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.
Many people don’t believe me when I tell them about the streets of Paris running yellow. They think I’m making it up. They say things like “That can’t be. The French are very refined, especially the Parisians.” They’ve also never been there.
Paris has public toilets on the streets, but they cost money to use them so tourists mostly use them. I saw more public acts of excretion in Paris than in Beijing, which is shocking. And now comes a story of Paris buildings designed to splash back.
That’s one more layer of defense for me next time I hear how my culture is what’s wrong with the world today.