Watch Your Back

 Recently, I heard a contractor, being interviewed in Afghanistan, say, “Watch your back, watch your front, but have fun.”

This is pretty good advice for traveling anywhere. Women, of course, know we’ve been born into a war zone. We’re targets, no matter where we go, mostly because of the homo sapien breeding strategy. The common term for a woman who won’t recognize this — and goes through life thinking somebody else is going to keep her safe – is “Statistic.” But if you’re a guy, you can pretend you’re a woman when you’re out-of-town and not let anybody get to close behind you. This applies to any neighborhood, anywhere in the world, even in your own country.

There are stories going around about friends who have ended up drugged and stripped of their valuables. The friends usually don’t tell the whole story. My husband, who spent years in the hotel and tourism industry in the United States, has heard this one before, and knows why people get drugged for talking to people they don’t know. If you really need a prostitute or drugs or that stiletto that the border guard is going to take off you anyway, then make a discrete contact in a good hotel. Don’t mess with the street skanks when your concierge can get you a nice, clean call-girl or groomed boy.

As an American, find out what your corporations have been exploiting. If the local Native population is fighting the gold-mine that is dumping arsenic in the local river – the only source of drinking water – and is being decimated by the local militia because the white boys from up north — whom the Natives know bought the gold mine – have defined tribal protesters as “terrorists” and paid off militias to take the fight to the villages: DON’t WEAR GOLD. The same goes for anyplace that’s using slave labor to mine diamonds. Keep the sparklies at home if there’s any chance somebody whose mother lost an arm to a militia machete might go ballistic if they see you wearing blood diamonds. Besides, the wedding-ring finger won’t have that ugly tan line when you get back home.

If you’re going to eat the local food, remember that you don’t have the same bacterial gut culture. No matter how clean something is, you’re still going to get sick because the new gut bugs will be fighting your own bugs. If you live in a place for a year, you’ll develop a new gut culture. Then when you get back home you’ll get sick all over again; well, at least you’ll be used to it. Do what the locals do in so many places: pile on the hot peppers. Not only are the firey condiments great disease fighters, they’ll also make you sweat. And they are so yummy! Try them on vanilla ice cream – it’s to die for. Drink lots and lots of HOT tea with them. It will clean out your system and the boiled water will guarantee you won’t be drinking the live bugs. Beer works, too, if you want something cold.

When traveling, don’t make fun of the locals. Don’t laugh at them or point or sneer at their food. How would you feel? Be the kind of traveler that doesn’t make your compatriots cringe and mutter, “I’m not with THEM.” If nothing else, think of the dignity of your people! Have you seen yourself in those Bermuda shorts?

The cliché you travel with will be the cliché you get. If you expect to be cheated or mistreated or despised, then that is exactly what you will get. If you expect to be delighted, amazed, surprised and thoroughly entertained by every new thing – no matter how scary – then that is what you will get. Try this experiment: if you expect to see little old men with berets, and accordion players, in Paris – they will materialize. If you expect drug dealers or angry extremists don’t hope to enjoy.

If you can’t learn any other words – and considering the American education system, nobody much expects you to – at least learn “Please,” “Thank you” and “Magnificent.” The last is what you’ll answer in case a translating friend asks you what you think of the local town. A big grin and high praise will make them do everything but wag their tails. Everybody likes to have nice things said about their town. If you start complaining, guess how you’ll get treated. Serenity and joy just seem to rub off on everybody. You may get a free bottle of wine with dinner, especially if you just hand the waiter all those napkins you’ve been drawing on for free. In some countries art is as good as money. Send your kids to art classes if they’re going to be traveling.

Don’t go into war zones unless you have a press pass. Everybody involved in whatever struggle is going on do not have time to watch you or your kids. You’re not a reporter, and you’re not being paid to carry a gun. Stay out of those arenas; those are not your playpens.

A lot of this applies if you’re going to retire to a place. Don’t expect to get what you got in your own country. There will be a lack of things you always took for granted, but there will be lots of wonderful things you can’t get back home – it’s a tradeoff. Decide what you want. Go to a place you think you’d like to retire. Learn the customs, the ins-and-outs, the way people do things. Make friends! The day you decide to retire to their country, you won’t run into the problems you’d get if you march in full of ignorance and arrogance, expecting the locals to be your quiet little colored servants. Everybody’s got their own culture, their own way of doing things. If you’re dumb enough to expect a flush toilet in a desert country, and refuse to turn the handle on the composting bin once a week, or recognize you can’t throw Styrofoam garbage into the methane pit if you expect them to work, then retire in your own culture. You’re too tame, and you need to stay within the domesticated fences.

With the growing population, everybody’s going to have to learn to use composting toilets soon enough. If you think the oil wars were bad – wait ’till you find yourself in the middle of the water wars. Don’t move to Los Vegas.

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