Funny that I should write about this, because I once was the worst culprit. I visited developing countries and passed off my camera so that my acts of service could be captured. I shamefully engaged in verbal jousts with other travelers on who was more cultured, more experienced and more well-traveled. Gross. I gave away things to locals that I didn’t want, but neatly packed my best for the trip home. I joined in on mission’s trips with team members who were pushy and rude at the airport…because we were “sent to serve” our destination country and needed to get there before everyone else took all our serving spots. I even made the worst tourist mistake of all time by making a bomb joke in an airport (there are so many fair and understandable reasons for people not to like me).
So, I’m not writing this list as a judgy onlooker, but more a girl who has seen some gross things come out of my own heart during some uncomfortable travels abroad and then “people watched” (because I’m creepy like that) far too many awkward situations to pass up an opportunity of sharing a few pointers.
My husband, Aaron, and I found ourselves in the company of a traveling American couple yesterday. They had just arrived in Tanzania, with matching khaki safari outfits, lots of plans and even more opinions. After being informed for several minutes about the many things they had googled about Tanzania, we continued to indulge them by listening about how they had to buy new clothing for their trip because it’s “culturally inappropriate to wear anything but neutral clothing here”. Wait. What? The Tanzanian woman, who was sitting across from me, and I shared wide eyes at one another. She said, “Wow, I’ve never heard of that” (ps, Tanzanian clothing tends to be some of the most vibrant and colorful that I’ve ever seen). The husband went on to lecture us about how all the tour companies say the same thing about clothing and we should read about it. Ok, no need to try to convince him otherwise, he wasn’t asking anyway.
Later at dinner, Aaron and I, wearing all khaki clothing (just kidding) made a list of things we would love to share with travelers, and remember ourselves, when we have the privilege of traveling to new places. So, here it is:
Quick List of Things to Remember, as a Westerner, When Traveling Abroad.
Assume you don’t know it all.
Do your research about the country, but forget it all when you show up and just learn stuff.
Don’t act mad or disappointed when other tourist show up to a “secret spot” that you found. That aggressive sense of ownership is super weird. Other tourists also have trip advisor and can google “best local coffee shops that the tourists don’t know about”. Be nice and you might meet some really cool people…even if they are with the Peace Corps. 😉
Find out what is culturally appropriate to wear and follow it. What are other men and women wearing? Wear that. *For example, if you are on a Muslim Island, don’t wear your booty shorts (jean panties, as I call them) and your bikini top around town.
Make your plans, but be ready for each and every one of them to be changed at the hands of others. Be cool and calm (and quiet) when it all comes undone.
Don’t brag about all the places you’ve been. The only person you will be impressing is yourself.
If someone doesn’t know English, talking louder in their face doesn’t help. *Don’t feel too bad when you accidentally do this. It’s in our nature to seek to be understood and to connect with people, even when there is 0% chance of success. At least you tried.
Don’t be those people who are tourist but claiming to travel “as locals”. The “anti-tourist” people, though proud and Airbnb savvy, are still tourists. Embrace being new and don’t get annoyed when lumped in with other tourists. You are one.
No matter how many times you have travelled to a particular country, you are still a tourist until you’ve taken up permanent residency. Even then, when traveling to new areas of your country, you will become a tourist again. Enjoy it. Don’t be a know-it-all. You may be a better tourist with each visit, but you still have so much to learn. Please don’t be prideful about your prior visits.
Talk quietly. Once you think you are speaking at a whisper, talk even quieter than that.
Be known for asking questions, not giving answers.
Don’t tell locals what you “know” about their country. You will almost always be a little bit wrong or a lot offensive. Ask questions.
Don’t try to be an instrument of cultural change during your short time.
Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Don’t be TOO proud to be American.
But also, don’t you dare bash America while abroad. That American passport that you are tucking into your hiker’s backpack gave you a rare luxury to travel almost anywhere you want in the world.
Stop constantly comparing the current country that you are visiting to other places you’ve been. Just enjoy being new.
Meet new people. Be kind. But do not trust everyone. If you wouldn’t get into a stranger’s car in your home country, don’t do it in the one you are visiting.
Don’t assume everyone is bad. Don’t assume everyone is good. Welcome to humanity.
Please don’t come in with matching t-shirts with a message of the “hope that you are bringing to the least of these”. That’s offensive. People don’t like when you categorize them or their children as “the least of these”.
Don’t cry or make sad faces or take pictures of people’s living conditions.
Don’t give your worst stuff away to “the locals”. If you want to give something away then give your good stuff and give it in a good way. (Again, asking questions will help here)
Don’t post sad stories about people on social media. It’s rude. They hate it. You would too.
Take less pictures. Ask first. Enjoy a moment and value people before placing a lens in between yourself and them.
This last one is completly personal and probably completely harmless, but it annoys the living daylights out of me: Please stop waving and smiling at every person you see on the side of the road from your tour bus. Save that for the next time you ride on a float in your town’s Memorial Day parade. There, I said it and I feel much better.
So, here you go. If you were nodding along with every point, then no doubt you have experienced these things and much more. It’s your responsibility to be kind, even when people panic and do weird things. It’s also your responsibility to be humble; not thinking that you have already arrived but to keep on learning as well. Feel free to add more in the comments from your experiences or what you’ve learned from your own blunders. But so help me, if one person defends the matching t-shirts… 😜