As those of you who read this blog regularly know, I'm rather obsessed with the idea of showing respect to the places I go and integrating as much as possible with people who rarely or never have contact with foreigners. I recently summed up the dilemma with this facebook post:
Unless I’m in a crummy part of town and eating, I’m taken to be a gawking outsider and get perpetual stink-eye. But once I order food, say a few Burmese words, and sit down in a minuscule plastic chair, suddenly everyone is laughing and all is wonderful. But there are only so many meals i can manage in a day! It’s literally gotten to the point where i try to walk briskly enough as to be anonymous and unobtrusive until I find a seedy neighborhood, then I quickly try to pick a stall/stand, as the ones I don’t pick think i’m only leering. Once I’ve finished, I effectively have to run home before I offend anyone else and until I can work up an appetite again.
Today provided an excellent example: I ended up in an exceedingly dingy bar in slum Yangon (video to follow, when I can get it to upload) and had a blast with the locals who were bringing me food and cheroots and mountain hooch, while I was handing out shots of Burmese whiskey. The one guy who spoke a little English told me they had never had a white person in there before.
That’s my approach to travel, and I’ve realized I don’t like it any other way. So for anyone interested in doing likewise, i thought I'd compile my accumulated wisdom on how to invert the normal dynamic so you become the spectacle for their amusement, instead of them being the zoo you're ambling through with your Nikon. (Forgive the soap box.) And while i used to be envious of Anthony Bourdain and his excellent shows, I realize now that having a cameraman/crew would also ruin the effect that I'm after, so I'm happier doing it my way.
- Cross train tracks. Then try to cross a bridge. Never go toward the city center or business district
- Choose places where you can sit close to the cook and she can see your reactions. Make pleasure faces/gestures while eating
- Take pictures of the food but not of people — or places unless no one is watching (the still above is an exception, as the guys in the bar asked me to take pictures with them)
- Know your few words (delicious, favorite, thank you, etc) in the local tongue but always bring a dictionary as well
- Avoid cleanliness, ceilings, doors, and anything with electricity
- Seek out neighborhoods without pavement; once the children start following you and people come out of their doors to stare, you’re there
- Chose a place with seating; take-away destroys the purpose
- Say their version of hello to everyone who stares at / acknowledges you as you’re walking
- Don’t use your left hand to touch food, in case there are convives who don’t have plumbing
- Try to avoid raw meat or fermented foods; they can get quite odd and/or make you ill. (i’ve had some raw tripe that tested my mettle.) Careful with the free water but don’t buy or bring bottled water or ostentatious drinks; drink tea instead
- Eat every speck of food; more on this in a later post
- Avoid deep-fried food, as it fills you up and limits how many things you can try
- Make lots of eye contact and say thank you for everything
- Share a table with people whenever possible
- Pay for first meal with a bill big enough to cover it but not so big as to make change a problem. Then you’ll know the base price-point for future meals and can use smaller bills
- Eat as many chilis as you can handle so they can see you’re not a wimp and might even laugh at how much you like spicy food
- Don’t wear sunglasses; as you walk, everyone needs to be able to see your eyes, and you need to look humble and joyful
- Try to get dinner in before sundown so you can see other people well (and your pictures will come out better)
- Buy a Lonely Planet guide just so you have a must-avoid list