3 10 2010

Thanks to the US military, I’ve spent about 20% of my life overseas. I have generally enjoyed these sojourns away from the US. Among other benefits, extended travel away from home makes one appreciate home that much more.This is not to say that America is the greatest place on Earth (although I’d rather live here than anywhere else I’ve been), but rather that the experience of travel helps one appreciate what one has grown accustomed to- and taken for granted.

That said, there are some truly amazing places I’ve visited. The sixty-odd cities I’ve visited in twenty countries all have their ups and downs, but some are almost entirely up. Haifa, Israel is one such city. The Israelis I met were all very friendly, and the food was remarkably good. One of my friends said that Haifa was his version of Heaven on Earth. He said it had everything: beautiful women who speak English, like Americans, and carry guns. I have to admit the IDF bar we discovered and spent a considerable amount of time in lent a great deal of weight to this opinion. On the other hand, Haifa wasn’t at the top of my personal list. That honor goes to Antalya, Turkey.

I like Turkey. The Turks are generally quite friendly, very polite, and the merchants take “No” for an answer. The food is awesome (Doner Kebap), the women are breathtakingly beautiful, and I love to bargain. Antalya has all of this in spades. Every region in Turkey has their own version of Doner, and I find that I like the Doner in Antalya best. I also like the fact that a trip with my friends through the Old City was not nearly as harrowing as similar trips through Arab cities. We found a delightful bar in the Old City which was quite small by Western standards- basically the size of the living room in a modest house in the US. The customers all sat around a single low table to eat and drink. Later in the evening, some of the locals dropped by and played live music. Altogether a wonderful experience.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alexandria, Egypt. The city is unbelievably filthy, and the whole area reeks from the raw sewage the locals dump into the river and sea. My first visit, a man came up to me with his 10-12 year old daughter in tow, and tried to sell her to me. I had to threaten him with violence to make him go away and leave me alone. Walking in the city is taking your life in your hands- if the traffic doesn’t kill you, some of the buildings might drop large chunks of their structure on your head. On the other hand, you can get anything in Alexandria for a price.

A word about currency. I have a lot of coin and paper money from the countries I’ve visited, most of which is worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Despite the fact that every country officially mandates using their own currency, the dollar is welcome everywhere. This is important to remember, since the currency you buy on the first day of your visit will probably be worth considerably less the day you leave. Worse still, some foreign currency has literally no value outside the country. Israeli Shekels and Egyptian Pounds are two of these. Even currency which supposedly has real value outside the country probably won’t be worth what you paid for it. The official exchange rates bear no relation to any putative value these currencies have. Carry dollars or Euros for most such countries.

When I lived in Italy, for example, we would play the Exchange Rate Game. This was before the creation of the Euro, so Italy was still using the Lira. The exchange rate fluctuated from week to week- and sometimes from day to day. When the dollar was up against the Lira, we would buy lots of Lira. When the dollar was down, we didn’t buy Lira. Managing your purchases according to the international exchange rates on such a small scale is unlikely to let you score big gains, but you can live quite comfortably on the local economy by paying attention to the rates.

Travel is said to broaden the mind. My personal experience bears this out, but this is not necessarily a universal result. I made a point of trying to learn a little bit about the countries I visited and did my best to learn a little of local languages, too. Even in France, making an attempt to speak their language helps when dealing with the locals (except in Paris). In my experience, most people will forgive your atrocious accent and wince-producing grammar as long as you make the attempt. Far too many Americans act as though everyone on Earth should speak English, and if you shout English at the locals, you can be understood. In some places, a large percentage of the population may, in fact, speak English (often better than the Americans), but yelling at them defeats the purpose. For really basic utility, you need to be able to speak the following ten words or phrases in whatever local language is applicable: Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thank you, Yes, No, Where is, How much, Beer, and Toilet. If you plan on staying in a foreign city for any appreciable length of time, you’ll need to go far beyond these basic words/phrases. Here’s a hint: find someone who speaks the local language and English, and ask them for help in learning basic words and grammar. Practice your pronunciation. It isn;t easy, but it pays real dividends.

Another hint for Americans abroad- haggle. Many countries prize haggling as an art form. Most of North Africa and the Middle East have this custom, and it’s worthwhile to learn. In Turkey, for example, the merchant will invite you in to the office and bring in sweets and coffee (or tea). You can spend considerable time working your way to a mutually agreeable price, and it’s actually a lot of fun. This sort of social interaction will improve your standing with the local merchants (at least a little bit), and can often save you a surprising amount of money. By the way, whatever gimmick you think you’ve come up with to help you with your haggling, the merchant has almost certainly seen it before. As long as you are aware of this, and play the game with good humor, you can enjoy the experience.

That, in my mind, is the best thing about travel: enjoying the differences between people. If you insist on behaving as if your local customs are the Laws of Nature, you won’t enjoy your trip. Worse, you’ll piss off the locals. Visiting another country is like visiting someone’s home. Act like you would if you were a guest in someone’s house. Even if you don’t agree with your host’s customs, at least respect them. You will definitely enjoy your stay a lot more, and you might even learn something. It seems to me that Americans in general could stand to learn a lot more about the rest of the world.

Current status: Meh

Current music: Peg by Steely Dan



One response

3 10 2010

My travels are not as extensive as yours being only thru Belgium, France, England, Wales, Scotland, and thru most of the US and some Canada. But the experience is correct as it not only causes appreciation for what is taken for granted, and from many other points of view Americans are more demons then angels, and meet many peoples and customs. I will always appreciate my travels. One other point is that small minds that have traveled tend to enlarge and become more open.

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