Questioning My Responsibility as a Tourist

We’ve all seen it: people being rude to the staff, the tourists who avoid contact with locales or never even leave the hotel, and those that only patronize big franchises or tourists traps while abroad. Heck, I used to scout for the green mermaid like a Godsend before I had an international data plan, spending tons in Starbucks just to use the free wifi . You might be reading this and realizing you have committed one or many of these offenses too. We have all, at one point or another, traveled irresponsibly.

While learning how to properly roll a fat one, my new friend, a local of Montego Bay, told me about the tourists that frequented the resorts nearby. As we sat on the small patch of beach in front of my locally owned AirBnB apartment, he described their blatant disrespect of the land, the culture and the people. Who was doing this? “Americans,” he said simply. I shook my head in embarrassment. He continued on about his daily run-ins with authorities who made it difficult for him to make a living of selling seashells on his catamaran. “They tax me heavy,” he told me. It seemed ridiculous to tax a thing you can find for free and in abundance. “And the tourists dont even look us in the eye. They think we’re all only hustlers! You cant say hello?!” He paused, showing me how to close it up tightly. “See, now… when someone asks who taught you to roll proper, who will you say?” I laughed, gave him a pound of my fist and said, “You, Barney.”

Ubering around the various worlds of Cuidad de Mexico, my driver echoed a sentiment shared by Barney: “Not everyone wants to talk to us. So its nice that you are so friendly. I can practice my English.” I apologized for my awful Spanish and told him I was learning to be more conversational, but I was grateful for his perfect English. “Well, its better for business if you speak English,” he explained, “tourists expect it of you even though we are in Mexico.” Again, I was embarrassed. Sure, I was able to maneuver around town with my remedial level of the language, but I was still apart of the problem: the stereotypical arrogant American tourist.

In beloved San Juan, Puerto Rico, I sat on a crowded beach with the youth of the city that came out to celebrate the Night of John the Baptist. At the stroke midnight, families young and old, rush the shore to jump backwards and baptize themselves in the ocean to honor him. In the afterhours, large groups of youth mingle on the dimly lit end of the beach to play Puerto Rican trap music, smoke and drink, dance barefoot in the sand, and laugh under the moonlight. “Haven’t you noticed the countries that they deem as third-world are the same places they take holiday. Why is that?” I dug my feet into the sand feeling the familiar guilt of my first-world problems and the weight of my American passport. My new friend, Mikey, was absolutely right, but I didnt know the answer. “Are they trying to simply take advantage of the exchange rate or rather the desperation of the people who are trying to support their families by selling crafts?”

These same questions echoed in my mind as I watched the very first episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown as he traveled to Myanmar, better known as Burma. There was a long civil war that took place there, one that most Americans have never even heard, but was more crippling than Hiroshima. With certain freedoms being regained to their people, tourism was also making a climb. Bourdain shed light on many young villagers who were skipping school to sell handmade goods to tourists, showing what’s commonplace for a country enthusiastically on the cusp of entering the hospitality and tourism industry.

Cuba seemed to be positioned similarly as Americans have poured into the country in the last few years. As I was driven around the streets of Havana in their iconic vintage cars, we passed areas of construction. “A new hotel. It will be beautiful and facing the Malecon too,” my driver explained. The Malecon, considered the family sofa of Old Havana, is a low bearing stone wall that separates the streets from the bay. Every night that I passed by the mile long Malecon, people gathered in large numbers, enjoying a beer, the simplicity of the stars sparkling on the water and music playing in the distance. It was prime real estate for new hotels and more tourist traps, but commercialism tends to drive local traditions away. I let out a heavy sigh, grateful that I had, at least, successfully beat McDonalds to Cuba. But, once I finally return again, would nothing be as I was seeing it then? The authenticity of the people who genuinely want your opinion about our political relationships, or the machismo men who stop you for a dance on the cobblestone streets, would their energy be compromised? Or rather, will it be packaged as Standard, Best Value and Premium, then spoon-fed to visitors looking to buy the Cuban experience?

So what responsibility do we have as tourists? Well, common respect for others is a start. Next, supporting local businesses is vital for the economic prosperity of those that breed the culture. Like Barney in Jamaica, you never know how hard it is for them to make a living. Buy your cigars from a casa particular in Havana instead of the Factory or venture a few blocks away from the tourist strip to find a local restaurant. Supporting small businesses could also save many of the ‘hoods in the US that have left us heartbroken when we find out they have been completely gentrified into hipster havens. Its also important to research the customs, history, struggles, beliefs, traditions and favorite pastimes of your destination. This will vastly separate you from a person who stepped off the plane only seeking a mythical paradise. Theres nothing wrong with disappearing from your everyday life for supreme R&R and Americans simply can’t help the clear contrast between even the most modest of our pockets with many of those from impoverished countries. I, too, am guilty of this. “Americans and their cameras,” a handsome Cuban laughed, “you must take pictures of everything.” Any onlooker could see me with my iPhone snapping away among people that lived in a crumbling, yet captivating, landscape. I smiled nervously, “I love it here and I want to remember everything.” Talking to the locales is a major key! Most often, they actually want to befriend you. How else could lose yourself in an emotional love song, whose translation is being whispered into your ear, as your hips are being guided to the rhythm? It gives locales great pride to show off the best parts of their culture and many times, warn you about troubled areas.

The advantages of visiting small foreign cities and many places in the Caribbean or Central and South America is that you can still experience what its like to live more simply and to get back to what little it takes to be happy. Places in Europe, like Paris and London, tend to feel so overrated because, at times, it feels like the ‘United States with an accent:’ busy, industrialized and cordial to people of color. Besides, if I wanted to see trash and smell urine on every street, no offense, but I’d go to New York. Of course, I love a complicated urban jungle and not all metropolitans are hectic or filthy, but smaller countries and less urbanized cities allow you to get back to the basics. Its inspires your hope in humanity to feel the warm, genuine friendliness of strangers. Its easy and there’s plenty that we can do to travel more responsibly. Let me know how you do this successfully, if you have suggestions or if you volunteer while on holiday! Its something I have been thinking about greatly ever since I discovered @Chakabars IG, where he shares his efforts to build schools in Ghana and Jamaica via GOFundMe. I’d love to hear more ideas, please comment below!

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