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.
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?
“Of all the adventures and challenges that wait on the vagabonding road, the most difficult can be the act of coming home. On a certain level, coming home will be a drag because it signals the end of all the fun, freedom and serendipity that you enjoyed on the road. But on a less tangible level, returning home after a vivd experience overseas can be just plain weird and unsettling. Every aspect of home will look more or less like it did when you left, but it will feel completely different.”
Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, Chapter 11 by Rolf Potts
Of all of the journeys we make the journey home is often the most displacing.
When we take off from everything we know and dive, head long, into the great and glorious unknown, we do so knowing that there will be discomforts, things will shock us and we’ll be confused. We are mentally and emotionally prepared for the culture shock and the disparity between everything we are, everything we know, and the new realities that will engulf us.
In coming home, we often don’t take into account that, after an extended time away, living in an entirely different reality, we’re doing the very same thing in reverse. We hit the ground taking for granted that everything will be the same, assuming that we know what to expect, feeling as if it should all be easy. Except it’s not.
For me, the hard things aren’t what one would expect to be difficult: Big box stores completely overwhelm me, after a year of shopping in markets and corner stores. The onslaught of language on my senses: In my second and subsequent languages, I can choose what to make the effort to read and filter what I don’t want to bother with. In English, I can’t help but read every single word. I can listen to one conversation at a time, and let the background chatter in a foreign language rush by me. In English, I hear the guy three rows behind me in the bus complaining about his girlfriend’s mother and it drives me batty. It’s having to make a choice between twenty brands of ketchup. It’s Fox New’s trite treatment of a country no one can find on a map. It’s the sudden lack of Kinder Eggs.
It never fails, I hit the ground expecting “home” in all of it’s warm and comforting glory, and instead I find that I’m once again an alien in a strange land. It only helps marginally to remember that it’s me, not “them.” On seven levels, re-entry is wonderful. On seven more, it’s unsettling, and hard to navigate without weirding out the people who love us most. I’ve learned three things that seem to help somewhat:
What about you? What are your experiences with re-entry and coming home? What have you learned? How has it changed you?
Perhaps I never would have met the Iranian had it not been for the influenza
epidemic raging across Europe at the time. Because of the flu,
Larnaca — a holiday beach town on the southern coast of Cyprus — was
nearly empty of tourists. I was walking along the deserted beachfront
promenade when a lone man in coveralls approached me.
“I am from Iran,” he said. “I think you are not from Cyprus.”
I smiled at both the man’s abrupt introduction and his unusual appearance.
He looked like he’d just come in from bow-hunting deer in Idaho: dark-green
coveralls, heavy boots, a bright orange stocking cap. He wore thick
glasses and looked to be about 40 years old.
“Yes, I’m not from Cyprus,” I told him. “I’m from America.”
“America!” the man exclaimed. “I have an American nickname: Harrison.
Like Harrison Ford. I made up this name because I like Harrison Ford, and I
love America. In my mind, I think that America must be like Paradise. Is
it wonderful to live there?”
“Well I wouldn’t call it Paradise, but I like living there.”
“I wish I could go to America, but I cannot get a visa. So last week I came
here to Cyprus instead.”
The Iranian scoffed. “For me, there is no vacation. I come here to fix
“Yes, that is my work. The police in Iran don’t like satellites, so I have
to come to Cyprus. There are many satellites in Larnaca.”
Since I was quite certain Cyprus didn’t have a space program, I decided to
clarify. “What kind of satellites?”
“Satellites!” Harrison exclaimed. He pointed skyward and waved his hands
around. “In Iran, the police say they are bad for women, so I have no
“How are satellites bad for women?”
“With a satellite, women can see too many things. They can see Dallas.”
“Dallas! Julia Roberts! CNN! The police think women will forget their
duty to Islam.”
“Oh, right. You fix satellite dishes.”
“And many other electronics. But Iran is not a good place for me to live or
work. I hope Cyprus is better. Tell me, did you come to Larnaca for
“A tourist! You come for the beach, or to see Lazarus?”
“Lazarus. He was friends with Jesus. His tomb is here. Don’t you read the
“Of course, but I’m pretty sure his tomb should be in Israel. And it should
be empty, since the story is that Jesus raised him from the dead.”
“Yes, but after Jesus gave him life, Lazarus decided to come to Cyprus. If
you wish, I can show you where is his tomb.”
“Sure,” I shrugged. “Let’s see it.”
As I followed the stocking-capped Iranian away from the beachfront, I
couldn’t help chuckling at the thought of Lazarus choosing to come to
Cyprus (of all places) after his resurrection. I kept getting this mental
image of a post-miracle press event at the open tomb in Bethany, with
reporters shoving in to ask questions. “Lazarus,” I imagined them saying,
“Jesus just raised you from the dead after four days in the tomb — what’ll
you do now?” And instead of Disneyland, Lazarus tells them he’s going to
“Why do you smile?” Harrison asked me as we went down the winding back streets of Larnaca in search of the tomb.
“I’m just wondering why Lazarus came to Cyprus,” I said. “I’m wondering
what he did when he got here.”
The Iranian shrugged. “He died again, I think.”
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
Lazarus or no Lazarus, I had never planned on going to the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the first place. Originally, my plan had been to find a direct flight from Rome to Cairo. I’d soon discovered, however, that Cyprus Air offered passage to Cairo at less than half the cost of other airlines. The only catch was a 24-hour layover in Larnaca. Always a sucker for cheap airfare, I went for it.
The drawback to this was that I arrived in Cyprus without any idea of what I
could see or do there. The tourist authority at the Larnaca airport gave
me a stack of brochures, but it seemed self-defeating to spend much time
studying them when I had only a day in the country. When I’d skimmed over
the parts about how Larnaca featured the St. Lazarus Church, it never occurred
to me that Lazarus himself might be there. The Iranian who called himself
Harrison set me straight.
“Do you believe in Lazarus?” he asked as we made our way to the tomb.
“Well, I don’t really believe he was raised from the dead after four days,”
“But his bones are here in Larnaca! Don’t you believe in the Christian
“I believe in God, but I also believe in a healthy dose of skepticism.”
“What is ‘skepticism’?”
“Skepticism is like doubt. A skeptic is someone who doesn’t believe very
easily. That’s me.”
“Do you believe in artificial blood?”
This question threw me a bit. “Artificial blood? Like in the movies?”
“No, in real life. The blood that people use.”
“I don’t think I know about that.”
“It comes from America, and doctors use it. I read this in a magazine, and
it sounded crazy. Still, I am not a skeptic. I think it is real. I want
to see it and know what color it is. I want to know how it is made. Do you
know where I might see some?”
“Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of anything like artificial blood.”
“You are a skeptic.”
I laughed. “Or maybe just ignorant.”
Harrison reached out and took me lightly by the arm. “Do you know how to
get a visa to America?” he said in a quiet voice.
“Not really,” I said. “I’m from America, so of course I don’t need a visa
to go there. Why do you want one — you want to see artificial blood that badly?”
“Iran is a bad place,” he said, ignoring my clumsy joke. “There was some
hope before, but things are getting bad. The elections will make things
worse. I don’t want to go back; I want to leave.”
“What about Cyprus? Aren’t you going to stay here?”
“My visa is only for three months. But while I am here, I want to get an
American visa. Can’t you help me?”
“I’d like to, but I don’t know anything about the visa process. Especially
“Can you write down for me your name and address in America? Maybe it would
help if I had an American friend.”
“I don’t think having an address will make a difference. Especially the
address of someone you just met in the street.”
Harrison looked a bit hurt by this comment. “But I think we are already
friends,” he insisted.
- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -
St. Lazarus Church is a sturdy stone structure in a clean courtyard not far from the old Larnaca Fort. Harrison waited outside as I entered to discover a narrow maze of wooden pews, vaulted ceilings and curving stone-block columns. Ornate chandeliers hung from the stone arches, and an intricate gilded iconostation dominated the front of the church. Byzantine saints with golden halos peeked out from every wall and corner. A painted wooden altar in the middle of the church contained a silver crucifix and large glass disc fastened down with a ruby-studded rim. Beneath the glass was the yellowed crown of a human skull.
According to church tradition, Lazarus went to Cyprus in about A.D. 33 to
escape persecution at the hands of the Jews in Bethany. He settled in
Larnaca (then called Kition) and was consecrated as the first bishop of
Kition by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas. During his time in Cyprus,
Lazarus never smiled save on one occasion, when he saw someone stealing a
pot and said, “The clay steals the clay.” His melancholy demeanor was said
to be a result of the four days his soul spent in Hades before Jesus raised
him from the dead. He died for the second and final time in A.D. 63, and
the present stone church was built on the site of his tomb in the late ninth
Harrison was waiting for me outside when I’d finished peering around inside
the old church. “Was it a good place?” he said. “Are you glad I showed it
“Yes,” I said. “It was very interesting.”
“Do you believe in Lazarus now?”
“No, I’m afraid I’m still a skeptic when it comes to Lazarus.”
“I am not a skeptic. I believe in Lazarus.”
“Are you a Christian?”
“Of course not!” he laughed. “I am a Muslim.”
“Do Muslims believe in the miracle of Lazarus?”
“The Koran does not speak of Lazarus. But the Koran does say that Jesus
could do miracles. I think it is bad to be a skeptic. I think you should
“A skeptic believes in many things, but he also doubts. All I’m saying is
that I doubt the miracle of Lazarus.”
“But how can you doubt miracles if you believe in God?”
“God is God — I just don’t believe he deals much in miracles. I don’t much
believe in believers, either. That’s how skepticism works.”
Harrison nodded solemnly. “There are too many believers in Iran. I think I
am a skeptic sometimes, too.” He paused for a moment, then went on. “Do
you think I am a good man?”
“Sure, I think so.”
“Then can you please give me your address for an American visa?”
“I don’t think my address will make a difference on your visa.”
“But will you give it to me?”
For some reason, I didn’t want to encourage what seemed like a doomed
enterprise. “It will take a lot more than my address to get you to
“But will you give it to me?”
I gave Harrison a hesitant stare, still not comfortable at being the object
of such blind hope. “OK,” I said finally. “Give me some paper.”
Harrison unzipped his coveralls and took out a small, dogeared notebook.
“If anybody asks, you must tell them I am your friend.”
“I think I can do that,” I said. I took the notebook and wrote down my
American address — touched by Harrison’s desperate sense of optimism, but
still skeptical at his odds for a new life.
When I’d finished, Harrison thanked me profusely and made vague plans to meet me that evening. After he’d gone, I stuck around the courtyard to stroll
through the Byzantine museum and examine the marble graves in the adjacent Protestant merchant cemetery.
Before I went back to the waterfront, however, I returned to the St. Lazarus
sanctuary to get one more look at what may or may not have been the bones of a man who may or may not have been raised from the dead.
Originally published by Salon.com in February 2000
“Thus, travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by simple elimination: Without all the rituals, routines and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself…. Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you “find yourself,” it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind– it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true Self.”
Chapter 10 Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts
This chapter falls in an interesting week for me, having just finished walking the Camino de Santiago, 800 km, France into Spain a little over a week ago. It was an interesting thing, to make a pilgrimage as a non-religious person. My experience, over the years of travel, has been the same as Rolf’s, in that the moments of greatest spiritual impact and growth have, invariably, been mundane moments and not visits to great temples or sunrise yoga sessions. For me, the forward motion of travel has become a meditation of its own; a ritual that draws me back to the essentials of my internal life. Lightening my physical pack and lightening the internal loads as well.
I love the image of how travel systematically strips away all of the things that we hide behind: material possessions, relationships, jobs and titles, busy-ness, social constructs and a million other things. We’re left standing in the world, naked, with no one looking except ourselves. It is in that moment that we begin to see who we really are. Sometimes it’s necessary to walk naked for quite some distance before we can begin to pick up a few things and clothe ourselves intentionally in the lessons we’ve learned and the discoveries of self as we relate to the whole, in both the temporal and spiritual sense. To me, the truest of spiritual revelations have their boots fully grounded in the mud on the trail.
How about you? Do you travel for spiritual reasons? Where have you been? What have you learned? What surprised you about the journey?
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.
“In retrospect I see that my stress wasn’t the product of indecision; the conflict arose from my impossible desire to be in all those places at once. in knowing that so many destinations were cheaply accessible at that very moment, I suddenly feared that I would never again get the chance to see them. Travel, I was coming to realize, was a metaphor not only for the countless options life offers but also for the fact that choosing one option reduces you to the parameters of that choice. thus in knowing my possibilities, I also knew my limitations.”
I was raised by vagabonds. My parents hitchhiked continents and hopped freighters in between before I was born. When I was 8 they rolled my brother and I into the back of a 1964 Ford Econoline van that my Dad named “vagabunda” and drove us into the deep south for the winter. They did it again when I was 13. Who needs third or eighth grades? We talked a lot in my childhood, and even now, about this very point that Rolf elucidates: That to choose one life, one path, one moment, is to actively NOT choose a myriad of others.
It is a thought that has stuck with me as I’ve built my own life, followed my own passions and traveled with my own family. It’s not that any one path is inherently better than another, it’s just that they lead in very different directions and one must have the presence of mind to think long term enough to see past the first bend in the road. The necessity of commitment to a path, of releasing the ties other paths might have on one’s heart, the ties that lead to indecision, questioning, and regretful “what ifs.” On the flip side of that coin, the necessity of flexibility, the willingness to trust a path to the fates and follow where they leave, and the willingness to change your mind, change your path and create a new one if needs be. Ultimately, there is much to be said for being able to come to grips with the choices you’ve made, the parameters you’ve set for yourself, the limitations of the current set of choices, and live within the moment. Accepting what is. Changing what you can as it suits you. Moving forward with purpose. Exercising creativity to keep passions fresh and alive.
How do you choose a path and then keep it interesting as you go?
“In reality, travel is not a social contest, and vagabonding has never represented a caste on the tourist/traveler hierarchy. Depending upon circumstance, a sincere vagabonder could variously be called a traveler or a tourist, a pilgrim or a satyr, a victor or a victim, an individual seeker or a demographic trend. Indeed, the main conceit in trying to distinguish travelers from tourists is that you end up with a flimsy facade of presumed insiders and outsiders. By the vacuous standards of fashion, insiders and outsiders are necessary, but in the realm of travel (where, by definition, you are always a guest in foreign places) such a distinction is ridiculous. Putting on a cocksure and superior air may win you points at a nightclub in your hometown, but such pretense on the road will only cheapen your travel experience.” — Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
This is a particular pet peeve of mine: the tourist vs. travel debate and its associated snobbery. There is nothing more off-putting to me, in meeting another vagabond, than to hear her speaking with disdain about “those people” who got off of the tour bus, kept together in a group, followed their guide with a carnation on the tip of his umbrella held high, and took their tour of the colosseum in Rome.
It’s true, that group travel and organized tours are not my preferred method of exploring the world. The sentiment behind her disdain is one that I share: the value of owning one’s own time, discovering a place without the pre-chewed experience, specially designed to make sure you don’t miss anything and come away knowing the basic facts. I travel to interact with a world I don’t know about, with people I don’t understand yet, and to do that in my own way, and in my own time. Thus, the “tour package” deal isn’t my thing. But that doesn’t mean it’s of no value.
Which is better: to stay home because the world is too scary and you don’t know where to start, or to take a three week packaged tour through China? To take the packaged tour through China, of course! Some exposure is better than none. Some experience is more educational than none. For many, two weeks vacation is all they get, that should be used to the best of their ability to travel, if they have a desire to do so. For lots of people, purchasing a well organized “tourist” experience is the gateway that broadens their horizons and builds confidence while reducing their fears to the point that, perhaps later, they can branch out on their own.
Seasoned travelers tend to wear their adventures like boy scout badges and arrogantly point them out. This is unattractive. Instead, those of us who’ve been around two or three or fifty blocks, should be the first to quietly applaud the first tentative steps that others are taking. We should be there to validate their experiences and encourage them to take the next steps. It’s not a contest, it’s a path we walk together. Travelers are often tourists, or at the very least, they were once. Tourists are also travelers and, given enough adventures, will eventually meet the real world on their own terms.
Do you consider yourself a tourist or a traveler? Do you think there’s a difference? What has been your experience?
Should you ever travel to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, there’s a good chance you’ll meet Francisco in the city’s humid, touristy colonial zone. Barefoot, emaciated, and filthy from sleeping in the street, Francisco looks far older than his 19 years, and his wavering gaze carries a look of hardened desperation.
I met Francisco — or, rather, he made it a point to meet me — when I was sitting on a bench near Independence Park, on my first full day in the city. After chatting me up for a few minutes (asking how I liked Santo Domingo, and inquiring about my favorite baseball teams) Francisco got down to business. “I’m homeless,” he said, “and I haven’t eaten all day. Can you give me 100 pesos for some food?”
I’d sensed this was coming, but something seemed a little suspicious about Francisco. “You speak great English,” I said. “You must be educated.”
“I’m not educated,” he said. “Not really. I lived with my uncle in New Jersey for a couple years, but they made me leave the country after 9/11, and it’s hard to find work here in Santo Domingo. Please, 100 pesos is nothing for you. It’s not even three dollars.”
This was true enough — and it was obvious that Francisco had indeed been sleeping in the street — but I’d never been comfortable handing out money to strangers. “I haven’t had lunch yet,” I said. “Come to the restaurant and eat with me.”
Francisco agreed to come, though he seemed vaguely disappointed by the proposition. When we got to a nearby cafeteria, he suggested I just give him the 100 pesos, claiming he could get bigger portions at a restaurant in a poorer neighborhood. When I suggested we go to this restaurant together, Francisco said it was too far away to walk, and asked again for 100 pesos. I refused, and when our sandwiches arrived, Francisco continued to goad me for money. Eventually I became irritated, and slapped down 50 pesos.
Francisco took the money, finished his sandwich, and was gone in under a minute, leaving me to deal with the sickly mix of emotions I feel whenever I wind up in such situations: anger, pity, resentment, guilt.
Over the course of the next week in Santo Domingo, I slowly discovered just how ill advised my investment in Francisco had been. Contrary to what he’d said, there was no shortage of work in Santo Domingo: Most all of this physical labor was done by Haitian immigrants, who toiled in the heat while the likes of Francisco lolled in the shade and hustled tourists for money. Moreover, I began to notice that the colonial zone was home to other, more needful beggars: amputees; elderly blind men; women with painfully withered limbs. Francisco, who was young and able-bodied, had likely used my 50 pesos to invest in a brief chemical high — glue, most likely, or possibly some cheap form of speed.
I share this incident with Francisco not to preach some tidy lesson about dealing with the needy as you travel, but simply to illustrate my frustration at the moral ambiguity of the whole beggar issue. Indeed, after ten years of traveling in developing nations, I still have no hard and fast system on how to respond to beggars. Usually, whether or not I give depends on some combination of my mood, the appearance and persistence of the beggar, and whether or not I have small change. And, regardless of whether I give money or choose not to, I always end up feeling a little guilty.
This sense of guilt, I believe, is at the heart of the whole traveler-beggar issue. Life is not fair, after all, and traveling to poor countries (or seeing poor people in rich countries) only underscores this fact.
Still, handing out money solves few problems. Who, after all, do you give to? Everyone? Only the worst looking cases? And how much? And how often?
Moreover, this very sense of guilt is part of the “marketing” for hustler-beggars and needful beggars alike — and that’s why children get forced into beggary, drug-addled mothers beg with sickly babies in-hand, and tourist zones invariably attract hordes of disheveled panhandlers. With the rise of urbanization in the past 50 years, some people can make more money begging in the cities than toiling in the countryside. And, in many parts of the world (perhaps most famously in India, Kenya, and among the Gypsies in Europe), begging rings are tied to organized crime, and very little of the money actually goes to the beggar herself.
Thus, while I offer no universal solutions as to how to deal with beggars on the road, my travel experiences have taught me a few principles to help navigate this sadly common and difficult situation:
1) Spend some time in the community before you give to beggars
This was perhaps my primary mistake in dealing with Francisco. Not only will a few days of immersion in the local culture give you a better sense for which beggars are and are not truly needy — it will also give you a sense for the spending power of the local currency.
Moreover, a little cultural familiarity will allow you to see how locals react to beggars: when they give money, and how much they choose to give. Most of the world’s spiritual traditions have time-honored practices for helping the needy, and following these local religious protocols is often the most culturally appropriate way to give money. In less religious societies, such as those in Western Europe, state funds are often available for the homeless and indigent, theoretically eliminating the need for hunger-based beggary.
Donations to local charities and NGOs are another solution for helping the needy in a given community — though you should research aid organizations carefully, since many such agencies are notorious for siphoning money into bloated administrative overhead.
2) Practice skepticism
My second mistake with Francisco is that I failed to practice proper discernment when I chose to give. This in mind, try and donate to those who truly need it (physical deformities are usually a reliable indicator of need), and try to avoid putting money into the hands of hustlers. Any able-bodied beggar who is too aggressive, charming, accusatory, persistent, melodramatic, or (in non-Anglophone countries) good at English is probably working a scam, trying to raise drug money, or avoiding legitimate work.
Children who beg are always a tough call, since it’s natural to feel sympathy for them. I almost never give to child beggars, however, because child beggary is so often tied to organized crime and familial exploitation. Moreover, even if a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random.
3) Don’t be afraid to say no
It’s better to give out of conviction than guilt, so don’t give if you truly don’t want to. Some travelers I know even have a policy of never giving to beggars at all (reasoning that their donation stands to create as many problems as it solves), and this is as legitimate a way as any to deal with the situation. Beggars realize that what they’re doing is a numbers game, and that not everyone who walks past is going to give them money.
4) You’re not saving the day
Giving money to a person on the street may make that person’s day a little better, but rarely will it do much to actually change his or her life. Individual travelers are rarely more than a fleeting presence in the lives of beggars, so keep things in perspective, remain humble, and don’t condemn those travelers who choose not to give.
5) Be courteous
It is perfectly normal protocol to ignore beggars in a given situation (they’re used to it), but don’t lecture them on how they should live their life or spend their money. In other words, remember the essential humanity of the needy as you travel, and don’t presume the presence of beggars is somehow an affront to your vacation. After all, as a traveler you are a mere guest in a faraway place, and they have just as much right as you to hang out at a given landmark, a public square, or tourist attraction.
As I was preparing to write this blog post, I thought of a problem that most, if not all writers, struggle with: coming up with something to write about. That’s especially true in travel writing, where finding a good angle, or a “story”, is key to get the attention of an editor and an audience.
With the facility of modern travel, even getting to very far-flung and hardcore destinations is not enough to have a story. Plenty of people are probably already there, camera in hand, without an assignment. Truth is, today’s editors have many more offers than they can consider, and they all come from as many exotic locations as we can find pointing fingers madly on a world map. So, how to stand out and get published?
I found that opening my eyes very wide is the most useful of strategies. In fact, today’s publishing industry is not looking at what is there, but more at what has slipped between “there” and “somewhere else” only people with deep sense of observation see. I don’t believe that one has forcibly to stay in a place long to get such “discerning power”. Of course, extended knowledge of a place can just do your writing good; but in order to catch that glimpse that makes an idea stand out among all the others, you don’t necessarily need it.
You just need good imagination, attention to detail, and a great deal of curiosity.
I give you a simple example: the other day I was walking down Armenian Street in Penang, where plenty of people go visit the famous street art installations realized by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic. I remember that there were so many people lined up to take pictures of the kids on a bicycle, and all of them were waiting to take the same picture. The street corner was so crowded, it was silly to notice how, tucked at a street corner just across the road, a traditional rattan furniture shop was empty.
I know that place very well, for I have visited several times before: the owner, an old man in his 70s, has been weaving rattan furniture by hand for the past 50 years. He, of course, besides keeping an old trade of Malaysia alive, is a goldmine of stories. When I visit and he has time, I always leave his shop with more than a handful of ideas buzzing in my head. And that’s how I get material to write my stories: by looking around the corner, and talking to people. Real people, who aren’t just taxi drivers and hotel staff.
The difference between a story you can sell, and one which will be rejected, is all matter of perspective and perception. The important thing is to remember that nobody is willing to pay to get what everybody else can provide, and most often for free on their blogs… so open your eyes and ears, interact with people, and look for the unusual, underrated, or just plain forgotten. It will pay off if you are persistent, and able to cope with inevitable instances of rejection.