After a month of gruelling hours and hard work I am finally taking a holiday!! I’m really excited to do a bit of travelling again – even if it is only for a few days. As I pack I’m trying desperately to remember my scraps of French before I reach Lyon and Avignon, and it reminded me of this list I wrote up a little while ago of how to travel without becoming that typical stereotype of tourist, who although generally has the best intentions, often comes off as rude, ignorant, culturally insensitive, and obvious.
Being blonde, blue-eyed and as white as a sheet of paper, there will always be places where I stick out like a sore thumb. It is not always possible to completely blend into the crowd when you are travelling, however, there are still ways to not look completely like an ignorant tourist. Sure, I have had some great experiences from locals who have recognised me as a traveller and have offered me advice and knowledge of where to eat, what to see, local history, etc. and these experiences have been some of the highlights of my travels. However, looking like a tourist also has a downside: especially in busy, tourist-heavy places like Europe or the USA, it can make you a target for pickpockets, cons and scams. Mostly these are simply frustrating, though scams do exist which are meant to harm or exploit in the worst kinds of ways. With that in mind here is a few things I always try to do when I travel.
- Hanging out in cities? Look the part.
This sounds a bit like a no-brainer, but really, unless you are actually trekking in the wilderness, or going hiking up mountains, wearing hiking boots or heavy-duty-super-comfy-but-ugly shoes in a city screams ‘tourist’. Ditto clothes: souvenir t-shirts, cargo pants/shorts and outdoorsy clothing you get at camping stores are great if your travels take you outside the urban jungle, but inside it tells the world that you are obviously a traveller who is wearing ‘sensible’ traveller clothing. Don’t pander to the cliché! Wear what you would normally wear on a day out in your home town: comfortable flats or casual sneakers you’re happy to walk in for a day and normal clothes likes jeans, t-shirts, dresses, etc. You will be just as comfortable and less people will stare at you for looking like a twerp!
Most importantly, wear clothing that is respectful to the culture you are visiting. Many Asian cultures, for example, are still very conservative in their dress and don’t like shoulders and chests uncovered. I’ve seen heaps of girls on their gap year who think it’s acceptable to wear tiny tiny denim shorts and bikinis under lace tops because of the heat, while remaining oblivious to how offensive that dress is to the locals. You stay just as cool in a light t-shirt with a long floaty skirt, or the cotton pyjama-style trousers you can buy in any high street in South east Asia. Look at what the locals wear and copy them – they know best how to stay warm and/or cool in their own climate.
- Act like you know where you’re going
A big unwieldy map and a look of confusion on your face as you try and work out where you are acts like a neon sign for con-artists and pickpockets alike. Taking a little time to plan your day’s adventure before you leave the hostel, or when you are taking a break in a café can save you from attracting unwanted attention on the street, and help you pack in as much sightseeing as possible into the precious time you have. I try to create itineraries based on nearby neighbourhoods and sights that are close to each other– planning also means you don’t have to do any extraneous traipsing around a strange city tiring yourself out trying to get from place to place. I also refold my map around the area you’ll be exploring before I head outside – tear off all the extraneous advertisements that border the edge of the tourist maps to make it more manageable.
- Make your daypack as small as possible
Particularly in big touristy cities, backpacks are the easiest mark for pickpockets as they are easy to slice open without you realising – even if you have taken to carrying it on your front. I’ve never found that I actually need to carry a lot of stuff when I’m sightseeing, and all that you need to carry can often be found in tiny travel size containers – the biggest thing you should need to carry is your water bottle. I use a small shoulder bag that I can keep in front of me so that I can keep an eye on it, and rest a hand on if I’m feeling really paranoid. If you find you need to carry bulkier stuff, try a tote bag – they are universal enough in every city to keep you from feeling too conspicuous, and they fold down really small so you can store it in your little daypack when you don’t need it.
- Put your camera away
This one is a bit harder, because as a tourist it’s easy to want to take photos of everything all the time. Take all the pictures you want, but when you’re just taking in the atmosphere put the camera away. Or, if your phone camera is good, take a few pics on that to mix it up. I have plenty of photo albums from trips where the only camera I had was my iPhone – it’s never going to have as amazing quality as an expert DSLR but it is certainly less conspicuous. And unless you’re a professional going on a photo shoot, keep the tripod at home.
- Learn a little language
A MUST for any conscientious traveller, and a necessity I cannot stress enough. You cannot simply assume that everyone you meet is going to speak English, and in fact most locals in any country would find that assumption very rude. And fair enough, how would you feel if someone came up to you in your country and started speaking to you loudly and slowly in another language? I’ve heard plenty of stories of people who heard other tourists try to talk to locals directly in English and get brushed off as a result, where as simply asking someone if they speak English in their native language first gets a much more welcoming response. I always get terrible language guilt while travelling, I wish I was able to communicate more with the people I meet, but no matter how little time I have before I travel I always make the effort to learn a few basic phrases first (‘Hello’, ‘Please’, ‘Thank-you’, ‘How much?’, etc.) to get me by. It will not only make your life so much easier, but you will have a better experience with the people you meet.
- Use your common sense.
The best advice I could give any traveller going to a new place is trust your instincts. If it feels like someone’s taking advantage of you, they probably are. If something feels off or suspicious or simply too good to be true, it is – go with your gut and walk away from the situation. I’m not saying be completely paranoid about anyone who approaches you, just don’t be super trusting either. It also helps if you travel with someone – even just someone you met in the hostel the night before – as generally it’s the solo travellers who are picked on as easier targets.
Some of the scams I’ve encountered have been simply for money. Gypsies in Paris were collecting money for ‘charities’ with false donation forms. In Europe and Asia hawkers will try and tie friendship bracelets on you and then make you pay for them. I’ve fallen prey to paying for a ‘special’ boat tour on my first day Bangkok for an extortionate price (in comparison to what you expect to pay in Thailand – it cost me about $20). The boat was nice, just took us on the canals for about two hours, so thankfully it wasn’t really anything sinister, but at the time I wish I’d just gone with my gut and refused to pay the fare with the group of equally confused tourists I met at the ticket desk who also felt like they were being fleeced.
I was lucky it was only a few dollars that I was scammed for and it wasn’t anything worse, sadly there are people out there who take advantage of incautious tourists from lacing their drinks to physical and even sexual abuse. These occurrences are rare, but it does still happen, and while you shouldn’t spend your holidays in a state of fear that someone will take advantage of you, you also shouldn’t throw all caution to the wind just because you are on holiday.