If you travel often I’m sure that at some point you’ve found yourself listening to a fellow backpack-toting wanderer berate his peers for not being ‘good travellers’. But really, is there such a thing as a good traveller? I mean, it’s hardly rocket science is it? Jumping on and off trains, packing and unpacking your bag or finding a place to sleep for the night – not endeavours that require any specialist skills.
Of course, while the nuts and bolts of travel are easy to master, there are always a few ways that you can screw up, ways to offend your hosts or make other travellers cringe. Whether you’re a novice nomad or a seasoned explorer, you’re still at risk of committing one of the seven deadly sins.
I’m not talking about the list of seven you might remember from high school Religious Ed class. Sloth is practically a pre-requisite for a long-term backpacker and what’s a food market without a little greed and gluttony? Scratch pride, wrath, lust and envy from your guilt list – if you’re planning to globetrot, the list you need to worry about covers the seven deadly sins of travel.
Sin 1: Taking budget travel too seriously
Travelling on a budget certainly has its advantages. It keeps you away from the real world of bills and office cubicles for longer and generally those who are watching the pennies opt for local hotels, bars and stores rather than lining the pockets of already-rich conglomerates. But at least once per country (much more often in India) you happen across a traveller who really puts the ‘budget’ in budget travel.
They haggle until their chosen trader turns to tears, they sleep on station platforms, eat nothing but boiled rice, buy no trinkets or souvenirs and opt to travel on bus roofs rather than cough up for even the cheapest of fares.
When boasting about how little they spend they seem to forget that budget travel only works if you actually inject the little cash you have straight into local businesses. Keeping your notes safely tucked into your money belt and bragging how you manage to spend less than the locals benefits no-one but you and gives a bad name to every budget traveller that follows in your miserly wake.
Sin 2: Giving to beggars
We’ve all been there. You’re browsing a bustling market or sitting down to a roadside lunch when a familiar tug at your sleeve makes you look down. Staring back at you is a pair of adorable, imploring eyes attached to an outstretched hand. But however small and cute the child or however heart-wrenching the tale, handing our cash to beggars is always a travel faux pas.
It’s a quick-fix solution that’s as much about making the traveller feel good as it is about the supplicant getting a decent lunch. Last year, Slumdog Millionaire did a fabulous job of bringing the truth behind child begging rings to a wider audience, making us aware that our small change ends up not in the hands of the endearing child doing the asking, but with the adults they work for.
Most travellers who hand out cash on demand wouldn’t dream of giving to beggars back home, but a certain guilt kicks in when poverty surrounds you. Naturally, a few of your dollars would be well appreciated in impoverished parts of the globe, but rather than giving empty donations to anyone who holds out a hand, look for a local charity to donate to instead. Find one that caters to street kids, offering them food, shelter or education. That way you know your money is going where it can do the most good, rather than lining the pockets of unscrupulous Fagins.
Sin 3: Staying on the road too long
OK, so travelling for long periods of time is hardly a sin, provided you’re spending some cash (and not handing any to beggars!), but if you stay away longer than you meant to it can turn you into a less-than-agreeable traveller.
If you’ve ever lingered a little too long, you’ll know the kind of thing I mean. You start to think that everyone you meet is out to rip you off, you get a little too assertive when someone helps themselves to a spot ahead of you in line and the language barrier starts to be an annoying headache rather than an entertaining challenge.
Sometimes the traveller’s biggest sin is travelling a touch too much. If you’re snapping at someone who’s simply stopped to welcome you to their land or you can’t remember the last time you said anything nice about your current location, it might be time to confess your sins and pay your penance – heading back to your homeland to be reminded just why you stayed away so long in the first place.
Sin 4: Failing to respect the local culture
If you are someone who likes to set apart the travellers from the tourists, you’d probably think this particular sin is committed exclusively by the latter. But snobbery aside, the traveller and the tourist are one and the same – we all jump on and off buses, trains and planes then pay to sleep in a bed that hundreds have used before us. And at some point we’re all guilty of saying yes to a couple of cultural no-nos.
It might be an innocent error, like the package tourist not moderating their clothing as they head from the sheltered environment of the hotel pool to the wider world of Egypt’s tombs or India’s palaces. It might be an unwittingly insensitive offence like donning camouflaged shorts in a region fresh out of a civil war. But sometimes those who’ve been wandering the world for great lengths of time feel that they know it all and can do no wrong. They don’t think twice before exchanging a passionate kiss on the street or using a sunny afternoon as an excuse for a few drinks in the park.
Behaving in a way that doesn’t raise any eyebrows at home might not be illegal, but skimpy clothing, chugging beer and grabbing your boyfriend’s ass could well offend a few locals. And the consequences of your acts don’t end just because your trip does – if you’ve upset the locals, it’ll be the next group of travellers who pay the price.
Sin 5: Getting carried away with the culture
Enveloping yourself in local customs is part of the reason we travel. We want to sample original flavours, see unusual architecture, learn foreign tongues and experience the new traditions that come with a different religion. But have you ever stumbled across a traveller who’s perhaps plunged too far into the local culture?
You know the type – they don kimonos, saris or robes to go about their daily affairs, would never dream of eating a hamburger and cringe at the very notion of socialising with one of their countrymen.
Respecting a culture is one thing, but adopting it as your own can sometimes cause offence. It’s no bad thing to dress appropriately, but traditional clothing often comes with all kinds of rules unapparent to an interested outsider.
Without specialist knowledge you don’t know that the haircut you’ve opted for is really reserved only for the highest holy men or that your chosen necklace is in fact the attire sported by married women only. Assuming membership of someone else’s culture could cause offence. Plus, your fellow travellers will all agree that you look ridiculous.
Sin 6: Expecting everything to go to plan
No matter how many years you’ve been roaming the globe, things will always go wrong. Trains will break down, hotels will fill up, attractions will close on the only day you could possibly visit and food poisoning will put you out of action just as you had some life-affirming adventure planned.
The key is to accept the setbacks as a natural part of your trip. Expecting everything to run smoothly is to set foot on the road to disappointment and a sure-fire way to ruin your trip. Part of the fun of ditching your routine and seeing the world is not knowing how things will go from one day to the next – waking up each morning with no idea where you’ll sleep that night.
By all means have a notion of where you’d like your day to end up, but when every enquiry leads to a dead end and every plan comes crashing down, don’t let it get to you. Just revel in the fact that, unlike most of your friends toiling through their 9-5 jobs, you have nowhere to be and no one to answer to.
Sin 7: Judging other travellers
People say that travel broadens the mind, so you might expect to find a tad more tolerance between fellow travellers. Instead, I find myself constantly up against different types of travel snob, people who consider themselves superior for a wealth of bizarre reasons. They travel for longer, rough it more, stray further from the beaten track or simply carry less luggage and therefore feel the need to look down on anyone who doesn’t meet their standards.
I can never work out why we all spend so much time worrying how others are spending their vacations. Who cares if someone opts for package tours or carries vast amounts of designer luggage to their five-star hotels? As long as each traveller enjoys their cherished time away from the office without offending local sensibilities then it doesn’t matter whether they choose luxury resorts or 30-bed dorms.
If you spend your time sorting out the ‘good travellers’ from the bad, you run the risk of ruining your trip, while those package tourists who irk you so much are guiltlessly enjoying their two-week adventure.
Photo credits: 1 by Tom Maisey on Flickr, 2 by uncultured on Flickr, 3 by Houston Marsh on Flickr, 4 by Kaj17 on Flickr, 5 by Buck82 on Flickr, 6 by Renato @ Mainland China on Flickr, 7 by Seth W. on Flickr