From an American point of view, some areas of the world are somewhat easier to visit than others. Europe, while at times pricey, isn’t that difficult to navigate frankly. Although there are language differences, the food is familiar, the culture is similar and for the most part everything is pretty much as it seems. When expanding our travel circle to other areas of the world though, appearances can be deceptive and travelers may find themselves in uncomfortable and even compromising situations.
The Palace is Closed Today
My first experience with a non-Western country was Thailand. No matter what anyone tells you, your first time in a developing nation can be a culture shock at first. On our second day, we were walking from the river taxi pier to the Grand Palace, the most popular tourist attraction in Bangkok. Within a few paces of leaving the boat, we were approached by a man who tried to convince us that the Grand Palace was closed that day, but he would help us see other sights instead. Even though I knew he was trying to lure us away to get our business, I still hesitated half a second before my partner grabbed my arm and whisked me away. I’ve since observed that this is a fairly popular con targeted towards tourists. The con artist tries to take advantage of a person’s ignorance or naiveté in order to make a quick buck, or worse. I have a friend who fell into a similar trap in India and wound up in a horrible situation where a tourist agency actually had possession of his passport and threatened not to return it unless certain travel packages were purchased.
The lesson here is to not ignore local advice, but to use common sense. If a situation feels wrong, then it probably is. Trust your gut and you’ll be fine.
No, you don’t really want to go there…
On our trip to Marrakech we made the foolish decision to stay at a Western-style hotel ten minutes from the Old City. The hotel was fine, but pretty bland in retrospect. As independent travelers, we didn’t mind the walk or navigating our way around town, most of the time. There was a certain location in the medina that I couldn’t seem to find on my own, yet wanted to visit, so I asked the hotel concierge to call a cab so they could just take us there. The fare would be less than $5 and well worth the time it would save us by not getting lost. I thought he understood my request, until it came time to give the cabbie instructions. The concierge and the cabbie had a five minute conversation in a mix of French and Arabic, all the time looking and pointing at us. Finally, he approached with the map I had given him and told us flatly that we really didn’t want to go there. This was a personal first and I just stared at him, incredulous at the comment. The concierge, I call him Mr. Swarthy, took advantage of my hesitation and said “Here, you want to go to this mall instead. There‘s nothing to see in the medina, it‘s just crowded and dirty.” That’s when I knew I was in trouble. I’ve heard that before. “We’ll take you there, but first visit my cousin, he has a shop…” I looked at him straight in the eye, stood up tall and let him know in no uncertain terms that I did not need to buy leather goods and I actually yes, did want to go to the medina. He got the idea, quickly issued a command to the cabbie and that was that.
It’s not that the concierge was trying to take advantage of me, not exactly. Rather, he was trying to help himself by sending me to a friend or family member who would throw him a few bucks for referring me. The intent isn’t malicious, although it may at first appear so to someone not familiar with the complex social networks which exist in many countries around the world. Just because he wants to get paid off though doesn’t mean that you have to be a willing participant. While it’s not always possible to avoid the mint tea/buy a rug experience, if you’re firm but polite, you can usually bypass the situation altogether.
Super Duper Official Airport Taxi
Airports around the world can be chaotic and extremely confusing, from New York City to Bangkok. After a 16 hour flight, it can be daunting to emerge from the immigration/customs hall into an arrivals lobby swarming with hundreds of people with signs, each yelling a variety of names and offers. Returning to my Bangkok experience, we were fresh off of a nonstop flight from Paris and were exhausted. As an over planner, I knew where we needed to go to find a cab that would take us to our hotel, but for some reason my partner fell prey to an old trick – the “official” cab service. First of all, never believe anyone that claims to be the official anything, because they almost never are. In Bangkok Scott saw a sign for official airport cabs, and bee-lined for the booth. Of course it was a limo service and after they quoted us $150 for a Cadillac into town, I politely said no thank you, grabbed Scott and finally found the taxi queue.
This goes back to the old travel rule, trust but verify. A certain level of skepticism is a key quality for any traveler, as long as you don’t go overboard. Never turn away from a genuine opportunity because of your distrust, but always make sure it’s the real deal before moving forward.
Dealing with People in Need
No matter where you go in the world, you will encounter people who ask you for money. This is a serious issue for all travelers, and how one deals with these situations ultimately comes down to personal choice. As with anything, there are good and bad actors in this area, and it may be impossible to tell the difference.
Once when we were in Paris, we were walking along the Champ de Mars towards the Eiffel tower when I noticed a woman with a sign asking for money. According to the placard, she was a Bosnian immigrant who had lost her hearing. She looked down on her luck, and many people were throwing a few Euros into her cap. I’m not sure why she made an impression, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her and I regretted not giving her some money. The next day we were near the Marais, buying yet another Nutella crepe when I noticed that the crepe makers were having a good laugh with a friend who was also munching on a crepe. I looked over and was shocked to see the girl from the Champ de Mars, the “deaf Bosnian” woman. It was obvious that she was certainly not deaf and based on her accent, I would guess she was from the Paris suburbs and not Bosnia. I was glad I hadn’t given her any money, but wondered what would compel someone to lie for a living.
Last year while in the Palestinian Authority, we made a brief stop outside Jericho to visit an ancient church. Outside the gate to the church was a young boy, probably eight or nine, with a bunch of bananas he was trying to sell to the visiting tourists. Now I’m a deeply skeptical person, and I watched him from the corner of my eye during the visit. He tried so hard to sell just one banana to someone, anyone, but everyone just walked past. I found the irony intense, as we were all leaving a site of extreme religious importance, and yet no one found the time to offer a farthing to the young boy. It was like living in a parable; I half expected a shining beam of light to illuminate the path ahead. I gave the boy enough money to buy the bananas ten times over, told him to keep them and walked back to the van. Before climbing in he gave me a hug and thanked me. Like the Grinch, I felt my heart grow three sizes that day. I didn’t give him the money for self satisfaction, but because he was trying to earn it and because I believed him.
This is an extremely sensitive subject, everyone has their own policy and I dare not say who is right or wrong. Believe me when I say that I am not a bleeding heart person, but I’m also not made of stone. I don’t reward people who expect something for nothing but, like the boy, if they are trying to better themselves even just a little bit, how can I not help.
Travel is about learning and growing as an individual. This process can include some fairly uncomfortable situations, but rather than be avoided, it is best to know how to understand and deal with them when they arise. No matter what though, make sure you take every situation with a sense of humor and open mind.