Most everyone knows by now that our family became expatriats in the 1980s, and that over the course of the next several years we visited five of the seven continents. I hope to go to South America some day and will gladly skip the sixth continent because I really hate cold.
We rubbed shoulders with new cultures inside our new home, our new country and when we toured other countries. I learned it is very important to know how not to rub people the wrong way; not only at work or in a marriage, but when we are guests in a strange country.
We never had a problem. With the exception of a particular country directly across the Red Sea from Sudan that we entered carrying the wrong type of visas. It was an intense and frightening experience.
Unbeknownst to us, our return visas were not international, they were prepared in The Sudan incorrectly.
So on entering Saudi Arabia our passports were confiscated and we were held under armed guard for a full 24 hours. Passport Control had every right to suspect we might be terrorists, a little family of terrorists, travelling with two pre-terrorists. As soon as they got our paperwork mess sorted out for us we caught the next flight to home. It should never have happened and we learned to be ultra vigalent about our paperwork.
This post was made possible by………………me reading a report this morning, about unhappy tourists visiting the pyramids in Giza are having problems. Much of what I read has to do with locals dubbed “aggressive” vendors”. I recalled being a little miffed at first with such people. Until I understood that our friendly and well-fed little family were traipsing through worlds never encountered, knew nothing about, and certainly did not have to live there.
I’m betting the tourists in the news needed to speed things up to accommodate their tour guides, preferring to skip negotiations and buy at a flat price. I’m thinking the vendors knew they had a short time to make a deal. Maybe they wanted to holler “Next” if current purchasers didn’t get with the program.
There is a culturally important sport in the Middle East called “negotiating”. Americans tend to call it bargaining, worse yet, haggling. Larry and I soon learned this pleasant and often lengthy game and had fun with it. The wage-earner in our little troop spent hours enjoying the sport, sipping tea on a rug, laughing and sipping; discussing every topic in the world before coming to an equitable price and sealing the purchase. It’s called bargaining, and in truth if you waste the vendors time by playing around, you may not be welcome again. Do not engage then walk away. Time is food on the table for him. Conversely, we as prospective purchasers found nothing “worthy” of purchasing in Ahmad’s stand, he would insist on giving US baksheesh, usually small scarabs or little leather coin holders, as an apology for having nothing for us to purchase. .
We learned to slooooooow down, have some teeeeeeeeeeaa, tell some stoooories! We learned that by making personal inquiries about our vendors world and quite probably get inside info on “don’t miss” sites, or where his wife’s uncle’s restaurant is.
This is impossible to do on slam-bam-thankyou-mam schedules.
I recommend that untraveled Americans in particular consider reading up on the countries they intend to visit. Go to the library, learn timportant cultural customs, try for some basic language, and puh-leeze learn what attire and/or gestures might be considered highly offensive.
Western garb, particularly of this century can be dicy in the Middle East. The female body should not be overly exposed. I was surprised to find the soft tender underside upper arm actually is breast tissue, and is viewed as a body part of intense beauty in some cultures.
I was surprised and I made it my business to always keep my seductive tricepts covered when necessary. Always when I went downtown in Khartoum I wore long sleeves, buttoned to the neck shirt, baggy pants and usually a hat. My job was to not offend the homies.
In stricter societies, womens Crowns of Glory might be covered in order not to attract negative cultural attention. Amerians have our constitutional rights at home but we cannot bring them with us.
I told the story of the camel stampede last week, but that damn video recorder also created havoc in our attempt to enter Greece!
Athens passport control held us up and all we understood was the customs agent didn’t like our video camera and we simply were not going into country with it. Greek being Greek to us, we worried that we might have to cancel reservations and catch a flight somewhere else; worse yet, go to jail? Ahh, a man of the moment showed up to save our biscuits. An Arab businessman, fluent in both Greek and English. First he asked permission to intervene and explained the customs agent was following procedure. Certain things could not be permitted entry because the could end up on theblack market. One of the things not permitted was our video camera
Our new friend negotiated on our behalf recommending the video cam serial number of the unit to be written under my husband’s visa stamp, so when we returned with the cam, the next agent at Passport Control could verify we had not sold it for profit.
It’s good to know cultures. It takes the fear and annoyance factor out of a good time.
Some of the interesting offenses Americans and others might make include pointing the dastardly “pointer finger” at any person or thing! This is Mr. Bad Finger! Substitute a head nod, or relax your hand, pointer, thumb, middleman and ringo dangling limply and use pinkie to vaguely wave in the general direction.
As a general rule, never cross your legs in the East. If the toes of your shoe is “pointing” at someone, you are being extremely rude when you only thought you were being “comfy”. Shoes are interesting, as President Bush found, they can be used as missiles by unhappy people. Throwing shoes would be akin to throwing Cow Pies.
Here is an easily misunderstood signal: In a number of countries to becon with your hand means go away! Hold your hand flat up stiff armed in the states is recognized as “stop!” In the East and Middle ease it can mean “come hither”. Beyond that, a sense of humor and a sense of generosity go far. After all, we are the precious people: wealthy (by comparison) travelers from a blessed world who’s generosity brings food to the table for the vendor’s children.
It’s important as a traveler to understand that getting angry and offended when one does not have a handle on the new culture could result in the kind of escaltated misunderstandings that end up in newspapers.
Speaking of getalongs, I carried my treasure sack for when I was mobbed by beggars in third world countries, full of wonderful stuff: wrapped candies! Gum! Pens and lighters made internationally famous by a three-letter company! Small mirrors! Teeshirts and Jeans! And sorry to say I was a smoker back in the day, so I distributed deadly cigarettes. Consider this, those contents of my treasure sack likely became a form of currency: income for a family.
There is a theory I heard again and again from my Western Expatriate world: keep the prices down in the souks, the markets. Bargain, baragain, bargain! Don’t spoil the takings for us!
I bargained to be playful, for it is a friendly and fair game. Also, if you don’t enter negotiations, the vendor may feel his products were unworthy…and he is required to appease you, give you trinkets or gum or fruits for taking your time with him.
It’s okay to let him give something to the kids, but as an adult it’s better to thank him for sharing his time with you, you consider him a friend and will tell all your friends….then have me reach in my treasure bag and give him a lighter.