Ask Gadling: Your name/nationality/religion/race makes the locals hostile

In a perfect world, every place would be friendly and welcoming to foreigners, no matter their background or lifestyle. However, history, politics, religion, and just plain ignorance means some countries can be hostile to certain travelers based on race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. While careful consideration should be given before traveling to potentially hostile countries, you may be limiting yourself if you choose not to visit a place for fear of being unwelcome.

Travel is a key part of increasing tolerance and understanding and can make the world a smaller place. Don’t let stereotypes, rumors, or the past color your opinions without getting every side of the story and researching the reality of a place. Laws may be loosely enforced, popular sentiment may only reflect a vocal minority, and individual people can always surprise you with kindness.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Just because a country doesn’t roll out the red carpet to greet you, doesn’t mean you won’t be welcome and comfortable. My husband is an American citizen born in Russia, and his passport lists place of birth (his old passport read Leningrad, USSR). While he hasn’t set foot in his homeland in over 30 years, just the name on his passport can cause issues with countries with complicated relationships with Russia. On a recent trip to Bosnia, we were detained for several nerve-wracking minutes at Passport Control while they scrutinized his documents and asked questions about our purpose in Sarajevo. The same thing happened in Bulgaria, where they spoke to him only in Russian while he answered in English. Both times, we were eventually let into the country with some semblance of a smile, but any apprehension was soon overcome by the hospitality of the locals proud to show off their cities.

If you plan on visiting a potentially hostile country, there are a few precautions you should take to ensure you are safe and at ease.Be informed
Before making travel plans, get a basic historical and cultural perspective by checking out country profiles on the State Department’s website, Wikipedia and Wikitravel, and travel guidebooks. Local English-language newspaper websites and blogs can provide more current intel on the political and social environment. Read a few different viewpoints if possible to understand multiple sides of an issue. The more you know about how events have fed into opinion, and how foreigners are treated in real-life scenarios, the better equipped you can be to handle it and make decisions about your trip. Know what topics are considered taboo or contentious so you know what to avoid talking about with locals.

Find a safe haven
While we travel to get to know unfamiliar places, it can be comforting to have a safe and accepting place at the end of the day. Seek out a woman-owned hotel in Morocco, or a gay-friendly guesthouse in Beirut. Some travelers may want to consider an group tour for additional security and convenience, organized by locals and experts who understand the customs and attitudes of the country and how best to navigate them. When you arrive, register yourself with the U.S. Department of State and share your plans with friends and family at home.

Stay under the radar
While in the country, respect the local culture and behave accordingly. While I may not wish to wear a hijab or headscarf, visiting a conservative Muslim country is not the time to protest or start debates about women’s liberation. If you are gay, public displays of affection should be discreet or totally avoided, particularly in countries where homosexuality is frowned upon or illegal. If you are a different race than the majority, you may be an object of curiosity or sometimes harassment, but racism towards travelers is generally fairly mild. Keep your passport and travel documents on you at all times and be patient and forthcoming if questioned by any authorities.

Have you traveled to a country where you felt unwelcome? Have you been surprised with the open-mindedness of strangers? Leave us your story in the comments.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Ivy Dawned]

Women travelers have the world at their fingertips with Pink Pangea’s website

I’m usually allergic to pastels and anything labeled “women-specific,” but Pink Pangea has won me over. The new women’s travel site was launched in June, by world traveler Rachel Trager and two similar-minded female friends. The trio work for an organization that finds overseas volunteer/internship placements for young adults.

Named for the supercontinent that existed 250 million years ago, Pink Pangea is essentially a forum for women’s travel concerns, tips, experiences, and photos. As such, it contains helpful background information and advice on specific destinations and cultural mores.

Says Trager, “We were frustrated that existing travel guides presented–at best–a paragraph that dealt with women’s concerns or non-specific travel information. We know that there’s a lot more information that women need in order to have secure and fulfilling experiences abroad. The hope is for Pink Pangea to help make countries around the world more accessible to women travelers.”

Trager fell in love with travel after working on a kibbutz when she was 18. Since then, she’s traveled extensively by herself, as well as with her brother, friends, and boyfriend. It was while visiting her brother, who was studying Arabic in Egypt, that she first experienced some of the obstacles faced by female world travelers.

“In Cairo, I was scrutinized by my brother’s landlord, who was concerned I was his girlfriend, which would mean that I’d be forbidden to stay with him. In Morocco, I grew tired of the attention I got as an American woman in pants and bought a jalabiya to cover up.” Despite the frustrations that inevitably occur, Trager says, “I travel because I’m interested in seeing how and where other people live. It’s incredibly energizing to realize how large the world really is.”

Popular tags include “modesty,” “safety,” “transportation,” and “shopping.” Even I’ll admit you can’t have a site devoted to women without mentioning shopping; in this case, there are some great tips on regional-specific souvenirs, food, and bargains/rip-offs.

Because this is a public forum, the writing runs the gamut. You’ll find the odd, underage-drinking-in-foreign-country, or “I smoked too much hash in an ashram while journaling”-sounding post, but in general, entries are well-written, informative, entertaining, and often thought-provoking. Lots of cute pics, too.

Bring bourbon – International travel tip

Many countries have limited access to American-made Bourbon Whiskey, but people outside the U.S. love the stuff. With the American dollar at an all-time low, it’s a good idea to have something to barter with overseas.

Some Japanese will spend the equivalent of $40 for a handle of cheap whiskey that costs $20 or less in America. So, bring a few bottles of your favorite bourbon to your country of choice and bring back souvenirs for your whole family.

Alternatively, present a bottle to your host as a deep appreciation for inviting/hosting you.

[Photo: Flickr | Chris.Corwin]

Stay with missionaries when traveling – International travel tip

If you’re affiliated with a church group, contact the missionaries in the country you want to visit. Staying with them will offer you the opportunity to see life as it’s lived daily by “real” locals; provide a rent-free (or very inexpensive) place to live; and if you offer to help the missionaries with some projects (something as simple as babysitting to give them a day off), you will endear yourself to them forever.

Bonus: you won’t have to learn a foreign language, as you’ll have the missionaries as built-in translators wherever you go.

[Photo: Flickr | sanbeiji]

Trade souvenirs when traveling – International travel tip

That White Sox hat you’re wearing above your “I hiked the Grand Canyon” t-shirt may be a hot commodity in some countries. Many items we take for granted are both unique and highly sought-after in many foreign nations.

If you find something at a vendor’s stall you like, offer that vendor something of yours in exchange for that good. Maybe he’d like your hat, or that extra shirt in your bag. While you’re not allowed to bring a cache of items into a foreign country to sell, trading items you would normally have in your luggage is perfectly acceptable. No extra luggage room is needed — and you don’t need extra cash on hand, since you’re swapping goods.

It’s not icky to give someone the hat off your head! Trading souvenirs is fun; you get to interact with the locals; and you go home with souvenirs and a great story on how you acquired them.

[Photo: Flickr | Courtneysue75]