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Travel with Soul

No matter how you feel about the Bush administration’s policies and actions, there’s no denying that a wide swath of the world’s population has a dramatically more negative opinion of the U.S. than they did a few years ago.

What does that mean to you as a traveler? Should you stay holed up in your duct-taped apartment? Or should you go abroad and show a better side of America than the world is seeing on the news?

Some well-meaning but poorly-traveled journalists have suggested that American citizens try to hide the fact they’re from the U.S. by lying about where they’re from, avoiding American gathering places, and not wearing blue jeans, baseball hats, or sneakers. This kind of pretense is not what’s needed now. If you want to keep yourself out of trouble and be a good ambassador, as well, here are some more practical tips for travelers with a soul.

Don’t perpetuate stereotypes. Many people ask "Where are you from?" not to make conversation but to decide how to treat you. Every country with lots of visitors has its stereotypes. Americans are often perceived as loud, obnoxious, and clueless about world affairs. Don’t make it worse by being all of the above.

Be nice to others. This is so obvious it’s silly, but some travelers make it a habit to be rude to taxi drivers, hotel owners, waitresses, shopkeepers, and other locals they encounter. There may be times when you need to be firm with touts and scam artists, but treating others as equals will go a long way toward changing hearts and minds.

Respect the local culture. In most countries outside of the U.S. and Europe, modesty and respectful behavior rule. Know the cultural boundaries and be a good observer. In most places, that means not showing a lot of skin, not cursing and yelling, and not going overboard with your affections in a public place. Respect breeds respect.

Be diplomatic. No matter what you think about the hot topics of the day, a strongly voiced opinion on either side is bound to get you in trouble at some point. Friendly debate is fine, but do more listening than talking if you want to avoid sticky situations. Note that the opinions of a country’s leaders are not always our own.

Support small business owners. If you stay in western hotel chains, eat at foreign-owned restaurants, and use transportation not owned by locals, you’re not doing the man on the street all that much good. Stay in locally-owned hotels, eat at family restaurants, and buy souvenirs that haven’t gone through three levels of distribution before reaching your hands. And don’t bargain like 25 cents is a matter of life and death (If it is, then it’s time for you to go home.).

Make a difference. If you really want to make a good impression locally, leave a little of yourself behind (and not just a plastic water bottle). Do volunteer work. Donate leftover medicine to a clinic. Give money to a local charity. Buy some schoolbooks for a needy family’s kids.

One traveler can’t change world perception, but an ambassador of one can help, one family at a time.

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