I remember getting off a rickety old bus in some Podunk town in Rajasthan. Throwing my backpack down on the street I hunched over and pulled out my Lonely Planet guide; looking up from the book I discovered at least fifty Indian men standing above me, smiling.
I’ve been around, but I’m not sure I’ve ever identified so much as a tourist so intensely in my life.
But by the end of my six-month trip, I’m happy to report that I was pretty savvy in staying out of situations involving large groups of men trying to sell me things for bunk prices. That’s as much cultural camouflage as you can hope for in a place like India.
Knowing how to stay safe and culturally sensitive when traveling is hugely important. Here are some quick pointers on how to keep your vulnerability low while still enjoying your experience.
1. Minimize Looking Like The Tourist You Clearly Are
Looking racially unique, this is often impossible, but you can at least look like a seasoned immigrant instead of a hapless tourist.
As an example, you won’t find native Angelenos bending down in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard to take their picture take next to a filthy slab of marble with ‘Shakira’ written on it. Behavior like this announces you as a fish out of the water to the many vultures circling around the starry sidewalk.
We’re not saying don’t do touristy things. We’re saying do the touristy things like a native whose cousin is in town and insisted that, “Y’all go to Buckingham Palace.”
2. Don’t Don the Local Garb
There’s nothing worse than the white girl walking around with the bindi on her forehead having a go at cultural appropriation. It’s offensive. Save it for Coachella.
3. Remember iPhones Are A Luxury Item
This point is two-fold. First, if you’re in Vietnam, or some developing nation don’t go snapping away on your iPhone 6S only to act shocked that some dude on a Yamaha stole it out of your hands, riding off in a cloud of smoke.
Second, don’t do the classic Western poverty porn thing. Yes, your friends back home will gush over that monochromatic photo of the old homeless woman washing her clothes in a bucket.
But remember that you’re using a device that’s priced higher than her annual income. I’m not saying don’t. I’m saying ask, and then maybe help out with a few bucks.
4. Quiet Down You Damn Yankees!
Americans, this one applies mostly to you. Stop shouting all the time. Your generally ‘Wow! Look at all of this foreign stimulation around me!” demeanor makes you stand out like a porn mag at the dentist’s office. Some cultures don’t appreciate shouting in public, so it’s always safer to be quieter than louder.
5. Just A Handful Of Words Could Save Your Life
‘Hello,’ ‘goodbye,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘please’, ‘how much?’, ‘bathroom’ and ‘bottled water’ are usually all you’ll need to keep the locals happy and lessen the chances of shitting yourself in public.
6. Know The Market
Wherever you go, know how much the basics should cost. India and many other countries in that region can be an absolute nightmare because nothing has a fixed price. And don’t be surprised or offended if the samosa you just purchased costs differently than what the locals pay.
Ask other tourists. And for heaven’s sake, stop peering into the paper-plumped depths of your first world wallet in the middle of the street. You’ll get scammed at best, robbed at worst.
7. Buy a Lonely Planet
The irony of standing at a cultural monument surrounded by droves of other tourists all holding Lonely Planet books isn’t lost on us, but they make the travel bible. I wouldn’t go on any major trip without one.
8. Mind The Gap, And Everything Else
It can be easy to get caught up in the pure magic of cultural tourism and lose yourself in your surroundings. But you need to be aware at all times to make sure that you’re always safe. That applies to life in general folks, not just on vacation!