August 30, 2014

Why We Buy Dumb Souvenirs

souvenirmasksHere’s a curious trivia tidbit from U.S. history: In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams took leave from their Europe-based diplomatic duties and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the home of William Shakespeare. Not much was recorded of the occasion, but one fact of their pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace stands out: At some point during the tour, the two American statesmen brandished pocketknives, carved a few slivers from a wooden chair alleged to have been Shakespeare’s, and spirited them home as souvenirs.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back on this incident and conclude that — in terms of travel protocol, at least — Jefferson and Adams were complete knuckleheads. The thing is, I haven’t seen any evidence to prove that, as world-wandering travelers, our quest for souvenirs has become any more logical or dignified in the ensuing 220 years.

I mention this because I recently traveled to Key West, where a popular section of Duval Street is crowded with souvenir boutiques. In a certain sense, this stretch of Duval felt a tad anachronistic, since — in the age of eBay and similar online shopping venues — you don’t have to travel to a place like Key West to load up on painted seashells and exotic cigars. What struck me more, however, was not the items typically associated with Florida, but the bizarre overabundance of souvenir t-shirts, which said things like “Tell your boobs to stop staring at my eyes,” or “Farting is my way of saying I (heart) you.”

In one sense, it seems ridiculous that anyone would travel to Key West and buy a t-shirt that has nothing whatsoever to do with south Florida (“I’m not a bitch, I’m ‘Miss Bitch’ to you”). Still, bringing home a tacky keepsake from Key West can serve as a sort of travel credential — an existential referent that proves you went to south Florida and got drunk enough to exercise bad judgment. Similarly, for Jefferson and Adams, those Stratfordian wood-shavings were tangible proof that they had journeyed across England and touched a chair that had, presumably, once cradled Shakespeare’s butt.

Indeed, in most cases it would appear that souvenir hunting is not a meaningful examination of place so much as it is a litmus test of our own whims and preconceptions as travelers. In Egypt, for example, generations of tourists have obsessively sought relics that remind them of the Pharaonic landscape they’ve seen in books and movies. Hence, all the major Egyptian tourist sites do a steady trade in fake papyrus, Great Pyramid paperweights, and alabaster Nefertiti statues — none of which would be found in the home of any self-respecting Egyptian. Similarly, in Calcutta’s New Market, an unspoken caste system exists between Indian shoppers and souvenir-seeking tourists. The travelers instinctively gravitate into boutiques that sell carved elephant figurines and decorative jars of saffron, while the Indians shop for rubber bathmats, stainless steel pans, and digital calculators. The implication here, of course, is that buying an electric blender might be more representative of day-to-day Calcutta life than buying Kashmiri silk (though, admittedly, a blender would not look as good in your living room).

Although it may be tempting to blame this discrepancy on modern misconceptions, the tourist quest for souvenirs has always been somewhat skewed. In ancient Anatolia, locals hawked supposed Trojan War relics to credulous Greek travelers, and excavations in Italy have suggested that ancient Romans had a penchant for cheap glass vials painted with pictures of contemporary tourist attractions (none of these have been proven to be snow-globes, to my knowledge, but it’s easy to draw a parallel). In medieval times, Christian pilgrims wandering the Holy Land proved to be among the most gullible relic-hunters in human history, as they carted home enough crowns of thorns, Holy Grails, and apostle-femurs to stock a macabre, New Testament-themed WalMart.

If any world culture deserves mention for its souvenir idiosyncrasies, however, it is the Japanese, who have long considered the giving of gifts to be an essential social ritual. Since taking a leisured journey carries a cultural sense of shame at leaving one’s home duties, Japanese travelers reflexively seek out omiyage — small gifts that will be presented as an act of respect to the family members and coworkers they left behind. So common is this practice that some Japanese airports stock souvenirs from around the world in an effort to save travelers the hassle of finding them in their actual destinations. Hence, a given Japanese girl’s bedroom might feature a Mickey Mouse clock, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and a carved Balinese frog mask — each of which represent her father’s past trips to Florida, Paris, and Indonesia, and all which were purchased at Narita Airport.

In pointing out the global-historical foibles of souvenir-seekers, I don’t mean to position myself above the madness. Like so many tourists before me, I, too, have been known to display weakness in the face of Peruvian weavings, Latvian amber, and Korean lacquer-ware.

I’ve found, however, that bringing these items home and putting them on display has taught me an interesting lesson. Whenever I stroll into my office and gaze at my Mongolian masks and Syrian worry-beads, I find that they don’t evoke my Asian travel memories quite so effectively as the beat-up, navy-blue “Bruin Track & Field” t-shirt I wore in both countries.

Strange as this may seem, it makes perfect sense: When I bought the masks and the worry-beads, I was shopping — but when I wore the t-shirt I was hiking across the steppes beyond Ulan Bator, or exploring the mountaintop monasteries outside of Damascus.

Indeed, as novelist Anatole France once noted, I’d wager that “it is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks.”

In Stratford-upon-Avon, at least, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have done well to heed this advice.

Tip sheet: Souvenir strategies that can reduce the knucklehead factor
1) Don’t confine the notion of what a souvenir is.

Souvenir boutiques will be found in abundance in any major tourist area, but that doesn’t mean you must confine your souvenir-hunt to specialty shops. Any token of your trip — from restaurant placemats, to pressed leaves, to local candy — can serve as a personal keepsake. If seeking gifts for loved ones at home, check department stores and supermarkets before you hit the souvenir shop — odds are you’ll find something cheaper (and just as authentic) in these types of places.

2) Save souvenir shopping until the end of the journey.

Let a souvenir be a souvenir — a keepsake of experience — and don’t go off shopping for knickknacks before you’ve had some real travel adventures. Not only will this give you a social context for your destination before you start commemorating it with collectables, but it will also save you the hassle of dragging this newfound loot around with you as your journey progresses. An added bonus is that, as a shopper, you will have a better sense for the price and quality of your souvenirs once you’ve traveled and made some comparisons.

3) The experience is more important than the keepsake.

In the end, shopping anywhere is still just shopping. Don’t let the hunt for souvenirs get in the way of amazing travel experiences.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on May 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Money Management, Travel Bargains, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

August 22, 2014

When adversity strikes, two things are under your control…

Working on Trinity

(Working on Trinity)

As you may have guessed from the photo above, the situation with Trinity went further downhill from my last post. Here’s the video I shot at the end of a very long day – when it was clear that Trinity just wasn’t going to make it home.

When Adversity Strikes - Video

(Click image to watch video)

(Note: excuse the hokey way I linked the video in – I couldn’t figure out how to embed it into the blog!)

From there, I continued limping in to Grand Junction, CO and arranged to pick up Uma the U-Haul. The last few hundred miles were going to be a different type of journey — one where I had to remember how to drive a big(ish) truck! I’ve been on the motorcycle for a few months, so there *was* a learning curve!

Meet Uma the Uhaul

(Meet Uma the U-Haul)

He’s a shot while crossing the Rockies. I really wish I’d been on bike for this, but that just means I’ll have to make another ride down – once Trinity is back on her wheels!

Uma and the Rockies

(Uma and the Rockies)

Until next time – travel safe and enjoy the ride!

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.

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Category: On The Road, Vagabonding Advice

August 16, 2014

The Worst Tourists in the World

Paris20_6164I 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:

  1. Americans: Ignorant. Loud. Oblivious to surroundings. Insincere.
  2. French: Rude. Bigoted. A trifle out of touch with reality.
  3. Germans: Humorless. Rule-obsessed. Unfriendly. Stubborn.
  4. Israelis: Rude. Cheap. Arrogant. Cliquish.
  5. Canadians: Exactly like Americans, but more polite, less ignorant, and twenty times more boring.

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.

Tip sheet: How to avoid being an ugly American (or wherever it is you’re from)
1) Study up on the local culture.

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.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Oct. 9, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Hospitality, Hostels/Hotels, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

August 8, 2014

Remaining flexible and happy travel accidents

Overheated near Barstow

(Overheated near Barstow.)

Well folks – a small change in plans! I was going to do a different type of post this week and upload a video of some gorgeous canyons that I rode through in Arizona. Alas it isn’t to be. First, I’m can’t find an Internet connection with a decent upload rate. More importantly, I’m fixing poor Trinity (my beautiful companion — i.e. the Triumph above). That photo was taken near Barstow (or Baker – I don’t remember) and was the first time she’s ever overheated. It also wasn’t the last. Then, last night, I must have pissed off the biker gods, because this happened:

My poor tire

(My poor tire. Must have run over a hardware store.)

So – you can imagine that I’m pretty upset and pissed, right? Nope. If there’s one thing that travel has taught me, it’s to remain flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. I see travel and adventure as an inoculation against petty anxieties and fears. It just puts things into perspective. Sure, I have a troublesome bike and a flat tire – but I’m also traveling through some gorgeous roads in Utah. The scenery is amazing, the weather isn’t bad and there are lots of people and supplies around. Hell, I’ve broken down in Siberia with temperatures dipping below -35 degrees. I’ve broken down in the Gobi Desert after a flash rainstorm which turned everything to impassable mud. In comparison, this breakdown is pretty tame.

Then I was reminded about all the happy accidents which happen when things go awry. I was gathering supplies to tune-up Trinity and (hopefully) fix the overheating problem when I discovered the flat tire. I went back into the store for more supplies. When I came out, I noticed that a van had pulled up next to my bike. The driver introduced himself as Steve and wanted to check if I was okay. Caring people just make me feel good.

We began to swap stories and I learned that he was a retired school teacher and when he was younger had lived in the Ukraine and Latvia. What are the odds of running into someone who also enjoys the people of Eastern Europe and Russia? He also let me use his compressor and made sure I got to a nearby motel. Now I have another story to tell and a great experience.

This seems to happen over and over again. Things go off plan, we begin to improvise and happy accidents happen. I remember running getting lost, running late and thus meeting an incredible Polish family outside of Auschwitz. They gave us a a private tour of the surrounding town and invited us have dinner with them. The time we made a wrong turn in Siberia and had to turn back after half a day of battling impassible roads, only to run into a man and his son. Their snowmobile had broken down, so we gave them a lift back to the nearby village where they invited us in. That turned into one of my favorite nights on the Siberian trek. The time I crashed an ambulance into a huge drainage pipe in Mongolia. We met a wonderful man who invited us into his yurt for a traditional Mongolian meal and set us up for the night.

Some of my best memories began when things went wrong. 

How about you? What are some of your stories? When was your last “happy accident”?

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.

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Category: On The Road, Vagabonding Advice

July 11, 2014

Lesson from Siberia: making it till morning

Camping in Siberia

(Camping in Siberia)

Earlier this year, I rode a Ural motorcycle and sidecar through Siberia, up 1800km of ice roads and ending in the Arctic Circle. It was one hell of a journey which taught me how to survive in extreme sub-zero temperatures. More importantly, it expanded my limits and showed me what I was capable of.

One of the most important lessons happened on the second night of the trip – our first attempt camping out. Now, I don’t know about you, but I had never camped in extreme cold before. Sure – I had tested out my equipment on a -20C night in South Dakota, but there is a world of difference once you get below -30C. That night was mild, compared to the rest of the trip, but it still hit -32C.

So – we setup camp and tried to building a fire. We could make a lot of smoke, but couldn’t get a strong fire blazing. Fortunately, with the help of a good MSR camp stove, we were able to boil enough water to fill our bellies with pelmeni. Around 9pm we called it a night. I was riding solo, so I had a tent to myself. Quickly I stripped down to base layers and stuffed the upper layers into my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. After the long day, I fell asleep quickly.

Waking up inside the tent

(Waking up inside the tent)

Around midnight, I woke up and realized that I couldn’t feel my toes. Now, one of my biggest fears was getting frostbite and loosing a few digits. I could feel the panic rising; but, after a few slow breaths, I was able to get it under control. I tried flexing my toes, but they wouldn’t move. I took a moment to think about my options – get up and try to get my blood flowing? Aside from my feet, I was warm enough in the sleeping bag. I didn’t know how much body heat I’d lose by getting out. I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to stand on my numb feet. Too many unknowns, so I decided to stay where I was and move my legs to get blood flowing. After a few minutes of that, my core was getting warmer, but my toes were still numb. Time for a different tack. I had just enough room in my sleeping bag to bring one foot at a time up within reach. I used my hands to manually flex my toes and warmed them up by contact. After a few minutes, I could feel them again and was able to move them just a bit. I switched feet and repeated.

Each time I would put a foot down to work on the other one, it would go numb again. I just couldn’t seem to keep them going without working them with my hands. I kept at it. After I was sure eons had passed, I checked the time, only to be disappointed that only a few minutes had gone by. I began to think things through – I had several hours to go until the sun would come out and temperatures would begin to rise. Would I be able to make it until morning? Did I have another choice?

So that eternally long night, I kept at it – switching feet every few minutes and wishing I could fast forward to morning. I couldn’t control time, though, all I had control over was my will to endure. I began to relax and just focused on the task at hand.  Eventually, the sun began to rise. As soon as the inside of the tent began to glow, I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I would be okay.

The moment I knew I'd be okay

(The moment I knew I’d be okay)

I’ve been taught that lesson before – but sometimes a reminder is necessary. Relax, breath and just focus on what is right in front of you. Keep at it long enough and you’ll eventually make it through to the other side.

Later on during the trip, I camped out in harsher temperatures (-43C) but had a much easier time. Partially I’d say it was due to my body acclimating the the environment and also because I learned a couple tricks — like filling a water bottle with boiling water and putting it at the bottom of your sleeping bag to warm it up. That definitely prolongs your comfort and allows you to get a bit of sleep – but trust me, either way, the mornings are still painful.

It’s funny how that these moments turn into a fond memory. Time and distance do strange things.

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.

 

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, On The Road, Vagabonding Advice

June 29, 2014

Three things long term travel is not

Vagabonding Guatemala

I awoke, this morning, thinking about our journey and the excitement of being home for a few months. I opened my eyes to messages of love and daily life from people around the world, fellow travelers, as well as those who never leave home and I realized, again, just how thankful I am for the diversity in our circles. There are so many beautiful lives I get to live vicariously through the people we connect with. Long term travel is just one of an endless number of choices we could have made for this lifetime. Truth be told, it’s really only one tiny chapter of the greater book of our lives. There was a time when we lived other sorts of lives, and there will be a time in the future when we do something else entirely.

Long term travel is a lot of things, but this morning I awoke thinking about a few of the things it is not. 

A contest

It doesn’t matter who’s been on the road the longest. It doesn’t matter how many countries you’ve been to. It doesn’t matter what your blog following is. It doesn’t matter how many kids you’ve had in weird corners of the world. It doesn’t matter if your kid is tri-lingual. It’s not a race to check World Heritage sites off the list. It’s not about bigger, better, or faster. International is not better than domestic. No one cares how many Four Seasons hotels you’ve stayed at. There are no extra points for maintaining the smallest (or the largest) budget for years on end. Anytime it becomes about who does what bigger, better or faster, I’m opting out of the conversation and I hope you will too. Travel is not a contest; it’s an enrichment activity.

An extended vacation

For the record, we have not been on vacation for the past five and a half years. In some ways, traveling full time is a lot harder than living in one place. It’s not a long string of beach postcards and holiday style outings. We’re juggling kids and laundry, sicknesses and work schedules, schooling and dentist appointments, just like everyone else. It’s worth it to us. We love living this way for this phase of life. Longterm travel isn’t an extended vacation, it’s a lifestyle choice.

Inherently better

Occasionally people have felt the need to justify their lifestyle choice to me, “Well, it’s not like what you are doing, we’re just…” fill in the blank. Folks, there is no “just.” What we’re doing, traveling for years on end, is not inherently better than life in the suburbs. In fact, I’ve gotten my share of hate mail from people who would argue that it’s much worse. One of the things I love most about life is the many ways that there are to live it. My way need not be your way. Your dream is beautiful because it’s your dream. We all get to do our thing and together we make the world go round.

It bugs me, more than just a little, when I hear travelers smugly slapping one another on the back and quietly (or not so quietly) deriding all of “those people” who aren’t as “cool as we are” because they happen to hold stationary jobs, live in the ‘burbs, send their kids to school, or in some other way conform to the “norm.”Ladies and gentlemen who travel, hear this: you are not special, you are not fabulous, you’re just doing your thing. I celebrate that: do your thing. I love travelers, they are my people; but so are moms of ten kids neck deep in diapers and sippy cups for decades, and so are farmers whose dreams are dug deep in local soil, and so are folks who’ve hung up their wanderlust to do other worthwhile things for a while. Longterm travel is just one way to live a life, not the best way.

There are two more things long term travel is not; read about the original post on Edventure Project

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Category: Vagabonding Advice

June 21, 2014

Dealing With the Beggar Issue

cuscogirlShould 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.

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on Aug. 14, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Ethical Travel, Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice

June 7, 2014

Slumming the Golden Arches

Golden Arches, Barstow Station

Image credit

This month marks the beginning of student-travel season in Europe, which means that — at any given moment — continental McDonald’s restaurants will be filled with scores of American undergraduates. Quiz these young travelers, and they’ll give you a wide range of reasons for seeking out McDonald’s — the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it’s the only place open during festivals or siesta. A few oddballs will even claim they are there for the food.

European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these itinerant Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonalds also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and — yes — neighboring European countries.

Indeed, despite its vaunted reputation as a juggernaut of American culture, McDonald’s has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonalds creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I’ve witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonalds of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonalds of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonalds of Tokyo.

Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald’s could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and — save the occasional Taco Bell burrito — I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald’s near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I’d always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonalds during times of mental exhaustion.

I’ll readily admit here that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, announcing that you patronize McDonalds is kind of like confessing that you wet your bed or eat your boogers. For many politically minded travelers, McDonald’s is less an eating establishment than it is a broader symbol of cultural degradation and corporate soulnessness. In fact, fast-food franchises have been the target of so much protectionist, environmentalist, and anarchist ire that firebombing a McDonald’s has become a globally standardized symbol of protest — a McDonaldization of dissent, if you will.

(Interestingly, Marlboros are sold worldwide — and American cigarette brands are just as unhealthy and aggressively marketed as American fast food — but for some reason there is not a similar activist reaction. Perhaps this is because there are no Marlboro outlet stores to firebomb — but I suspect it also has to do with subliminal, adolescent-style favoritism. The Marlboro Man is, after all, a handsome tough-guy, whereas Ronald McDonald is a makeup-and-jumpsuit-wearing dork.)

Political gestures aside, I’d wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald’s has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. To be sure, the aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can often feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away.

Look closely, however, and you’ll discover that (despite their placeless ambience) the McDonalds in far-flung places are culturally discernible from the McDonalds you’ll find in Modesto or Milwaukee. In India, for example, a McDonald’s serves chicken “Maharaja Macs” instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonalds offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

Just as fascinating as these local variations of American fast food are the local food chains that copy the McDonald’s model. In Jeddah, for instance, you can join Saudis for a round of halal chicken-burgers at Al Baik; in Tokyo, you can compare the teriyaki burgers at McDonald’s to those served at the Japanese Lotteria chain; at Jollibee in the Philippines (which has exported its franchises to the United States), you can sample chicken, burgers, or a startlingly sweet variation of spaghetti.

Ideally, of course, fast food should play a decidedly minor role in any international sojourn. Still, it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald’s in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.

Tip sheet: A few pointers regarding travel and fast-food
1) Street food is the true fast food.

Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.

Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.

Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

[This Rolf Potts article originally appeared in Yahoo! News on June 5, 2006. All rights reserved.]

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Category: Backpacking, Europe, Food and Drink, Travel Health, Vagabonding Advice

May 30, 2014

Becoming a better person via the kindness of strangers

Family in Siberia

(The family we met in Siberia – one of the most memorable nights of the entire trip.)

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.

 

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Category: Asia, Ethics, Hospitality, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life

May 20, 2014

Vagabonding book club: Chapter 6: Meet your neighbors & pack your sense of humor!

Imelda

“Thus, the secret to interacting with people in foreign lands is not to fine-tune your sense of political correctness (which itself is a Western construct) but to fine tune your sense of humor…. And while humor might seem like a fairly contemporary way to deal with unfamiliar environments, it’s actually a time-honored travel strategy… On the road, a big prerequisite for keeping your sense of humor is to first cultivate a sense of humility. After all, it can be hard to laugh at yourself if you swagger through the world like you own it.”  –Rolf Potts, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

It is, perhaps, the most important thing you can pack for your journey, and is certainly the most helpful tool you have in connecting with locals across culture and language barriers. Your sense of humor, about yourself, and the funny ways you don’t fit in, are a bridge you build between worlds, a hand of friendship you offer across cultures, and sometimes a safety net that catches you in a potentially dangerous or uncomfortable social situation.

Humility plays a part in humor. Unless we’re willing to be the fumbling bottom rung of the social ladder, and we’re okay with being the guy in the room who does not get the joke, it’s going to be hard to react with genuine humor and instead we’ll end up with a bruised ego. The essence of humility is to admit that we do not know, or may have more to learn. It is to engage from a position of more questions than answers and to be genuinely teachable in our spirits. Humility is a childlike approach to the world, in which we are willing to attempt things and do them badly at first, to give up our “rights” to another, and to adjust our expectations to accommodate others. Often, the results are humorous, if not to us, then to others around us. Being able to genuinely laugh along with them is what Rolf is getting at in this chapter.

When you make an effort to get off of the backpacker strip and connect with the local community, funny things are going to happen. You’re going to make social gaffs. Kids are going to double over in giggles at your fumbling attempts to do the things that they’ve been doing since they were babies. Your pronunciation is going to be a source of amusement as you venture into a new tongue. Your reactions to new foods will be gauged and giggled at. You’ll be treated like a mascot and a guinea pig for the amusement of a local group, and your best bet is to smile, laugh, and submit to it like a good fellow. It’s in this way that you’ll find, and make life-long friends and have some of the best travel experiences of your life.

Don’t be afraid to reach out. Don’t be afraid to laugh (at yourself!)

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Category: Travel Writing, Vagabonding Advice
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