Or, How to Win the Personality Lottery
Thu 31 Dec 09
To kick off the New Year (Hello 2010), I’d like to give a few pointers (no, not the dogs) to the travelers and soon-to-be travelers among us (though if you want a dog, don’t let me stop you – they’ll do anything for you, including drooling). You can make the absolute most of your experiences around the world by following just a few simple suggestions from this fellow traveler. Even better, you can enrich your life and the lives of those around you. And who doesn’t want to be enriched? C’mon, you can tell me….I won’t tell anyone….
The Gift of a Smile is Priceless
How many times have you been traveling in a strange and foreign country and felt a little unease because everyone around you seems to be in a really bad mood? Sure, this tends to happen to people in larger cities because, quite honestly, they live there and have things to do, like commuting to work and trying to figure out how to take their 15 minute lunch hour in 10 minutes. In those larger cities, people tend to scowl so as to simply avoid contact with others and get on their merry way. They especially tend to dislike foreigners asking them how to get to the museum, the park, or the waterfront, because that distracts them from their “task at hand”, namely daily life. Now this is a generalization, but I have found it to be true in many large cities I have visited. I have also found that when I am in Chicago, a city I know well, or Montego Bay, or Guadalajara, or London, that if I am in need of some information, be it from a police officer, a bus driver, or a pedestrian, a simple smile works wonders in breaking the icy veneer the city dweller generally presents. People instinctively trust (or run away from!) someone who smiles. Rarely do muggers and pickpockets smile at you. Along with your smile, be aware of your body language. Try not to crowd people’s “personal space” because they then tend to back away and regard you as a threat. Stand at arm’s length, look the person in the eye, and smile. Look humble and in need of their assistance, because it is difficult to help someone looking aggressively at you. Speak softly. If you can unfold your trusty map without flailing your arms, all the better. People generally dislike some wild-looking foreign person accosting them for directions to the local hostel or bar.
Speak the Language
OK, you don’t have to be fluent in the local language, but a few choice words or phrases will get you a long, long way.
OK, you don’t have to be fluent in the local language, but a few choice words or phrases will get you a long, long way. You can easily get translations for the most basic of phrases for wherever you go. Even doing a pantomime of what you want works when asking people for help or food, or my personal favorite, a beer. Allow me to give you an example from one of my adventures abroad. My wife and I ventured to Panama (just after joining Travellerspoint, by the way) for a two week driving holiday. We wanted to see as much of the country as possible and had the means to rent a vehicle, although we had made no reservations anywhere and were “playing it by ear”. Now I studied Spanish for many years in school, but I was horribly out of practice and was reduced to barely speaking in the present tense. My wife spoke no Spanish at all. A challenge you ask? No, because I still remembered how to ask for food and beer and petrol.
An Example - So To Speak...
We found ourselves in the tiny town of Santa Fe, high in the mountains in the middle of the country. We managed to find a small hotel, and made some friends over a meal and a few beers at the hotel restaurant (3 tables, no waiting). We happened to be there at the time of the local town fair, which was a real treat (especially for the hand squeezed sugar cane and orange juice for USD$0.25). There was a large river nearby which we wanted to see, though the directions to get there were quite ambiguous. Plus, we were quite low on petrol, couldn’t afford to drive around aimlessly, and the nearest gas station was 75 km away. We stopped at the town square and found a small farmer’s market and started asking people where, or if, we could get some petrol. My weak Spanish and hearty smiles barely got responses, but there was one ancient-looking woman who understood and she insisted that her 12 year old nephew ride with us to the only local who had a supply of petrol. After 15 minutes of driving through the “suburbs” (and I use that term quite loosely), with a mildly bemused child, we came to “the petrol woman”. The nephew leapt from the car and began to explain to the woman that these two gringos needed to power their car. The woman asked me how much we needed. I smiled and replied that 5 gallons should do the trick. The woman furrowed her brow, but then raised her arm and signaled to the 8 children on the porch to retrieve some petrol. They came out with 5 one gallon cooking oil jugs (Mazola if I remember), but hey, it was a hire car, so what the hell. The petrol woman began siphoning, by mouth, until all 5 gallons were stored away in our car. I was a bit stunned by her kindness, especially the siphoning by mouth part. I asked her how much she would like for the petrol, and as it was USD$2.50 per gallon at the time, she said USD$12.50. I reached into my pocket and handed her a USD$20 bill. As she started to motion, brow furrowed again, to her eldest child for change, I stopped her and said “Senora, no es necessario. Es para tu y su familia, y muchas gracias para su felicidad” (Madam, it is not necessary. It is for you and your family, and thank you for your kindness) – at least I thought that’s what I said. And I smiled. It took, quite literally, 20 more minutes before we could escape the blessings of this petrol woman. I had absolutely no idea what she was saying, but I got the gist after 12 hugs and many “muchas gracias senor” and references to various saints. The rest of our voyage in Panama went without incident (as we had been blessed) including being stopped by a police commandante (with machine gun) on a very rural road who only wanted a ride to the police station, then proceeded to try to sell us real estate. Crazy trip. BUT, the point is, a little rudimentary language and a smile will get you to the river. And it did for us. And we could have purchased a nice finca from the commandante, who barely noticed the half empty bottle of Panamanian seco (vodka) on the back seat of the car……
The most important thing you can ever take with you on your travels is your personality, although a valid passport is a close second. Even money pales in comparison to a good personality. People have traveled the world on nothing more than a smile, a handshake, and good conversation. People you meet in your travels will not respect you for how much money you have, but they will respect you if you are a kind person who treats them with the respect any human deserves.
When you are abroad, you must always remember that you are an ambassador of your country, even if they don’t give you the ambassador’s limousine. Locals will always remember “that nice guy from England”, or “that nice woman from Boise, Idaho”, or “that nice couple from Guatemala City”. Images of entire countries are developed from a single encounter. It’s happened to you, hasn’t it? Some obnoxious tourist who insists on food from their country, or one of their own beers, or pushes past people to take a snapshot? We have all seen them, and those people have made a poor impression on us. Is everyone from (insert country name here) like that? DO NOT BE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE!!!!!! It’s not difficult. A simple understanding that you are now in a different culture (or if in your own country, you’re not at home) will go a long way toward developing new relationships that can last a lifetime, or at least show people that not everyone from where you live is a complete ass. It has worked well for me, though it’s possible that some out there may still think I’m a complete ass. But I try. And that’s all you need to do……try.
If you have other tips and tricks for your fellow travellers, then join us in educating travellers worldwide. To get started, send our editors an email at unravelled [at] travellerspoint [dot] com. Let them know a bit about yourself, and maybe include some writing samples and ideas for entries. They will review your submission and, if you fit the bill, they will welcome you to the team.