The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it’s OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term “N-word” is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I’m trying not to say so, in a sense, I’ve actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n—–, Gadling would fire my ass, and they’d be right to.

N—– is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it’s a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn’t become OK. At least it isn’t OK with this white boy. I don’t think it’s OK for black people to use either, but they’re probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn’t reality, but if you’ve never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n—— during our conversation. He wasn’t a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I’m glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G—-. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, “Who are the G—-?”

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.”Where did you hear that word?” he asked in a low voice.

“It’s in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G—- live around Harar.”

“We’re in an Oromo village!” he said, eyes wide.

“So?” I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, “It’s an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don’t use it. It’s very insulting. It’s the most insulting thing you can say.”

So insulting, in fact, that I’m not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn’t fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don’t have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don’t think very highly of Menelik, even though he’s a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it’s important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you’re going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I’ll fill you in on the word you can’t say. And if you write out the full word for n—– or G—- in the comments section, I’ll delete it as soon as I see it.

[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country

pregnant in a foreign country My first clue that something was different came when I woke up one night on vacation in Kiev at 3am, proceeded to eat 3 slices of toast with caviar spread, went back to bed and woke up a few hours later wondering if they made blueberry muffins in Ukraine (tragicially, they do not). That “time of the month” hadn’t happened but flying tends to always mess with your body, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. Since moving to Istanbul from New York in May 2010 for a work project, my husband and I take frequent trips around Eastern Europe (see my Weekending posts) and that week we spent exploring Kiev and Warsaw while Turkey celebrated Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim festival of sacrifice).

When we arrived back home in Istanbul a few days later, I dug out the Turkish pregnancy test I had purchased a few months earlier after a previous false alarm. Though the instructions were in Turkish, peeing on a stick is fairly universal, and the “POZITIF” results were hard to misinterpret. Excited and nervous to be pregnant in a foreign country, my husband and I wondered what a mountain of paperwork we’d have to provide U.S. Customs in 9 months, what the medical system in Istanbul would be like, and if we could get away with having a baby in Turkey not named in some way for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey and namesake for millions of Turks. Being pregnant in a foreign country is the ultimate way of “going native,” the most “authentic” travel experience you can have. It’s also challenging, sometimes scary, and limits where you can travel, but can be a great way to discover a culture, their hospitality, and traditions.Once I confirmed that I was in fact hamile with bebek, I noticed how child-friendly Turkey is, though not without challenges for the expecting expat. I could only find one English-language pregnancy book (co-written by Oprah’s fave, Dr. Oz, who is of Turkish descent), I’ve heard C-sections are pushed on many women as the only option for childbirth, and I’ve found maternity clothes are mostly limited to childish t-shirts and denim overalls. Turkey’s also a dream for the pregnant traveler: fresh fruit juice is cheap and easy to find at most cafes, vaccinations aren’t needed to visit, and Turks treat pregnant women with the utmost respect and care.

Having a baby, especially a first, in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. My family and support system is far away and I don’t know where to go for things I can find easily in my hometown. My doctor speaks excellent English but many of the nurses and hospital staff do not, and my Turkish is hardly fluent enough to cover every situation. Though the cost of domestic help is low, I’m not sure I want a lady with whom I can’t fully communicate telling me how to raise a baby.

Pregnancy also changes how you look at travel, both where you go and how you do it. I’ve been fortunate not to have morning sickness, but I’m just as at risk for disease as other pregnant women and have to weigh the risks of visiting countries with suggested vaccinations or food- and water-borne illnesses. Growing a baby is tiring work, and it’s hard to reconcile my usual travel self (lots of walking, few breaks) with my pregnant self (tired and hungry almost all the time). The best part about pregnancy travel is learning how each culture values pregnant women and mothers, hearing childbirth experiences from locals and foreigners, and seeing how kind strangers really can be. And all the food cravings help you discover the local cuisine, too.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, the lowdown on prenatal medical care in Istanbul, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.

Show respect – International travel tip

And the tip? Respect. Seems simple enough.

But showing respect for a foreign country is a skill many Americans have yet to master. If you are embarking on a business trip, respect for foreign culture is imperative. Should I shake hands or bow? Should I eat with my fork in my left or right hand? Noticing simple rules of conduct can make or break your experience as a foreigner.

When in doubt, keep your voice down, offer a soft smile to all, and learn the words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

What makes a good travel companion?

While traveling alone can be rewarding and adventurous, the majority of your travels will include a partner or two. Be it a significant other, friend or family member, you will typically find yourself on a trip with some company. If I’ve learned anything from my travels it’s that your choice of partner can make or break a trip. Not all friends make for good travel companions. You have to choose wisely before inviting someone on a trip with you. So, what makes a good travel companion?

I asked my friends and Twitter followers for their thoughts on the matter and mixed their suggestions in with my own to compile a list of traits that every successful travel pairing should possess. Find someone who fits these criteria and you can be fairly confident that you won’t be ready to kill each other before you even pack your bags.

  1. Be together but alone – At some point on any trip, people will want to do different things. This will either cause a fight because one of you is insecure or create an opportunity for you to split up, enjoy some alone time and keep everyone happy.
  2. Flexibility – Travel can create stressful situations. Plans will change on the fly or new ideas will be discovered. A good travel buddy can roll with the changes and see them as exciting opportunities.
  3. Hygiene – Hey, you’re going to be with this person (potentially in cramped quarters) for days, week or even months. Either you both have to be slobs or you both have to keep clean. Smell together, shower alone.
  4. Spontaneity – The ferry to a remote island that you just learned about departs in five minutes and you leave town tomorrow. This is your only chance. These are the opportunities that require split-second decisions and can create amazing memories.
  5. Extroverts have more fun – Befriending people at hostels, bars or on tours is a great way to change up the travel dynamic. But your friend needs to share your willingness to invite people into your plans. Gadling editor Grant Martin did it with great success.
  6. Shut up – Whether you’re standing at the edge of a cliff admiring the view or on a train after a long day, there are times when you just want some peace and quiet. The company is nice, but knowing when to be silent makes it better.
  7. Similar schedules – If you like to party all night, it gets annoying when your friend always passes out at 9:00pm. And if you want to sleep in, it’s no fun being nudged awake at 5:00am to go on a tour that doesn’t even interest you. There’s no right or wrong schedule for traveling, but you should be able to compromise.
  8. Share responsibilities – If one person is doing all the planning, keeping things on schedule, booking all the flights, buses and hostels while the other person plans to just show up, there’s a good chance resentment will pop up the first time you miss a train. Split up the leg work and share the experience from beginning to end.
  9. Respect – You and your friend can disagree about a lot of things – foods, activities, destinations – but don’t criticize each other. If your friend wants to eat grasshoppers while in Mexico and that grosses you out, let her enjoy the experience without having to hear you gagging in the background.
  10. Cultural sensitivity – If you’ve ever traveled with someone who got into an argument over a language barrier, belittled someone or, in exasperation, yelled out something to the effect of “That’s what’s wrong with these people,” you know how mortifying it can be to apologize for your friend’s behavior. Best to travel with people who can handle cultural differences as well as you can.

Of course, these aren’t the only things that you want to keep in mind when choosing a travel companion, but they’re the biggest concerns. You’ll surely also want a friend who won’t mind if you stop to take lots of pictures or will share their photos with you if you’re not a shutterbug. And it never hurts if you don’t mind sharing a jacket or iPod when someone didn’t pack properly. Compromise and common courtesy go a long way towards keeping the peace.

Picking the right travel partner will ensure that you not only enjoy your trip, but that you will have shared experiences that will strengthen your friendship when the trip is over. I am fortunate enough to have a group of friends that gets along as well on the road as we do at home. We have stories from around the world that will bond us for years to come. If you’re hurting for a good travel buddy, you could always look online. Or not.

Have more suggestions or a story about how you picked the right/wrong travel companion? Please share in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

Travel surf etiquette

I was having a grand ole time surfing at Ala Moana Bowls the other day when a rude, disrespecting woman decided to paddle for a wave and proceeded to cut off three other surfers and nearly behead my friend. Growing ever more confrontational in my old age, I began to argue with the lady about her very inappropriate surf etiquette. Profanities were exchanged, I nearly spit in her face, and she nearly punched me. Two perfectly mature female surfers in Honolulu suddenly became mortal enemies over shoulder-high waves just days before the New Year.

This immediately got me thinking about my surfing experiences abroad. I’ve been fortunate enough to have surfed in some of the most idyllic places in the world, with Costa Rica, West Timor, and Fiji topping that list. While I don’t claim to be an expert in the sport, I usually know how to behave in the water — especially in foreign waters.
Wherever in the world you are, there is a universal surf etiquette. Surfing manners are essentially like body language: you show others your intentions, and they show you yours.

While there are no written rules in the water, it’s still wise to follow standard surfing protocol — especially when you’re in a foreign country. I’ve been to places like Kuta Beach where the surfer tourists outnumber the locals, and the last thing I want to see is a fight, or a spoiled travel destination. So here are a few things to keep in mind on your next exotic surf trip:

  • Respect the locals: You are, after all, in their territory. In most cases, these surfing locals do not have the opportunity that we do to travel to surfing destinations. We should keep this in mind even before we set foot on their land and in their waters. In return, you may find a breadth of knowledge that they would be willing to share with you!
  • Know the “right of way” rule: The person “inside” of you has priority on the wave. That means if you’re going left, the person farthest to the right should have the wave; if you’re going right, the person farthest left should take it. Don’t fight about it if you get cut off! Odds are there is another wave on the horizon.
  • Tag teaming and cutting off is not cool: I really hate when groups of surfers collaborate in the water to catch all the set waves. Sharing is caring, and surfing should be fun — not competitive.
  • The ocean is in charge: My friend Matt once remarked that “the ocean is his boss, and [he] is just an employee.” I really like this outlook when surfing. As every surfer will know, the ocean is a very powerful force. You are never in charge out there, so let the people who are out there, sharing the experience with you, enjoy the experience.
  • Smile: I have countless new friends from surfing. Just the other day, I was surfing at Pupukea and got to practice my Spanish with a visiting Brazilian surfer from Sao Paolo. In September, I was surfing at “Las Lanchas” in Punta de Mita, Mexico (near Puerto Vallarta) and it was just me and a fishing boat captain out at the point, chatting it up, smiling, and enjoying the surf. Making friends out on the water is one of the coolest, most memorable experiences in my lifetime.

When in doubt, let the other guy have the wave. Fighting for waves is not fun, nor is it worth making enemies. Enjoy the ocean.