my lovely girlfriend and settled down in Malaysia is only because one odd night I decided to attend a Couchsurfing meeting in Penang!! So, for this and many other reasons, I can just recommend using this amazing community as you travel across Asia because it still gets you the easiest and purest access way into Asian cultures: as the members are English speaking locals looking for a genuine interaction, you will be able to receive a real insight into their lives and homes.
And if it is not… oh well, horror Couchsurfing stories make great conversation topics at the bar back home. People will look you in a different way after you told them you survived a night at the horrific ayurvedic clinic… or that you slept in the nest of a tour guide viper trying to poison you with a bunch of hiking tour options… and most importantly: happy surfing in Asia to anyone!!
Cost/Day- 60 euros
After a few months on the road, it takes something fairly odd to catch a vagabonder off-guard, but seeing a man herding sheep from the back of a scooter certainly threw me for a loop. The sheep didn’t seem flustered by the portly man zipping in and out of the herd, hurrying them along the hilly roads of Mykonos in loud Greek, all the while trying to weave around potholes. However, I on the other hand almost ran my beat-up red scooter into a fence as the road took one of its many curves and my eyes were locked on this episode of “Sheep: Hell’s Angels”.