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Review – Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer

I just finished reading a book called Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer, by Chuck Thompson. I devoured it with almost the passion of Kerouac writing On the Road, in just a couple of days. In the book I found support for just about every crackpot theory and harebrained idea I’ve had about travel. All the conversations I’ve had in broken English – some of it mine – at 4am in some back street alley in China or random Baltic cafe or even just my neighbor’s basement. It was amazing (not to mention somewhat gratifying and a bit of a relief to know I’m at least not the only kook) to see my words and thoughts in his typewriting. I’m not going to review the whole book, but I at least wanted to recap some of the things that struck me as I read through it.

  • Latin American police “corruption” is just a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. Cut out the lawyers, judges, court clerks, paperwork and everything and just pay the cop a nominal fee. Typically travelers will be confronted for doing something like speeding or not having the right documentation. The officer will, in a roundabout way, imply that there’s a small fee that can be paid on the spot which will allow the traveler to continue. And the American traveler will become indignant. You got caught doing something you knew you weren’t supposed to; pay the man. It’s a small price to pay to be back on your way and you can feel good that you helped the local constabulary put food on their table.
  • Most of the time the Americans are the most polite travelers. I’ve met more jackasses among the supposedly more civilized Europeans than anyone else. And that doesn’t count the numerous other of the English-speaking countries’ citizens that usually lead the pack in being idiots (I’m looking at you, New Zealand and South Africa). Note that this doesn’t apply to Americans in Tijuana and Cancun. I once watched a friend of mine scream in a hotel that he was the only reason anyone there had a job and he should be treated like a king. This despite the staff politely assigning him another room after he smashed his window and the glass fell into a playground. Even after his tirade they didn’t kick him out, though I was about to.
  • Travel is good for the soul and coming home is usually a bigger culture shock. After being somewhere else for a while you really start to see your homeland from an outsider’s eyes. For better or worse.
  • Horror stories are better than pleasant ones. There’s nothing quite as funny as hearing the near-slapstick comedy stories of misunderstanding and woe on the road. There’s nothing so compelling as hearing about a harrowing escape while getting shaken down by the Russian mafia. And there’s nothing more heartwarming than hearing of a travel angel who saved your bacon each time.
  • Things are never as bad or as dangerous as you hear. Yes, there’s corruption and danger and squalor out there in the rest of the world. But there is wherever you’re from, too. You just don’t think of it that way. Some of the happiest and most generous people live on less than a dollar a day. Some of the friendliest are in places people tell you are too dangerous. Some of the most honest and helpful are in the places supposedly most corrupt. When someone says “don’t go there” I usually put it on my to-do list.

But there were a couple of topics I rant about that I didn’t see in the book. Though he came close to these topics, the difference is enough that I feel like I have room to expound my ideas without stepping on the author’s toes.

The first crackpot theory I didn’t read about is that the worst words you can learn in a foreign language are “Do you speak English”. If they can, they’ll understand you in English. If they can’t, they won’t. But worse, it more often than not gives them the idea that you probably speak their language passably and so they won’t take the bait. But if you just go up and start talking to them, asking whatever question you had to begin with, they’ll usually reply back well enough or point you to someone who can. It wasn’t trial-and-error of an American lout that taught me that, but by observation of many a fellow traveler – also foreign but never American – who bristle indigently if the English is not good enough or the reply not polite enough. One of the funniest conversations I can say I have witnessed, though it’s only really funny in hindsight, is a Korean yelling at a Russian militia officer in his precinct and implying that it had been his colleagues who had stolen her DSLR along with her travel itinerary across Eastern Europe and the Middle East; each butchering my native tongue more the angrier they got. And neither pausing to apologize for not speaking the other’s language or suggesting such a dumb thing.

The second harebrained idea left unaddressed by the book is that I can never respect an American abroad who pretend to be Canadian. I don’t begrudge the Canadians at all, I’ve had great times with many of them. Nor do I resent Americans who are sometimes ashamed of their “home and native land.” No, it’s that these people tend to simply want to hide in the citizenship of the Great White North because they find it tiring to stand up to Eurotrash bullies whose only view of Americans has come through sitcoms and stereotypes. What’s the point of traveling thousands of miles to simply swim downstream because it’s easier? Why not go hang out at the Gap at the corner of Haight and Ashbury and complain about the fascist capitalist pigs while downing another granola bar you pretend wasn’t made by a billion dollar conglomerate, sourced by organic corporate farming (not that I’m against corporations or corporate food – I happen to enjoy quite a lot of it – I’m just against the hypocrisy of the delusional pseudo-hippies who are exactly the kind who follow the Lonely Planet guides’ every recommendation and consider themselves better than those on a package tour even though the effect is the same…but I’m off topic). One of the biggest rewards of traveling is experiencing different viewpoints, perspectives and ways of life. And a part of the responsibility attached to that is to be a good ambassador of your homeland. I absolutely revel in helping a fellow traveler see my country through my eyes, and they usually come away from the experience with an increased respect for Americans and the country. Several of these folks had been sworn enemies of Americans and their bible-thumping, two-Bush-electing, Big-Mac-eating (a German in Australia once asked how Americans could survive with only one McDonald’s around, and it being on the other side of the city), science-hating, racist (I’ve never met so many racists living in the South all my life as I have in my limited travels through Europe and Asia) dimwitted Ugly American ways.

There’s a follow-up book called To Hellholes and Back: Bribes, Lies, and the Art of Extreme Tourism that just arrived and I’m getting ready to dig into it.

Location Of The Mystery Trip (Part 3)

Atlanta Travels The WorldThis is part 3 in the series, where I speculate on where I might be going and tell you where I’d send me. Here are some things that I’ve learned in trying to figure out where I’ll be heading:

  • Did you know that the official language of Guyana is English and that it is more similar to the Caribbean than to South America?
  • Did you know that the three least known countries in the world are Tuvalu, Nauru and Kiribati? Nauru has a very interesting story. Kiribati is the only country in the world that spans all four hemispheres.
  • Did you know that this will be the 199th year of Oktoberfest in Munich? It will be held September 19 – October 4.
  • Did you know that the second largest Oktoberfest celebration in the world is in Blumenau, Brazil? And that the third largest is in Cordoba, Argentina?

I think that the most obvious place to send me during those dates is Oktoberfest in Munich. So obvious, in fact, that I doubt this will be it – or there will be an added element of surprise thrown in. Like “You fly into Munich and out of Prague. You are not allowed to take any form of motorized transportation during the three weeks.”

So where do I think I’m going? I think I’ll be flying into Venice, then following the Eastern coast of the Agean down to Greece and out of Athens. None of those countries require a visa and it would be a really cool trip. I put my odds of being right at about 15%.

Location Of The Mystery Trip (Part 2)

This is the second part on where I might be going on my Mystery Trip, wherein I let you know where other folks have suggested to send me and stop just short of revealing where I think I’m headed and why.

My boss said he’d send me to one of the following locations:
Kerguelen Islands
Canary Islands
A Finnish lake

I like the idea of Tajikistan. The mountainous region of Afghanistan and Pakistan – two of its neighbors – is someplace I’ve long wanted to go, and Tajikistan is 90% mountains. They also share a culture with Persia, another place I’d love to visit. The border with Afghanistan has been guarded by a modern army since at least 2001 and the country has ties with the World Trade Organization and NATO. I’d feel safe heading there, although I’d better get there quickly, according to Barnett.

A couple of my friends said they’d send me to Thailand. I like that idea, too. If nothing else I’m sure I could get some spectacular Tom Kha Gai soup. Though it will be the rainy season, that just means fewer tourists and cooler temperatures.

South America has been a popular suggestion. Specifically Peru and Argentina. I’d be alright with either of those. Machu Pichu looks incredibly beautiful and I’ve wanted to go to Buenos Aires for a long time.

Location Of The Mystery Trip (Part 1)

It’s now less than two weeks from my Mystery Trip and I have no more idea where I’m going than I did when I started this crazy idea. This is part one, in which I lay out what I know so far and stop just short of providing speculations on a location.

I’ve started working on the skills that I’ll use when I am wherever I am. I’m using an Asus eeepc 1005HA-B to type this up now. The screen glare is killing me. I’ve uploaded photos to Flickr and done some other basic tasks on here which will be required if I’m going to blog my trip.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s what I have been told so far:

I have been told that I have at least one mission planned.
The location will be North of the equator. (I suspect that this may be a red herring, since the real intent is so I don’t have to deal with Winter conditions where heavy clothing is essential to survival.)
I will be traveling Internationally.
I will not need to get a visa in advance.
I depart Saturday, September 19th and return Saturday October 10th.
I will be on a direct flight from Atlanta.
I need to travel light and carry boots.
I should have connectivity to the Internets available to me, though not at all times.

iPhone Maps Even Without Cell Service

You can use the iPhone as a map, even when you have no cell service. This is a trick I used abroad when I was going to a new country and knew I wouldn’t have a new SIM card before I needed to get somewhere. The trick is, you have to preload the maps.

The easiest way to do this is to pre-plan your route before you set off. From the train station or airport to your destination. Then you can scroll around a bit and download those maps. I usually like to zoom in or out just a bit and try and load as much of the map area as I can to help me out. I wouldn’t use this as my sole means of getting to where I’m going, but it’s pretty handy in a pinch!

When I get to where I’m going I can then access those maps even without a SIM card in the phone. This trick works even if you turn the phone off and back on and it should survive playing music and things. But don’t load other places in the map – you might lose some of the data you need. Also, the GPS is kind of spotty some places in Europe, and without Internet connectivity you can’t use the wifi or cell tower location services.