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, 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, 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, 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!


“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

May 16, 2014

How lessons I learned while traveling have helped me through family tragedy (and can help you)

While this is my story, I’m sharing it because we all have family and those that we love. When we least expect it, tragedies happen and the skills that we hone while traveling can be invaluable in getting us through.

Chris Plough - Siberia - 20140218

Camping in Siberia en route to the Arctic Circle (-43C)

Truth is – this year has been a roller coaster of euphoria and darkness. In February, I rode a Ural motorcycle through some of the harshest ice roads in Siberia and into the Arctic Circle. Hitting the finish line was exhilarating – an accomplishment that I will remember forever. Just hours after reaching Salekhard, I was faced with some devastating news – that Al, a man who had been a mentor and a father figure since I was 16, was gravely ill. I immediately began planning my trip home, so that we could spend what time was left together. By the time I hit Moscow, however, I had learned that he had passed. I’ll tell the story of that night another time, but suffice to say – I’m glad that I was in the company of fellow travelers (thanks Dalbs, Dylan and Karan). After returning home and helping with his arrangements, I was also faced with the challenge that both of my grandfathers are fighting terminal diseases.

Now, this may sound like the pit of despair – and that I’m likely kept from all sharp objects and belts – but the truth is that I’m doing as well as can be expected. Of course, some days are better than others – but the lessons that I’ve learned while traveling have been key to putting all of this in perspective.

Face difficult things
Many of my travels have included an element of danger – from surviving sub-zero Siberia to breaking down in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Time and again, I’ve been taught the value of facing difficult situations head-on. I’m not perfect – all I wanted to do when I learned about each of these tragedies was to put my head down and ignore what was happening. If I don’t acknowledge it – it isn’t happening, right? Wrong – ignoring the problem only allows it to grow larger or saps away the time we have left with those we love. As conscious beings, we can’t control what happens, but we can control our reactions. Regardless of what I “wanted” to do, I chose to face reality and accept the situation as it stands – which then gave me the freedom to act upon it, instead of hiding from reality.

Freedom to move
Once I had accepted the situation, the next step was to travel and spend time with my family. To some, this may seem trivial – but many people (including myself a few years ago) are mired down with false responsibilities and material possessions that keep us cemented in place. One of the greatest benefits to the Vagabonding lifestyle is the freedom it creates to follow the next adventure and travel as you desire. In this case, that power allowed me to immediately fly to El Paso to help Al’s family and then up to Washington to spend quality time with my grandfather. Soon, I will ride to Missouri to do the same with my other grandfather. This doesn’t mean that I dropped everything, but simply that my lifestyle allows me to work wherever I am and my “home base” is wherever I happen to be. I know that years from now, I’ll be able to look back on this time and realize that this flexibility is one of my greatest freedoms.

Enjoy the moment
When I’m in the middle of an adventure, I’m much more in the moment – my thoughts are nearly all present, rather than lingering on the regrets of the past or stuck on the fears of the future. There’s a lot of research around this state (being in the zone, mindfulness) and ways to achieve it (meditation, focus, etc) – but put simply, it is a practicable state and the more you experience it, the easier it is to achieve. When I’m spending time with my family, there are a lot of emotions that try to pull me out of the present, and into past memories or anxiety about the coming days. The truth is, neither of these are the right place to be – instead, the right place is here and now, while we are together and enjoying each other’s company. For us, sharing meals and playing cards at night, while joking with each other is a special time that I’m grateful for.

The journey is long and ever changing
One of the greatest lessons that my adventures taught me is that he terrain change down the road. So – no matter what is happening and how dark the times in front of you may be, with persistence and endurance, you can make it through. This is a lesson that I often need to be re-taught, which is exactly what happened while I was in Siberia. I’ll share the full story another time, but the core of it is – on the first night camping, I spent several hours waiting for the sun to rise, while manually flexing my feet with my hands in order to stave off frostbite. It was a long, torturous night that I wasn’t sure I’d make it through. Minute-by-minute and flex-by-flex I did. Eventually the sun rose and I can say that all of my lil’ piggies are warm and pink today. This lesson helps today when days get tough and emotionally dark. I know that if we just endure and continue on, that there will be lighter times ahead. Sure enough, there always are.

Knowing my life will be full by the time I get there
As I watch my grandfather’s body get weaker and as he becomes more dependent on the rest of us, I can’t help but realize that there will be a time when I reach the same point. We all will. It’s inevitable – we get older and die — quickly, quietly or slowly. I do find comfort knowing that, like my grandfather, whenever I reach that point – my life will have been as full as possible. Sure, there are opportunities that I didn’t take, too many hours spent in front of a television and potential lovers that I shied away from — but on whole, I can look back at my life satisfied. I know that I took advantage of the time I had and made a difference in the lives of those around me. Like the boy scout motto – try and leave this world a little better than you found it.

Look – there is no silver bullet when facing family tragedies. Nothing is going to make all of the pain go away or magically make it better. Like every test, however, you control how you perceive and respond to difficulty. Every challenge has a silver lining and in the case of mine, I’m fortunate to have the freedom and wherewithal to make the most of our time together. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Neither should you.

Chris Plough writes and podcasts at, 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, Vagabonding Advice, Vagabonding Life

May 13, 2014

How to buy camper van in Australia

When you’re Down Under on a working holiday visa, taking some time out to explore the varied landscapes of the largest island on earth is an essential addition to your itinerary.

Those with the benefit of time to explore but the restrictions of a small budget, should avoid organized tours and internal flights and instead consider a cost effective and rather more quintessential, Aussie road trip.

Often negating the need for additional outlay on accommodation and public transport, a road trip can provide the opportunity to travel on your own terms and at greatly reduced expense.

In this two part series I’ll be walking through the process of both buying a suitable campervan, and selling it on once you’ve completed your trip.

Understanding the market

winnebago-nsw-australia (Custom)

Crossing into New South Wales by Benjamin Jones

Taking some time to research the current market value for a standard campervan prior to your arrival in Australia may help to determine how you much you will likely need to invest, and where to find the best deals.

There is some debate as to the correlation between geographic location and selling price. Cities such as Darwin and Cairns offer the potential for a more competitive market than the overcrowded tourist centers of Sydney and Melbourne, so you may find prices are more accessible. Having said that the increased number of travelers looking to sell before they fly from the major international hubs can facilitate some good deals.

Wherever you plan to buy be mindful that price is not the only factor that should determine which van you purchase.

Searching for your campervan

Buying from a private seller or at an auction is the best way to secure a good price however a guarantee of title, legal protection and a warranty is provided when purchasing a used vehicle from a licensed dealership.

There are three main outlets for second hand vehicles; Classifieds, used vehicle sellers and car markets.



Used Campervan Sellers


Car Markets


It is also worth keeping an eye out for adverts on community noticeboards in supermarkets and hostels. A bargain can often be found when travelers leaving the country list their vehicles for a quick sale.

Getting to grips with second hand vehicles

night-sky-nullarbor-southaustralia (Custom)

Camping on the Nullarbor Plain by Benjamin Jones

Whether or not you to choose to buy a standard ‘Backpacker Van’ (a converted Toyota HiAce or other Kombi style van) there are a number of things to consider.

The first is the age, history and condition of the vehicle.


Ask the seller to show you:


If you feel it necessary you can carry out an ownership check yourself using this state specific transport resource.

If the vehicle appears to be what you’re looking for;


If you are considering a purchase take the van to a reputable garage for a full mechanical inspection. The $100 or so you spend on this may save you the expense of future breakdowns and repairs.

Always take a test drive.

State Specific On-Road Costs and Registration


Driving across Arnhemland by Benjamin Jones

There a number of costs associated with the purchase of a second hand vehicle and you should factor these into your budget.


The first is registration. All vehicles sold within Australia must have a valid registration certificate. Each state enforces slightly different regulations and as such the costs involved when buying and selling vary too.

In terms of registration or REGO as it is commonly referred to, vehicles registered in Western Australia are the most cost effective to purchase and those in New South Wales the most expensive. Full details pertaining to each state can be found below.

Victoria –

New South Wales –

Queensland –

South Australia –

Western Australia –

Tasmania –

Northern Territory –

Australia Capital Territory –

Once you’ve bought a campervan you must transfer the registration into your name within 14 days, and it is worth noting that you can choose to register the vehicle in a state different to that which it was registered in when you purchased it. To do this you must register it with the local transport authority in your desired state by providing your passport and driver’s license, proof of your residential address within that state, and proof of CTP/third party personal insurance.

Note that there is a fee associated with the transfer of registration.

If like many travelers in Australia you do not have a residential address, a rental receipt in the form of a campsite/hostel receipt on letter headed paper detailing your name and the number of nights you stayed there will be accepted.

Stamp Duty

You will also be required to pay stamp duty on the purchase. A government tax it is mandatory and varies based on the state in which you register, and the cost of the vehicle. You can utilize this resource provided by the Australian Government to calculate stamp duty here.

Vehicle Inspection Certificate

Commonly known as a ‘pink slip’ or ‘blue slip’ depending on which state you’re in, this is essentially a certificate of road worthiness. In some states it is a requirement that all second hand vehicles have an inspection certificate no more than 28 days old and it is recommended that all buyers ask for this regardless. This is not a cost applicable to you during the sale however you will be responsible for renewing this when you come to sell.

CTP Insurance

To transfer the registration of a vehicle into your name you are required to hold third party personal insurance as a minimum. It is worth calling the major insurance providers to find the best rate as the quoted cost can vary significantly.

Agreeing a Sale

When you’ve finally found a road worthy camper at a great price the next step is to agree the terms of the sale.

Write a receipt detailing any agreed terms and be aware that if the owner is selling the vehicle privately and states that it is ‘sold as seen’, you will have no comeback should the wheels fall off 5 minutes after you hand over the cash. Double check the condition of the interior and engine and then check again.

For those who invest time into finding the right campervan at the right price, there is the possibility of financial reward. Once your Aussie adventure is over, if you’ve maintained it well you might just be able to sell it on for a small profit recouping your initial investment with a small rebate for the fuel you’ve bought along the way.


What about you? Have you purchased a camper van in Australia? What was your experience? Do you have anything to add?

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Category: Destinations, Oceania, Vagabonding Advice












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