Sunday, August 10, 2008

The World Traveler

Current Location: Finike, Turkey
Current Position: 36 17.63 N 30 08.98 E
Next Destination: SW Turkey Coast

Back in May I wrote a BLOG about the downside of some countries, in particular Egypt. I gave the Egyptians a pretty hard time, and now I feel it's only fair to take a look at the other side of the coin; the tourists. Just as Chris and I were disappointed in the attitudes and tactics of most of the Egyptian vendors, we both found ourselves continuously shaking our heads at the actions of tourists. This has occurred since we began cruising and is not limited to Egypt tourists, but Egypt is a good place to start.

It doesn't take much to research a country you are going to; between guidebooks, such as the Lonely Planet, and the Internet, it only takes minutes to gather a few basic facts about a country. Egypt is 90% Muslim; that fact alone should give tourists a clue, but if it doesn't there is more. Lonely Planet states “...revealing tops or bottoms are unacceptable almost everywhere except on tourist-only beaches”. And goes on to specifically warn women travelers that they should dress conservatively, and that European women are seen to have “tantalizingly loose morals when compared with Egyptian women”. For this BLOG I went a step further and ran a few Google searches on “dress and attire in Egypt”. Not surprisingly, most discussions told women to cover their thighs, neckline, and shoulders. So why then were 90% of the women tourist that we saw in Egypt wearing short-short skirts or shorts and skimpy tank tops? There is no doubt that it is very hot in Egypt, and I'll be the first to admit that as we walked through the Egyptian towns I longed for my shorts. But it was not unbearable, and as a tourist it is probably one of the easiest ways to show a little respect, and to gain some back in return.

I recently read a travel discussion thread where a woman was asking what she should wear in her upcoming visit to Egypt. I was disappointed to read one of the responses:

“I posted a similar thread a month ago and the general consensus given was similar to the above ie outside the confines of the hotel cover shoulders, arms and legs and even to go as far as a scarf for the head. Having just returned all I can say is bull. Wearing short skirts, shorts, tee shirts etc you will get no more attention or hassle from the locals than if you're totally covered from head to foot. 99 percent of the females we saw were dressed as such and never received any derogatory remarks at all. You get the hassle not for what you're wearing but because you're a tourist, full stop. Don't go over the top but wear what YOU feel comfortable with and enjoy your trip.”

Luckily most of the other replies gave this guy a hard time, telling him that he was wrong, and that it was disrespectful to the local customs. To which he replied:

"I'm not trying to show lack of respect or a disdain for the local culture but just reporting it as it was. We took advice from locals and not once were we shown any hostilities or were offending anyone on the contrary we were shown nothing but friendliness from everyone we met. Wake up even most Egyptians realize we are now in the 21st century."

Now, having just spent more than 3 months in Egypt let me tell you what I saw. True, a headscarf is overkill; most Egyptians who see a westerner in a headscarf wonder “why” and sometimes have even been known to think that they are being mocked. It is also true that the men will harass a western woman whether she is covered from neck to toe or showing endless amounts of skin. In addition, if you are traveling with a large tour group, with lots of inappropriately dressed women, then you just kind of blend in and no one will harass you individually. But what this guy did not see (but would've if he'd taken the time to watch things “behind the scenes”) were the faces and reactions that occurred behind the backs of such dressed women. I saw Egyptian men look at each other and make kissing motions and point as a skimpily dressed women passed. I saw local women laugh at & mock western women. There were looks of disgust and even some photograph taking, as if to later show their families, "can you believe these women". It wasn't even that these visiting women were wearing something slightly inappropriate (like long shorts instead of pants), we saw a number of women wearing skirts so short that, as Chris likes to say, "if they farted we’d see their panties".

I have heard other comments similar to "we are now in the 21st century". Such as "well, I’m [insert nationality] and this is how we dress, so why change?" I have even heard the extremely naive statements of; "it’s good for them to see other cultures" and "what about women’s rights?" I always wonder what drives people to travel. I assume there is some interest in the culture and customs of other countries, and if that is true than why wouldn't a traveler heed to some of the more basic customs out of respect? And if it is not true, if there is no interest what so ever, then why leave one's own country? Why not stay home, in the comforts of their own cultural bubble where they can continue to live exactly how they want without consideration for others? Good friends of ours once made a similar comment and after debating the matter for a good hour, Chris and I left it with a wedding analogy. If you were invited to someone's wedding, and hated wearing suits, would you still arrive in shorts and a t-shirt even though the invitation said "formal attire"? Probably not, out of respect for the couple you would "suffer" through the event with your neck choked uncomfortably in a tie. Shouldn't we offer the same respect to the people of whose countries we visit? As for women's rights, I think if we want to assist in these matters we should focus on respect and education and not clothing … as a matter of fact, speaking to many of these local women we learned that they don’t mind covering up, many truly believe it is the right way to live and dress, they just want more "say" in things.

As I mentioned at the start, Egypt is just one country in many where we have seen such behavior. Kiribati was one of our favorite stops to date. The people were full of joy and laughter and the atolls were beautiful. Due to its isolation and location not many tourists make it to Kiribati, especially to the outer islands. So it saddened us deeply when we heard that the government was “closing down” the outer atolls to yachts. Why? Two separate occurrences. The first was when a woman went ashore in her bikini. She was respectfully asked to cover up by the locals, but refused, with the same idiotic thinking of “this is what I wear, why should I change for you”. The second occurrence was two young men who invited a couple of the local girls out to their yacht and served them alcohol. How could they be so stupid to think the village would not be offended and, rightly so, a bit irate? It bothered us even more that these were fellow cruisers.

Chris has often referred to us as “World Travelers” rather than tourists. I laugh whenever he says it, it sounds so snobbish, but I do understand his meaning. You don't have to be a cruiser to be a world traveler, you don't even have to travel a lot - rather it is a state of mind when you do travel. A “world traveler” is looking to understand and embrace a world that is different than the one they have come from. When we travel to places we are not just looking to do a bit of site seeing, but hoping to also get an inside picture of how people live and why they do what they do. We want to be invited into their lives and we want to invite them into ours. The only way to accomplish this is with some respect in their beliefs. There is no question that locals are more open, more sharing, and more responsive when they see you trying to be respectful. What we have sadly found is that most (not all) short-term vacationing tourist care little about their surroundings (outside of the attractions), or if they do they show it poorly. They aren't out to bond with a culture, but rather are merely looking for some relaxation and entertainment. The end result is a lack of awareness of what's occurring around them. In general we've found that most cruisers and long-term travelers however do care. So when another cruiser, someone we feel a common bond with, goes off and does such an inane thing, we are instantly ashamed and embarrassed because it reflects badly on the whole lot of us. (And, by the way, I'm not saying that short-term vacationers and long-term travelers alike shouldn't want relaxation and entertainment; I'm just saying that I believe we can have both these things yet still be aware and respectful of the culture around us).

I'm harping on attire because it is the most obvious and blatant transgression of tourists. But in the last month there has been another behavior that really chaps me. Photography. And it is in this that even cruisers, even dear friends of mine, seem to blatantly ignore all sense. In the Arabic world (Yemen, Oman, Sudan, Egypt, etc), photography is a touchy subject. There are some who don't mind at all, but many more who absolutely do not like having their photo taken. Every cruising and land guidebook we own states something to the effect of, “many find it offensive, so ask permission first”. The number of times I've seen someone shoot a photograph of a local, who in turn is frowning or raising their hand to cover their face is unbelievable. How can these photo-takers not realize the defensive, non-appreciative, reactions? Chris and I are both avid photographers and we both LOVE capturing the people. We have "missed" many fine photo opportunities because we have politely asked to take a photo and been politely denied. I’ll admit I get jealous when I see others just blindly snapping away, and later talking about "this photo I got" … I too want that photo, but NOT at the cost of offending the very people I am trying to bond with.

I still remember a time when one Indonesian lady muttered something like, “I’m not in a zoo” to a bunch of cruisers who had gathered around and were feverishly snapping photographs. I wanted to apologize on the behalf of all of us, but the words failed me. The tables were also a bit turned at one of our stops in Indonesia. A local asked if they could take MY photo. I said yes. It took her a while to get things working, and before I knew it a number of locals were standing around asking if they too could take my photo … I felt more than a bit self-conscious and extremely odd. This was a good experience though, as it confirmed for me what some of these locals must feel like when swarmed upon. Chris and I are now even more conscious of getting out our camera when around other travelers who are also taking photographs. Many times if we are traveling with other tourists and cruisers, and if it seems like the “fight for the photo” is getting a bit insane, we’ll simply put our camera away and do not join the masses. Or if we are traveling in a smaller group, we’ll make an agreement early on to swap photos later; we figure even if asked and accepted, a local is not expecting five cameras in his face when he agrees to a single photograph.

It seems that tourists and cruisers both are at their worst when they travel in large groups. These groups take over a site or town like a bunch of locusts bearing down on a crop. The larger the group the louder and more vulgar they seem to be, and the less aware they are of anything outside the secure world of that group. Many tourists, especially those in groups, aren’t just ignorant of the culture that surrounds them, but they seem to be clueless of everything around them – including other tourists. How many times have Chris or I lined up a shot of some monument only to have someone move to stand right in front of us? And God-forbid I stand in line without breathing down the neck of the person in front of me, else some other tourist just steps right in, essentially cutting in line. Oh, and then there are the tourists who walk down a street or sidewalk in a row of four or more – causing everyone around them to have to move out of their way, all so that they can continue to carry on a loud conversation.

Finally, I must say something about the family tourist … those traveling with children. Let me start by saying that I adore children, I, in fact would like to someday have many of my own. Also, as someone who does not yet have children, I am clueless to the trials that come with raising a child. I understand it is difficult, tiring, time consuming, and far from easy, but obviously I am not in the situation to judge anyone’s parenting habits. However I do believe that if one chooses to travel with their children (and I do think people should) that then there are a few basic common decencies that should be practiced. For example I don’t think it is appropriate that parents ignore their children while they run around like banshees at a group tourist dinner, screaming and yelling while a well-respected local gives a welcome speech. And I’m appalled when I see parents idly standing by while their children climb over 4,000 year old statues of sphinxes, right next to a sign that says “do not touch”. Then again I must’ve seen at least a dozen tourists touch statues and relics inside the museum, all with signs stating “please do not touch”. So if the adults can’t “behave” then why should the children? And I wonder what habits the children are learning when their mothers walk around half naked in a country where shoulders and thighs are considered risqué? Obviously the next generation of tourists will be just as bad, if not worse then the current bunch.

In this BLOG I have made quite a few blanket statements about tourists, travelers, and cruisers. Obviously not everyone is an unaware traveler. There are a number of fine folks who do attempt to adhere to a country’s customs and who are aware of their surroundings - and obviously Chris and I are not perfect, I’m sure we’ve made a number faux pas along the way - all I’m saying is that I believe we should all try, and when I see tourists walking around with such blatant disrespect, especially when it might be as simple and easy as wearing pants over shorts, it disturbs me to the core.

And so the Egyptian vendors may not be ideal, but nor are the people buying their wares! Maybe, in the end, it all evens out … but how about the next time you are about to step out of your hotel in whatever makes YOU comfortable, think about how uncomfortable you would be if a man from Vanuatu showed up at your wedding in his formal dress; a penis sheath ... and nothing else!

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