A student of mine recently asked me what had inspired me to start writing a travel blog. Certainly, there are the typical answers: I want to share my experiences with the world; I felt creatively compelled and needed the outlet; I am passionate about travel; but my biggest inspiration stems from a much more personal place. Last year I lost my grandmother, the woman from whom I most definitely inherited my wanderlust, and I have not felt whole without her.
My grandmother was the definition of a self-made woman. Born in the rural American south, at the height of the Great Depression, she came from nothing. She established herself as a vital member of the professional staff working in the office of United States Army Generals at the Pentagon before she had even turned twenty years old. She was fierce, fearless, and deliberate. She left nothing to chance.
Passionate about history and culture, my grandmother loved to travel; and when I was old enough, she started taking me with her on her various adventures. I was so incredibly fortunate to have had such a marvelous influence in my life, and so blessed that she understood the benefit of travel for young, developing minds.
When I was eleven years old, my grandmother took me to Paris. It was my first international trip and the first time I ever remember being embarrassed by my grandmother, my hero. The harsh reality was that, while my grandmother was a loving, thoughtful, considerate woman, she was also a middle-aged lady from the rural American south. She spoke no French. She knew little to nothing about French culture. And she didn’t care.
I watched in horror as my grandmother interacted with people on this trip. She spoke, loudly and slowly, in English, sometimes in fractured English. She exaggerated syllables, as though that would help non-English speakers understand her. Her rural Georgia accent made the absurdity of her insistence that the pace at which she spoke would somehow make a non-English speaker magically comprehend even more offensive. I was only eleven, and I adored my grandmother, but I wanted to crawl into my own suitcase. I understood then that it is the responsibility of the traveler to learn about and respect the culture and identity of their chosen destination.
As I’ve grown older, and continued to explore the world, I’ve tried to take this lesson to heart. I’ve tried to be conscious of cultural nuances and locally acceptable behaviors that might differ from my everyday conduct. I’ve tried to make it my personal mission to treat every person with whom I interact with dignity and respect, while also recognizing the opportunity I have to benefit from exposure to new, unique experiences. I’ve made mistakes. Like my grandmother, my own privilege and naivety led me to make assumptions and perpetuate American stereotypes.
Here are the five most common mistakes and assumptions made by western travelers:
“Developing countries benefit from western influence.”
There is so much wrong with this idea, but let’s start with the language. The term “developing country” is, in and of itself, problematic. What determines if a country is developing or fully developed? By whose standards is a country developed or undeveloped? Must they embrace American or western ideas to be “developed?” That’s a dangerous attitude that disregards the culture, history, and identity of entire populations. It’s colonialism at its core. Often when western interests invest heavily in nations they determine to be “development” opportunities, the outcome is anything but beneficial for the local population. A study conducted by The United Nations found that in locations like Mexico and Thailand, nearly two-thirds of the tourism revenue is funnelled to internationally-owned corporations and provided no direct benefit to the local economy. It is important to approach visiting any country with respect for its identity.
Rejection of a western way of life doesn’t make a people less than, nor does it presume those people aren’t smart enough to embrace western ideals. It simply means that in this location, these people live their lives differently. A responsible traveler will enthusiastically accept every opportunity to learn about each new place and people she encounters, without trying to influence or change anyone’s way of life.
“Tipping isn’t culturally acceptable”
So, this is a difficult one to address with a hard and fast rule, because it changes depending on the part of the world to which one is traveling. I had often been told that “you don’t tip in Europe,” but this isn’t entirely true. While tipping in Europe isn’t as compulsory as in the United States, it is quite common, and in most instances, expected. Some countries make a practice of including a service charge on the bill--this is usually clearly indicated--while others do not charge for service. In almost all instances, it is better to assume that one should leave a tip for exceptional service. In England, rounding one’s bill up to the nearest pound is appropriate, whereas in France, leaving between ten and fifteen percent is customary.
In Central and Latin America, tipping is as common and as necessary as in the United States. North American travelers in particular are guilty of assuming that gratuities are included at “all-inclusive” resorts. This is almost never the case. The responsible, socially conscious traveler should research their destination beforehand to be certain they are aware of the resort’s gratuities policy. Some resorts do not allow their employees to accept tips, though these are the exception. Service employees in these locations depend on gratuities for their livelihood. The false assumption on the part of the traveler that they are being appropriately compensated by the “all-inclusive” policy has no negative impact on the resort’s bottom line, but it does directly impact the individual staff member’s quality of life.
“Everyone speaks English”
My number one pet-peeve is to hear English speakers demanding that locals in non-English-speaking countries attempt to speak to them in English. This is arrogant, presumptuous, and rude. I’ve seen, in countless reviews of international hotels, resorts, restaurants, and the like, travelers who complain that the staff didn’t speak English. We don’t, in the United States, require people in the service industry to speak multiple languages; why should other countries require their employees to cater to English speakers? English is NOT the most widely spoken language in the world, it’s number two. And before we go demanding that other nations require their service industry workers to learn a second language to cater to our privileged class of travelers, why don’t we consider first that perhaps our travelers ought to learn a second language. With available and accessible technology like DuoLingo and Babbel at one’s fingertips, a traveler can be speaking conversational French, Spanish, Russian, Mandarin--the list goes on--in a matter of weeks. If we want the luxury of travel, the burden of communication ought to fall on us.
“I paid money, I demand…”
This heading may look controversial to some readers. I am not suggesting that travelers don’t deserve what they pay for. I am suggesting that paying money does not entitle a traveler to behave in a manner that is abusive, disrespectful, or dehumanizing. While it may be difficult to shell out the cash for an extravagant trip and it may be challenging to deal with bumps and delays along the way, some circumstances are unavoidable. Touting the amount of money one has spent on their vacation over employees and demanding better service or an immediate solution to an issue (upgrade) suggests that a traveler has purchased the employee’s dignity and worth, rather than the experience they provide. It is abusive and devalues their position. It is temperamental and entitled behavior that perpetuates an ugly stigma about western travelers. Just don’t.
“Foreign countries are dangerous.”
While it is true that tourists can often be targets for pickpockets and scam-artists, the truth behind this assumption is that it is largely based on culturally offensive stereotypes. According to the US Department of State, the murder rate in most Middle Eastern and North African countries is equal to or less than the current rate of homicide in the United States. The same study concludes that the incidence of violent crime is significantly lower in Indonesia, China, and India than in the US. The idea that international travel is inherently dangerous stems from fear of the unknown. It is the literal definition of xenophobia. This is not to presume travelers ought not to be aware of their surroundings, conduct proper research regarding their destinations, and make smart decisions about accommodations, transportation, and activities; but to generalize entire regions of the world as unsafe whilst ignoring the danger and pervasive violence in one’s own backyard is not only foolish, it’s ignorant.
My grandmother taught me so many things. She taught me to love history and storytelling. She taught me to believe in the unseen and to trust my own instincts. She encouraged me to ferociously pursue my dreams. She taught me not to be afraid of taking chances, and that failing was just a chance to succeed better next time. She gave me the opportunity to see the world and learn from her mistakes. And through that opportunity, she taught me that we grow by respecting each other, by treating one another with dignity and kindness; and by valuing our differences, we become a whole greater than our individual selves.
Travel consciously. Travel responsibly. Travel freely.