Official To Chinese Tourists: ‘Be Quiet, Don’t Spit’

A senior official in China has urged Chinese tourists to improve their behavior, the South China Morning Post reports. Vice-Premier Wang Yang said the “breeding” of some Chinese tourists leaves something to be desired and there are problems with them, “talking loudly in public places, jay-walking, spitting and willfully carving characters on items in scenic zones.”

Mr. Yang is backing up his warning. He made the comments at a meeting where the Communist Party passed a law that will allow travel companies to cancel their contracts with tourists who “violate social ethics.” While the wording is vague, it basically means tour companies can send embarrassing guests home.

Needless to say, this bit of news is causing much snickering in the Western press, but personally I haven’t noticed that Chinese tourists are any ruder than any other kind of tourist. Having lived in tourism epicenters such as Madrid and Oxford, I’ve seen plenty of Chinese tour groups and never witnessed any spitting. The only bit of obnoxiousness I saw was a group walking through Oxford with a tour leader giving her spiel on a megaphone. Yeah, passing through the dreaming towers of academe with a bloody megaphone. The Oxford police must have put a stop to it because I never saw it again.

Considering that the Chinese come from a culture where international tourism is a very recent phenomenon, I think on the whole they behave quite well. As China reaches out into the world, however, the government has become increasingly image conscious, doing such PR blitzes as putting on grandiose Chinese New Year’s shows in places like the Estonian capital Tallinn, a city with only a tiny Chinese population.

So congratulations to Mr. Yang for being overly cautious. If only David Cameron would tell the English not to go on drunken stag trips. If only Barack Obama would tell Americans to not be so damn loud and arrogant. Yes, these stereotypes only apply to a small minority, but it’s those obnoxious few that we tend to remember.

Releasing My Inner Gringo In Costa Rica

I try not to be the stereotypical ugly gringo when I’m in Latin America. I tolerate leisurely or downright rude service, I use my poor but functional Spanish, and I try to go with the flow, bearing in mind that things are just different south of the border. But no matter how hard I try, there are occasions when I can’t help but act like a gringo.

My first, and hopefully last, real gringo moment on a recent trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua came at a ticket office in the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas. I arrived with my wife and two little boys about 15 minutes before our 11 a.m. ferry was due to depart for the Nicoya Peninsula and found a long, slow moving line with just one clerk selling tickets in a little booth behind a window.

I am not the kind of worrywart who shows up three hours early for a domestic flight, but as the line barely moved in the next few minutes, I started to get nervous. It was already well over 90 degrees and if we missed the 11 a.m. ferry, we’d have to wait three hours for the next boat in a dull, sweltering limbo, essentially killing a whole day of our trip.

Even worse, a cab driver was supposed to meet us on the other side to make the 90-minute ride from the ferry port in Paquera to our hotel in Santa Teresa. We had no functioning cellphone and no clue if the driver or anyone else would be there to meet us if we turned up three hours late.

As the clock ticked towards 11 and the ferry blew its horn, apparently warning us that it was getting ready to depart, I had so little personal space in the line that I was pretty sure I knew what the guy behind me had for lunch (I think it was rotten eggs). As we inched forward, ever so slowly, I analyzed each transaction that took place at the window and silently stewed.

Why is this woman just now digging through her purse for money? Did she think the tickets were going to be free? And what about this guy? Why is he asking so many questions? Buy your damn ticket and get out. What’s she doing now? Is she talking on the phone? No! Sell tickets!

At 10:54, there was a woman buying her ticket who seemed to be making small talk with the clerk. It was a good thing her back was turned to me because I think the intensity of my glare in her general direction could have singed her eyebrows. The ticket office was right across the street from the boat, but we had baggage, a stroller and small kids to shepherd on board, and I had no reason to believe the ship wouldn’t depart on time.

I continued to check my watch in 30-second intervals, since there was nothing better to do but worry, as beads of sweat pored down my back. At 10:56, there was only one person in front of me in the line.

But just as the man in front of me was about to proceed to the window, a woman in a uniform came by, stopped him, and made an announcement in Spanish and English. She wanted all the passengers bringing vehicles on the ferry to step forward and form a new line. About half of the thirty or so people behind me stepped forward and the woman announced that all of the passengers with vehicles would get to buy their tickets first.

Instead of being second in line, I was now about 17th and with just four minutes to spare. The woman in uniform offered us no consolation like, “Don’t worry, everyone in line will get tickets.”

I called after her to ask if the ship was going to leave without us, but she ignored me and walked away. A middle-aged American guy, a surfer type, who just vaulted ahead of me in line so he’d be next, said, “Dude, relax, you’ll get your ticket.”

Relax? In what alternate reality could one find waiting in a long line in the sweltering heat under these circumstances relaxing? In an abstract sense, I could understand why they needed people with cars to go first – it takes longer to board with a car than it does on foot. But the vehicle passenger tickets cost almost 20 times as much as foot passenger tickets. Were they using the few remaining minutes to sell the most expensive tickets to maximize profit? The old man in front of me in the passenger line look nonplussed. Perhaps he assumed the boat would depart late? Or did he have nothing better to do than wait for the 2 o’clock ferry?

I said nothing to the American who told me to relax, and waited as a few of the sanctioned line jumpers were serviced. At 10:59, the ship’s horn blasted again and, in a moment of panic and chutzpah, I barged right ahead of a meek looking man in the newly formed line and pleaded for the clerk to sell me a ticket, which she did, despite some grumbling from the people I’d cut in front of (I wanted to say, “You cut me, now I’m cutting you, deal with it,” but I had no time to spare).

We dashed across the street, baggage, children and stroller in tow and by the time I hauled all of our gear up two steep flights of steps onto the first passenger deck, I was drenched in sweat but relieved to be on the damn boat.

We pulled out of the harbor about five minutes late and I looked around to see if the man who was in front of me in the screwed over passenger line had made it, but I found no sign of him. Perhaps everyone in line had somehow secured tickets and made it on board but I doubt it.

As Americans, we carry a lot of baggage when we travel outside the country. I try to be cognizant of the fact that some of the people I encounter will formulate an opinion about my country based on how I act. There are times when you have to swallow your anger and just deal with situations as they unfold, even if it’s to your detriment.

And then there are times when you have to be assertive and follow the rules of the jungle. Perhaps I should have waited stoically and hoped for the best, but if I’d followed that course and had missed the boat, my inner-gringo would have released even more negative vibes on everyone in my vicinity.

What would you have done?

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

Five easy ways be a philanthropic traveler

Voluntourism is the newest warm fuzzy of the travel industry. Under ideal circumstances, it’s a sustainable, experiential way to see the world and give back at the same time. Whether you’re helping to build a new school or clearing a trail, a working holiday is, for some, the best possible expenditure of disposable income.

But there’s the rub. Along with multitudinous other factors that make voluntourism a dicey concept, it doesn’t come cheap. Some organized volunteer holidays cost as much as a luxury vacation or adventure trip of the same length. That’s great if you can afford both the time and expense, but many of us don’t have that option.

The good news? You can still be a philanthropic traveler regardless of your income, physical ability, educational background, or destination. Below, five easy ways to make a difference on every trip.

1. Donate.
Clothing, shoes, school supplies, basic medical supplies (Neosporin, aspirin, antidiarrheals, bandages), food (fresh fruit and dry goods such as rice, flour, or beans are often good choices, depending upon where you’re traveling; avoid processed foods and candy).

In regard to donations, I’ve found it’s best to do a bit of research beforehand (even if it just involves talking to some fellow travelers or travel operators in the region, or locals). You don’t want to inadvertently cause offense or shame by giving freebies; on the other hand, don’t be put off if you’re asked to help if you can. Some reputable outfitters may request that clients donate any unwanted items of clothing at the trip’s end. These items significantly help local communities (especially children) or the families of contracted staff such as porters or cooks. Donating gently used clothing and shoes is also a greener way to travel.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Visions Service Adventures]Ask–tour operators, guides, community leaders–before donating medical items, even if they’re OTC; ditto food. Guidebooks, travel articles, and local travel literature often note what items are in short supply in specific destinations.

For example, when I did a farmstay on a remote island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, my guidebook suggested I bring fresh fruit for my host family, as residents could only purchase it on the mainland. The farm patriarch also let me know at the end of my visit that any clothing donations for his children would be greatly appreciated. Depending upon your cultural and/or economic background, such a request may appear brazen or appallingly rude. Coming from a humble man whose entire family had welcomed me into their single-room home, fed me, and treated me as one of their own (rather than just a fast source of income), it was a request I was only too happy to honor.

2.Volunteer…for free
Voluntourism is something you can do yourself, assuming you ask permission when appropriate, and act in accordance with local and cultural mores (Behave Yourself! The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is an entertaining and informative book I recommend for all travelers). Whether you pick up trash on a beach, offer to work reception at a locally-owned backpacker’s for a few hours or days, or teach useful foreign language phrases to children, you’re giving back to that community.

I realize how colonialist this may sound, but the fact is, English speakers are in great demand worldwide. Even in the most impoverished countries or regions, locals who speak English (or French, Italian, German, etc.), no matter how rudimentary, can find employment or offer their services as guides, taxi drivers, hostel employees, or translators. Fluency in a foreign language(s) gives them an advantage in a competitive market. Think about it. It’s never a bad thing to learn a language other than your own, no matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you make.

3. Buy local handicrafts and food
Just like shopping your farmers market back home, buying local supports a local economy, and usually eliminates the need for a middle-man. A bonus: many specific destinations all over the world are famed for their food, textiles, woodcarving, pottery, etc.. Every time I look at certain items in my home–no matter how inexpensive they may be—I’m reminded of the adventures and experiences that led to their purchase.

4. Immerse yourself
You don’t need to “go native,” but the best travel experiences usually entail a certain amount of surrender to a place or culture. Learn a few key phrases in the local language or dialect; treat the people–even if they’re urbanites in an industrialized nation–with respect and observe their rules or customs when appropriate; be a gracious traveler or guest. Your actions may not provide monetary or physical relief, but giving back isn’t always about what’s tangible.

5. Reduce your footprint.
It’s impossible not to have a carbon footprint, and as recreational travelers, that impact increases exponentially. But there’s no need to eradicate “frivolous” travel; indeed, experiencing other cultures and sharing our own helps foster tolerance and empathy. Rather, we should be mindful travelers, and do our best to conserve natural resources and preserve the integrity of the places we visit. Just as with camping, leave a place better than you found it. Even if the locals aren’t putting these philosophies into practice, there’s no reason you can’t.

[Photo credits: schoolchildren, Flickr user A.K.M.Ali hossain;vendor, Laurel Miller]

Five local customs we just can’t follow

Travelers are a pretty tolerant bunch. Travel actually breeds tolerance because it gets rid of the ignorance on which tolerance is based. There are times, however, when we can’t bring ourselves to follow certain local customs. Here are five things a lot of people find a bit too hard to swallow, in one case literally.

Using your hand as toilet paper
Using the left hand to wipe your posterior is a time-honored tradition in many parts of the world. It’s probably more common than toilet paper, and is certainly more ecologically sensitive and effective. With a bit of finger work and some water, your bum will be sparkly clean. As a Pakistani friend explained to me, “Imagine you were covered in shit. Which would you rather have me do–wipe you down with paper towels or hose you off?” Impeccable logic. I’m still not going to do it.

Eating dogs, cats, and rats
Exotic dining is one of the great pleasures of adventure travel, but sometimes it can get too exotic. We’ve been trained since birth that certain animals are food, and certain animals are cute and cuddly and should be named Pookums. It’s hard to rewire the brain after such training. I’ve never been offered dog, although considering some of the places I’ve eaten I may have had it without knowing, but I’d have some trouble downing a Doberman or chomping on a Corgi. There are other animals we’ve been taught are unclean, like rats and insects, yet rats and insects are popular food in many cultures. I’ve tried pureed ants. Not bad, but I’ll skip the rat soup. User heyduke2009 over at Gadling’s flickr pool was brave enough to order it, but his photo doesn’t show any bite marks!

Disrespecting women
Call me politically correct, but I happen to think women are equal to men and should be treated accordingly. Some cultures think of women as property or sex objects. While parts of the Middle East can be bad with this, northern India consistently ranks at the top of the list of places where women travelers are harassed. One favorite trick is to “accidentally” brush against a woman in a crowd. Women can expect to be felt up on a regular basis, like once every few minutes in some places. This treatment isn’t just reserved for Western women either. I complained about how my wife was being treated to a female Indian friend and she just sighed and said, “Yeah, it started happening to me when I was about ten.” Strangely, when my wife went to southern India for three weeks, it didn’t happen once!
And yes, our culture has a way to go too, but at least in the West a woman can go shopping without getting groped.

Mentioning God every other sentence
This is an annoying custom we find right here in the good old U S of A. “I’d like to thank God for helping me make that touchdown.” “I missed my bus and it was in an accident. God saved me!” “This can won’t open. God damn it!”
OK, assuming there’s an all-knowing, all-powerful being who created the universe, I really doubt it (not “he”, there is no Celestial Penis) gives two hoots about some football game. Yet we constantly bring God into the most trivial aspects of our lives, and the not-so-trivial too. Good luck getting elected to public office if you don’t mention God in your campaign speeches. The only other place I’ve seen this custom get so rampant is the Middle East. There should be a survey of political speeches of Arab and American politicians to find out which ones invoke God more often. Much of the rest of the world, especially Europe, finds this habit of ours weird and a wee bit creepy.

Talking during movies
Spain is my adopted home. I love the Spanish–they’re attractive, funny, and know how to party, but they commit one cardinal sin–THEY TALK DURING MOVIES!!! Why would you plunk down good money to go to the cinema and then not pay attention to the film!? A friend of mine who likes opera says they do it there too, so this isn’t a class thing. Once some people sitting near her got into such a loud argument that she couldn’t hear the singer, yet nobody told them to shut up. It’s considered completely normal. This noise pollution is made worse by the fact that when Spaniards are in a group they all yammer away at the same time, only half listening to everyone else.

Are there any local customs you just can’t follow? Gripe about them in the comments section!

Tossing shoes: How to insult (or avoid insulting) someone in the Middle East

You’ve probably seen this clip or at least heard about what happened. For entertainment’s sake, here it is again: President Bush dodging a pair of shoes flung by a disgruntled Iraqi journalist.

Hitting someone with a shoe or even pointing the soles of your shoes at someone is considered an insult in the Middle East (and in many other parts of Asia as well); feet are the lowest part of the body and considered unclean. It is unclear if President Bush understood the meaning of the shoe throwing incident. I guess if you launch anything at another person’s head, you don’t think too highly of them.

Throwing shoes seems a bit impractical to me – after all, what are you going to wear when it is time to run away? Here is another Middle Eastern cultural no-no that could have been employed: shake hands or wave with your left hand. Next to the feet, this appendage is considered the dirtiest. For desert nomads past and present, the left hand is used for cleaning oneself after nature calls. Therefore, waving or shaking a left hand is traditionally considered unclean.

On the practical side, Bush’s latest misadventure in the Middle East has highlighted some cultural dos and donts that travelers headed to the Middle East might find useful. Remember: don’t throw shoes, don’t wave your left hand, and don’t be named Bush….There, you’re good to go.