Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
Hopefully they help answer some of the questions I repeatedly get ('How did you manage with the language?', 'Did you get hassled all the time?', 'Were the people friendly?', 'How did you get around?'), and also cover other important considerations that are often overlooked. Hopefully it may help a few people getting anxious before embarking on their adventure or get others thinking about some of the impacts they will have out there. If so, great.
Language - on a trip like this there is no way of learning the language significantly well to get around using it. There's little point either as you will forget most of it a couple of weeks after you leave. Do however learn the basics so you can say hello, please and thank you and let sign language and comical mashed conversation do the rest.
It's actually hardest in western nations with long histories who are rightly proud of their own languages (France, Italy, Spain etc). Tourism in developing nations has necessitated a large proportion of the tourist-facing population to learn much more than the basics in a large number of languages so it can be a lot easier to get around them. That doesn't mean you should be lazy though - learning the simple stuff and toting a smile will help you get a better price and depart on friendly terms no matter where you are.
Try everything at least once - I meant to apply this mainly to local foods but it applies equally to other things as well. Sticking to the food aspect, as long as it's properly cooked you should give anything expressly offered to you a go. It may look awful or you might find the taste absolutely repugnant (in that case you should never feel obliged to eat the rest of it), but you also might have discovered a new flavour sensation in the strangest possible place - which is worth 10 abhorrent experiences...
Beggars - if I gave a dollar to every poor unfortunate I saw along the way I'd have been home within a month. Young, old or infirm, don't give any beggar you come across anything. You may feel like a mean SOB as you pass the 20th blind and crippled person that day, but it is the host country and populace's responsibility to care for their disadvantaged, not yours. You are helping the economy in general by visiting as a tourist and spending your money there.
At best your donations foster a begging mentality - the attitude that 'tourists will give us stuff when our government or community won't' - so that beggars start thinking they need to pester every tourist in order to earn their keep. At its worst, begging becomes a lucrative trade where 'beggar pimps' force children to abandon school or deliberately and horrifically mutilate people in order to increase their revenue potential - definitely not something you want to encourage by doling out your dollars.
I only change this policy if they actually offer something in return - like a packet of tissues (very handy in developing nations) or some other low value item you can pay an obviously disabled person a buck for to help out. They are working for something, making an effort to help themselves. But if all that's offered is a cup or a hand, all they get is a 'sorry' from me.
Bargaining - my attitude is that if there is no price listed on or around a product you want to buy then it is open season on getting the best price you can on it, because if there is no price listed the vendor is definitely trying to get the best price out of you. Hundreds or thousands of percent margin is their goal so don't let them blatantly rip you off!
You are trying to get on or near the price that locals pay for good, but in reality you rarely get it. This dual pricing occurs mainly in developing regions like Asia or the Middle East. The first thing I do when I arrive in a new country is to buy a Coke or a bottle of water in a small corner store just to get an idea of the real price of things. If a Coke is the equivalent of 10 cents then charging you $2.50 for a basic meal is probably a rip off. Get a lay of the land and then you can work your way up to larger purchases.
You should always negotiate prices firmly but in a friendly manner. Don't just pay whatever you are told or you will be inflating the price that people visiting later will have to pay. With services negotiate an exact price before they are commenced. Things like tours or laundry need special attention, preferably writing the price down so there can be no confusion as if it is not completely clear the price can 'change' and then their English is conveniently forgotten, making for a very awkward situation in order to force you to pay the new, much higher price.
The only time this can be counter-productive is when you know the local price of something and negotiating will probably end up in a higher price. This happened to me in the taxis in Cairo - kept negotiating $2.50 fares until I found out the local price should be about $1. After that I would just get to the destination, get out and give them the $1. If they complained (rarely) I could just say 'local price' and walk away knowing that I hadn't ripped them off.
The best bargaining tactic? Walk away. Amazing how much a price gets cut as soon as you turn around.
Tipping - Tipping is another thing you shouldn't do in developing countries as it invariably raises the prices that people following you will have to pay. Prices aren't listed (that you can add 10% to) and you rarely get the local or guidebook price anyway, so it's very likely that you are already paying a tip without adding a little extra.
Only using mechanised transport - it's not as good for the environment and those mules, horse-drawn carriages and camels look like a pleasant way to see the sights without having to walk a couple of kilometres, but the reality is many of these unfortunate beasts are treated abominably by their owners and I didn't want to in any way encourage that.
I'll grant that many of these service providers love their animals and treat them very well. But a number of times I've seen horses or camels beaten for some minor transgression (often promptly followed by a 'You want a ride???' offer) and some of the sad, worn, emaciated and crippled animals I've seen forced to trot tourists around made me despair of it all. If it helps to sway the argument further, it's the transport industry, and these guys in particular, that rip you off the most.
Steer clear and give both the animals and your wallet a break. If you really have to then make sure you inspect the animals first and give your business to someone that looks like they take care of their flock.
Vendors (souvenier or otherwise) - I occasionally buy souveniers, but find the rabble of vendors that spring up around major attractions to be a real blight on the experience. They are a fact of life however as obviously a lot of people buy their tat. What do you do with vendors that constantly pester you in the hope of a sale? It's a tough one really. Ignore them? Flare up and get angry? Just say 'no, no, no, no' to every one that approaches?
I suppose one thing you shouldn't do is buy from the vendors at tourist attractions - wait to return to the central souvenier marketplace as that's where they should be sold. With tour group tourism it's probably futile now but the less stuff bought around the attractions, the fewer vendors that will congregate around them. You will probably get a better price and better quality of good buying elsewhere too.
Meeting other travellers - quite often you walk past another backpacker and give them a 'hello' nod only to be flatly ignored with a turn of the head and an upturned nose. Other times you see a guidebook so politely stop to ask a quick question, then get a rebuke and a cold shoulder for the trouble - when you could really use some assistance. Basically the person doesn't want to even see other tourists because it will spoil the 'genuine experience' they're having in this 'radically different culture' they are 'immersed in'.
Oh please! By all means try to seek out new and different experiences, but when you do bump into others (which you almost certainly will) remember that are very likely share your interest in such things and it is the height of closed-mindedness (and rudeness) to ignore them. Talking to other travellers is likely to heighten your experience wherever you are as they may know some locals to hang out with, good sights to visit, foods to try or have funny stories to tell and just be fun to hang around.
And remember that very rarely, if ever, will you ever find a pristine environment or genuine cultural experience these days - everywhere 99% of people are likely to go is now well geared for tourism. If you do, the fact that you are there is distorting it anyway and you should be seriously asking yourself whether it is better to leave the people and place alone. That's another debate however...
Look for the good things everywhere you go - yeah the place isn't like home, or if it is, it's still different because they talk funny, only drink tea and the toilet water swirls down the other way. But you have to enjoy the quirks, not bitch about them, because they are what you travel to experience. Go in with an open mind and you often see happier people and things done better with less than they are at home, even in the most unlikely places.
Playing it by ear - there's no way to pre-book a journey like this or even pre-plan beyond an idea of where you want to go and necessary sundries like gear and inoculations. Even the majority of visas are cheaper and more easily received in the country next door (or on the border).
There's little point trying to pre-book as there is always accommodation and seats on transport available, even at peak times of the year. Until very recently (summer-time Europe) I have rarely, if ever, pre-booked anything. As long as you do a little bit of forward research you can get around very cheaply, easily and quickly by just playing it by ear and the sense of freedom this gives you is priceless. Locking yourself into dates or places is an unnecessary headache that often costs more and takes longer, and that you inflict on others travelling with you. Go with the flow!
Anyway, hope that isn't too annoyingly preachy. Any thoughts or comments appreciated.