Travel Talk: Taking the Stress Out of Language Barriers

One of the first things someone might ask when you announce your trip to another country is, “Do you know the language?” Unless you’re visiting an ancestral homeland, are a language buff, or have learned foreign language(s) for your job or personal reasons, the answer will likely be no.  You may stress out over the thought of being unable to make your way around or communicate your needs during your trip.  The more this anxiety builds, the more pressure you could put on yourself to spend many hours learning a language – including nuances that you’re unlikely to need.
Unless you’re planning to spend an extended amount of time in a country, knowing the hundred or so “quick reference” words and phrases in a standard travel language book will usually be sufficient to get you around.  Focus on language concerning transportation, directions, obtaining assistance, and health and safety issues (such as the words for danger, caution, and hospital, as well as how to ask for an embassy or the police).  If this still doesn’t sound like enough, remember that there’s a reason that so many travel language books are sized to fit in your pocket.   You can look up phrases and words as you need them, without putting yourself through painful memorization exercises weeks before your trip.
Do You Speak English?     
This is an essential phrase to know in every language spoken in the places you’re visiting.  It manages your limited language skills while showing that you’re culturally sensitive enough to not just assume that someone speaks your language; it also helps break the ice.  If the person confirms that they speak English, then you’ve started off on the right foot; if they say no, then nod or apologize (think of how you feel when you dial the wrong phone number) and move on to someone else.  If you can’t move on to someone else, see how far you can get with numbers and gestures.  If you’re still struggling, then other employees or passersby are likely to notice, and chances are one of them will step in to help – if for no other reason than to show off their command of English.

A word of caution: if you have a rudimentary grasp of a foreign language and ask for directions or check into a hotel in that language, you need to be able to understand the person’s response.  The person might answer at a mile a minute, and you’ll either pretend to understand and move on, or ask for clarification in English – at which time the person will wonder (with some frustration) why you didn’t ask in English in the first place.  If you’re not proficient enough to go back and forth in conversation on a particular topic, then it’s usually best to ask Do you speak English? and go from there.

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Should I cross the street, or stay put and look out for the cute marshmallow doughboy? 

Most of us don’t get beyond learning a few written characters when touring places like Japan or China

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 3 of 3)

Still hungry to take a road trip abroad this spring or summer?  If you’ve been following this series, you know there are a lot of things you need to understand before you jump into a vehicle with keys in one hand and your passport in the other.   Don’t get discouraged — you won’t encounter all of these “issues” on every drive.  But, since life on the road can be unpredictable to say the least, being aware of these pitfalls and potholes can keep you out of trouble almost as much as, well, wearing your seatbelt.  So buckle up and take one last ride down the path of precautions — and remember, there’s no yield sign for common sense.

14. Suicidal pedestrians who have the right of way

In many popular urban areas, there are (of course) a lot of pedestrians – and not a whole lot of stoplights. And where there are stoplights, pedestrian crossings and/or lights may be nonexistent. Many people on foot can be downright reckless once they’ve gotten used to this situation, and they decide to “take the power back into their hands.” You will see people wading into six-lane traffic a few feet at a time, with all the care and worry as if they’re playing a live-action video game.

It’s their fault if they get hit, right? Um, usually not. In many countries, if you hit a pedestrian, you’re deemed automatically guilty even if some guy leaped right out in the street in front of you (and you were driving like a saint to boot). You may face serious criminal charges or other legal liability. Understand the laws, avoid driving near malls, parades, markets, etc., and keep one foot perpetually ready to slam on the brake when venturing into pedestrianized areas.

 15. Speed Traps

Even where people drive like maniacs (no, no, I’m not thinking of Germany, or Saudi Arabia), speed limits exist not only in an attempt to control the chaos, but to, well, extort money out of distracted drivers. Speed traps are as ubiquitous as speed limits; many times they are synonymous. Speeding is one of the most enforced traffic laws of all, with both police units and cameras.  Crooked and/or lazy cops love to set speed traps in scenic areas because they know guest drivers are looking around, and are distracted from the speedometer.

One thing that varies by country is how much grace you are given above the speed limit before actual consequences kick in. In some countries or regions you can go 10 miles or kilometers over the speed limit and not raise a cop’s eyebrow; in others, one notch above the listed limit and a self-righteous policeman is ready to jump on his motorbike.  Your most reliable source of info regarding local speed traps is probably your hotel receptionist; tour books are probably not going to be that specific.

16. Fueling up

Unfortunately, some of the places in the world with the cheapest fuel also have the most frustrations when it comes to actually filling up your tank. First off, the consistent availability of gas stations isn’t a given; you may encounter five gas stations in the same two miles, and then none for a very long suburban stretch. It’s therefore recommended to fill your tank often, even if it means breaking your momentum when you’ve finally gotten out on the open road.

When you do get to a station, lines can leave you hanging precariously out into the street, and you may have to be aggressive to nab a spot next to the pump. It usually doesn’t take long to notice if a gas station is full- or self-service. If the latter, beware when actually handling the pump and hose, as many may be in poor shape and send a stream of gas across your feet.

Increasingly common – much to the chagrin of visiting tourists – are stations that only accept credit or debit cards issued by banks in that country. These are usually unmanned, so try to pick a gas station that at least has an attendant milling around to minimize getting stuck with your wad of cash and empty tank.

17. Getting stopped

In many countries, an officer may only stop a motorist for an actual violation. In others, they may stop you for no reason at all except to check your documents. Keep your cool if you’re pulled over and remember to keep your passport, the rental car registration, and your driver’s license ready to show. Finally, avoid getting out of the car unless the officer makes it clear that you’re expected to do so.

18. Driving across an international border

Most countries share land borders with at least a couple other countries, and in most cases, there are roads running from one country to the other. Generally, these borders can be crossed by anyone in a motor vehicle, and thankfully in many cases, you’re allowed to drive a rental car across an international border. This is the case for the United States and Canada, and in most of Europe.

In some countries, however, it’s difficult or impossible to drive across the border. In Israel, for example, you’re generally not allowed to drive into neighboring countries.  To know if you’re allowed to make an international border crossing, examine your vehicle’s rental contract. If you’re planning a trip across multiple countries, you may have to go with one of the big-name companies (Budget, Avis, etc.) with the more flexible policies.

Be aware that there are some bordering countries that don’t have any roads connecting them, even though they share a land border. There’s usually a good reason for this: natural terrain (such as a rough mountain pass); a rich country-poor country scenario in which the latter country can’t afford to lay road base; security reasons; or neighboring countries that just plain hate each other, or simply the lack of desire among one or both governments to build such a road. Examples of regions with a lack of road connectivity are South America, many parts of Africa, and Central Asia.

Where you can cross the border, be aware that it’s not uncommon for there to be a very long line at the crossing. Try to get information from your hotel or travel agent on how long you might spend at the border crossing and factor that into your travel time. While the distance itself may seem short, you may need to add several more hours to your travel time to factor in time spent at the border. In many places, it could be several hours, and this can make a day trip to the other country rather impractical.

Finally, keep in mind that some border crossings have limited hours of operation, such as during daylight hours only.   Plan ahead, or the hotel you booked on “just the other side” might be counting you for a no-show.

19. GPS

Many of us have grown addicted to GPS systems to help us navigate, and while it’s readily available in North America, Europe and East Asia, it may be altogether absent in the countries where you could use it the most. If you don’t want to throw back to the Stone Age and use a paper map, try using Mapquest or Google Maps on the road or shortly before your trip – but be aware that many mobile phone providers make it difficult to use your smartphone in a foreign country.

Finally, be aware that GPS units make very hot theft items in many foreign countries. Don’t under any circumstances leave one in your rental vehicle overnight, even if you’re parked at an upscale hotel.

20. Missing features on your rental car

We take for granted that cars come with the things that they should. I’m not talking about iPod docks, Bluetooth, or even automatic windows and air bags, but true necessities like hazard lights and head rests to save your neck in case you are in an accident. If you plan to drive in a developing country, you should check a rental car for the following before signing on the dotted line.

  • Ÿ  Turn signals
  • Ÿ  The parking/emergency brake
  • Ÿ  Windshield wipers
  • Ÿ  Lights and brights
  • Ÿ  Spare tire
  • Ÿ  Seat belts

Don’t count on your rental car having cruise control, but if it does, make sure you know how it turns on — and how to disengage it. Also, be sure you understand how to open the hood and the gas tank before you drive off. Remember, given the number and variety of auto manufacturers around the world, you may be renting a car that you have never seen or heard of – look closely to make sure it has what you expect to come on a “car”!

 

Keep your patience on those long roads, and you will eventually be rewarded with the stunning scenery you came for!

Keep your patience on those long, frustrating roads, and you will eventually be rewarded with the stunning scenery you came for!

 

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 2 of 3)

Hungry to take a spring road trip someplace exotic?  Read up before you give Hertz or Avis a call, and remember, a drive around another continent can be a wonderful adventure as long as you’re prepared.  So, here’s this week’s run-down of things you need to understand before deciding to drive abroad.

7. Parking and driving in restricted areas (and beyond)

Having to actually park your rental car can take a lot of the joy and convenience out of having a car in the first place. This is particularly the case in Europe, where you can finish your nice leisurely drive through Tuscany or the Alps with a two-hour search for a spot within a mile of the restaurant you’ve RSVPd for dinner.

Many cities around Europe have restricted areas, or “forbidden zones,” where driving AND parking is restricted in a particular area – oftentimes, a good chunk of the city. Depending on the city, driving and parking may be open only to those who purchase a permit – a bureaucratic exercise that you probably didn’t have time for before you left home. Restricted areas are generally indicated by a sign of some sort, but this sign may be hard to spot and may not be in English.

Try asking your hotel about any restricted areas in the city you plan to visit, and make arrangements ahead of time or risk getting ticketed or towed. And if you are lucky enough to get a spot right in front of your restaurant, remember that irritated locals in some cities like to key cars that hamper their space on the sidewalk, so beware.

 8. Tolls

In most countries, tolls are collected for the privilege of driving on certain freeways, or across expensive bridges or tunnels. There are various ways in which this toll is collected. The traditional toll booth is of course most recognizable, and the most straightforward if you can pay cash. In some cases, most local drivers “pay” using a device that is placed on the windshield of their vehicle, leaving you to sit in the one manned lane where a booth operator is taking forever to collect the toll.

In some places, there are no booths. Tolls are collected by filming the number plate of the vehicle, and the bill is sent to the owner (this is always my favorite part of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco). In this type of setup, the car rental agency will pass this cost onto the tourist.

In some cases you can pay a toll by credit card, but be aware that if you pay in cash, your toll may be lower.

9. Line markings

Painted lines that appear on the roads in different countries have various meanings. For example, a broken white line in some countries may indicate two lanes of traffic flowing in the same direction; in other countries it could be used to divide traffic flowing in opposite directions.

Some countries don’t know what paint on asphalt even looks like. Absent any line markings, you may assume that a narrow road is a one-way road, when really it is a two-way road.

Fortunately, most countries have clear explanations of what their road markings mean (they are at least more straightforward than rules about parking, at least). Read up, and be sure to keep an eye out for dashed red lines (and crooked green ones too).

10. Roundabouts

Many people don’t like roundabouts, and they can be particularly perplexing abroad.  In some countries, traffic already in a roundabout has the right of way; in others, a car entering the roundabout has it, while vehicles already in the roundabout must yield.

If that isn’t confusing enough, realize that many local drivers forget these rules altogether and take the right-of-way whenever they want it. Roundabouts in many countries are a chance for aggressive drivers to flex their muscle and push you right out of the circle.  Know the local rules, hold your ground, and keep moving when you need to (just don’t get dizzy).

11. Roads from hell

Enough about driver hardships imposed by your fellow driver or crooked crops: this one’s about the path itself. In many countries, “roads” are made of gravel, sand(!), dirt, or rocky surfaces. Some are subject to landslides or mini-avalanches. Others are so winding that one distracted moment could send you slipping over a cliff. Many roads (even in Europe) have no shoulder, or the “shoulder” consists of a ditch. Some roads have been built dangerously so that visibility past a certain hill is difficult, if not impossible. Others are grossly uneven, too narrow, right in the path of the sunrise or sunset for what seems like hours per day, or are frequented by tractors, herds of wildlife, or thirteen-year-olds drag-racing in retrofitted lawn mowers (take my word for it).

In short, you should be aware of the quality of your road before you decide to drive and not fly. If you have one particular patch of bad road in the middle of your long-winded trip, there’s nothing to say you can’t check in your rental car at Point A, fly from Point A to Point B, and check out another rental car at Point B.

12. Reality

In many places, traffic laws are broken left and right. Some men (and women) the world over get their jollies and their power trips out of breaking speed limits, changing planes without signaling, passing on the wrong side of the road, running stop signs, running red lights, failing to yield, and even driving on the wrong side of the road (all while sober!). You, the cautious foreign driver, are following all the local driving laws to a T – and you may be at greater risk of an accident for doing so and not “going with the flow.”

To successfully drive in foreign cities and countries, you’ll need to combine your understanding of the rules with your observations of how people are actually driving. When you finally see a cop by the side of the road you’ll know how you’re supposed to drive –but in the meantime, you’re getting from Point A to Point B without getting the “saintlike driver” halo knocked off your head (and a broken neck to go along with it).

13. Tuk-tuks, rickshaws, motorcycles, and other vehicles on the road

In many places around the world people have a broader idea of what constitutes traffic than in the West. In developing countries, scooters, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, horse-drawn carts, and bicycles may comprise the majority of “vehicles.” Not only are these other drivers in a bigger hurry than you are, but they know the roads better and they probably hate you on sight because you’re well-off enough to be driving an actual car.

All these different “vehicles” operate differently and at varying speeds, and can make sudden moves that someone  steering a car just can’t make.  You can expect these drivers to cut into any leeway space as you’re turning or to merge into your lane after veering off the sidewalk (and if you visit Bangkok or Jakarta enough times, you might even see one drive OVER the hood of your car). Try to stay patient, keep your sense of humor, and turn up your air conditioning – and oh, remember that you WILL eventually get where you need to go.

Don't worry -- the chances of a boulder falling on your car in Sydney, Australia are slim to none!

Don’t worry — the chances of a boulder falling on your car in Sydney, Australia are slim to none!

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 1 of 3)

Getting from Point A to Point B in a foreign land is a fundamental part of traveling – and should be one of the more enjoyable aspects of exploring a new country. New and seasoned travelers alike take their choice of transportation – whether on vacation or a business or family trip – very seriously. The experiences you’ve had on prior trips with trains, buses, taxi drivers, and short-distance air travel may inspire your desire for independence and solitude, and for many of us, the sense of the familiar: a car. Rental car companies exist in almost every nation of the world. So what do you need to know before you get behind the wheel for the ultimate private tour?

There’s a lot you need to understand before you make the commitment of booking a car in another country and becoming a part of that country’s “driver culture.” With peak holiday season coming up, this is a good time to go over the ups, downs, and roundabouts of driving abroad. Yes, there are lots of potential headaches that can come with exotic road trips – but the allure never grows dull. So take a few minutes to start this three-part series on what you need to know about traffic, roads, laws, and plenty of smaller details that won’t quite fit in your glove compartment. If you keep yourself steering in the right direction, you’ll slowly leave behind the anxiety that comes with those pesky train timetables, obnoxious cabbies, overcrowded tour buses, and terminally late hotel shuttles.

1. International driving permit

Before you start dreaming of your foreign road trip, take a good hard look at the license in your own wallet, because you’ll need it. There are some misconceptions about international driving permits (IDPs). An IDP is a document that translates your license into different languages; it is not a laminated free-for-all to drive all over the globe. Since the permit is not a license to drive in itself, you will need to carry your own, domestic driver’s license wherever you go. Not all rental car companies will ask for your IDP, but you should never be caught on a foreign road without it since you in the event that something goes wrong, you will need to present it to police, others involved in an accident, or when filing an insurance claim.

Your driver’s license may not be valid in all other foreign countries. Since different countries make up different rules about this important issue and sometimes change rules without notice, check your country’s embassy webpage for up-to-date information. Whether you are allowed to drive with your own country’s driver’s license may also depend on your visa status. Certain countries may allow you to drive there for up to 30 days, but after that require you to apply for a local license.

2. Insurance coverage

Most countries have compulsory auto insurance laws of some type. There are generally three types of insurance:

  • That which covers your liability to the rental car company in the event their vehicle is damaged while in your possession
  • Insurance that covers injury to yourself and other occupants of your vehicle
  • Insurance that covers your liability toward other drivers if you are at fault in an accident (including damage to that party’s vehicle and injury to its occupants)

None of this will come as much of a surprise, but it can be difficult to assess whether your domestic auto insurance will actually cover you abroad. Many auto insurance companies in North America claim to “have you covered” overseas, but there are plenty of loopholes in the coverage policies. If possible, have a meeting with your insurance agent before going on your trip, and ask him or her to exchange emails with your rental car agency abroad regarding the type of coverage you’re expected to have in the foreign country.

If you don’t fully trust either your domestic auto insurer or your rental car agency, go to your embassy webpage as they may have useful and unbiased information on what is required to drive in a specific country.

 3. Automatic vs. standard transmission

Automatic transmission is something that many in North America (and increasingly, beyond) take for granted. In many countries around the world, though, renting a vehicle with automatic transmission is difficult, or sometimes impossible – and if you can find it, it can be much more expensive.

In North America, it’s estimated that only about 20% of all drivers know how to drive manual transmission (“stick shift”). If you want or need to drive somewhere that only offers rental cars with stick shift, try calling your AAA or department of motor vehicles for classes you can take on driving stick shift. If you’re going to be driving stick shift in a country that drives on the other side of the road, you may opt for a simulator since any practice you get with right-hand stick-shift will be “backwards” when you step into your rental vehicle.

4. Cultural influence on driving habits

Cultural values, such as attitudes about gender, value for human life, and value for animal life can impact how people drive around the world. In some countries, women rarely get behind the wheel; if you’re a woman renting a car in one of these countries (particularly in the Middle East) expect to be stared at, honked at, and have your right of way repeatedly robbed by aggressive macho men and other gents that are just plain outraged that you’re exercising your freedom to roll down the street on your own.

In places where overpopulation and endless crowds have left a negative impact on individual psyche, drivers may regard others with all the respect and patience of ants littering their path. Well, no, it’s not quite that bad, but you can generally expect less courteous driving in places where personal space is at a minimum.

You, the sensitive Western driver, may swerve to avoid hitting small animals such as rats, squirrels, and even cats skittering across the road, while other drivers make no such adjustment and could care less about what poor four-legged creature they hit. Your swerving and braking may take them by surprise and lead to prolonged horn-blasting, shouting, etc.

Drivers in more materialistic countries may be more careful on the road – i.e., make a little more effort not to ram right into you and cost thousands of dollars of damage. In places where the average car looks like it’s older than you are, expect others to take less care in coming within a few inches of your polished, rented fenders.

5. Right-side vs. left-side driving

I have great respect and admiration for Aussie, Kiwi, British, and Irish drivers who come to North America and handily take to the wheel on the opposite side that they’re used to. I don’t have that kind of dexterity, and I don’t think I’m alone in acknowledging that I’d probably crash into a tree if all of a sudden I had to drive on the left.

It’s one thing to get used to driving on the other side of the road; it’s another to have to suddenly change from one side to the other. Several bordering countries around the world drive on opposite sides, requiring you, the driver, to switch sides once you cross the border. For example, Hong Kong drives on the left while mainland China drives on the right. Thailand drives on the left while all of its neighbors drive on the right. The southern countries of Africa drive on the left, while the remainder of Africa drives on the right. And of course, as we know, Britain drives on the left, while just a short ferry ride away, Belgium and The Netherlands drive, you know, on the wrong side (I mean, on the right side).

If you’re on a multi-country trip in any of these regions, ask yourself how quickly you can adjust to driving on the opposite of the road. It may be wise to make your border crossing when you’re most refreshed (i.e., after a nice relaxing stay at a border hotel) and muscle memory doesn’t steer you to the wrong side of the road.

6. Traffic citations

As most of us know, traffic laws are generally enforced by either live police officers who have the authority to stop vehicles and issue citations, or by cameras (or videocameras) that film violations, followed by a citation and fine being mailed to the vehicle’s owner. The latter is becoming increasingly common, even in developing countries.

A traffic ticket isn’t something you can “hide” from once you leave a country. Many nations have different laws regarding the handling of traffic violations committed by foreigners. Some countries will demand payment of an on-the-spot fine; others won’t allow you to depart until the matter is settled (and this can be quite an embarrassing thing to learn when you’re in the customs line at the airport). If your vehicle is cited by camera, your car rental company will be billed, and the company will in turn tack the charge onto your bill. If for some reason the rental car company can’t do this, they may pursue civil action (think a collection agency, or even a lawsuit). And if the agency operates in your own country, they may be able to take this action in your country’s court system – and they’ll probably charge interest on your fine.

Try to address any traffic citation as quickly and proactively as possible.   You might be cited for something that is unfair or nitpicky, but chalk it up to a lesson learned and get on with your trip. Opt for paying an on-the-spot fine where possible, since in some countries, even the smallest amount of debt is regarded as a criminal matter, allowing such debt to be pursued in the criminal justice system if the powers-that-be so wish. This may lead to your arrest if you ever step foot (or drive) in that country in the future.

Fortunately, most road signs around the world are decipherable to the average English speaker (but, it helps to know some Arabic if you happen to be cruising around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)

Fortunately, most road signs around the world are decipherable to the average English speaker (but, it helps to know some Arabic if you happen to be cruising around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)

22 Things to Pack for a Trip to a Developing Country

There are lots of great travel packing lists out there — and with plenty of us fleeing for warm-weather countries this month for a break from the snow and rain, we can definitely use some recommendations.  I haven’t seen a list yet for  what to pack if you’re destined for a place where it’s easier to buy a goat than a bottle of Purell, or where the locals think that “Samsonite” is the name of an American airline, so here are my recommendations.  Believe me, there will be no room in the suitcase for your anxiety once you stuff all this in.

I. Bring to stay healthy:

  • A bedbug trap, since your place of lodging is probably unable to do anything in the case of bedbugs, or can move you to a bedbug-free room. Amazon carries a decent one: http://www.amazon.com/ClimbUp%C2%AE-Interceptors-pack-passive-traps/dp/B0028Z0LDQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1388938697&sr=8-2&keywords=bed+bug+detector
  • Vitamins. Don’t underestimate how many nutrients you may lose by eating non-fortified foods in developing countries.  Vitamins also help replenish your system after any bouts of diarrhea or vomiting
  • Granola bars, protein bars or trail mix.  Protein bars are my pick since it can become nearly impossible to get enough protein from safe sources abroad.
  • Water purification tablets, or a water filter
  • Condoms: these can be nearly impossible to find, depending on the religious and cultural swaying of wherever you’re visiting

II. Bring to stay clean:

  • Toilet paper: as much as you have room for.  I will never forget finding only bright pink TP in Morocco that practically disintegrated as soon as I touched it
  • Paper towels, in case your hotel or hostel towels (if provided) are dirty
  • A sheet, since the cheaper hotels, and many hostels, do not provide clean bedding
  • Laundry detergent, and a few feet of rope to use as a clothesline (among other things)
  • Enough hand sanitizer to sterilize a small village
  • A universal rubber plug, for use in tubs and sinks. Just remember to hide it after use each day or your host could accuse you of trying to flood his or her establishment.

III. Bring to stay comfortable:

  • A small, battery-operated fan, both to serve its primary purpose of cooling you where there is no A/C, and to drown out street noise.  Don’t wait to buy a fan where you’re going, since it will almost always come with a cord and you’ll already be using what precious few socket(s) you have to charge your devices
  • A sewing kit, if you can actually thread a needle; if you can’t, go with a few tubes of Krazy Glue like I do

IV. Bring to stay out of trouble:

  • Plenty of Google map printouts, zoomed in enough to get both the English and native language script for street and place names

V. Bring for a variety of uses:

  • Ziploc and plastic bags for protecting your electronics and documents from the elements Swiss Army pocket knife (remember to put it back in your checked bag)
  • A waterproof container of matches, or a lighter (also to remain in your checked bag)
  • A small roll of duct tape.  It’s come through for me as both bag repair and medical tape in a developing country!
  • A luggage lock and coiling cable (preferably one for each of your bags)
  • Keychain flashlight
  • World Market crinkle curtain-in-a-pouch: http://www.worldmarket.com/product/porcelain-crinkle-voile-curtain.do?&from=fn.  Can be used as a beach blanket, rag, rope, souvenir packaging, modesty or sun scarf, or a privacy curtain in case your hotel window comes naked.  And if you lose just about everything on your trip, including your inhibitions, at least you’ll have one last thing to wrap yourself in!
Unfortunately, there is no mall behind this neighborhood.  Best to bring what you need!

Unfortunately, there is no mall (or even a drugstore) beyond this neighborhood. Best to bring what you need!

Touring without Stress: How to Leave Your Anxiety in the Baggage Compartment

Joining a Sea of Strangers on the Streets of a Foreign City: A Practical Approach 

There are dozens of books you can read on understanding the social norms and etiquette of a particular country you will visit. The amount of information can be overwhelming, and attempts to capture a culture can lead you to believe that millions of people behave similarly in all cultural and social interactions.  In reality, etiquette is more rooted in local ways of life, with differences across provinces, rural areas, counties, and even city neighborhoods.  Think about how you would answer an American culture question from a Dutchman taking a road trip from Harlem, New York to a small fishing town in Maryland, to New Orleans, and then back to New York City – this time to Manhattan.  Would you know where to start?

One of the goals of social norms is to establish standard behavior so that people know what to expect of each other, and can stop thinking so much about basic interactions.  While many cultures encourage freedom of expression, many have tolerance “blind spots” and hypocrisies that may have originated in conflicts between religious, social, and political beliefs.  Not understanding or respecting social norms, no matter how exasperating they sometimes may be, can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, dejection, and significant stress.  Remember, your goal is to feel comfortable as quickly as possible in a place you’ve never been, so you can get your mind off “code of conduct” stress and enjoy your trip.

First arrival.  Sources of anxiety when arriving to the streets of a foreign city or town may include:

  • Not knowing what is appropriate street behavior (voice level, pointing, stopping to make a phone call, etc.);
  • Not wanting to offend people (e.g., violating taboos);
  • Smaller than normal personal space;
  • Level of formality expected or demanded; and
  • Fear of confrontation if making a mistake or upsetting someone.

A negative experience can amplify embarrassment into shame, with anger, distrust, and loss of confidence along for the ride.  Fortunately, negative experiences and encounters can be mitigated by a few key approaches.  These are:

  • Observation;
  • Self-awareness; and
  • Assimilation according to your own comfort level.

We’ll go over each of these below.

Observation.  Sit at a plaza café or a small park, alone or with your travel partner, and just watch people go by for an hour or so.  Notice things such as:

  • What are people doing that you find unusual or unnatural?
  • What are they not doing on the streets that you’re used to seeing?  This could include activities such as adjusting one’s clothes or hair, blowing one’s nose, or snacking at a pedestrian stoplight
  • How do other people react to someone who engages in generally anti-social behavior (such as letting a door slam in a stranger’s face, or corralling a taxi that someone else has hailed?)

Self-awareness.  Realize that you have two different street behaviors: one when you’re at home, in your accustomed environment, and one as a tourist or outsider.  At home you’re used to being part of the scene around you; as a tourist, you’re usually preoccupied with the scene, and stand apart from it. You may walk more slowly, stare, stop suddenly, and meander or change direction.  You may be more polite and more patient than normal, and you may be louder or quieter than normal. Your “tourist” behavior may or may not be more suited to the mannerisms of those around you.  Ask yourself:

  • How many of your unassuming street behaviors are going to draw unwelcome attention?
  • How good are you at controlling your first impulses and responses?
  • How much will this matter in your particular environment?

Comfortable assimilation.  Trying to blend in too much with the locals may take a lot of the enjoyment out of your travel.  Hurrying, looking down instead of around, and constantly restraining your interest and curiosity aren’t anyone’s idea of a nice tour.  Identify which two or three of your habits are the most disruptive or displeasing, and make a regular effort to tone them down.  Remember, the goal is to spare yourself embarrassment and anxiety – not make yourself uncomfortable.

This scene doesn't have to be intimidating.

This scene doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Tourist Scams: What You Need to Know (Part 3 of 3)

Here’s the final segment on what to keep a wary eye out for during your travels.  May you all have safe and scumbag-free journeys, wherever they may take you!

11. Driver or hotel claiming you damaged their property
I sat in the back of a taxi last fall in Morocco that had a large tear all the way down the middle of the opposite seat. I had my luggage over the seat for the whole ride, and when I paid the driver and got out, all of a sudden he started yelling that I had “ruined his seat” by destroying it with my bag wheels. He started swearing and demanding money, and people at the train station stared. A policeman came up and took my side, I think without even knowing what my psycho cabbie scammer was upset about, and the taxi driver quickly got out of there, so I got lucky (the policeman had dealt with this taxi driver before.)

Lesson learned? When taking a ride or accepting services from unscrupulous-looking individuals, avoid contact with all signs of physical damage as much as you can, because you can be blamed for them. Of course, shoddy hotels are also known for claiming that unsuspecting patrons have damaged the room. In general, when staying for several days at a place, you should clean up any cigarette butts, broken glass, or anything else potentially damaging before the maid comes in, or the hotel can get ideas about charging you for old burn marks, tile scratches, etc.  Also, remember to report any existing damage to the room as soon as possible after you check in, or you could be blamed for it.

12. The tap water is “unsafe to drink”
Hotels in foreign countries (especially in Eastern Europe) will post “helpful” warning signs around your bathroom and/or kitchenette warning you that the tap water is not potable, and that drinking water must be purchased from the front desk (or worse, from the minibar). In many of these countries, water is perfectly safe to consume, but the hotel wants to sell you bottled water. In some cases, they’ll give you bottled water, implying that they’re free, but then add it on as a hidden charge later; this happened to me in a hostel in Australia a few years ago (and I actually believed that the tap water in Canberra was unsafe to drink…).

To know whether or not the tap water is safe to drink somewhere, do your own research on the internet (preferably your country’s embassy guide), or ask a local. If you’re unsure one way or the other, then buy bottled water — at the nearest supermarket or mini-mart, not from the hotel.

13. Accommodation recommendations
Your tour guide or taxi driver will tell you that the hotel you’ve booked is closed, “no good,” or too pricy, and that he knows somewhere nicer. While this might be true, the “nicer” place is giving him a commission for his referrals, and if you say yes and let yourself be taken somewhere you weren’t planning, you make yourself vulnerable to more unexpected costs and detours. Furthermore, a stranger who is friends with your hotel owner now knows where you’re staying.

What can you do? Stick with your planned hotel. An unfamiliar, flashy hotel that your scammer has just pulled you up to is always going to look more glamorous than your reserved hotel did when you saw the tiny pictures online; don’t fall for it, and trust your original arrangements. If it’s a “reputable” tour guide who’s telling you to change all your plans at the last minute, you might consider ditching them altogether.

14. Help with buying the metro ticket
Do you love being self-sufficient by buying your own metro ticket in Paris, Rome, or other large cities — but get tired of locals huffing and sighing behind you as you stumble around on the screen to choose the right train or fare? Local opportunists will gladly appear out of nowhere to help you purchase your ticket — and demand a “little something” for their help. You should be very careful since at this point you probably still have your wallet out and you’ve just stepped away from the machine and no longer have the attention of the people in line who might actually intervene if your “helper” very discreetly mugs you.

In general, be leery of non-service person who goes out of their way to help you without asking you if you need them. If you’re “stuck” as to how to purchase a ticket, remember that the person waiting behind you has an obvious interest in you getting what you want and moving on. Try asking them rather than waiting for someone to approach you in your moment of ineptitude.

15. “I’ve just been robbed!”
A clearly distressed person (often a woman, but can also be a man) posing as a fellow tourist will approach you and ask you if you know where the nearest police station is. They’ll tell you they’ve just been mugged or robbed and don’t have enough money to get back to their hotel, much less get back to their own city or country. When you suggest they talk to the police, they will tell you that the police “couldn’t be found” or that there was a language barrier. The person will continue to be emotional (but not overly aggressive) until you break down and give them some money. Even if you don’t give them much, these people can make a lot of money in one day playing the same dirty trick over and over.

16. Forgetting your change
A friendly ticket seller at a tourist site takes your cash, then takes a long time processing your ticket(s) all the while chatting up their colleagues, asking for your ID, and perhaps answering the phone on top of it. While you’re busy looking around and waiting, your large bill has gone into the till and nothing has come out yet. A few minutes later the seller gives you a bright smile, some instructions, and says “bye!” so you’ll leave. Once you step through the gate you remember about your change, but have no way of getting it — or if you do, it’s the ticket seller’s word against yours.

To avoid being a victim of this scam, try vocalizing your transaction, such as saying “I’m getting 30 back in change, right?“ as you’re handing over your money. Don’t let your eyes and attention wander until after you’ve gotten your money. The scammer will notice you’re on the ball and find a more distracted person to shortchange.

One final note: beware of outright robbery committed by motorcycling bag-snatchers out there (not that these cool Bangkok locals would even think of it)

One final note: beware of outright robbery committed by motorcycling bag-snatchers out there (not that these cool Bangkok locals would even think of it)