What to Pack
A travel writer preparing people for a trip abroad is likely to provide his or her readers with a list of items to make the voyager's trip more safe and comfortable. For instance, I could recommend that one comes to Costa Rica armed with an ungodly amount of Deet-laden repellent, an umbrella for sun and rain and a big bottle of sweat-proof sunscreen. The tropical traveler would be happier toting these items in his new North Face Backpack, but advising readers to take only these tangible things along is not enough. A traveler to Costa Rica, as well as any other part of the world, needs to "pack" more.
A responsible traveler must accept the fact that in traveling to another country, the food, land and language will likely be unfamiliar. The purpose of travel is to try things never before attempted, to be vulnerable, to test your limits, to learn. Traveling with the expectation of replicating home has given Americans a negative global reputation.
Why Some Americans Travel
In my experience, Americans too often travel to embody the Joni Mitchell line from "People's Parties", "they've got stamps of many countries, they've got passport smiles". They rent condos at four hundred dollars a night only to close the sliding doors to the sounds of the ocean, blast the air conditioning to freeze away the sweat and the heavy heat of the tropics, and they go to the supermarket to buy the same things they eat at home, "Oh look! They sell Frosted Flakes here!"
Americans Living in Costa Rica
Living in Costa Rica, I miss out on not having a library or a Border's so I frequent the one place in Jaco that sells used and new books. The owner is an American who puts effort into speaking Spanish to his patrons and who offers books in Spanish, English and a myriad of other languages. I was perusing the trade paper shelves the other day, when I overheard an older American with a snowy white military crew cut discussing the store's book trading policies with the owner. The American promised to return with books to trade but told the store's owner, "The problem is, the girl you have working here hardly speaks English. When will you be around?"
I highlighted the words "the problem" with bright yellow. Why is it a problem that a native Tica speaks only Spanish in her own Spanish-speaking country? The same store owner recounted that another American brought a book to the counter and the owner greeted him with "Buenos dias". The American was immediately offended and demanded, "I'm buying a book in English. Speak to me in English."
In the U.S., Americans expect immigrants to adapt to American culture and develop a working knowledge of English in order to engage in business and social transactions. Speaking English is one's entrance into American society, often the only means of making it. Yet, American tourists, retirees and expatriates are often annoyed when the native people of their adopted country inconvenience them by speaking the principal language of their land. One can say older Americans want to avoid the embarrassment and confusion of conversing in another language. Not making an effort in a simple transaction usually means the individual will not learn from the experience of being in Costa Rica.
Responsible tourism means trying. It isn't that hard. Native people are often charmed and delighted when someone attempts a few words in their language. Americans often think that flipping through some vocabulary flashcards sophomore year of high school qualifies them as full-fledged bilingual speakers. Whereas, Germans, Argentines and Turks who can speak several languages with fluency, humbly contain their qualifications to, "My Spanish (or English, Italian, French, etc.) is okay"
While we need to put forth an effort (even if limited to the most basic of phrases), we also need to recognize our own limitations and be prepared to resort to smiles, hand gestures, pointing to convey our meaning. Travelers can't be expected to be fluent in the language of every country they visit, but they should know the most basic elements of human communication – respect, warmth, meaning.
The Ugly Americans
Gringo tourists expect America's punctuality, cleanliness and timely retribution for things that didn't go exactly as planned. Yet, Americans often take advantage of the differences between foreign and American laws and social expectations. Tourists can be seen drinking in the street, driving on the beach, smoking Cuban cigars, riding in cars and on motorcycles without seatbelts or helmets, propositioning the legal prostitutes. This type of hedonism is reminiscent of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island.
Americans travel in large packs and talk loudly as though they are in some sort of cultural amusement park. On the streets and in cafes, younger Americans use crude language and speak of personal matters, thinking their English is an invisible cloak. This may speak to the downfall of traditional values in America in general, but it certainly speaks to the downfall of the responsible traveler. There is a saying here, dicho – for the conduct of one, everyone pays. Travelers need to consider their behavior not as isolated instances, but as defining the American abroad.
Responsible travelers make choices that reflect not only the best of cultural values they bring from home, but also the cultural values they are asking to be compromised or enriched with their consumer decisions. Tourism money matters, especially to small and developing countries. The impact of a traveler's choices can have significant effects on the country at large. Jaco, Costa Rica offers tours with the famous "Crocodile Man" on the Tarcoles River. The local who dangles whole chickens in front of the gaping jaws of the American crocodile has been compared by reporters to the world's beloved Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. In my opinion, it is worth noting the differences. Teaching wild animals to depend on humans for food, as well as creating an association between bleeding food and humans is dangerous and irresponsible. The responsible tourist foregoes the "thrill" of seeing a crocodile exhibiting zoo-like, horror movie-like behavior.
The same principle applies to feeding the monkeys and other mammals of national parks such as Manuel Antonio. I'm forced to state the obvious as warnings on tickets, signs and brochures alike do not abate this behavior: the processed food humans eat is not part of these mammals' natural diet. Feeding from the hands of humans creates a bacterial risk, learning feeding behaviors based on human handouts alters natural behaviors and creates an environment more akin to the petting zoo than a pristine national park. Travelers and their money represent power. How they spend their money will define what Costa Rica and other travel destinations become.
The correlation between consumerism and its effects also applies to the type of construction that is going on in dusty little beach towns like Jaco. If consumers opt for lodging arrangements like bed and breakfasts, hostels and small, locally run hotels, the skyline of Jaco would not be changing. Currently, thirty to forty new buildings are slated for construction. The new buildings tower like ghostly Titanics over the original single level surf shops and sodas. They are similar to giant leeches on the available water and electricity resources. Travelers, as the consumers they are, ought to consider the impact of their choices when they elect to stay in a highrise complete with spurting fountains, glimmering pools, frothing Jacuzzis…
When I look at these monstrosities, I can't see the mock colonial facades, the heliconia gardens or the wrought iron balconies. Instead, I see crews of sun-browned men who live in tin shacks with an overflowing toilet. I see men who fell from the second story and waited too long for ambulances, men who got glass in their eyes but still worked the day. The same men who worked for less than two dollars an hour were shut out by electric gates and stone faced guards when the buildings were completed.
This cruel disparity in wealth is not lost on the workers, furthering the mix of envy and distaste with which Ticos view foreign travelers and residents. When planning vacation experiences, travelers need to look beyond the gloss of brochure to the costs their choices create for the foreign countries they are visiting. Further, they need to acknowledge that these choices define the way that foreigners are seen in other countries.
In order to counteract the negative global reputation Americans seem to have gained, travelers need to bring a warmth and a desire for adventure, things shared, values gained from each country they visit. One's choices determine more than the type of vacation photos and experiences one has. Often, they determine the fate of a country and the perception of our own.