12 ways to travel to the developing world without being a jerk
If your motivation is to “bear witness” to the plight of others you may want to reconsider your trip
We're all familiar with the image of tourist armed with tube socks, Hawaiian shirts, and cameras hanging around their necks as they scramble to visit the Louvre or the Great Wall of China. We all know them. We all hate them. Maybe like me, you've been one. Here are twelve easily avoidable cliches related to traveling to the developing world which too many people fall prey too. On your next overseas journey look out for the victims of these cliches (because you’re better than that!)
Happy trails, but leave the fanny packs at home.
1) Don't assume everyone speaks english
For many, this is probably a given. Although English is the world's third most spoken language, the vast majority of people on the planet do not speak English fluently. Part of the fun of traveling is experiencing new cultures, including some of the over 6,000 languages spoken throughout the world. It doesn't have to be awkward either. When dealing with an unfamiliar language, the best course of action is usually to smile and be patient - it's more fun that way I promise.
2) Don’t be Karen Smith
The Vegetarian Baker
Remember Karen Smith from “Mean Girls”? Don't be like her. While the movie was a parody, it revealed something awkward about how Africa is often portrayed in Western media. Of course assuming everyone in Africa is black is wrong (South African Afrikaners are the caucasian descendants of the European Boer colonist) or that all Latinos are Spanish (many Argentines are the descendants of German and Italian immigrants). It's always good to remember that race isn't as easy to conceptualize as it might seem on tv and in movies.
3) Don’t think that everyone is poor
First off, some of the richest people in the world are from developing nations. Carlos Slim the Mexican telecoms mogul is worth $72 billion dollars according to Forbes, second only to Bill Gates. While many people in developing nations live in poverty, many are also wealthy, or live comfortable middle class existences. In fact, a third of Africa’s population, three-quarters of Latin America’s population and almost 50% of China’s population are now classified as middle class. Most people you encounter in the developing world will have much more in common with the middle class in the West than you might think.
4) Don’t think the developing world will prematurely kill you
Anyone who has traveled to a more ‘exotic’ place has surely had people in the West ask “why are you going there?” or “isn’t it dangerous?” Just because a country is poor doesn’t mean you’re going to be robbed or kidnapped the moment you leave the airport. Many developing nations are actually safer than the United States whose homicide rate of 4.8 murders per 100,000 people is higher than Uzbekistan’s rate of 3.7, Martinique’s 4.2, Niger’s 3.8 and Djibouti’s 3.4, to name a few. Just do your research, know which neighborhoods you won't be welcome in, and respect local customs. You'll do just fine.
5) Don’t assume the developing world has nothing to offer
There are 981 UNESCO World Heritage Sites throughout the world which the United Nations protects due to their “special cultural or physical significance”. The sites range from the Statue of Liberty to the Mountain Railways of India. 508 of these sites are located outside of the United States and Europe - that means the majority of mankind’s crowning achievements have homes outside the Western world. Vacations in Paris are fun, but if you look solely a North America and Western Europe as potential travel destinations, you'll be missing some of humanity's greatest treasures.
The Citadelle Laferriere in Haiti
The Salar Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia
Angkor Wat in Cambodia
6) Don't be this guy
Don't be this guy. While your photo shoot pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa may seem harmless enough, avoid desecrating landmarks or disrespecting cultures. Don't be like the tourist who graffitied Egypt's 3,500 year old Luxor Temple - or the daredevil tourists who have been climbing landmarks like the cathedral at Cologne or the Great Pyramid of Giza. Remember the World Heritage Sites from #4? Unfortunately the United Nations has labeled 44 of them as "Sites in Danger" either from natural or manmade causes. Be respectful and take your cues about what's appropriate from the locals.
7) Don’t assume your money is going to fund a corrupt government
Corruption is undoubtably an issue throughout most of the developing world but it's important to view this issue in context. Using your tourist dollars to support local business can make a huge difference to the community business man trying to support his family. While some of your money might eventually make its way to unsavory recipients, it's wrong to think that it will do no good for the local population. It's also good to remember that some developed nations are not saintly either. France, the most visited country in the world, is not even ranked in the top twenty of least corrupt nations.
8) Support local business
Passion and Responsibility
While giving your money to people on the street should be avoided, supporting local businesses is an important part of conscious travel. Engaging the local economy is the best way to avoid your money ending up in the hands of corrupt government officials and supports your hosts in a more dignified manner. Fight the increasingly impossible task of avoiding McDonald’s and eat a local delicacy; it makes for a better story.
9) Learn how to haggle
Markets are some of the most wonderful places to explore while travelling. The plethora of local food and art that you can find there is often unbeatable. Haggling however, is often an important part of how these institutions operate. If you're unfamiliar in how to do it, it can get very awkward, very fast. There are a few simple things to remember: go into the negotiation knowing exactly what you're willing to spend; it's ok to say no if the price isn't right. Just keep your cool, smile, and cordially move on. The worst thing you do is get angry with a persistent merchant: they're usually just trying to make a buck for their families.
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey
10) Don’t be overly hostile when getting ripped off
Recognizing the difference between genuinely getting ripped off and not paying the dirt cheap price you imagined is important. During your negotiations remember as a foreigner you are likely going to have to pay more than a local. This is just a given. But more often than not, the exchange rate is going to be in your favor and the few extra dollars you had to cough up for your mother’s gift is going to mean a lot more to the vendor than it is to you.
11) Don’t be difficult about transportation
Patience is key when traveling to and throughout the developing world. Try containing your panic when the taxi driver lets twenty people in a van which would normally hold only six where you come from. Paved roads and bridges can be less common in developing parts of the world, but remember, that's not the whole story. You may encounter better road infrastructure in certain developing countries than in developed ones. For instance, over 70% of roads in Morocco are paved compared to only 66% of roads in New Zealand. What you may forfeit in transportation luxuries you will make up for twofold in the new friends you’ll make while they’re sitting on your lap in the back of a pick up. Like always, just smile and laugh it off.
12) Don't succumb to 'Poverty Tourism'
If your motivation is to “bear witness” to the plight of others you may want to reconsider your trip. Too often we hear of ‘poverty tourism’ or traveling to the developing world to see the level of destitution that the “other” lives in. Humans are not zoo animals to be photographed and what some consider a shack is actually someone’s home. Focus on absorbing the culture, enjoying your interactions with people, and eat as much as possible (don’t worry Montezuma’s Revenge is not as common as you think).
If you agree we should all be conscious travelers, join the movement to end poverty by 2030 by clicking on the Take Action tab at the top right of this page!