Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wheels on my feet

On Life’s Terms

An inveterate traveler, I was nonetheless surprised at how my stamina was challenged on my recent trip to Africa. In Rwanda I was lucky to accompany three wonderful companions on our trek to see the gorillas, and many times we discussed the rigors and etiquette associated with today's travel conditions, especially in Third World countries. I took notes on our discussions, and the pedantic side of me feels compelled to share them with you. So I have compiled a schoolmarm's list of do's and don't's to remember for those, like me, who have wheels on their feet.

First, the no-no's: I have been aware, since my teenage years, of the term "Ugly American." Although I thought this appellation outdated, I have witnessed many examples of such behavior, so here goes:

1. Please don't take photos at the expense of people you are with. The Internet has millions of shots of wildlife, and I found it disconcerting that most of the eight people in my group were jockeying for positions, cameras clicking, while I "sat" (supposedly in peace and quiet) with the gorillas in Rwanda. Maybe trekkers can select only one member to send photos to the others via Internet.

2. Second "no-no": Try not to focus your cameras on "quaint natives." I don't think I would like tourists to Idaho to find me quaint!

3. Third "don't": Don't comment negatively on the country's people or habits. Sample the local cuisine and don't gripe if you don't like it. Visiting a hospital in Moshi, Tanzania, and shocked by the lack of amenities we take for granted, I wouldn't comment on the beds in the hallways, the seeming lack of sanitation or other unpleasant realities of medical care in a Third World country; should they have the money we have, perhaps it would be different.

Positive ideas:

1. Get out of the box or your comfort zone. You have endured a couple of 10-hour fights; nonetheless, it behooves you to expect discomfort and delays. One cannot control those exigencies, but airport personnel don't need your negative feedback. So carry an IPOD, a good book or whatever pleases you to spend time enjoying. Don't rely on McDonald's.

2, Expect the unexpected ... Often the most precious and memorable part of travelling abroad is what happens when you have to deal with new people in odd situations. Travel is adventure, and adventure requires challenges. Take off your blinders.

3. Try local transportation—you will meet the kindest and most open people there.

4. Choose people to travel with, if you are not going to be alone, who have senses of humor. I was fortunate to meet those three other delightful travelers in the airport in Nairobi and then spent three days together on long drives and rather short treks to see Dian Fossey's beloved simians. I had the luck of the draw, I know. My companions could have been hopeless dullards, but oh, how I enjoyed their world views and input on African and especially Rwandan issues. Roaring laughter at morning in the lovely hotel we inhabited in Rwanda was worth any fancy upgrade I might have been offered!

5. Learn enough of the local language to greet people with civility and convey your willingness to "go with the flow." Living in Italy for a few months after 9/11, I finally figured out how to buy a ticket for the opening of the opera season in gorgeous Siena. When I arrived for the performance, I greeted my usher with "Hello and thank you for this opportunity" in flawed Italian. She scanned the ticket, frowned at it, then smiled at me, and sent me to a much better seat than I had been assigned. Amidst moth-ball-scented fur coats and the ebullience of my fellow patrons in the fifth row, I adored every minute!

6. Learn something about the country's mores and social ethics. When you are in Thailand, don't touch the omnipresent Buddhist monks as they pass on the street. The tourist who does exhibits insensitivity, recreating the "Ugly American." I was dismayed to see see hordes of American and European tourists in Bangkok disrespecting the great Emerald Buddha, bending in supplication with their shoes still on, cameras swinging, and sweaty briefs on display.

7. Final hint: Wear comfortable shoes, no matter how unglamorous you might feel, as you may miss out on adventures because your feet hurt.

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