The immigration officer in front of me is all smiles, despite his half-baked explanation of the Indonesian visa extension process. In stark contrast to his calm demeanor, my elderly Dutch friend next to me is not dealing with the process we are being dragged through quite so well.
His cheeks grow a deeper shade of crimson with each new document that we need to fill in. The news that we will have to wait 3 days for the visas to be processed is the final straw for him and he snaps, his walking stick clearing the desk in front of us before going flying across the office, as a tirade of racist remarks is unfurled at the immigration officer. Three days later my passport has an additional stamp that allows for 30 days to explore this wonderful country, while a furious Dutchman is hobbling onto a flight home, telling anyone that will listen of how unfair Indonesian immigration is, his application having been mysteriously denied.
… His walking stick cleared the desk in front of us before going flying across the office, as a tirade of racist remarks was unfurled at the immigration officer.
If you do decide to escape the tourist trail, then it may be time to rethink how you interact with the locals, as your attitude will not only affect the way in which the locals treat you, but will ultimately determine weather you become aware of the culture or actually manage to grasp a deeper understanding of it.
You are no longer in your home country, or even on the tourist trail where inappropriate behavior is now so common from foreigners that it is normal and accepted; this is the real part of travelling and it requires a lot more work on your part than being led around by the nose like every other tourist.
The truth is that, often, the way we behave when overseas has more of an affect on our travel experiences than most of us are comfortable admitting. Placing the blame squarely on another parties shoulders can be far easier than holding up a mirror to our own shortcomings, such as loutish behavior, short tempers or an holier-than-thou attitude; something my Dutch friend could have possibly considered before having a tantrum in the immigration office.
We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. ~ Talmud
Every single one of us is a product of the culture we were raised in; our gender, age, background and experiences are what makes us who we are. As a result, every individual has a different attitude and perspective towards what’s acceptable and what isn’t. What’s OK for some people my be inconceivable to others; some are more than happy riding a spartan DR650, while others won’t ride anything that doesn’t have ABS and traction control. In the same vein, some people love how raw and honest the streets of developing nations can be while others are uncomfortable leaving the relatively clean, orderly boulevards of more developed nations. In both cases it’s neither the Suzuki nor the developing nation that changes, merely the perception of the rider and traveller.
It’s this same difference in perception that makes a middle aged tourist lecture you about how you’ll never make it around the world on anything other than a BMW despite evidence to the contrary. It’s this difference in perception that can make riding in a new location fun and exciting, while for the people living there, it’s just ‘normal’. It’s this difference in perception that fuels the infinite debate over what exactly constitutes adventure riding and the perfect adventure bike.
Negative stereotypes, often mean being seen as a walking money tree that defecates gold bricks just after breakfast each day.
When it comes to traveling, any inability to change our perception of how we think the world should be to more closely align with the reality that we are travelling through will result in what’s known as culture shock, typically personified in the traveller as irritability towards everything and judging things that are ‘different’ as inferior. The most obvious way to overcome this is by adapting ones expectations and subsequent behavior to the customs of the host country. This doesn’t mean denying your own culture or values, it simply means respecting others; instead of judging things that are different, we can learn about our temporary home from those differences.
Reducing culture shock and moderating the way in which we act in foreign countries is important in fostering positive stereotypes of foreigners in the eyes of the locals. Most of us are well aware of the stereotypes of other cultures but we are rarely exposed to the stereotypes that exist of ourselves. How we are stereotyped, whether it be good, bad, or just weird, affects the way in which we are treated in foreign lands, which means leaving a good impression affects the way future travellers will be treated. A positive stereotype can often mean having strangers pay for meals in small roadside restaurants, free accommodation or even guided tours of someone’s hometown, all incredibly humbling experiences, especially when coming from people with far less material wealth than yourself (this happened in the town of Keningau, Malaysia as a result of locals who still remember the positive effect that the Australian military had there after WW2). On the flip side, negative stereotypes, often mean being seen as a walking money tree that defecates gold bricks just after breakfast each day, making you a prime target for the ‘foreigner tax’ in restaurants or being robbed at knifepoint, neither of which is desirable. Some of the more perplexing stereotypes include assumptions about the sexual lives of foreigners, often garnered from pornographic material, which can be seen as a legitimate insight into the sexual lives of westerners. Queries about the ‘size’ of western men and the perceived ridiculous degree of promiscuity of western women can be somewhat tricky to answer in more conservative societies.
The traveler that judges without attempting to understand why may as well stay at home, for if they rigidly maintain their own attitudes and beliefs, they will, in reality, have never left.
We are all ambassadors of our race, nationality, religion and even the way we travel, so regardless of how people view us, it’s important to remember that we are not the blank canvases we may wish to be seen as. But we can have a positive influence on the stereotypes associated with foreigners by the way we travel.
A fairly common aspect of culture shock is the tendency for travellers to judge cultural differences as inferior to what the traveller is accustomed to. Human beings, by nature, are pretty lazy creatures, meaning that when we do something, there is usually a reason or driving force behind our actions. It’s this deeper understanding of why people do what they do that many travellers never get to learn about or recognise in foreign countries, which can make certain behaviours or traditions seem nonsensical or unnecessary. Keeping an open mind to the possibility that there are logical reasons behind seemingly illogical aspects of a culture and asking questions can help to develop cultural understanding. You may not agree with what you learn and you might get 10 different answers from 10 different people, but at least you’ll be able to develop an informed opinion. The traveler that judges without attempting to understand why may as well stay at home, for if they rigidly maintain their own attitudes and beliefs, they will, in reality, have never left.
Learning some of the language (or even using a dictionary or translation app on a smartphone) of your host country so you can ask questions is the quickest way to gain a deeper understanding of your host countries culture, but if you have time, living with the locals can offer the greatest insight into their lives. There will be a time when every traveler is invited into a local home whether it be for one night or a week, and how you choose to spend this time can make a big difference, not just to how your hosts view you, but also how you view your hosts. To get the most out of your stay with them:
- Eat what they eat; food is a big part of every culture, even more so in countries where the majority of income is spent on food and drink alone and locals always know what the best local food is. If your host is taking you out for westernised food to make you feel more comfortable, chances are you’ll be missing out on some new flavor and possibly incurring your hosts additional expenses for a meal they may not enjoy. Insist on trying their favorite food even if it doesn’t sound very appealing. After a long day riding a motorcycle through chaotic traffic and over broken roads, almost anything tastes good.
- Live how they live; instead of going to see local landmarks or a nice waterfall, see if you can convince people to let you follow them in their daily tasks. I always feel like a bit of a freeloader when staying with people for free, so it can be nice to give something back by helping them with their daily chores. While it may be menial or dirty, working alongside your hosts can give an insight into their world that very few ever get to experience. If you’re lucky you might even end up planting rice in the jungle at sunrise while downing endless cups of tuak (rice wine) until midday when the blowpipe competition starts (poison tips removed from the darts).
As you continue to pay closer attention to the people and events around you, refining and expanding your skills in interpersonal intercultural communication through being creatively flexible in your responses to new situations, your “personal reality” will change, allowing you to more readily enjoy your experience.
They say that when your having a bad time, that’s when you know you’re having an adventure. Having things go wrong is one of the defining features of adventure riding, and if there’s one thing that working on my own motorcycle has taught me, it’s that freaking out about a problem rarely helps to solve it. A friend in Indonesia with an inherently unreliable bike once advised me that when your motorcycle leaves you stranded on the side of the road, the first step to fixing it is to smoke a cigarette. This gives you the time you need to think about the best solution, while letting the engine cool down so you don’t burn your hands when you do start working on it. Every problem has a solution (bike related or otherwise) and, contrary to popular belief, it usually isn’t a bigger hammer; a patient and methodical approach always gets problems solved faster than rushing in and making half broken parts completely broken. Remember what became of our Dutch friend?
… buy something weird to try; how else are you going to find out what Kick-a-poo Joy Juice tastes like?
Educating yourself on the history, natural resources, social customs, religions, art, and political structures of the places you intend to visit will help you to better understand and appreciate your new surroundings much sooner. While not the most important part about the country, having a basic understanding about the history and the current affairs may also provide an insight into how the locals interpret events from different perspectives. Be mindful though that some countries heavily control their media, meaning local news sources may not be representative of what’s happening on the ground, so don’t forget to talk to the people once you get there too.
Etiquette research may be of even greater importance if you’re hoping to leave a good impression on the local populace. Even the smallest, most innocuous act or word could be all it takes to make you look silly or worse, like when a mob of angry Indians took offence to the image of an Hindu deity tattooed on an Australians leg threatened to slice the skin off to remove it. In Indonesia, pretending to ‘steal’ a child’s nose could end badly too, as pinching the thumb between the first and second fingers is also a gesture for sex; not really the kind of gesture you want to be waving around near groups of children.
The majority of people who travel by motorcycle would probably classify themselves as adventure riders in some way or another and a core part of any adventure is new and challenging experiences. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is one of the greatest attractions of travelling in foreign countries and impossible to avoid when almost everything is unfamiliar. The simplest thing you can do is just say “yes” and say it often. When someone invites you to stay with them, meet their family (single men need to be careful with that one as meeting the parents can sometimes be as good as a marriage proposal in some countries), try a new experience, or explore a place you didn’t know existed, just say “yes”. Chances are, at the end of the day, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the ones you did.
Try a new experience, or explore a place you didn’t know existed, just say “yes”.
Sometimes waiting for offers isn’t going to be enough to keep yourself amused though, so you may want to set yourself missions or seek out opportunities. I recognized one such opportunity after watching the boys from a travelling circus ride tiny two stroke motorcycles horizontally around the Wall of Death in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. So, with a little persuasion and after letting one of the riders take my bike for a quick spin, I found myself at the steepest lean angle I’ll ever achieve, wobbling my way up and down the vertical walls of their arena, trying not to get my flip-flops trapped in the gaps where planks of wood were missing. Was it dangerous? Yes. Should I have worn a helmet? Too bloody right I should have. Do I regret doing it? Not for an instant and it still beings a smile to my face every time I remember it.
You may want to take smaller steps than doing dodgy things like learning to ride the Wall of Death from some boys that don’t speak English, which is understandable and probably very sensible, so take smaller steps to get out of your comfort zone. Dine in the streets, order food based purely on the fact that you’ve never eaten it before or don’t know what it is, learn a new skill by asking a local to show you how they do something (you’d be surprised how open people can be in teaching you something new if you approach them with a genuine interest in what they are doing and are willing to get your hands dirty), learn a word of the local language each day or just visit the local grocery store and buy something weird to try (how else are you going to find out what Kick-a-poo Joy Juice tastes like?). Setting yourself challenges and ticking them off one by one and, slowly but surely, you’ll find yourself interacting more with the locals and doing things you never thought possible.
For those travelling as a couple or in a group, try travelling alone, even if it just for a short time. I know for those riding two-up this might prove to be a challenge, but get creative and try spending a day or two apart. Travelling with friends or family from similar backgrounds often reinforces our cultural institutions and judgmental behavior towards things that are different. Travelling alone forces you to interact with locals, removes that safe cocoon and allows for the personal space necessary to question our normal responses and values that support them.
Riding a motorcycle through foreign countries can be a lesson in bureaucracy at times and the moments between collecting stamps and signatures and maintaining motorcycles and gear are few and far between at times. But once in a while, try to sit in the one place for a few hours, writing postcards or drinking coffee, and just watch the daily life of locals unfold in front of you. The ability to sit, watch and understand doesn’t go unnoticed, and often has a two-fold reward. Firstly, you get to learn something new about the culture and the people that you are with while in a genuine setting that’s not served up to you on a silver platter through a guidebook or from some underpaid local engaged by a tour company to dress up and give you a ‘unique’ and ‘genuine’ experience. The second benefit, and by far the more important of the two, is that by putting in some effort (as opposed to paying someone else to do all the organising for you), you demonstrate a genuine interest in their culture, their lives and the individual as a person. Very few acts go further towards garnering mutual respect for each other and this can often result in being invited further into their lives; behind closed doors where normally only locals are allowed to witness the finer workings of everyday life. This in turn helps to expose the true nature of a culture and goes a long way to helping you escape their perception of you as “just another foreigner”.
One of the biggest detractors to being observant to daily life in a foreign country is the ubiquitous smartphone. Everyone has at least one, and while they serve a purpose, they often become an unnecessary distraction and an easy alternative for social interaction with people from home as opposed to immersing oneself in their immediate surroundings. One study of American students in China found that the students were averaging 4.5 hours per day online while 83% of their interactions were with other Americans, either at home or in the country they were studying in. To avoid wasting an opportunity in the same way, consider buying a local SIM card without an included data bundle, to remove the temptation to check it every 5 minutes. If you really need an internet connection, almost every hotel, hostel and fast food outlet has WiFi these days, and lets be honest, you’re probably not missing out on that much by being offline for a few days at a time anyway.
Something that isn’t often talked about is the propensity of tourists to constantly have a camera of some kind in their hand, be it a DSLR, compact point and shot or just a hand phone and the etiquette, or lack of it, of photography. Travel photography has the potential to tell amazing stories while at the same time dehumanizing locals and reducing their lives to little more than objects of intrigue. While on a photography competition in the north of Malaysia, the organizers directed our group towards an aboriginal settlement where we were asked to document their way of life. The locals seemed reluctant to give permission for us to take photos, so I asked some of the men of the village how they felt about groups like ours coming to visit them like this. Their response was a shy by definitive “we just want to be left alone to live our lives”. I put my camera down after hearing that and just sat and spoke to them, no longer interested in the prizes on offer for the competition. I may have left that village without taking any photos that will ever win awards, but I did leave with an understanding of those people than most other visitors ever will. Just like any people in the world, these were humans with hopes, dreams and a desire for a better life, not objects of intrigue to be directed, photographed and shown off like trophies on social media or used for tourism campaigns.
On another occasion, while photographing a small local market in Indonesia, one of the sellers commented in a loud voice meant to be heard by all “he will take these photos back to his country and laugh about us with his friends”. While it was unpleasant to know he saw foreign photographers in that way, it was likely a view justified by the actions of foreigners before me. The following are a few tactics to keep your hosts feeling like their lives are worth more than just a photographic souvenir to you:
- Never lead with the camera; if a camera is the first thing you go for when you arrive in a destination you’ll come off looking like that’s your sole purpose for being there. Try leaving your camera tucked away while you interact with the people, so they know you see them as human first and photographic subjects second.
- Build rapport with you subjects; again, talk to them, laugh with them, even a smile and a nod of acknowledgment can go a long way to making people feel comfortable. If people are comfortable around you, your photos of them will be more natural and less stiff and forced. Learning about what’s important to them and their way of life can help you in adding greater depth and meaning to your photography too.
- Get permission; this one should go with saying but nothing is more important than getting permission from someone before photographing them.
- Put your camera away from time to time; the problem with constantly trying to convey all the sights, sounds and emotions of a situation through that one amazing photo (or a lot of really bad ones), is that you are often not immersing yourself as fully as you possibly could without the camera there to distract you. Being able to leave your hands free of a camera and mind free from the photographic process can allow you to enjoy certain situations more, as you’re be better able to focus on and participate in what’s happening right in front of you.
- Give something back; the beauty of digital cameras is the ability to show your subjects their own photos, something that a lot of people still don’t get to see too often in some parts of the world. If nothing else you will probably get a laugh from the locals. A nice gesture for getting someone to pose for a photo is sending them a copy, either online or in the post, but if you promise to send them the photos, make sure you do it. You may never hear from these people again, but the number of times locals have proudly trotted out photos of themselves taken by some other foreigner is indication enough that most people appreciate this kind of gesture.
When snapping photos of people in a foreign land, its always important to ask ourselves what’s more important; the photograph or the person?
So when you’re planning your next holiday, spare a though about the kind and degree of impact you may want to leave behind in your destination, ditch any preconceived notions you may have about already knowing the answers, and start cultivating a habit of asking questions, trying new things and listening to different opinions. If we all make a little extra effort and remember that the amount of respect you earn is often in direct proportion to the respect given, we can hopefully change some of the negative stereotypes of both ourselves and of the foreign cultures that make travelling so fascinating.