I’m always surprised in my travels to find so many culturally allergic travelers. In almost every less-economically-advanced country in the world, especially in Africa, there is no shortage of five star hotels with guarded security fences, or clean tourist buses full of westerners and their western guides. Magical kingdoms towering over poor peasantries. And the market for such accommodations is never without need. I wonder why anyone would ever want to leave the familiarity of their own country and travel to a foreign land- only to try and simulate the comforts they left behind. Surely they cannot believe they are experiencing this foreign world in its authenticity by hiding behind these bubbles?
Considering the many high-maintenance tourists I meet every time I wander, I can only assume there is a rising market for such pampered travel. To cater to this demand, I have written my three top suggestions for a tourists to better alienate themselves to the cultures they are visiting.
Language: Being the subject of gossip is always more rewarding than observing it
It goes without saying, probably the best way to alienate yourself from a particular people and culture is to not communicate with them.
I went about this subject the wrong way when I first came to the Central African Republic in 2008. You see, I first jotted down a simple vocabulary of twenty words of the local language, Sango. Within a month, I could communicate like a toddler. After I learned questions, like, “What is this?” I had the power to then point to an object and be able to learn a new word instantly. Within three years, I was a fluent speaker.
Speaking the language meant I was immune to being swindled in the city markets for the “white-man’s price” of goods. I knew very well what the price should be, and when I spoke the native tongue with the local venders, they gladly offered a fair amount. But this of course, was an all too pleasant way of moving about the country. Perhaps, if I was like my European friend, I could have been blissfully unaware of the offenses I caused and the amount of gossip I stirred by simply not understanding the local language.
This particular person sat around the campfire at night in the African bush, farting loudly and to his heart’s content. He had no idea that the local men sharing the campfire with him were completely offended by this. He furthermore had no idea of the gossip this harmless act caused. He did get a good laugh about it later when I told him.
Many times, while on safari with tourists, I watched amused as the clients pointed at animal sign on the ground and tried to guess the species. I remember one of the local African hunters pointing at a buffalo track, while the client simply stated, yes, obviously it is a zebra! Oh, how I envied that person’s wonderful imagination- to be able to conjure up species that only lived thousands of miles away- simply because they had no understanding of the local wildlife or the local language to be able to inform them. This was the perfect tourist if I ever met one.
I often times think, maybe my time in Africa would have been a lot more interesting if only I had remained a tourist and not ever learned the local language.
Diet: nothing says “F%#* you!” better than refusing to eat the local cuisine
In central Africa, where I spent five years, I learned perhaps the biggest enforcer of community can be found around supper. Usually, a large bowl of gooey manioc that has been dried, crushed, and then mixed with boiling water- is placed in one large metal pot. In another metal pot, is usually some sort of meat stew in red tomato sauce. Before the meal, a bowl of water is passed around the circle of up to ten people, where each washes their hands; by the end of the circle, the water bowl is a murky brown. After this, everyone dives in, reaching into the communal pots pulling out chunks of meat and manioc before devouring it, and then reaching for more. If you are too slow, your supper might be cut short.
It was hard for me to work up an appetite during such meals often times. But every time I did, my bond with the locals was made more solidified.
Lucky for you, the tourist, you are not obligated to appease such cultural interactions. You can simply refuse to eat the local food- especially since it doesn’t look as sanitary, or pleasant as your own food. In fact, why not bring your own food when you travel? I knew of a Russian man that did just that. And when he shot trophy animals, he never even touched the meat- but instead, cooked up the beef steaks he paid thousands of dollars to ship into the African wilderness. I speak from experience when I say, this person was the perfect tourist. I don’t think he could have alienated himself much more than he did during the two weeks he spent in Africa.
Nothing says “fuck you” more than refusing to eat someone’s food in their own home.
Sleeping habits: comfort over culture
Wherever there was no threat of mugging or other harm, I slept like a local. This meant in small, ‘Ma and Pa’ hostels, or simply on the ground next to a fire. The locals thought tents were silly contraptions- and in any case, sleeping next to a fire around a pile of men was probably no less safer than sleeping in a thin nylon tent a distance away. This also reinforced my place among the local Africans I shared the day and night with. They spoke to me often, and addressed me like one of their own. I was, quite evidently, a terrible tourist.
But do not fear, there are plenty of ways to further alienate yourself from a foreign culture when travelling- and this can be found in the big, fancy hotels overlooking city slums in those exotic lands across the map. So common are these five star resorts that you can almost assuredly find them in whatever poor country you choose to visit. And there are plenty of NGO aid workers and ex-pats that require such pampered living conditions, there won’t ever be a shortage of such accommodations. You can rest assured, you won’t have to stare at a billion stars in the open sky, or be subjected to the insect noises and hyena woops and tree hyrax screams, when you sleep in a squishy, hotel bed. After all, why would you ever want to leave the comfort of your own home and travel to an exotic land if you couldn’t bring the comforts of home with you? What would be the point of that?
If this all sounds like bullshit to you, then you are probably not a “tourist.” Congratulations, you will see and experience a whole new world if you take the more authentic route to travelling. My advice to you, is to do the complete opposite of my above suggestions.
Furthermore, I suggest you seek out other ways to gain approval by the local people. If you are with fisherman, ask to go out fishing. If you are with a hunter, ask to go out hunting. If you are with a farmer, ask them to show you their daily routines in the garden. Most people- especially in Africa- are eager to share their culture to a traveler with an open mind. But for those that remain on the sidelines, there is a hidden world within a culture that will remain invisible to them.
Perhaps the single event that broke all previous barriers between myself- an American from Kansas- and the local people of the village Bakouma, in central Africa- was the night I raided an angry beehive with my African companions.
I was trembling with anxiety as we marched toward the tree in moonlight. We carried flaming torches and axes. We took turns smoking the bees out of the hive, and then chopping the entrance to the hive in the hollowed out trunk, to make the hole large enough to reach into. One brave man would then climb the tree, reach into the black pit of swarming bees, and then pull out stacks of honey comb. A handful of men had already undertaken the task, when I finally asked for a torch and then made my way up the tree. It went against all of my primal instincts to thrust my arm inside the hollow hole that vibrated and buzzed with angry bees. Immediately, I was stung up and down my arm and I grimaced in pain. But when I pulled out three very large honey combs, the men cheered in a loud roar. From then on, they called me one of their own, and the story of that night was shared far and wide.
Of course, there might be far less painful ways to earn respect from a local culture you are visiting, but the important thing is that you do. Otherwise, you will forever remain a tourist.