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Response to Chris Bucholz’s “5 Stupid Travel Myths Everyone Believes”

Why does this bother me so much? I’ve only traveled outside of the country once.

Cracked.com has slowly turned into a very cool, informative site. Sure, the boob jokes get old, but the authors generally cite their sources (and often those cites are more than just Wikipedia) and present ideas that might make the reader stop and think, even if not fully agree. I started reading for the long lists of silly Halloween costumes, but I stayed for the thoughtful sociology and history posts.

That said, Chris Bucholz’s “5 Stupid Travel Myths Everyone Believes” has really rubbed me the wrong way.

Full disclosure: I have traveled outside of the U.S. just once, to Germany and Austria. I visited Europe equipped with four years of high school German. In the future, I’d like to visit Anglophone countries. I’m learning Hindi, but still don’t know much more than, “Hello, how are you? I am fine,” and am too embarrassed to ask the shopkeepers at the local Indian stories if I might practice on them. Bucholz, in his intro, says he has visited many world cities, so I am willing to grant he has more traveling experience than I do.

The first myth he discusses: “Public transit is the best way to get around.” He suggests that one is missing out on what the city is actually like. Instead, one should walk everywhere instead.

I could see arguing against public transport because it’s time consuming, it won’t take one to one’s actual destination, or it might be more expensive than alternatives. I commuted by bus for most of last year; it took me an hour in two buses to cover what a car can do in 20 minutes, plus I still had to walk a mile to and from various bus stops.

But one can certainly still get a feel for the city by using public transportation. Locals use buses and subways, after all. One can still look out the windows.

I enjoy walking, and often walk a lot on vacation, but that’s not feasible for everyone, either. I would suggest this myth be changed to “Myth: Always use public transportation.” I would suggest, “Walk when you can, take the bus when you can, and hey, renting a car can be cool, too.”

The second myth is “You should speak at least some of the language.” Bucholz suggests one does not need to know a foreign language because: 1. One does not need to be polite (the locals hate tourists) and 2. Everyone speaks English anyway. He says this has worked for him, and I don’t wish to deny his experience.

It’s true that some people dislike tourists. I got the occasional eyeroll in Germany, though generally no one seemed to mind me. And it’s true that English is spoken/understood all over the world. Often when I tried to speak German, the other person would immediately switch to English. Pretty much everyone’s English was better than my German.

But the farther one travels from large cities, the less likely one is to find English speakers. Signs might be written in a local language, but not in English. Wouldn’t be helpful to know, if nothing else, the word for “bathroom” or “danger”?

Finally, I think one should always be polite. I strive to be polite even to people dislike me, because saying “please” and “thank you” don’t cost me anything. And really, how hard is it to learn “please,” “thank you,” “bathroom,” and “help” in another language?

The third myth is to “Buy local handicrafts.” Bucholz says he often doesn’t buy souvenirs. I’m the same way; I’m more likely to take pictures. I don’t want the extra stuff in my luggage, especially some cheap gewgaw that will just get thrown away in a few weeks after I get home.

He argues that “the best souvenirs are rarely bought, they’re found.” True enough, though be mindful of the local laws about taking rocks, sand, feathers, etc.  Finally, he suggests that most handmade stuff is not very good.

Now look, obviously you shouldn’t buy something you don’t like, or that looks like it will fall apart in a few days. But I live in Oregon. We’re all about buying local. I think one should support the community. Buying handicrafts means the money goes (or at least is more likely to go) to the actual artists and community.

When I was in Hawaii recently (not a foreign country, obviously), I checked where everything was made. I tried to buy as few “Made in China” products and as many “Made in Hawaii” products as I could. I want my money to support people in Hawaii, not large global corporations that are doing just fine, and to whom I will surely give money in the future. As an Oregonian, it’s natural for me to check labels; I know it’s not second nature for everyone, so don’t stress about it. But do consider what you are buying and where your money is going.

The fourth myth is “Wear a money belt,” which yeah, I agree with. It’s always obvious when someone is wearing a purse that’s meant to be unobtrusive. I mean, use one if you like it. But it’s probably better to just read up on common scams and don’t keep your wallet in your back pocket.

Finally, the fifth myth is “Make an effort to meet locals.” Bucholz suggests that the locals hate you, and aren’t interested in you, especially because you’re not unique (just one of many tourists) and you’ll be gone in a few days. I can’t argue with that (other than the hatred part). We should remember that most of the time we’re not some oddity.

I can be pretty shy, so I’ve never gone out of my way to meet people. But again, why not at least be friendly? If you can politely ask a question, go for it.  When I was in Hawaii (again, not a foreign country), I was regularly asked where I was from by cashiers and waiters/waitresses. I’m sure many of them asked simply because some manager had told them to. But I’d give a friendly reply, and often get one in return and it was just a nice interaction.

No one really cared about where I was from in Germany. In Munich, I was just another tourist. But that’s fine, too. I don’t push my friendship on anyone. But I tried to at least smile and say “hello.”

My parents were from the Midwest, though. Not a foreign country, but a friendly one.

What are your traveling myths and traveling advice?

7 replies on “Response to Chris Bucholz’s “5 Stupid Travel Myths Everyone Believes””

Maybe it’s because I did the bulk of my traveling when I was younger (I was 17 last time I was in a non-Canada foreign country) and people are less likely to see a kid as an obnoxious tourist, but I had plenty of pleasant conversations with locals when I traveled. I think the trick is to remember the basic rules of talking to strangers apply here. Not every situation is a social one and some people will not wanna have a chat with some rando. Also approaching someone as a “local” first and a person second will probably not win you any favors.

This makes me mad, too. First off, he’s really super-duper overgeneralizing by assuming that your international travel tips are “myths” EVERYWHERE in the world.

I read this as: You can go wherever you want and be rude, because you’re American and they assume you don’t speak English and are rude, anyway!

Last year I went to Turkey on vacation, and while in Istanbul everyone spoke English, it still was annoying that I couldn’t even say hello, please, or thank you. In smaller cities, we would have been completely screwed if I hadn’t figured out the way to say “Bus Station.” Everyone does not speak English, and it’s rude to assume they do.

Regarding making friends with the locals – of course it’s not necessary, but it’s so rewarding!

Basically – he totally rubs me the wrong way, too. It’s like he’s giving advice to the people that go on House Hunters International, or something (don’t even get me started on them.)

Ah, House Hunters International. Where Americans who want to live in another country (or at least go there a lot) but still act like Americans buy houses and apartments.

There are some exceptions, of course (people who know more about the culture than average, and can actually LIVE in that city or town and will probably be “the American who teaches English”, for example). But most of them just want to be far enough from the nearest city that they don’t have to look at the locals, but close enough that they can go shopping and eat at restaurants every day.

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