Thursday, March 21, 2013

How to be a Good Tourist




If you’ve lived in a tourist destination you will appreciate this discussion. I lived in Florida, US, near the ocean for many years. It was nice, but even though I put up with the monsoon and lived there all year the tourists crowded us out during the best parts of the year. Seriously, the beach was like a big party with blankets spread out for as far as the beach allowed. Yes, we complained about them and even had jokes about them. Do you know what a ‘god damned tourist’ is? It’s one that comes from 'up north' and brings his family and stays. I was one of those.
Just like I didn’t like some of the ethnic groups that were perceived as cheap, the Nepali have their own opinions of us. It’s funny to think of the way they see us and sometimes disheartening to know it isn’t always a positive spin. 
We all love to laugh at foreigners, don’t we? I remember how people laughed at the people in Afghanistan for feeding the peanut butter Americans had sent them to their camels. Nepali love to laugh at us because we make so many cultural mistakes. Maybe that’s why they seem so happy to see tourists. Even if we don’t leave them some money they can still have a good day at our expense. 
Here are a few things Westerners do that are often not funny and cause damage to the culture we are visiting. Please do not do these things.
Bringing pencils and pens from home. School supplies are cheaper here and purchasing things here helps to support the economy. However, it is not good to randomly give items out to children.
Giving children candy. If a foreign tourist came to your town and gave your children candy without your permission how would you feel? If the Nepali children ask for candy and you give it to them you have done them a huge disservice. They will see the next tourist as the ‘candy man.’ The same goes for rupees. Why should you teach children that a handout is preferable to work?
Over-paying for souvenirs. The merchants pretend they haven’t had a customer for weeks. They will tell you sad stories about how hard life is in Nepal and it just melts our hearts. So we give them the price they ask. The next tourist will be expected to pay the same price you paid. But other tourists will look at the item, inspect it and see that it’s imported from China and know they could buy it back home for less; future tourists will walk on by. Although there would have been 25 NRs. of profit at the normal price, when you pay more they make an extra 100 NRs. You think you’ve done a good thing, but now that merchant thinks the value is what you paid. He raises the price and doesn’t sell as many at the new, higher price. What you’ve done by paying too much for the little trinket actually causes the merchant to earn less because he no longer moves so much product. This can be illustrated by visiting any Lonely Planet recommended guest house or restaurant. The recommendation brings business so they raise the price and sell the business to a new person. Soon, the only customers come from the Lonely Planet directly for a one-time purchase.  No one can prosper with one-time purchasers only, but the value is set and so is their likelihood of failure.
Paying to volunteer. Many tourists pay 500-1,000 Euro per month to volunteer. Now the NGOs are calling it 'free to volunteer', but charging for room and board. The prices range from 300-500 NRs. per day (9,000-15,000 NRs. per month).  You may think it’s a good value since they feed you, but your meals will be vegetarian dhal bot, rice, lentils and greens and your room will be hardly large enough for a bed and suitcase. But none of this is the reason it isn’t a good idea. No, the problem is that you will be taking a job from someone who needs it. If you are volunteering be sure you do not do work that a local person is capable of doing. If the agency tells you your job description will be laundry, cooking, cleaning or painting please walk away. Unemployment is very high and people will work for 150 NRs. per day for that type of work.
Random acts of kindness. One of my worst and most embarrassing encounters was in India. An old man came up to me and showed me a small bottle of eye drops. Although he couldn’t speak English I knew what he was asking for and I could see he needed it just by looking at his eyes; I wanted to help him. I took out a 500 rupee note and handed it to him. I had no idea a new bottle would only cost 50 rupees, at the most. Many people saw me give the man the money, so what must they think about the next white person?  
Sponsoring People. Taxi drivers, trekking guides and even merchants will ask you to become their sponsor. I know a taxi driver who had the down payment for his car donated to him. He still goes around telling each tourist that gets into his taxi how hard his life is. Ask yourself when a tourist came to your town and set you up with a business?
Believing anything a Nepali person tells them. It seems every taxi I get into has the same picture of a child that needs help. This child must have 50 fathers and they all drive taxis! I saw a similar picture at a skin hospital in Saku of a child with a huge growth on his head. The child was treated at no charge at that internationally sponsored hospital. These Nepali have learned how difficult it is for us to say ‘no’ to a sick child. Another scheme is pathetic looking people who come to you with a paper for you to read that asks for donations.
Dressing inappropriately. Young women often complain about being sexually harassed or getting lecherous looks as they walk by. If you only saw a particular type of people on television and then see one in person, you would probably expect them to behave the same way. Please do not give them a reason to think you are a slut/whore/tramp/prostitute. Make sure your knees are covered and that you're not wearing a top that's too revealing. They are a simple people, yes, but please keep in mind that it is not your business to make their lives more complicated by giving their children a sex education lesson.
Bringing clothing from home to donate. People in Nepal do not need Western style clothing. They do not have closets so they do not need a lot of items. All discarded clothing is either burned or thrown into the river, so please do not bring things from the West that will become garbage. Jackets might be one exception.
Bringing environmentally sensitive items from the west. There is a reason computers and other items have a huge tariff on them. There is no infrastructure to dispose of such things in Nepal. Please bring only rechargeable batteries or take the old ones back home. A recharge unit can be found for under $10.
Beggars work in a ring. Think Oliver Twist. It’s sad, but it’s very important that you just walk on by. You will see women in Thamel with a baby in their arms that is supposed to be hungry. The truth is these babies are rented during nap time at best and drugged with vodka or heroine at worst. As you walk by some beggars, they like to touch you. Blind musicians and spinabifida victims are my only exceptions. With the blind there is an exchange of some kind, but many only pretend to have a physical problem. It isn’t your problem, first of all, and 50 rupees tossed into a cup isn’t going to do anything except keep the person locked into begging. 

Note on Beggars. We think we are motivated by our sincere hearts, but the sad truth is it is usually our ego that is motivating us. It felt really good to give the old man 500 rupees because I got to feel rich for a few moments. The sad truth is a few rupees tossed into a cup will not solve anyone's problem. 

The following suggestions come from a Nepali friend who works as a guide. 
Common mistakes from a Nepali’s prospective:
Blindly trusting the first directions you get from a local. Many become confused between left and right and will want to help you even if they don’t actually know. Ask at least twice.
Relying totally on Guide Books. Things change very quickly in Nepal. Trekking trails, entry prices, laws, anything and everything changes without notice. Always check and then double check.
Not double checking your documents and bookings for errors. Always double check and always find out what happens if there is a problem with weather or illness. It usually means you forfeit the ticket.
Sticking to the tourist trail. They become way too touristic.
Tempting locals with flashy items. It is sad to see how envious the young people can be. You will see them with smart phones and other things they are not able to afford.
Being culturally insensitive. It is easy to criticize.
Doing too little research.
Ignoring local’s advice.
Getting angry at the foreign country. If one person offends you or cheats you, please don’t blame the entire country.
Not hiring a guide or porter for trekking. This is a dangerous thing to do in any country, but who is going to climb down the mountain for you if you fall? You will be asking for free advice when your guide would take care of things for you. How do we feel about foreigners in our own country that take advantage of the system? They feel the same way.

Two additional suggestions:
BEHAVE DECENTLY- It can be offensive to Nepalese to show affection such as kissing, hugging and even holding hands in public so try refrain from doing this.
Always know the exchange rate. Do the math yourself and know exactly how much you are paying for each item.
Please keep in mind that your actions are not just impacting the person you interact with. It affects society as a whole, the economics of the country and its traditions. Do not waste your money and please do not cause damage to Nepal by your presence. 


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