Travel Etiquette

Have you ever been somewhere and heard a loud dialogue on a bus or train, in a culture which reveres silence? Or perhaps you’ve seen a traveler try to haggle the living hell out of a peasant waitress over a mere US$ .05? The former I witnessed on a bus in Kyoto, Japan. The entire bus, filled to capacity, was silent save for two distinctively clear American –not Canadian- English voices sitting at least 10 seats behind me. The latter I actually witnessed while having dinner with an older, well-travelled Dutch gentleman in Medan, Indonesia.

For an American, or more accurately, a person from the U.S., who’s used to seeing people demonstrate the need to appear generous in restaurants, this was a shocker.

While in Salvador, Brazil, upon watching a live Capoeira show beside a restaurant, a man came around asking the 10 or 15 spectators for donations. I smiled, said in Portuguese that I was enjoying the show, and dropped a small coin or two into the hat the man was holding. I gave about the equivalent of US$ .25. Thus, the vibes between the man and I appeared perfect. A minute later two overweight southern United States men were standing next to me. Very soon thereafter, the man with the hat came back, nodded and smiled to me, and then held the hat in front of the overweight men implying that he wanted a donation as compensation for the entertainment. One of the men said in English:

We just got here!”

He was implying that he wasn’t ready to give a donation. The man with the hat demonstrated instant animosity. A small argument ensued. I deemed that I’d gotten my fill of Capoeira during that post-lunch stint. I decided to walk away, pondering; I had just shelled out a pittance in the form of a coin or two, uttered a couple of words of Portuguese, and presented a soft smile. That sure was worth the tacit karma I’d received in return, compared to the two dudes who could have easily walked away with a good memory instead of a bad one, by using just a touch of common sense etiquette. Surely these guys wouldn’t have missed a few dollars, never mind a few measly cents.

I must admit. I am also far from perfect. Travel wisdom comes with experience. We all have to make mistakes.

One afternoon, after completing my once-a-day knock-knock English routine with a group of Japanese five-year-olds, the kid’s room door was closed, leaving just them and me. In Japan, it’s second nature to take your shoes off just before entering the kids’ classroom. The next thing I knew, as I was loudly attempting to utter classroom instruction, every five-year old, about six or seven of them, were pointing down at my feet and laughing uncontrollably. Before even looking down I’d remembered reading that having a hole in one’s sock is a huge cultural taboo in Japan. These kids were only five yet I felt as if this etiquette had been instilled in them years prior. Surely, after this unforgettable and hilarious incident, the etiquette was instilled in me as well.

The moral to all of these episodes; try to have respect for the cultures you visit. It’s OK if you make a mistake, as long as you learn from it and move on.


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