Sunday, April 29, 2012



Disclaimer: I am not an expert of every culture in the world. I am pretty good at interacting with people within cultures I am completely unfamiliar with.

Meeting people from other cultures is one of the reasons I travel. Most of the people you will meet are really nice and interesting to know. However... Every culture has the other sort as well. If you don't know how to deal with them it will quickly sour your entire trip - especially in Asia. Within Asia not only are there a lot of people but those trying to separate you from your money. If you are not of Asian descent, your appearance will mark you as a 'rich foreigner'. Until you are use to being treated as a walking ATM it can be quite frustrating.

Believe it or not, the desire for foreigners to be polite is what can get them into trouble.


Before going to a country, read up on all of the scams of that country and city. Wikitravel is a good place to do that, there are probably others as well. Most of the 'scam artists' you will encounter in other countries are poor, uneducated and lack creativity. Knowing the common scams will save you a lot of grief later.


People will also want to shake your hand as you are walking along. This is done pretty much out of the blue. I can think of three good reasons not to take the proffered hand:

1. They won't let go of your hand until they are done getting something from you.
2. By controlling the hand, they control part of your body. Their pickpocket buddy may be working on your other gear.
3. It stops you walking.

People who do this can either be ignored if they are obviously beggars or a small bow or wei but keep walking. [The 'wei' or 'way' is where you put the palms and fingers of your hands together in front of you, accompanied by a small bow.]

[Note that this is primarily for the shabbily dressed individuals that without warning want to shake your hand. Judge the situations as they arise but in general I avoid shaking hands with people I don't know and have no interest in speaking with.]


The most important phrase you can learn in any language is 'thank you'. After that, 'hello'.


If you hire someone, they are on your time. If you want to leave now, you must be firm in that. You don't need to wait for him to finish his dinner - you are paying him. If you want to stay longer than he wants, tough - you are paying him. Set the pace of events you are comfortable with.


For most people, this is not a problem. Most people are on vacation for two to four weeks then it's back to their own country and work. For long term wanderers, it is not so simple at the border crossings. My suggestion is simple: Habitually lie.

The border guards interview scores of people every day. Your job is to fit into one of the normal little boxes or categories they've built up in their mind. A non-threatening, normal, common box.

'I am going to tour the country for eleven days then go to an adjacent country on a common tourist route.' Stating this even if you have no idea of how long you will be staying in the country nor where you will go afterward, will allow them to mentally shove you into a common scenario they've seen a hundred times before.

The main thing they want to hear is that you have somewhere else you need to be. They don't want you to stick around illegally in their country.

Forcing yourself to yawn now and then can lead to actual yawning. Seeing bored tourists is much more comforting to customs/border guards than seeing jacked up, nervous tourists.


Any time you are asked a question you are not wanting to answer, whether by a border guard or someone on the streets you think may be interested in getting money out of you, claiming not to understand their (often rotten) English (or whatever language they're trying out on you) may be of assistance to you.

Claiming not to be able to communicate with them can shut down conversation. For border guards, getting them to rephrase their question may allow you to avoid something while still answering somewhat honestly.

If you are bothered by people on the streets and speak an obscure language, you can answer in that. A better option is to make up your own language on the spot (some may call it 'speaking in tongues') and babble in that. What ever you do, keep walking. The scammer/robber/salesman will give up when they find you can't speak English.


Many people avoid the topic of religion. Unless you are dealing with someone who wants to convert or judge you, normally there isn't a problem in asking respectful questions.

It is very important to have your own answers ready as well as your answers to difficult direct questions. Asking looping back questions in answer to their uncomfortable questions is a possible escape. For example:

Local: "Are you a Muslim?"
Me: "No."
Local: "So you think the prophet Mohammed is a liar?"
Me: "No more than I think the Vedas are all lies. Do you think the Vedas lied?"

These sort of answers and escaping the person who would ask those sorts of pointed questions is one option. Saying "I don't feel comfortable discussing my religion with you" is another - but either way the conversation will be done. If I am discussing religion, I try to just ask respectful and interested questions. Actually being interested is a big help. If you are not, simply avoid the discussion.

If you are a Christian (for example) treat every religious site you come to with the same respect you would a church.


If you get any official business done in one day it is usually through a stroke of luck. Dressing in a suit (if you have one) or like a local may help speed it along.


[Disclaimer: This section is for Asia and Africa primarily. You can't really bargain in western Europe and some other European countries east of there. Do research for the specific country you will be visiting.]

Learn to bargain. Most people are horrible at it. I wince when hear them try it. They are worried about offending the 'nice man' or have never bargained for anything in their lives. Once you learn to bargain, it is not nearly the chore you imagined it to be. You may even have fun doing it. Here are some tips to get you started:

Know the correct price ahead of time. This sounds really basic but most people don't have a clue. They will ask the merchants selling the item or the merchant's friends nearby and get a very skewed price. You want to talk to several other people (individually) who are no where close to the merchant and don't offer that good/service to get an idea of the price. Also, don't ask 'how much is it' ask if you (the local you are talking to) were to buy this, what would it cost you? In this way, you get the local price rather than the overly inflated walking ATM tourist price. You may not get to pay the local price when bargaining but it gives you the number you should be shooting for.

Typical tourist scenario:

Tourist: "How much is this necklace?"
Seller: "500"
Tourist: (lamely) "Oh- I thought it was only...uh...400."
Seller: "No, it is 500, but I will give it to you for 450."

And he would have been happy to sell it for 50. Here is the way I would approach it:

Logan: "How much is this necklace? 40? 30?"
Seller: "No! It is 200."
Logan: (laughing)
Seller: "150."
Logan: "I don't like it that much. Many people here are selling necklaces. I will look at them instead."
Seller: "100."
Logan: "Hum. I suppose it is tempting."
Seller: "90."
Logan: (holding up 50 and waving it slowly back and forth).
Seller: "75."
Logan: (looking indifferent, maybe starting to walk away)
Seller: "60!"
Logan: "Sixty is still more than fifty..."

Yes, I've actually done all of those techniques before sometimes within a single conversation. These are all techniques that work. Don't try to employ all of them every time, experiment when you're buying inexpensive things.

There are some fixed rate shops but often that means they have something special or their prices are higher than you'd normally pay. Avoid them if you wish to save money.

'Everything is negotiable' - I do mean everything. I have negotiated over groceries which have the prices printed on the items themselves, restaurant food and pharmaceuticals. Everything. If they tell you the price is fixed, I assume they are lying.

Lastly, if you ever become upset during a negotiation walk away and do not go back no matter what.


In most parts of the world, maps are useful for you the traveler. Many natives I've shown a map to (even if it is in their native tongue) act as though the concept of a map is completely new to them.

Keep it basic and refer to large well known landmarks.

"Where is the Danube River?" is better than asking for a specific street. Wait till you get closer to the river to ask for the street.

Avoid compass directions. Most people in the world seem to have no idea in which direction north is. Note that if you are in a Muslim country finding the direction in which Mecca lies is not difficult and will help. My recommendation is to simply carry a small lightweight compass instead.

Keep your face and eyes toward the person when asking for directions. Do not gesture with your hands at all. If necessary, have them clasped in front of you. If you point and say "Is the museum in this direction?" they will often agree even if they have no clue at all. They want to be helpful. They do not wish to correct you. By keeping your body completely neutral they will have to do the pointing themselves. They may still make up an answer. In some cultures, admitting they don't know where something is they should know is a bigger 'loss of face' than simply giving bad directions.

Ask a lot of people for directions. As soon as you can break line of sight with the first person you asked directions from, ask another person. I've asked over ten people in a one kilometer journey before because I wasn't convinced anyone actually knew or I wanted do double check.

Sometimes you will ask an idiot for directions and they will point the wrong way. You have a choice at this point. You can either walk in what you know to be the completely wrong direction or make an excuse. This is how I handle it:

Logan: "Where is the Big Park please?"
Local: (points in what I know to be the wrong direction because I just came from there)
Logan: "Thank you very much! I will go check that out later. I will go this way to explore those buildings over there. Thank you again!" (And off you go!)


Every taxi, tuk tuk (pronounced 'took took'), rickshaw and so forth I've ever taken has had two things in common. First, all of them want to grossly overcharge you. Second, they all want you to immediately get in and go without discussing price. If you are stupid enough to enter a vehicle before nailing down the price, you deserve to be robbed. Plant your feet and get to haggling.


It is possible that eventually you will become frustrated with the locals and attempt to use sarcasm. It is most likely with the tuk tuk drivers who are often like beggars with vehicles. Because you are standing, walking, eating at a restaurant or even in someone else's tuk tuk - they will assume you want to be in their tuk tuk giving them money.

Tuk tuk driver: (spotting you, a walking ATM, gestures at his tuk tuk) "Yes?"
Sarcasm: "What do you think?"
Tuk tuk driver: "I think yes!"

Keep literal - they don't get sarcasm. At all. You don't want to stop to explain it to them as it will only lead to a conversation in which they will try to get hold of your money.


Just as sarcasm is a completely hopeless cause, so too is most humor.

You want to be careful with humor. Even people who speak English fluently may not understand the myriad nuisances of your countries humor.

Another potential landmine is that most people in the world take themselves very seriously. Americans would say 'over seriously'.

When using humor go slowly, gauge their reactions and never say anything which they could interpret as insulting to them, their religious beliefs, their culture, etc. I personally will use a lot of self deprecating humor but even that doesn't always work. "Why do you hate yourself?" I have been asked. Seriously - for saying I was so fat I could hold myself up with my belly on the bar.

Correct use of humor can make good friends quickly - incorrect use can make a situation very awkward just as quickly. Use it carefully.

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{{2011}} London, GB | Rail N Sail | Amsterdam, Netherlands | Prague, Czech Republic | Budapest, Hungary | Sarajevo, Bosnia | Romania | Chisinau, Moldova | Ukraine: Odessa - Sevastopol | Crossed Black Sea by ship | Georgia: Batumi - Tbilisi - Telavi - Sighnaghi - Chabukiani | Turkey: Kars - Lost City of Ani - Goreme - Istanbul | Jordan: Amman - Wadi Rum | Israel | Egypt: Neweiba - Luxor - Karnak - Cairo | Thailand: Bangkok - Pattaya - Chaing Mai - Chaing Rei | Laos: Luang Prabang - Pakse | Cambodia: Phnom Penh | Vietnam: Vung Tau - Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

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{{2017}} Portugal: Faro | USA: Virginia - Michigan - Illinois - Colorado | England: Slough - Lancaster | Thailand: Bangkok | Cambodia: Siem Reap

{{2018}} Ukraine: Kiev - Chernihiv - Uzhhorod

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