How To Be A Professional Tourist
August 3, 2008
Tourism is a sport. You can win and you can lose.
Everyone is part of the game, whether you’re being interrogated in Cuba, or you are relaxing in the South of France. You just have to be away from home. As a frequent flier myself, I have been many places in my life, most with my family of five. And although we all have the time of our lives on our vacations, I must admit we are the losers of the sport. Awkward moments are almost guaranteed to occur where ever we travel, especially if we travel somewhere where many do not speak English.
So what have we done? The first thing is being a tourist does not give you the credentials to act like you’re five years old. A lot of people believe that. One time my mom took the bull by the horns and blew off that golden rule, in one of the worst places to break it – a gift shop in Germany. She was actually buying sports gear for me, and she wanted to know if an Under Armour garment was supposed to be worn next to the skin or over an undershirt. Instead of just buying it and asking me, she decided to take the matter in her own hands, even though she hasn’t spoken German since college. So she took the shirt, poked at it, and in the most German accent that she could think of from Television, she said (in English) “UNDER? UNDER?” It was more like “UN-DAR!” and obviously the woman at the counter didn’t know what the she was saying. Either she thought my mom was lost and needed directions, or she needed to call security. And fast. Thankfully, I had the satisfaction not to be in Germany at that moment, but my sister was.
So what can we learn from this? When you are in a situation that is obvious you can’t solve, like this one, save yourself the embarrassment and just don’t do it — in this case, don’t buy it. Everything from her German to her hand motions obviously didn’t fare very well in this situation.
Another thing that barely ever works is the tone of voice. I have witnessed many tourists (we’re not still talking about my mom here) talking in English to people who know little to none of it in a voice that they would use when talking either to their dog of 3 year old – whichever is less mature. The people you are talking to may not know be up to your standards in English, but they live on this Earth too, so they will know that tone and not be happy with it. In one occasion, I witnessed a tourist talking to a waiter in France with that tone (at the table next to me) and the waiter simply walked away in disgust. So please don’t do that.
Another problem tourists have is blending in. Just about an hour ago, our tour bus carrying only our family here in Uruguay (where I am typing this from) stopped to look over the ocean. As I walked over to the boardwalk, I noticed a crowd twenty people staring at a huge sea lion who had lazily parked himself on the sidewalk next to two workers who were chopping up fish. He was hungry and wanted a sun tan, which we all thought was really cute. So I whipped out my video camera and ran over to the crowd. I squeezed in-between the people to get a good spot for the film, trying to be as courteous to the fellow Uruguayans as I could be, quietly saying “hola” and “como stas” (look I know how to say it, just not spell it) and answering “muey bien” and “asi asi” when asked how I was doing. I even lured people over from the sidewalk by yelling: “Mira!” (which means look) like everyone else. By doing this instead of just ignoring them or talking in English like the other nine out of ten Americans would most likely do, I blended in enough that even though people probably figured I was a tourist because of my pitiful Spanish accent, but at least they knew I could at least have a basic conversation with them, which I did. So what is so great about that? First of all, I used my second grade Spanish to my advantage, and I immediately changed my status from: ‘cocky American tourist that just got off a private bus’ to ‘nice American tourist that doesn’t want to make a scene and knows a little Spanish.’ Most tourists would skip mingling part and therefore they were known by those 20 people as the tourists that don’t want to talk. And that’s bad. Below is the video.
So if you are a good tourist, remember to win, not lose. My top tips? Act like you are a local, speak what you can, but don’t overdo it. Please. And do things with confidence, after all you are on vacation.