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How to Travel Right: About Respect, Beliefs and Birkenstocks

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 1/03/2016 Annika Ziehen

I've made the confession before that I am a bad traveler. Mind you, all my reasons were personal ones which usually don't impact anybody but me. I don't actually think there are right or wrong ways to travel and I personally don't really buy into the tourist vs. traveler debate, it actually bores me.
If you insist on missing out and not see the David in Florence, Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Table Moutain in Cape Town, because you don't want to be seen as a tourist, suit yourself. I think it's rather silly, but what do I know? I am just that tourist who fell in front of the David while holding her camera and her iPhone and managed to get up with only a bruised ego.
I don't ever call anybody a bad traveler unless they really don't know how to behave like a decent human being with or without the selfie stick.
2016-02-25-1456433343-7435271-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0838.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-25-1456433343-7435271-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0838.jpg There are no bad travelers, just people with questionable taste.
I also tend to like group travel and have had some awesome meals chosen from English menus with pictures while in Asia. I once met an Australian in Thailand who said she planned on eating McDonald's for the entire trip as she was scared of the local food. Luckily for her, she changed her mind almost immediately, but either way, I wouldn't have called her a bad traveler. Being scared of something new and foreign, doesn't mean you are doing it wrong if you are still confronting it.
What does it mean if you are wearing socks with your sandals? You are probably not a very chic traveler, but a bad one? I don't think so.
Sometimes I get embarrassed for others I see while traveling, but then again, I also get embarrassed for people at home. A selfie stick is as cringe worthy on the foot of the Eifel Tower as it is in my neighborhood bagel shop. I may not want to hang out with you (or be part of that selfie), but that selfie stick doesn't make you a bad person.
At least, that is what I thought until very recently.
2016-02-25-1456432508-3212219-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0840e1443991834578.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-25-1456432508-3212219-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0840e1443991834578.jpg How to make an earthquake.
When I started planning my Borneo trip, hiking up Mount Kinabalu was going to be the dreaded highlight. Personally, I was sad and relieved at the same time when I learned that I couldn't go after an earthquake had blocked the paths. More interesting than how it affected me personally though was the debate that started about the tourists that had, according to the state's tourism minister, caused the earthquake.
Now just to be clear, I don't believe that some spirits, angered by those tourists' nudity, send an earthquake to punish them. I do believe that sometimes bad things happen and that people are assholes if they are disrespectful towards other people's beliefs and customs. Two very different things that are not necessarily related. I also think that they should be reprimanded, not for causing an earthquake but for being said assholes. They simply had no idea how to travel right though I think it should be obviously enough.
Nobody can expect you to internalize a country's religion or ask you to believe in invisible spirits if you don't, but while you are there, you damn well better respect what the locals believe and don't pee on the spirits' heads (as I was taught on a hike in Chiang Mai). If you cannot do that, then you have no business going to another country. Going and then disrespecting someone else's values, beliefs, and customs makes you a bad traveler. Yes, you've paid for your trip, but you are still a guest -- behave accordingly.
2016-02-25-1456433375-7151837-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0848.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-25-1456433375-7151837-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0848.jpg Missionary style
Unfortunately, missionaries are not extinct but seem to be flooding the world with or without a religious cause, wearing tiny shorts and an air of smugness. If you walk around in a conservative country wearing said shorts, you are not a feminist, you are rude and disrespectful. Whether that happens out of ignorance or intent almost doesn't matter. If you can't be bothered to immerse yourself just a little bit into a new culture not to cause raised eyebrows, please stay home. I dare say you need a lesson of traveling most, but maybe learn a bit of common human decency first before taking that school on the road.
2016-02-25-1456433407-1086288-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0842.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-25-1456433407-1086288-howtotravelrightmidnightblueelephant20151004_0842.jpg 'Speech is silvern, silence is golden'
It's not your job to tell anybody how they should live their lives because really, what makes you think you are qualified? An Instagram account doesn't make you wise and a collection of Manolo Blahniks doesn't mean you can walk in someone else's shoes. You don't have all the answers even though you have a new, shiny iPhone and Siri.
If you find yourself telling more of how something should be than asking why something is, stop. Before you judge and talk the talk, take the time to really listen. Because everything else makes you a bad traveler and no amount of passport stamps, hostel stories, and maps of hidden islands can change that. You can be a traveler with socks in sandals and a selfie stick, but please don't be a traveling asshole.
Liked this story and want to read more? Find Annika over on The Midnight Blue Elephant and Instagram.


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