When I traveled through Southeast Asia some years ago, I was amazed by the number of fellow backpackers who ridiculed me whenever I pronounced the “s” in Laos. Apparently, I was supposed to pronounce it “Lao,” just like locals do.
The thing is, those same “s”-dropping travelers never insisted on calling Bangkok by its proper name (“Krung Thep Maha Nakhon”) when they were in Thailand — and when they recalled journeys to East Asia, they mentioned Japan and Korea, not “Nihon-koku” and “Daehan Minguk”. But Laos was “Lao,” and anyone with the temerity to pronounce the “s” ran the risk of being branded a travel-greenhorn in the backpacker haunts of Vang Vieng and Muang Sing.
Oddly enough, Laos seems to be the only place where backpackers are rigid fundamentalists when it comes to nation-state pronunciation. Rarely do you find such tenacious commitment to cultural-linguistic accuracy in the travel cliques of Misr (Egypt), Shqipërisë (Albania), or Suomi (Finland). (One possible exception might be Latin America, where otherwise normal patter among English-speaking travelers is frequently offset with trilled r’s and h-sounding g’s when mentioning places like Honduras and Argentina.)
What makes Laos an exception? Since the Westernized pronunciation is just one consonant away from the local pronunciation, my guess is lazy opportunism among backpackers hoping to showcase their cultural knowledge. Whereas referring to Morocco as “al-Maghrebia” or Greenland as “Kalaallit Nunaat” would make you seem like a jackass show-off to fellow travelers, calling Laos “Lao” allows you to avoid confusing your compatriots while still insinuating that you’ve been in-country long enough to pronounce the place as locals do. Hence, in the goofy realm of backpacker pecking order (where displays of cultural expertise reign supreme, yet all pretensions must be subtle), Laos-pronunciation is the perfect shorthand for distinguishing salty wanderers from newbies.Interestingly, Laos provides a good example for how complicated things can get when dissecting the names of nation-states. The “s” in Laos, for example, dates back to the late 1800’s, when a number of largely autonomous, mainly Lao-speaking kingdoms (including Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak) were united under French colonial rule. The “s” was silent in French pronunciation, and only came into spoken use when Anglophones intoned it according to their own rules (much as we do when pronouncing “Paris”). Perhaps the most famous mispronunciation of “Laos” came in 1962, when President Kennedy called the nation “Lay-oss” — reportedly out of apprehension that the American people would resist sending military aid to a country that sounded like the singular of “lice.”
Though it could be easy to write off the “s” in Laos as an insidious remnant of Western imperialism, place-names in Europe are similarly indicative of bygone intrusions. When a Cardiff-born traveler refers to himself as “Welsh,” he is actually using a Germanic word that means “foreigner” (as opposed to the Celtic word for Welsh, “Cymry,” which means “compatriot”). Similarly, the official Laotian name for Laos — “Meuang Lao” — probably sounds a tad strange to the 31% of native-born citizens (including the Hmong, Dao, and Khmu) who are not ethnically Lao.
British historian Norman Davies has noted that place-names aren’t necessarily a fixed concept. “They change over time,” he wrote in his 1996 book Europe: A History. “And they vary according to the language and the perspective of the people who use them. They are the intellectual property of their users, and as such have caused endless conflicts. They can be the object of propaganda, of tendentious wrangling, of rigid censorship, even of wars. In reality, where several variants exist, one cannot speak of correct or incorrect forms.”
This in mind, I’ve decided I won’t worry too much about the “correct” way to pronounce Laos. Outside of backpacker circles, I’ve found that native Laotians don’t mind when I pronounce the “s” in Laos — just like citizens of ” Ellīnikī́ Dīmokratía” understand when I make reference to “Greece,” and residents of “Al Mamlaka al Urduniya al Hashemiyah” don’t scold me for calling their country “Jordan.” Were I conversing in Lao or Greek or Arabic this might be a different matter — but host cultures tend to understand that non-fluent outsiders have their own names for things. When I’m asked by local people to use local pronunciations (or when it makes communication easier) I’m happy to drop my Westernized vocabulary for something more culturally correct. This is, in fact, a normal part of the travel-education process.
I suppose it’s also part of the travel process to foist that linguistic correctness on other travelers, but this can sometimes get obnoxious. Just as rose by any other name would smell as sweet, Laos will remain of terrific place to travel, regardless of whether or not you pronounce the “s” in the company of your fellow backpackers.
Originally published on Gadling 10/07/2011
Everyone talks about culture shock. Heaps of books have been written about how to plan for it and websites dedicated to slowly transitioning into a culture where you perhaps don’t speak the language or aren’t used to the food or traditions. You spend months planning your big travels unaware of how completely changed you’ll be upon your return (if you choose to return, of course). Your adventure is more than accommodations, reservations, and experiences. It may depend on where, how and for how long, but regardless, travel changes a person. New perspectives happen, minds open, character flourishes and life as you know it begins to take on a new shape…. then your journey ends and you must return home. This is the part no one talks about.
After our first around the world trip, I came back looking exactly the same on the outside, yet on the inside I was completely changed. It was my first truly extended journey outside of the United States and I was given the chance to travel and interact with so many people from various cultures. After this trip I liked new foods, had different taste in clothing, used new vocabulary words, wrote the date differently and was already looking to change my circumstances at home to embrace more of a travel existence. The invisible changes were even stronger, yet I was the only one who knew about them. How do you fit back into the box everyone wants you to return to when there’s no way you can do so any longer? It’s hard to manage putting your new self back into that old life-you’re just not the same person anymore.
Now I know this difficulty has a name…reverse culture shock! Stepping back into that old life of yours and finding it hard, you’re not alone. Countless travelers experience this each year. You now view things very differently. Your world has been broadened, your senses sharpened, your mind blown wide open and your enlarged perspective on life is far greater than what it once was. Your reactions to day-to-day circumstances and situations are different and those around you who were not part of your journey are confused. Why are you acting differently? Why are your answers to simple questions vastly divergent from what they once were? Why are things so different?
You’re not alone in your struggles and you can’t fight the changes. Travelers the world over face this each time when returning home, while for some, the changes are even more drastic that they choose a greater travel existence over that ‘before travel home’. Searching out other travelers where you live who feel the same will help. What I can tell you is that it will get better and easier. Have patience with yourself; with time you will figure it all out. You’ll find your true self and where you now fit into your life ‘before travel’. You’ll begin to realize what and who you want in your life and cultivate new relationships that fit the ‘new you’. You will find a way to either work the new you into your old life or change your circumstances to create a new one. Life post travel will be different than that of pre-travel. The new you will find a way. Take a deep breath, keep pushing through, embrace the changes and know that since travel changed you…there’s no going back.
For more of Stacey’s musings, check out her writings on her blog.
“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
It’s an increasingly accepted as fact that, as a nation, we have allowed a work culture to develop where taking time off is seen a sign of disloyalty or lack of care, and where extended time off is more of a concept than a reality. It’s also a given that more and more data suggest that the costs of this approach in stress and lack of free time for rest, recreation and family is having a profoundly detrimental effect on our society.
Traveling in Europe always brings the difference between the US and European cultures with regard to work/life balance was illustrated in sharp relief for me. It’s one thing to hear how the Europeans put priority on the “life” side of the balance, and it is another to see it in action. As many know, the Europeans enjoy social benefits such as maternity as well as paternity leave, and up to six weeks of vacation time per year.
To see the very obvious benefits of that strategic choice for a shorter work year play out in the lives of everyday Europeans illustrates the point. Watching families strolling in the parks, laughing and chatting happily, on a weekday afternoon or visiting with friends over a drink in a café—enjoying the free time their generous benefits affords them—is to reinforce any stressed-out American’s suspicion that we are on the wrong side of the equation.
Of course, there are economic trade-offs along with such benefits. With less time focused on work and more time focused on free time, GDP is affected and taxes are high to support these benefits. Countries with a historically take-it-easy approach to life such as Italy and Spain had no trouble swapping time at work for time with friends, but how do these policies fare in the more traditionally industrious nations of the north? Does this bother many of them?
Not very much, it seems. “Everyone hates taxes of course,” a German told me, “but we willingly make the trade-off because it’s a good bargain. The time is more valuable.” Another said, “We made the conscious choice to arrange the society this way, with the emphasis on maternal and paternal leave and more vacation time. It has many positive benefits. We just do with a little less material things.”
In a surprising finding that bolsters the arguments of proponents for more European-syle work arrangements, a recent analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (link to the study is here) found that workplace productivity doesn’t necessarily increase with hours worked. Workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but the latter’s productivity is 70 percent higher. In other words, there’s not necessarily the direct correlation that our system is predicated on.
“You Americans kill yourselves with antiquated work policies,” says a French acquaintance. “You have two weeks of vacation, if you are very lucky. We are a very prosperous, industrialized economy with a national healthcare service too. We make it all work.”
I knew it begged an inevitable question, and my friend asked it. “So why can’t you?”
That statement and its inevitable question was put to me many times, in many places. It is a question I brought back to the US with me. It stayed in my mind as my flight arced across the Atlantic and over the North American continent, remaining as an important souvenir. The issue was never about lingering in cafés or visiting the Alps, but rather the stuff of a good life: choices, time and freedom to make of it what we will. Would you be happier and more productive if you had more of these? What will it take for us as a society to finally demand it?
This week I returned from a month and a half overseas working as a tour guide, helping to lead two different groups on an epic Best-of-Europe grand tour. The experience was a new one for me; after years of exploring the continent’s cobbled backstreets and ancient cities as a solo travel writer, I found myself with the unique opportunity of being a guide for one of America’s most well-respected touring companies.
A couple of concerns dogged me as I flew over the Arctic Circle, the plane making its slow path from my home base of Seattle to the tour departure point of Amsterdam. Questions like, how would I be able to handle a large group as we steam across the continent day in and day out? And, how will the mechanics of moving groups from one site to the other in an efficient way work? But these concerns paled next to the most significant challenge: Helping the scores of American travelers connect to the history and culture of the places they came so far to experience.
Staring out my window at the endless expanse of the north Atlantic, I began to feel the weight of the responsibility settle into my gut. How do I curate this experience for our flock? I’d always done it for myself just fine; teaching others how to appreciate the richness of Europe was something I’d never needed to do beyond my writing. It was easy enough to crank out articles about the places I’d visited and about the treasures—the food, the history, the people, all the things that make up the culture—those places had to offer. Would I be able to help our travelers connect to them and appreciate them in the same way that I did?
The teaching I’d done before—giving free travel talks at public libraries to would-be travelers who were interested in learning how to create their own independent European adventure—was indispensable. The classes I’d taught had given me a sense of what tickled a traveler’s fancy and what common-sense issues they worried about. This gave me the advantage of being able to anticipate questions and concerns, sometime before the group members even knew they had them.
The true challenge was facilitating the tour member’s experience of the culture. It was in trying to cast new food experiences as a part of good travel, as “sightseeing for your palate”. It was in helping them fend off museum overload by urging them to see the art of the Louvre and the Accademia with their hearts rather than their mind. It was in not rushing through another “check the box” locale (don’t rush through St. Mark’s square, I counseled, just take your time and find your own way to relate to the space). And it was in fending off cathedral overload by teaching that architecture was art we walk through—art that took generations of devoted believers and craftsman to create—rather than just another drafty old building.
Finally I kept the old teacher’s maxim close to my heart: “The task of the teacher is to honor the integrity of fact while at the same time igniting the student’s imagination.”
Over the course of the following weeks I’d work on striking that balance, always trying to bring long-ago stories and long-dead people to Technicolor life. Success for the tour guide also means the tourists returning home knowing that the struggles, the tragedies and triumphs of those who inhabited the majestic castles and cobbled city streets so long ago set the stage for the world as we know it today.
The trick to achieving that was helping them forge an emotional connection to the events a given site had witnessed; that its history was not just a collection of faceless dates and facts, but human beings with hopes and dreams who lived in similarly dramatic times of war, economic uncertainty and dramatic social change. Those folks tried to make the best of it, and somehow got through it. We can too. But more than just the appreciation of history, it’s the appreciation of the culture that really informs a successful travel experience. My hope is that the tour members came away with a renewed perspective on how Europe’s endlessly varied tapestry of cultures, while wonderfully diverse, are similar to our own in the most fundamentally human ways.
If you ever find yourself in the trying but satisfying role as tour guide, I think you’ll find that those lessons are your tour members’ best souvenirs.
Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work almost immediately. It’s amazing how profoundly engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.
As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with a local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d taken. The clusters of pixels in my camera contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.
It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community who lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—alone at sunset.
At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.
Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.
As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research I did and the photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.
One of the reasons we travel is to reach across cultural boundaries and experience the world from a different perspective. It’s that genuine human interaction between different worlds, within the same space that is the essence of the value of leaving home and “seeing the world.” That connection is the moment that makes all of the uncomfortable moments on the road worthwhile. It’s the window that allows us to really see into a place, and a people. It’s the window that allows us to truly see ourselves and learn about who we are and our place in the world at large.
In our experience, those connections rarely happen on tour buses, or packaged experiences. There’s no way to set them up, or manufacture them for mass market. The moment someone tries, something is lost. The best of them are beautiful serendipities.
Today I’d like to ask my fellow travelers how they make these connections.
We have two, that are effective without fail:
Some of our best friends have been drawn to us while traveling because of soccer balls and musical instruments.
What about you? How do you make connections? What are your best “tricks?” Tell me about your experiences, as I’m seeking to learn and deepen my own!
Cost/day (for a family of five):
Strangest thing we’ve seen lately:
Before his wish to die, but well after 40 degree fever and horrifying nightmares, the kindly villagers performed ritual healing ceremonies on my husband Kobi. They picked two of this leaf, four of that one, this root, that berry and cooked them over a banana-leaf-sealed open-fired vat. Then, with ritual prayer chanting, candles, and incense burning, he was stuffed under a dozen thick blankets to breath the steam, drank a cup o it, and bathed in the waters. Their love and earnest determination to cure him were touching. Two days later, he was hospitalized.
“But you’re just going to leave!”
Although I hated to admit it, who said that was right. At the time I’d been seasonally migrating as a guide for four years. And had no intention to confine my adventurous spirit in domestic American life, then—if ever. The catch though was he was not American; Swedish born to immigrated Polish parents. And unless we got married, physically being together was a matter of juggling countless visas. I was willing to explore the challenges of the relationship. He proposed, and I accepted. However, the seemingly prince-charming-fairy-tale was soured after five months, in one evening by his jealousy. (I’d been out socializing–drinking and playing cards with colleagues after a conference—and being that my fiancé and I were nine time zones apart, I missed talking to him on the phone for a whole day.) When I told him why, he got irate. The plot got thicker; but, long-story-short things didn’t work out with us.
My traveling continued, and continues still…But for several years after that break-up I abstained from dating or intimate relationships.
How do us late “Generation X” travelers bridge tradition and progressive thought?
I grew up with a passion for horses, not wanting to get married, or have children. My passion for horses keeps getting stronger. I was intrigued with the idea of marriage a few years back, and now have warmed up to fostering or adopting a child down the road. So where does that adult understanding leave me?
My current boyfriend and I are in an open relationship. We are committed to one another, but are non-monogamous and can have relationships with other partners. This doesn’t mean I can be traveling half-a-world-away, get drunk, and wake up naked next to some stranger; then afterwards confess to my boyfriend that it “didn’t mean anything” the morning after. Rather, as a couple, we consent to our partners other relations—be it flirting, dating, sexual contact, or intercourse. Everything, all our feelings are in full disclosure. We talk about everything!
There’s a Polish proverb that says, “Love enters a man through his eyes, women though her ears.” So shouldn’t it be every womens’ dream to have a guy that will actually talk to her?
So I began this post with a very traditional phenomena of girl-meets-foreign-boy-and-falls-in-love fantasy. And while I don’t doubt that could happen, it didn’t eventually work out for me. In the end, my original prince charming and I lacked one true thing…an open line and space of communication. But the guy who was always there happened to be my best friend.
At the root of most relationships, communication is lacking. Distance shouldn’t matter. In the end, every human is seeking a connection. It could be simply a friendly conversation; an exchange of directions; or one’s life story that just needed to be expressed.
My point is that communication should, and can be, the heart of travel when it comes to any form of relationship. Within in a few moments, or several hours of stories, you can make a friend.
What are you willing to give?
Personally, I’ve known my current boyfriend for more than a decade. He knows everything; all my travel stories, personal/health issues and fears. Perhaps that makes an open relationship plausible. We agree. We work. We love each other unconditionally.
And yes, I realize, both within my country (of the USA) and copious amounts of others it presents a multitude of controversy…
But because we as a whole, at vagablogging, share this progressive space…how do you feel about open relationships? Or in general…the way communication happens between fellow humans that you meet along your travels…
A week from now is All Hallows Eve “vigil of All saints” or commonly known in North America as Halloween. The holiday’s roots are of pagan Celtic origin; but it seems to be spreading around the world in modern fashion. When I was young, it meant dressing up in a costume and walking around my small town neighborhood, knocking on doors and gathering more candy than I’d ever eat. On October 31st my three year-old-niece will dress up as a frog fairy princess (her creative idea) and I’ll take her to go trick-or-treating.
But today’s celebration barely resembles the original festival known as Samhain. It was the eve before the official start of winter for the Celtics. It was a huge transition; cattle and sheep were brought in to closer pastures, crops were harvested and stored. Pagans also believed the cloak between this world and the other was thin on that night. Therefore ghosts of the dead could walk freely among the living and all the souls who died that year would pass into the otherworld.
Reminisce of this holidays roots linger today. But what about the belief that ghosts walk among the living…
Are you in a county that observes Halloween?
Have you ever encountered ghosts during your travels?
Please share your stories…