Ask Gadling: How not to act like a tourist in a foreign country

Merriam-Webster defines a tourist as, “one who makes a tour for pleasure or culture.” I would stretch that definition to include business travelers, assuming they have a bit of leisure time.

Here at Gadling, our goal is to encourage travel and exploration, even if it’s in your hometown. For the purposes of this article, however, I’m referring to non-domestic travel. And no matter how hard you try, even if you live in a foreign country and speak the language fluently, natives always know you’re a tourist or not one of them.

I believe that being a tourist generally entails asking a lot of questions out of curiousity or general inquiry, and making the occasional cultural gaffe. But there are many compelling reasons why you should squelch the urge to behave like the stereotypical tourist: the Ugly American, say, or a culturally clueless wanderer. Without getting into semantics or the murky, pretentious waters of “traveler” versus “tourist.” I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always the ideal traveler. There are times when I’m frustrated, pissed off, or discombobulated. But one of the reasons I travel is that I like to challenge myself, and get out of my comfort zone. Once I remind myself of that, I’m able to relax, and usually, find the humor in a situation.

Advantages to not acting like a tourist

Safety. Just like at home, if you look like you know where you’re going–even if you don’t–you’re less likely to become a target for crime or harassment. We’ve all had to whip out a map or guidebook, no matter how surreptitiously. There’s nothing wrong with that: just don’t flaunt it. Most people are genuinely helpful, but if I need assistance, I prefer to choose my source if the circumstances are remotely sketchy.

A more rewarding cultural experience. This isn’t to say an incredible trip is impossible for aloha-wear-clad package tourists who never leave the confines of their hotel property, or independent travelers who consult Generic Guidebook at every step. But straying from the beaten path, being culturally aware, and allowing things to happen serendipitously are a lot easier when you have low-key dress and demeanor, and an open mind.

You’ll enjoy yourself more. Intense cultural experiences aren’t always pleasant (the time I was the only butt-naked Westerner in a very local’s-only Moroccan hammam was, shall we say, awkward). But as a rule, being open to such experiences allows you to feel less like an outsider, and provides a window into how other people live, eat, socialize, fall in love, celebrate, and mourn. There’s a fine line between being a participant and a cultural voyeur, however, and doing a bit of pre-trip research will go far in helping you avoid crossing it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Todd Mecklem]

Things you can do to lessen your “touristiness”

Learn a few key phrases. No one expects you to speak the local language, but it’s helpful to learn basics like “hello,” “thank you,” “please,” and “where’s the bathroom?” It also endears you to most natives (save the French, who generally–and stereotypically– aren’t charmed when you butcher their mother tongue). Many of the wonderful invitations and experiences I’ve had came from my willingness to respect the local culture, no matter how idiotic I sounded at the time. Even pointing to sentences in a phrasebook is more polite than Speaking.English.Loudly.and.Slowly. to someone who obviously doesn’t understand you. I never head to a non-English-speaking country without a Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Learn a bit about your destination. You don’t need to memorize the entire history of, say, Portugal, but it’s helpful to read up on the country, its people, and customs. It will help you to understand certain quirks, the cuisine, religious practices, etc. It also helps prevent you from committing irritating, inadvertently offensive acts like insistently speaking Spanish to a Portuguese bus driver (I’m talking to you, Mr. Clueless Backpacker on the Faro-to-Seville route). That’s a relatively innocuous crime, but things like touching a person on the head or pointing your foot at them (Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia), making the “OK” symbol (Brazil), or exposing bare shoulders if you’re a female visiting a mosque are decidedly not cool, and can have unpleasant repercussions. Don’t be that person. Behave Yourself: The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is a great–and funny–crash course on global customs.

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

Use your indoor voice. As Americans, we’re known for our friendliness, enthusiasm, and eagerness to express our opinions. Not bad traits. But in a foreign country, these things, combined with our notoriously high decibel level, can be misconstrued or just plain obnoxious. Along the same lines, curb the American tendency to boast, and know when to let certain comments or behaviors slide–sometimes, you need to bite your lip, and remember that you’re the visitor. It’s never worth compromising your personal safety (or that of another) to voice an opinion, but by all means, do stand up for yourself if you’re at risk.

Dress appropriately. This generally applies more to women than men, but in general, why would you want to draw unwanted attention to yourself? Leave the frat shirts, booty shorts, and low-cut tank tops at home. While this is a basic personal safety issue, it’s also about cultural respect. It’s tacky and offensive for a Western woman to sunbathe topless in Southern Thailand (which has a sizeable Muslim population), but it can be seriously problematic for her to show too much skin or not wear a headscarf in certain rural areas of the Middle East.

Lend a hand. While some might see this as uber-touristy (if not outright patronizing), I often bring useful items with me to certain countries. Whether it’s colored pencils or clothing for kids, basic medical necessities, or fresh produce, the fact is, isolated and impoverished people are often grateful for assistance. I won’t bring or distribute items without doing a bit of research to see if it’s acceptable/what communities are in need of.

Eat as the locals do, or at least pretend. For me, street food and dining in a private home are the greatest joys of travel. But not everyone feels that way, and sometimes, even I find myself confronted by a glass or plate of something so repulsive/high-risk, I can’t bring myself to partake. To refuse an offering can often cause disgrace or mortal offense to your host, so if at all possible, fake it. That banana chicha, fermented by a heaping dose of my (likely tubercular) host’s saliva? Yeah, I didn’t really drink that.

Wear your poker face. I’ve often been told I have an expressive face (usually not as a compliment). When I’m traveling abroad, I have to work overtime to not show emotions when confronted with a cultural foible or other situation that amuses or offends my American sensibilities. And while losing your temper can occasionally work in your favor, remember that in many parts of the world–most notably, Asia–it’s seen as a major character flaw. Take a deep breath, simmer down, and please don’t unleash the “But I’m an American!” card.

Rules to follow as a tourist

Be humble and gracious. You may find the local diet, standard of living, and treatment of women appalling, but you needn’t need show it.

Be respectful. You’re the foreigner speaking a crazy language.

Don’t be a victim. Use common sense, and don’t go looking for trouble. If it finds you anyway, try resolve the situation in a non-confrontational way, or do what you need to do to protect yourself. In a worst case scenario, call your nearest embassy or consulate.

Be prepared. Always have a Plan B, whether it’s money, copies of your passport and medical insurance, or taking out travel insurance. Email yourself and family or a friend copies of all important documents, including lists of emergency contacts, doctors, and collect numbers for banks and credit card companies.

Be grateful. No matter what kind of amazing adventures I have, and no matter how much my nationality/government/deeply ingrained personal and cultural shortcomings may embarrass me, I’m profoundly appreciative that being an American grants me the quality of life and civil liberties I possess.

[Photo credits: NY, Flickr user Baptiste Pons; Las Vegas, Flickr user geoperdis; Mona Lisa, Flickr user Gregory Bastien]

Ask Gadling: What to do in a Muslim country during Ramadan

Ramadan is a month-long religious festival during which Muslims don’t eat, drink, smoke, or have sex from sunup to sundown. This reminds them what it’s like to be without the things they take for granted, and encourages them to be thankful for what they have. Certain people are excused from fasting, such as children, the sick, the pregnant, menstruating women, and travelers. The rest of the population has to suck it up and get through the day.

Traveling in a Muslim country during Ramadan poses two problems–you can’t eat in public and tourist sights may be closed. In countries such as Turkey and Egypt tourism is such a big draw that major sites will remain open and there are enough restaurants catering to non-Muslims that you’ll be able to eat. In smaller towns, however, you might find the attractions and restaurants closed. Gadling’s Grant Martin was visiting Cairo during Ramadan and found many places had abbreviated hours so the staff could eat at the appropriate times. He also found that while touristy restaurants remained open, some didn’t serve alcohol. Gadling’s Meg Nesterov, who’s living in Istanbul, reported very little changed during the fast.

The big challenge comes in more devout, less visited countries. Back in 1994 while I was crossing Asia, Ramadan started during my last week in Iran and my first three weeks in Pakistan. Pretty much everything shut except for museums in major cities and large archaeological sites such as Mohenjo-daro. Restaurants all closed their doors and I found myself in the odd situation of being an agnostic compelled to observe Ramadan.

So what to do?

Get into the spirit. Ramadan is one of the biggest occasions of the Muslim calendar and you’re there to witness it firsthand. You’ll almost certainly be invited to an iftar, the evening meal right after sunset. Muslims make up for their day of hunger with some seriously good cooking, and it’s traditional to invite a guest. One of my coolest travel memories was an iftar at a home for deaf people in Karachi. We communicated by hand signals the entire evening and one of my hosts gave me a silent tour of the city.

Be flexible with your hours. While shops and restaurants may be shut during the day, they often stay open long into the night.
Visit a mosque. You can rest assured that some of the major sights of any Muslim city will remain open during Ramadan–the mosques. Many are centuries old and are architectural jewels, like this one in New Delhi photographed by user jrodmanjr and uploaded to Gadling’s flickr photostream. Mosques aren’t only a place of worship, they’re a refuge from the heat and bustle of the street, a place where people sit around and chat. This makes them great places to meet locals. I’ve been inside dozens of mosques in many different countries and always found them welcoming. I’ve come across a few in Iran and India that were closed to non-Muslims, but in both countries I found mosques where the worshipers greeted me with friendliness.

Eat if you must. Strangely enough, I found food for sale everywhere in Pakistan and Iran. Nobody was eating, but they were shopping in preparation for breaking the fast. Shopping in daylight hours can be a bit awkward, however. The guy with the rumbling stomach selling oranges in the market knows that Westerner is going to sneak back to his hotel room and gorge himself. I found I couldn’t go the whole day without eating and kept a cache of food back in my room for secret snacks. Out of consideration for the hungry vendors I tried to do my shopping at night.

Know when Ramadan occurs. Ramadan is determined by the Muslim lunar calendar and thus varies from year to year. The exact start depends on when the first sliver of the crescent moon is spotted, which in 2011 Ramadan will be around August 1.

Be understanding. I get grumpy if my lunch is more than an hour late, so I can imagine what I’d be like if I skipped food all day. It must be extra hard for the smokers. Many folks are going to be a bit edgy. By the afternoon they may be lethargic or will have disappeared to take a long nap. Ramadan is a big challenge, so cut them some slack. Just wait until half an hour after sunset, though, and you’ll find everyone in a festive mood.