Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On standing out

The advantage to booking a tour is the no-brainer factor: your hotel, intra-country transport, daytrips and meals are all taken care of. No haggling in a language not your own. No surprises when the map is wrong, the place is booked or the office is closed for a holiday - and the closer you get to the equator, the more likely any day that ends in "y" is a holiday.

The disadvantage: You immediately announce yourself as a tourist.

Whichever option you choose - wing it or book a tour - there will be a time on your trip during which you regret it. Perhaps you are being interrogated by train authorities in Monte Carlo because of the Barcelona train manager's bad handwriting on your ticket. Wouldn't have happened with a tour.

On the other hand, perhaps you're pulling up to a market in Beijing and the t-shirt merchants are flocking to your group as you pour out of your incredibly conspicious Grayline bus.

"Extra large! Extra large! We have extra large over here!"

Okay, if you are Caucasian and taller than 5'4", you will stand out in China regardless of your mode of transportation.

My personal preference is to try to blend in as much as possible. I get a small thrill of happiness when a local stops me on the street and asks me for the time or directions in that nation's language. (Sometimes I'm even able to respond!) The desire to blend began with realization of how unpopular U.S. foreign policy is in many corners of the world. Like many, I contemplated tacking the usual maple leaf to my duffel bag.

But the more I travel, the more I realize that most people regard others independent of their nation's leader du jour. Think about it, when you meet a Russian, do Putin's oil and trade policies immediately come to mind?

For many, the motivation is just wanting to be a fly on the wall and see the city or countryside in its unfiltered day-to-day glory.

Often the stuff on the tourist maps just scratches the surface - just like the "You Don't Know Me" t-shirt stands downtown are only a small, small part of what makes up this fascinatingly complex and multifaceted metro area of Washington, DC.

Besides, when you stand out as a tourist, a wall immediately goes up between you and the environment and people you're visiting. For some locals, every negative U.S./Western/North American stereotype might come to mind - loud, obnoxious, demanding.

In most non-Euro places an American visits these days, you're the rich person. So you will be hit up. People will take your photos then present you with the print and a request for money 10 minutes later. Taxi drivers may or may not give you an inflated fare. The tour itinerary inevitably will stop off at the "jade factory," "wool museum" or "diamond cutters shop" which is in fact a glorified store which sells goods for 3x that of the town markets. Inexplicably, you find yourself dropped off here for a good two hours.

On one hand, you can't fault someone for trying to make a living - especially when a big amount of money to them is a small amount to you. On the other hand, most people taking an international trip through these services are middle class and have saved up for this indulgence. We're not the Bill Gates of our nation.

My conclusion: The ideal tour is one where the details are taken care of but one's presence isn't announced as if by loudspeaker by massive buses and fannypacks.

Spot the tourists at this Brazilian samba show

On this tram ride up Rio's Sugarloaf Mountain, the tour operator's camcorders focused more on people funneling into the tram car than the spectacular views of the city.

Nacho the hot Argentine polo player wants you to click here


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