Look, we get it, no one wants to lose their passport or get robbed when they travel… you want to dress for comfort and take a lot of pictures… but do you really have to stick out like a sore thumb when abroad? We submit that you do not.
The above picture is of actual street art in South America, depicting the “Ugly American” breed of tourist. This is the perception that we are fighting! Here are 5 things we can do to help restore our reputation the world over.
1. For the love of God, leave the fanny pack at home
Fanny packs and and backpacks worn on the front of a person’s body are strong tourist indicators. My best guess on the rationale behind wearing such front-facing storage devices is that valuables will be safer where they can be monitored directly, and, while this may be technically correct, is this really worth looking like such a big dork.
Try this instead: Spacial awareness. You don’t need to see your stuff to be acutely aware of its presence. Keep an eye on your surroundings. If you make it easy to be robbed, you might just get robbed, so pay attention, use common sense, and you should be fine.
Disclaimer: There are situations where extra precautions are needed and dorky packs might be worthwhile, especially in larger cities and when using public transportation. Always use common sense and do your research when traveling.
2. Just because people can’t understand what you’re saying doesn’t mean that they can’t hear you
When you are traveling through a foreign country and find yourself surrounded by people that do not share your language it is easy to get in the habit of speaking freely about what is going on around you (“Check out that lady, she is like 3 feet tall!” “Oh my God, that guy is walking a goat”). In all honesty, I catch myself doing this all the time… and realistically it probably isn’t that big of a deal if you do it at a subdued volume. If you can be heard from across a busy street, then you should probably shut up. The people around you live and work here, they are not all on vacation with you, don’t be annoying.
Try this instead: pretend that you are surrounded by people who can understand you. Humans are fantastically well suited to reading non-verbal cues, they can tell from your facial expression, demeanor and tone if you are making polite or derisive comments about them. If you wouldn’t say something to someone’s face back home, don’t do it while traveling.
3. Dress appropriately for your travel destination
Half-unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts, baggy cargo shorts and sandals are appropriate for travel… to the beach. All kidding aside, It is important to dress appropriately for the location you are visiting, which isn’t to say that you can’t wear what you want, just that if you don’t want to stick out in a crowd, some effort may be required. That said, the value of dressing for comfort, especially while traveling cannot be overstated. You need to pack a lightweight, versatile wardrobe that is climate appropriate and suitable for whatever variety of activities you will be engaging in while keeping you comfortable.
Try this: Invest in some clothes made of “technical” fabrics that are lightweight, durable, comfortable and breathable. Merino wool is a popular choice as it is extremely versatile. While clothing made from these fabrics are often considerably more expensive, they are well worth the expense if you plan on traveling frequently and value comfort without sacrificing style.
4. Pretend like you know what you are doing
Another hallmark of the stereotypical tourist is the permanent look of complete bewilderment plastered on their face. (What is that? Where am I? Is this the market?) You see them snapping picture after picture while wandering aimlessly into roads. They constantly stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk, blocking traffic to ask for directions or consult their map.
Try this instead: fake it. I grew up in New York City, where I learned the value of appearing like you know what you are doing. If you walk confidently and with purpose, you blend in (and you don’t get mugged).That said, preparation and research about the place you are visiting is essential, but even with advanced preparation, it is likely that you still might get a little lost or confused somewhere along the way. When this happens, just walk confidently on, when it is convenient to stop, take a minute to get your bearings and then, if necessary, ask a street vendor (in their language) for directions. Act like you belong and people will treat you like you belong.
5. Speak (at least a little bit of) the language
A few years ago, I was walking through the East Village in New York City when a gentleman approached me and asked me a question in French. I do not speak French. I made apologetic facial and hand cues to indicate this fact to him. He ignored those cues and just started speaking louder, with a palpable tinge of annoyance in his voice, as if to say: how dare you not speak my language!?! This was the first time I had ever experienced what people living in non-English speaking tourist destinations have to endure on a daily basis. Remember that you, as a non-native speaker are the minority. You certainly don’t need to be fluent, but show some respect for the people whose home you are visiting and at least make an effort to converse with them in their language.
Try this: Download Duolingo. If you have not already heard of it, Duolingo is a free app for Android and iOS that helps you to learn languages by game-ifying the process. It is fun and easy… there is literally no excuse not to use this. While you are still learning, you will inevitably find yourself in situations where you do not understand what is being said to you. In those cases, do not get frustrated, rather, smile apologetically and tell them that you are just learning (this should be one of the first phrases you memorize). The person you are speaking to will likely try to phrase what they are saying in a simpler way, while appreciating that you are making an effort to learn their language.
When traveling abroad, remember these simple points and you will do just fine: Be polite and respectful. Don’t cause a spectacle or be overly loud. Basically just behave like you would back home and you should be fine… unless, of course, you are a terrible person, in which case, for the sake of your people’s reputation abroad, please don’t travel.
Featured photo credit: Looking4Poetry via flickr.com