10 Morally Questionable Things You Only Find Yourself Doing When Traveling
1. Dancing at the election parties of dubious Middle Eastern dictators
In my defence, at the time Bashar al-Assad was relatively benign, and Syria was the safest country in the region. Nobody knew that weak jawline and undefined chin were capable of so much evil.
Bashar’s face was plastered sky-high across every building. The beady eyes that seemed to express timidity rather than malevolence looked out from posters and flags unfurled by enthusiastic young men caught up in Bashar fervour, roaring around Damascus in the backs of trucks blasting out the al-Assad theme song (yes, he really did have one). The whole of Syria was dancing, drinking tea, and voting for the man whose name was the only one on the ballot.
I’ve since destroyed my “We Love You, Bashar” t-shirt.
2. Engaging in dodgy border crossings
I thought I was going to Mexico when I got on a bus in small-town Guatemala. “Si, si, no problema,” the bus driver nodded. I should’ve guessed something was amiss when I saw the first seat was occupied by a clown. Nothing feels right about crossing a border in the company of a clown.
The bus came to a halt soon after. “Mexico?” I asked. The clown got off. “Si, si, no problema.” The bus driver pointed to the opposite bank of a gushing river that stood between me and Mexico, where hundreds of Guatemalans were wading through the rushing water, clutching baskets on their heads. Not having faith in my ability to scramble up Mexican shores with a backpack balanced on my head, I enlisted the help of a boy with a raft. That was a tough one to explain when questioned at Mexican immigration.
3. Bribing your way out of a difficult situation
Slipping some dirty cash to a cop can get you out of many an awkward situation overseas — like when you’ve accidentally overstayed your visa by three months. I got picked up in a train station in Bolivia by a man with a label hand-sewn onto his shirt that said “Interpol.” He dragged me to a stark basement somewhere in the station’s underbelly, whipped out a copy of the Bolivian constitution, and slammed it on the table alongside the Bible and the Evo Morales biography to prove there was no code I wasn’t violating.
Turns out, there was no code he wasn’t willing to violate for a fast 100 bucks. I got him down to 50.
4. Taking advantage of your privileged status
I wish I didn’t have examples of this — but we all do. Like accepting a spot in a ‘special section’ fenced off on the deck of a boat when crossing from Sudan to Egypt so I’d have room to stretch out. Or being waved through the border into Mauritania ahead of all the Mauritanians who’d been waiting for hours to get let into their own country. Or getting paid at least three times the local salary in Morocco. And so on.
5. Working jobs you think are wrong
I was down to my last 20 dollars when I finally found work in New York, so desperation levels were high. My first job involved coaxing unwitting individuals to air their abuses and addictions on a radio show, in the utterly false promise that we’d put them on reality TV. I wrote ads that all began with “Do You Want to Be a STAR?” and lots of poor folk did.
My second job involved coaxing unwitting Amish individuals to be on an actual reality TV show. This proved to be tricky, given that the Amish had zero interest in being STARS. When nothing else worked — and it generally didn’t — we lured them with money. By the time the show aired, I’d already hightailed it to Mexico.
6. Participating in poverty tours
I don’t generally go in for tours, but…sometimes you just really want to go down a Bolivian silver mine. The guide assured us the miners loved the tour groups coming through, as the tourists bring them gifts. So we brought useful gifts of cigarettes and deathly strong alcohol and got in the way of their work as much as possible.
In return, the miners smiled and posed for our expensive cameras, while we gawked at the narrow tunnels where they spend at least 12 hours a day bent double in back-breaking labour amid dangerous conditions and toxic fumes for a paltry salary. They pointed to the most treacherous parts, where the walls had fallen in, so we could take photos of those too.
7. Protesting for a cause you don’t really know anything about
Not so much questionable as downright foolish. I can’t recommend this course of action to anyone. It will end, if not in tears, then at least in tear gas and beatings from the Turkish police. I came home from the May Day demonstrations in Taksim Square only slightly wiser about the secularist movement in Turkey and covered in black bruises.
8. Volunteering for an international organisation
If you disagree, you’ve clearly never seen the international band of do-gooders hanging around the assorted bars of East Jerusalem. They’re in search of an authentic travel experience — even if it comes at the expense of the locals. You can’t just charge into a town on the West Bank picking a fight with Israeli soldiers and expect there not to be consequences for the people who actually live there after you get on your flight back to Arizona.
9. Haggling over prices
I enjoy a good haggle as much as the next traveler. But this usually means spending 15 minutes quibbling over an amount of money that for this man in Senegal comprises a daily salary and for you probably wouldn’t even be worth picking up if you dropped it in the street. You haggle on regardless — mostly because he chased you all the way down the beach and insisted you buy the wooden giraffe you never wanted anyway.
If you’re going to buy the damn thing, you want to make sure you pay next to nothing for it.
10. Upholding the class system
For some years, I funded my travel by stints looking after aging English aristocrats in country estates. I answered to a bell and polished silver plates engraved with “His Lordship” and “Her Ladyship.” “My family used to be poor like yours,” I was told often. “But now we are middle class.” As though cruises and manors and 12-household staff were the mark of the middle class.
“Fancy asking the people of England to choose their own parliament,” one Lady lamented when the House of Lords became democratically elected. “What next — have them elect the national cricket team?” The Lords and Ladies were inevitably drunk on the finest whiskey by 11am to cope with that terrible thought.