Some countries let you sleep. Others wake you up.
For the traveler, there are three kinds of countries.
There are the clockwork countries like England and Germany, where everything is so organized that nothing can go seriously wrong; where you can go as a tourist and do most of the same things you do at home, except you can take photos of things your friends haven’t seen, and collect stories about “foreign” customs and language mix-ups.
Then at the opposite extreme you have countries like Syria and Somalia, where you only go if you have a specific mission, because what’s mostly happening there is that things are getting blown up and people are trying to leave. Those aren’t adventure countries. Those are end-of-the-road countries.
And then, in the middle, are the fun countries.
You’re welcome as a tourist in the fun countries. You don’t have to travel in an armored car. But you have to stay alert. You will face hordes of pickpockets, stick-up kids, con artists, breakers-and-enterers, drug addicts, shady cab drivers, pimps and prostitutes, and a diverse range of other people whose first thought when they see you is that they’re going to separate you from your money.
And so the fun begins.
In the fun countries, you can find a safe hotel as long as you’ve done your research. You can avoid illness if you avoid the tap water. You can hold onto your money — and get most things incredibly cheaply — as long as you know how much things are supposed to cost, and can square your shoulders and look people in the eye and keep smiling while you argue. You can explore tin-roofed slums and coral reefs and mangrove forests and dive bars with total strangers as your guides, as long as you watch people carefully and listen to your instincts.
The trick isn’t to be strong or rich or brave —it’s to be attentive.
And the truth is, being attentive is a lot of fun.
Being attentive sounds stressful to people from clockwork countries, because in clockwork countries it’s very easy to get comfortable — and to assume that comfortable is the best way to be.
When you get into a taxi in a clockwork country, you expect the driver to take you where you want to go and charge you what the meter says. When you walk down an unfamiliar street — even in a bad clockwork-country neighborhood — you expect that people will leave you alone; or that anyone who approaches you to ask for money will quietly take no for an answer. In clockwork countries there will always be streetlights and public toilets and city buses that run on time. These things are so dependable that you cease to think about them — they become part of the landscape, like water and stone.
Foreign clockwork countries have those things too, so you won’t notice them there either. This means you can travel to a foreign clockwork country and still think the same thoughts you’d have at home. You can sit on a beautiful clockwork beach and worry about money and sex and work and maybe even your next vacation. You can wonder how much this adventure is adding to your cred with your friends, and whether you’re really becoming the person you want to be, or who that person even is. You can have the same arguments with your girlfriend, and get drunk on the same beer you always keep in the fridge, and collapse on the hotel bed watching your favorite music videos, and wonder if you’ll ever be as cool as you want to be, just like you do at home. Traveling in clockwork countries will leave you free to do all these things.
They make it very convenient for you.
But the moment you step out of the airport in a fun country, you are in a different kind of place. Among the businessmen and tourists you’ll see men in long robes and turbans and cloaks leading women in scarves or draped in black, and the looks on their faces are serious and suspicious; and crowds of people outside are pushing and shouting in a language you don’t know a word of, and you smell smoke and maybe sewage along with other perfumes you don’t recognize, and it’s the scents more than anything else that make you realize,
This is not home. This is nothing like home at all.
A man with a big smile will interrupt your moment of reflection. He’ll say “taxi” and try to take your bag, and if you’re really inattentive he may grab it and run off with it and that’ll be the end of your fun.
If you hold onto your bag, the man will lead you to an old beat-up sedan and ask “where you go?” and you’ll have to show him the map on your phone because he’ll have no idea where that hotel is, and he’ll say “okay no problem” and start the coughing diesel engine and peel out of the parking lot, and tear up the highway and onto the surface streets, and screech around corners and up tight cobbled roads built for horse carts, and when the car jerks to a stop at your hotel and you ask how much to pay, the driver will say “eighty dollar.”
You’ll tell him that’s way too much, and he’ll respond “yes! eighty dollar” but you’ll know that giving him eighty dollars would be insane; it would be robbery. He’s trying to rob you. You’re not in a clockwork country. You’re in a place that’s nothing like home, and you’re about to be robbed.
At that moment, your mind will tip one way or the other.
One way leads back into the familiar, and that way costs eighty dollars. If your mind tips that way, you worry whether this guy might have a knife or a gun or, who knows, maybe a posse on speed dial, and all you want is to avoid conflict, any kind of conflict, and Be Safe like your mother told you, so you reach in your wallet and count out the eighty dollars and decide you hate this place.
For the rest of the week you’ll mostly barricade yourself in your hotel room and only go on guided tours that the hotel vouches for, and when the week is over you’ll go back to a country where you don’t have to worry about ripoff cab drivers and pickpockets and tour guides who keep asking for tips. Back in your clockwork country you’ll brag to your friends about your brave adventure in a foreign land, but the truth — which you will always know in a secret place inside yourself— is that on that first night in the taxi you let the fear win, and you missed out.
That’s one possibility.
The other is that you wake up. You get so pissed off at the idea of spending eighty dollars for a cab ride that some snarling part of you claws up through your fear and your conflict avoidance and your training to Be Safe, and that part of you raises its hand and says “enough.”
Obviously there’s no way this guy will attack a tourist on a public street; he’s just trying to extort another dumb yabanci/mzungo/farangi/gabacho/whatever the slur is here for “soft stupid foreigner,” because soft stupid foreigners will usually empty their wallets to avoid conflict — hell, they’ll practically puke their guts out like sea cucumbers when they get scared — but you’re not another one of those prey animals, yeah, no thank you sir, that’s not happening today.
You say “no, five dollars.”
At that instant, the world tilts on end. You see that the driver isn’t scary at all — look at him; he’s just a balding middle-aged guy with a beer gut, and he’s barely even making eye contact with you. He’s nervous. You didn’t see any of this a minute ago, but you see it all now, crisp and sharp.
The fat balding driver says “okay, forty dollar,” and you say “no, I‘ll give you five” and you start to get out of the car, and he says “okay, thirty,” and you get out and close the door and count out the local currency’s equivalent of five dollars and hand it to him.
He looks at it, shrugs and mutters a curse, and drives away.
And you hoist your backpack over your shoulder,
And now you are awake.
The old brick buildings and the graffiti and the cobblestone and the noises of the distant cars and factories — all these things that were beneath your notice just a minute ago are now impossible not to notice. You’ve woken up, and the world is real.
You watch the driver’s beat-up sedan squeal out onto the main street, and you realize you probably still paid about twice as much as the ride was worth. You resolve to bargain more aggressively tomorrow. You go into your hotel and lie on the bed and think that you just might be able to get the hang of this place.
You slowly start to smile.
You get it. This is a game. From now on you’ll pay attention. You’ll make eye contact; watch people carefully; use your peripheral vision; see trouble before it comes; trust your instincts and be aggressive or soothing or funny or alert as each moment requires. Keep track of your inventory. Know the safe places to rest and heal.
For a flash of an instant, this terrifies you.
Then you remember the feeling of talking that cab driver down to five bucks, and you feel the swell of victory that followed; that sharp immediate sense of being awake to all things, of knowing what’s up.
This is it. You’re here.
You’re on an adventure. This is what you wanted, and you’re doing it. It’s not about the stories you’ll bring back or the bragging rights you’ll gain. You thought it would be about those kinds of things, but now you see it’s about something completely different.
It’s about that afternoon when you’re riding in a wood canoe and watching the boatman out of the corner of your eye, and you notice that when you’re this alert every leaf and ripple stands out sharp, and you remember how back in the clockwork world your head was all tangled up with thoughts, so many plans and fears that knotted your stomach while you rode the dependable buses and walked under the dependable streetlights and sat on the dependable public toilets, and paid no attention to any of it because you didn’t have to; it was all there just to support your tangled-up thoughts—and none of that was real.
This, on the other hand, is real.
You wouldn’t have believed this fact yesterday. You know no one back home will believe you about it either, not even when they read the story you’ve written about it, the most honest story you knew how to write, they still won’t really believe you. But here in the canoe as you keep a careful eye on the boatman, you’re seeing and remembering every detail of the scene; you know you are here in a way that a traveler in a clockwork country will never be.
You’ve seen these moments in movies — when the traveler wakes up and realizes he’s on an adventure. You’ve read these moments in books, and heard about them from other travelers, and until today you’d figured they only happened to other people, or in fiction.
But now your smile will grow, because it’s happening to you, right now.
You’re alert but not tense. Ready but not afraid.
You’re in a fun country, and you are awake.
Some people in the comments have pointed out that this article could be taken as an open invitation to behave rudely toward local people. That was exactly the opposite of my intent, so I’m following up with this short list of “Tips For Acting Like a Human Being When You Travel.”
- Take some time to research the culture and economy of your destination country. WikiTravel is great for this.
- DO NOT rip off the local people. If a price falls within the locally accepted range for that product or service, PAY IT with a smile.
- Know which behaviors are rude and DON’T DO THOSE THINGS.
- Learn “PLEASE” and “THANK YOU” in the local language, and say them.
- Make local friends and REALLY LISTEN to their stories.
- DO NOT treat any country as your personal amusement park.
- We’re all humans. Be firm but fair, and treat others with RESPECT.
I think that for most of you, all these things go without saying. But if you know anyone who might abuse the hospitality of a fun country, this list could be good to pass along. Thanks for reading, and happy travels!