Sunday, July 27, 2014

You're Not In Kansas Anymore!

Welcome to The Blissful Wanderer blog. As a lover of travel, culture and informed tourism, I hope to share information, experiences and opinions with other travel lovers that will help make our future travels a little more fun and a lot less stressful.
  I believe the key to successful travel is to be open-minded and accepting of the places we visit. I don’t know how many times I’ve been embarrassed by “ugly Americans” while I’m a guest in another country. Ugly behavior includes but is not limited to acting like a jerk because people don’t speak English, getting freaked out by things that are just done differently in the country being visited, and treating the locals like servants. Ugly behavior isn’t limited to Americans, but sometimes I feel like we work hard at cornering that market.
  Travel done well opens one’s mind to the rich history and culture of the human race. It can bring people together in greater understanding and appreciation to help build bridges toward a more peaceful future for our world. Traveling well requires courage, acceptance, and a willingness to learn from and appreciate our differences. Travel done ugly is fueled by intolerance, unrealistic expectations and frustration over the very differences a traveler should be trying to appreciate.
  How can you tell if you might be an ugly traveler? Watch an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters International for some clues. Do you go to a new country with zero knowledge of the way of life there then complain about it? Warning! Does the phrase "We don’t do it like this back home” frequently pass your lips? Red alert! Do you get angry when you go to another country and a waiter or taxi driver doesn’t speak your language? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might be an ugly traveler setting a bad example and making it that much harder for everyone around you.
  I use House Hunters International as an example because almost every episode has at least one classic example of bad behavior. Almost all of them are based on poor planning leading to incorrect expectations and assumptions that could have been avoided with a little research ahead of time. Many inexperienced tourists share these common problems experienced by those newcomers:
  1. Language. Whether visiting or moving to a different country, don’t assume everyone speaks English. Many people will but many won’t. Arm yourself with at least a few basic phrases including “Do you speak English?” and “I don’t understand.” I have noticed that when I speak to a person in their own language first, even badly, they are appreciative of my effort and more willing to work with me and we end up learning from each other which is fun, as opposed to getting frustrated with each other which sucks.
  2. Kitchens and bathrooms and closets, oh my! Housing varies greatly in many European and South American countries. A German kitchen and bedroom is a lot different than an American one. A “suicide shower” which has an electrical device that heats water at the shower head, is a common and accepted feature in many Central and South American nations. Public and business bathrooms are not free in Germany. Suck it up and learn to accept it. Keep in mind that European culture and cities are a lot older than American ones. The buildings people still live and work in might be 100-200 years old, have no elevators and small kitchens. Closets are not common. I have seen far too many potential homebuyers complain about the lack of closets, small refrigerator or having a toilet in a separate room from the rest of the bathroom facilities. Knowing what is normal before you visit will make it easier to get used to. Instead of closets, expect to use an old-fashioned piece of furniture called a wardrobe. That tiny fridge and small supermarket are because most people don’t have cars and can’t or don’t want to carry 8 bags of groceries on the bus then up 8 flights of stairs. Instead, embrace the concept of buying fresh food every couple of days and appreciate the idea of fresh vegetables, a nice dessert from a local bakery or today’s fresh special fish or meat from the butcher or market. Yes, these lovely industries are all still viable and lively businesses in most of Europe. Isn’t that wonderful?
  3. Public transportation. You might never ever take the bus or train in your home city, but it is often the most common form of transportation in most European cities. Gas is crazy expensive in Europe, running about double what we pay in the US. Car insurance and drivers’ licenses can also be ridiculously expensive. For those reasons, as well as ecological ones, the best way to get around when visiting major European cities is by bus and train. Get a good map or guidebook and you can get around like a native. Rick Steves’ guidebooks will actually tell you exactly which bus lines to take to major attractions and what the cost is. I got his books for free from the library. Isn’t your $5000 trip to Europe worth a free trip the library or a $20 trip to the bookstore?
    Travel can be a fun and enriching experience when one is willing to accept that where you’re going is different than where you are from. Before you utter the words “This is not how we’d do it back home” check yourself immediately by remembering you are not in Kansas anymore. You are now a world traveler, a guest in another country, and an ambassador and student in a new culture. Your job on this journey is to learn, and enjoy, to surrender yourself to the new people and ways of living you are moving through, and to leave with a better understanding of your fellow passengers on spaceship earth. If you do a little homework before you go, you’ll enjoy the trip more and leave a more positive impression on those you meet along the way.
  Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!