The Soft Stuff:
So, in part one of this two part down and dirty travel tip series we covered the nuts and bolts of travel. Surprisingly, money, internet, and shopping aren’t all that different from place to place. It seems like wherever you go, everything is pretty much the same.
Well, it’s not.
This week I’ll go over a few things that it took Taylor and I a few tries to learn. Although there are many similarities in the mechanics of living, there are a ton of differences in the style of living. I think that’s really what “culture” means. Everyone around the world does the same things, differently.
One thing that seems to be mostly particular to the US (maybe Canada?) is attentive service in restaurants and bars. Our European friends commonly complain that servers in the US are annoying, stopping by the table often to check if we need anything or to top off our waters and bringing the check when the meal is over. It took us a while to become confident waving our server over to ask for another drink or for the check.
As a rule, in many of the cultures we’ve explored outside home, wait staff will wait for a que from you. On our first trips in Europe and into Mexico, we waited inordinate amounts of time to receive our check, expecting it to come at the end of our meal. Eventually we became more accustomed to asking for service, but even now it feels a bit rude. It’s not. Done politely of course, a “La quenta por favor” or a confident, friendly “oye senor, una mas” is expected and appreciated. Now that we’re back in the states, we’re regularly surprised by our server stopping by to see if we need anything else.
The US also seems to have one of the highest tip rates we’ve seen. The average for places we’ve visited seems to be closer to 10% than our 20% rule of thumb. In some places, extravagant tipping can actually be misconstrued as an undue display of wealth.
Who expects to be tipped also changes from place to place. Restaurant servers and metered cab drivers are almost always tipped at least something. I’d say tipping any driver you have to negotiate a price with is totally up to you. If you feel like you got a particularly good deal and they did a really great job, hand them a few extra (whatever currency here), but it probably isn’t expected.
In Mexico, fuel attendants usually expect a small tip. Especially if you pull through in a gigantic American plated truck and pump a month’s worth of pay into the tank. The benefit of this is that fuel attendants typically compete for your business, dancing around and gesturing excitedly for you to pull into their bay. Most of the time they’ll even wash your windows. We got used to tipping the Mexican pumpers, but by the time we made it to Guatemala, although we received the same kind of service, handing over a few extra Quetzals after the transaction only produced looks of confusion.
We try our best to get a run down on the local customs surrounding everyday interactions. While trusted locals are always a good source for this, our best source is probably other travelers. Most of the time they’ve already made the mistakes you’re about to make and the differences are fresh in their minds. We always pick the brains of travelers we meet who are coming from where we’re going. They’ll have a fresh run down of whatever current information is important and their experience is a great jumping off point for yours.
Another source we’ve found very valuable when moving into a new region or country is the good old travel guide. Our time in Europe put us in a new city every day. We didn’t even spend more than a few days in each country. In a situation like this, our Rick Steves guide was invaluable. That tiny glimpse into each place simply didn’t give us the time required to explore and discover completely on our own. We needed a little help to point us in the right direction, and his guide was just the ticket.
On our drive South we’ve been using the Lonely Planet guides for each country. We try to skim through the write-up on a place before we visit, to help give us an idea of what we might like to see and what the local customs are. The Lonely Planet is pretty good for giving you an idea of what the tipping practices will be, local greeting traditions, and how to navigate public transit. As for restaurants and attractions, we don’t stick exclusively to the items listed in the guide books of course, but it helps us avoid the all too common problem of realizing there was something cool we’d have liked to see in a place we’ve already been after having been there.
I also try to always look over a place on google maps if I have a chance. That way we’ve got a decent idea of how the area is laid out, and oftentimes you’ll find areas of interest or attractions you’d like to see just by doing a little digital exploring beforehand.
The Local Experience:
While fellow travelers are good at helping you avoid social faux pas and usually have accurate updates on travel items like road conditions or border crossing information, the best guide for a single place is always a local. It takes years to really get the feel of a place. To understand the rhythm and to learn it’s secrets takes living, day in and day out. Locals will give you the best, most authentic experience possible in a place. They always know the best restaurants, sights, and swimming holes, not just the most hyped. If you want to see cool stuff that most tourists miss, try to make friends with someone from the area. Whether it was our time with the Fischers in Moab, the Schwankes in Mazatlan, Isreal and Lyndon in Belize, or when Taylor and Eva went to lunch with their Guatemalan Tuk Tuk driver, our best and most memorable impressions of a place were gifted to us by locals.
Even locals you don’t know and haven’t met are good guides. Looking for a taco stand or the best street food? Look for the one with all the construction workers lined up for lunch, or restaurant with families sitting down for dinner. If you’re looking for an authentic, good meal, keep an eye out for where the locals eat. That’s the place to go. The same goes for things like driving or crossing streets as a pedestrian. Keep a look out for how everyone around you is handling the situation, and follow suit.
It also really helps to do your best to learn at least the very basics of the local language. People don’t generally expect you to be fluent, if you’re making an honest effort it will be appreciated. We always try to have a common greeting ready and we like to study up on restaurant basics like how to order drinks and to ask for the check. You know, important stuff. One of the most frustrating things we see is travelers (many American) who refuse to even try to speak the local language. Perhaps they’re simply embarrassed, but it always comes off as arrogant. If you’re visiting someone’s country, at least do them the common courtesy of learning to say hello.
The more you speak the language of a place, the more you’ll learn about its people. Of course you can get by, and of course you can have a wonderful experience, but being able to learn a bit about someone’s life in their own language can be truly extraordinary.
Learning a bit of the language is respectful, but don’t stop there. Smiles, waves, and greetings are free and universal. Hand them out like candy. When we first drive through an area where we obviously stand out, many times we’re met at first with looks of confusion. Each time, however, rolling the windows down and offering a big smile with a wave sees the smile reflected back at us.
Our favorite experiences have been in those places off the beaten track. Most people in places that don’t get many tourists are genuinely excited to see you and interested in your story. We’ve found these places to be the most hospitable, with the friendliest and most genuine people. Our first night in El Salvador we stayed in a small border town at a rent-by-the-hour hotel. The hotel owners and the people we met in town wanted nothing more than to make sure we enjoyed our time in their country. Smiles and waves were everywhere.
By the time we made it to the coast, however, the enthusiastic greetings had dried up. We’ve found that in the more heavily touristic areas, people commonly just aren’t as friendly. They seem to be weary of the hordes of outsiders that come, day after day, to squeeze whatever can be squeezed from a place in the shortest amount of time possible and then jet back home. People are still kind and welcoming for the most part, but they’re a bit less interested in getting to know you, or in opening up themselves.
Expect a few cultural faux pas. It’s going to happen and that’s ok. Most places we travel there isn’t much we can do to blend in. We’re obviously foreign, so mistakes aren’t typically surprising to the locals.
To make sure all that wonderful food doesn’t fight back a little later in the day, Taylor always keeps a flask handy with our locally sourced liquor of choice. Tequilla, rum, bourbon, any hard alcohol will do. After you’re done destroying a plate of street tacos, knock back a swig from your medicinal flask. The alcohol will kill whatever might have been lurking in the lettuce and you get to day drink. It’s a win win for everybody. Except for e-coli.
Go have an adventure and remember to keep your flask handy!