It had been a long day spent being overcharged and saying ‘no, thank you’ so when I thought the three (middle aged) bus ticket sellers were trying it on I stamped my foot like a child and asked them all to step outside.
It later turned out I was in the wrong and we were arguing over the equivalent of 50p but at the time I didn’t care because mild mannered Clark Kent had taken off his glasses and my inner jerk had taken charge.
I had hesitated to write this piece. The negative side of travel is often neglected or airbrushed over by travel writers and bloggers and in this post I’m going to reveal how much of a cretin I can sometimes be.
I should also point out that I’m not suggesting that we should BE jerks all the time. Often the rudeness or unfairness that we sometimes have to endure is down to other travellers who are exactly that. I am only saying that is reasonable to push back when pushed and to unleash the jerk within us when the only alternative to standing up for ourselves is to be treated with contempt, insulted and walked over.
The inspiration to carry on writing came when I read an article by Suzy Guese: When the Traveler Gets Mistreated. Suzy did not respond like a jerk because Americans have a reputation for being loud and obnoxious and she, like many independent travellers from the USA, made a conscious effort to balance out that stereotype.
Fortunately I’m not American. I’m British. As long as we stay sober our reputation is one of politeness, queuing and mumbling apologies when people bump into us.
Conforming somewhat to that stereotype I realised a long time ago that if I didn’t draw on deep down negative energies I’d be picked on, put down and pushed around whenever I crossed the English Channel.
If two cleaners decide to have an early morning conversation from opposite ends of a Corfu hotel, my inner jerk is happy to shout ‘shut the fuck up’. And should an Albanian cleaner sneak up from the balcony next door and reach through the railings to grab your legs it isn’t unreasonable to point out to her that sort of behaviour is somewhat unacceptable.
Though I appreciate my inner jerk’s efforts to help out it is, as British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge said of his libido, like being chained to a lunatic. The thing has no sense of proportion, lacks timing and is entirely without common sense.
The leg fondling cleaner incident happened to Deirdre rather than me and often it’s in defending her, wanted or not, that the full snarling force of my inner jerk is brought to the fore.
Boxing With Bulgarians
Combine an Englishman’s respect for the queue with defending his loved ones and the result can be truly awful. Fed up with people pushing in front of her in Bulgaria I objected and started a row with the man who had pushed ahead.
Though, to be fair, he was no worse than anyone else I’d had enough and told the man so. We both quickly lost our tempers and started screaming at each other in languages neither of us could understand before issuing threats and counter threats to call the police.
After a few minutes of mutual verbal abuse we separated and walked off in different directions. Each turning a couple of corners we caught sight of each other a few minutes later. He said something, I wordlessly gestured ‘come on then’ and he shrugged off his wife and charged.
At this point I should mention he was at least in his mid sixties. His charge was somewhat wheezy and after three or four failed attempts to punch me in the head I couldn’t bring myself to hit him back. I’d also noticed we were providing the entertainment for the crowded restaurant that we were prancing around in front of.
Okay, I’m not proud of that one.
Because of this, and other incidents, when an Egyptian t-shirt seller makes a grab for her breasts my girlfriend decides it’s best not to tell me now.
Some of these other incidents include the chicken dance and a so called ‘help desk’ attendant having to be restrained from attacking me with a pair of scissors after I’d pointed out how rude and useless she was.
Of course, you have to be able to put the inner jerk back in the bottle. Most times losing your temper will achieve nothing but make us look foolish (though it might make us feel better). Often it is best to grin and bear it, chalk it up to experience, or even just admire the skill that deprived our wallets of a few extra bucks.
Making Nice Nice
But why do I let these people annoy me in the first place? I’m usually a fairly mild mannered type of guy. I talk to people, smile, and am polite. Becoming proficient in the language of every place we travel is impossible but I make an effort to at least learn ‘hello’, ‘please ‘ and ‘thank you’.
If I’m asked a question I’ll answer it, even when I know it is almost certainly an opener for the hundredth sales pitch of day. In Dahab, for instance, I knew the restaurant touts were exploiting our polite manners in an attempt to get us to eat in their place. We didn’t mind that it could take an hour to walk a hundred yards because they were polite, funny, and interesting.
We all understand that as tourists we are a resource to be exploited. Our money feeds families and puts the children of ambitious parents through school. In return we are welcome to respectfully explore a foreign nation’s ruined cities, jungle trails or works of art.
That’s the deal we make when we leave our home and go to someone else’s. I understand when I have to pay more to see the Pyramids or Angkor Wat. As long as corruption isn’t an issue the larger entry fees gained from tourists play an important part in the preservation and conservation of the things we travelled so far to see. Yet to charge local people the same would be in effect to exclude those on lower incomes from their cultural heritage.
But once the ‘Gringo Tax’ starts to spread to every transaction and it is taken as an affront when prices are questioned then my inner jerk starts to sense that he’s going to be called on soon. We can’t buy every piece of cheap crap presented to us a hundred times a day so please don’t get the hump when I politely decline to purchase that oh so charming I Love to Fart coffee mug.
And if you come up to me and stick your hand in my face and say ‘money’ to feed your drug habit I might just tell you to piss off.
While it is understandable to sometimes lose your temper when confronted with a repetitive cocktail of lies, exploitation and incompetence losing it can also be a sign of travel burnout.
With so many travellers writing about their journeys the record of our breakdown can linger long after the last flush of anger has receded. After 67 days of motorcycling through Vietnam Mitch and Chris lost it:
“Vietnamese people are stupid fucking retards and this country can burn to the ground for all I care. Apparently they wouldn’t care either. If I were to pull out a gun, go downstairs and point it at the hotel manager, I would almost expect him to say “Oh, haha, you got me!” and laugh as I blew his brains out all over the wall. They just don’t seem to place any value on human lives whatsoever.” (Twelve days later, after being retweeted throughout the Vietnamese expat world, they were being described as insufferable virus minded little people).
I have some sympathy for Chris and Ben and though I do believe that using your inner jerk in self defense is not necessarily a bad thing it’s clear that completely losing your temper is not recommended. As Chris, Ben and myself demonstrate other people’s anger can be a great source of amusement for anyone witnessing the explosion.
I’m not saying we should travel the world acting like we own the place, like, well, jerks. I’m just suggesting when we are pushed sometimes it’s understandable that we push back. Use the jerk wisely. What do you think?
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