How to be a conscious tourist

The holiday seasons are upon us!! And with it, comes much traveling. Last summer and during the beginning of Fall, I did so much traveling around Europe, and it was the first time I really country hopped a bit as an adult, having to fend for myself and figure out where I was going to stay, etc. Also, because I was living in France and traveling the continent with my French passport, the way I viewed other tourists had changed as well, as perspectives change depending on who you travel with and where you originally came from.

Since I’ve been in France for two years now, American tourists feel foreign instead of someone coming “from home”. The fact that I have lived in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and Paris, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux in France, means that I have lived places that at one point or another have been completely filled with tourists. It was in experiencing tourism as a native or tourist myself that I began to realize the ignorance we display sometimes in going to another country. I have had this blog in my head for quite some time but had to chew on it a while before deciding to write it. Finally, I figured I’d break it down into 8 convenient bullet points to help you be a more CONSCIOUS traveler during the holiday seasons, and always. If there’s anything you’d like to add, go ahead and do so in the comment section below!

And so, without further ado,

8 Tips on How Not to Be a Douchebag Traveler

  1. Learn some basic words in the native language

You ever gone to a country and actually not known what language they spoke until you landed? Because I have. That’s really ignorant. Don’t do that. Assuming that every one does or should speak English is a very close-minded and self-centered way to look at the world. Not everyone has the privilege of education of learning another language, first off, and secondly, it is not another country’s responsibility to cater to their tourists. While English is spoken in a lot of countries, it should be your job as a conscious traveler to at least try and be aware of the language(s) spoken, and try to at the VERY least, learn how to say “Hello/Goodbye”, or “please” and “thank you” depending on your own level of being able to memorize things. Just so that you can acknowledge people in their home language. Of course some people might want to practice their English with you and will be excited to do so, others won’t mind trying to help you figure out what you need through miming, while some people won’t even care that you tried and will be upset just at the mere fact that you can’t fluently speak their language (you can’t please everybody, so don’t try.)

2. Respect the natives

Listen to me. Black and brown babies are not props. It is so cringey when I see middle class white women taking pictures of a black or brown child with them because “look at this cute colored child isn’t it cute” like in their own home country they’ve never seen a child of color, and if they have, it’s like in a zoo, you know, in “those” neighborhoods, where they would never be allowed to grab a random child for a photo op.

Or people taking photographs of the homeless without so much as their consent or giving them money, or food. Yes, taking a photograph of someone we find beautiful because they are different than what we are used to can be a way to remember that, but this should be a learning opportunity and not one for you to improve your instagram’s aesthetic. Learn about their cultures and dress, and ask, ask, ask if you can take a picture. And read their body language first, don’t just aggressively pull someone aside suddenly to photograph them. Do not take a picture of a child without their parents consent.

And taking a picture of poverty? Is so inappropriate. Are you providing for it or just exploiting it for your own ego? Help them, instead of trying to photograph them. Unless you’re a journalist whose work might help these people, capturing others peoples misery and posting it on your facebook is too self serving for it to be appropriate under any means, unless you’re actively trying to help it. If you enjoy something and find it beautiful, instead of exploiting it, try to appreciate it through a way that may help the community in question.

3. Don’t litter

Unless you’re one of those really amazing people who are fully aware of their carbon footprint, chances are you litter on the regular. In your country, where you’re paying taxes and breathing the own gross air of your car polluting the atmosphere, that’s one thing. But going to another country to enjoy their goods, to then throw your gross cigarette bud on the ground, or letting your sandwich wrapper blow in the wind and away, or throwing the plastic bag of your souvenir next to the garbage, is rude, selfish, inappropriate, and ignorant. Be EXTRA mindful of other countries. However much careful you are usually about these things, triple that when you’re elsewhere.

4. Watch where you’re going

Dear family of 5 walking slowly down the street or sidewalk, everyone hates you. Watch where you’re going, and for the love of God MOVE TO THE SIDE.
Dear ANYONE that is walking slowly and unpredictably sort of zig zagging or coming to a full stop, what you’re doing is dangerous, annoying as hell, and inconsiderate to those trying to live their every day lives not revolving around you. Pretty much, walk how you would drive. (But better, and remember you don’t have turn signals here)

Would you come to a sudden complete stop without looking behind you first if you were in a busy highway? Probably not unless it was an emergency, because then you might cause a serious accident. Imagine a local parent with their kid and stroller walking down a street on their way to the grocery store when suddenly some douchebag turns unpredictably and runs into them because they tdont want to consider others. This isn’t the Truman show, we aren’t sitting here prepared for your every move. I’ve seen people run into strollers, other people, and even oncoming traffic. Be self aware, or you might hurt yourself or someone else at the worst, but at the least, you’re making your stay unpleasant for those that live here.

5. Do a minimum research of the laws

Try doing a quick google on things like religion and social laws when entering a culture that is very unfamiliar to you. For example in Japan, it is rude to blow your nose in front of someone, while in many other countries giving a “thumbs up” is actually a middle finger. You can Google things like, “what not to do in {country you’re traveling to}” for some help. No one is expecting you to know everything, but some kind of self awareness and attempt at respect is always appreciated.

6. Be self-aware

The other day in Paris an American tourist went to the Eiffel Tower and got a special deal on a tour which they felt completely entitled to anyway because “Paris is like, so expensive.” Do you know how I know that? Because even though I was 4 seats away trying to read my book, this small group of 3 adults apparently felt they were the only ones in the metro and were speaking so loud, I felt myself engrossed in their conversation, despite me not caring, because of how LOUD they were. Another time, in Rome, I had to stop a conversation that I was having with my boyfriend because another small group of American tourists were having a conversation so unnecessarily loud, it went over whatever we were discussing. Of course you’re excited, that’s wonderful, and if you’re in a large group or in a loud place, we get it. But if you’re in a metro, restaurant, or other place where people can hear you just fine if you use a quieter voice, try and gauge your volume. Don’t just assume you’re not loud, actually question it. Maybe ask someone else. If someone speaks loudly to you, try lowering your own volume. Be self aware of the space you are taking up in someone else’s home country.

7. Buy local

Whenever I pass a McDonald’s in any other country that isn’t the USA I am always perplexed. (I find McDonald’s in France to be completely humiliating for the French, for one, who love to talk about their fine cuisine and criticize American food.) However seeing an American walk in is disappointing, to say the least.That you want to go to a fast food restaurant at all is whatever, I’m not going to judge that, but that you’re feeding massive corporations that damage the local economy and land is not conducive to this country lasting in their rich culture and traditions, and therefore you should not help support them. Try to avoid large chains because you never know who actually owns them, and support Farmer’s Markets, artisans, and mom and pop shops.

8. Don’t Swim with the dolphins.

In the United States, Sea World is bad enough, but in other countries you should never swim with dolphins, and if you absolutely have to go to a place where you will see an animal in captivity, (avoid it, but if you must) inform yourself thoroughly before going to any zoos or aquariums about the treatment of their animals and how they help capture and keep them. Probably also inform yourself before riding an elephant somewhere, or coming in contact with animals. Don’t trust the company, they’re counting on your ignorance to get your money. Do your research, or if you aren’t sure, then don’t do it.

Basically, another country is not a theme park. I understand your excitement in visiting somewhere new and how bewilderment makes it hard to be fully aware of the damage we’re doing sometimes. We can’t always really control what we do. That’s why simply trying to be as aware and conscious as possible of our impact when traveling is so important. Our planet and resources are dying, coral reefs aren’t what they used to be, indigenous tribes and native lives are ruined, and virgin beaches are becoming more and more extinct due to poorly handled tourism. Let’s try and minimize that.


 

And, to end this blog post in a large bout of hypocrisy, in January 2017, I’ll be going on a cruise trip around Europe and you have no idea how problematic this is for me. Initially, I did not want to go because sipping a mojito in the lap of luxury with the current state of things in Aleppo, Venezuela, and even the USA, among so many others, felt a little disgusting for me. So when my mom originally asked me if I wanted to go on the family cruise trip I turned it down. However, due to schedule conflicts my little sister ended up not being able to go, and so I accepted her ticket because, hey, free cruise, and I’m not that much of a saint. I’m sorry.

But what I am doing, is reading up on why Cruise Ships are problematic to try and see if I can actively counter any of them, and also be aware of them so that next time, I can say “maybe let’s do something else instead of a Cruise Ship” and have my facts and alternatives ready and lined up, so that I can do something more solid and effective than writing a blog about how to not be a problematic tourist. 😉

Sometimes we make mistakes and realize too late, other times maybe we know we’re doing something problematic while we’re doing it, but it’s more complicated than just not going. Be as self-aware as possible, be forgiving of yourself but always hold yourself accountable, and always do better.

Happy globe-trotting.

 

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Somewhere I’ve never been before

“At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Warsan Shire

Morgan had been trying to get me to go to Minnesota for a while, but I never could because I didn’t have the money. In the meantime however, he kept talking about me moving there one day. Me? Live in a state I kept confusing for its city name? Me, live somewhere where winter is literally the Artic? Me, live in a state that I (so incorrectly) thought could not be more boring and unimportant, since “everyone knows” there’s nothing interesting in the middle area of the USA, except for maybe Chicago. God was I wrong. Either way, Minnesota was just so not me. I was meant to live somewhere exotic and foreign, somewhere where I could wake up and look around and say to myself, “Yep. This is where I should be living.” France satisfies that probably better than any other place in the world.

So when I first went to Minneapolis, I was 3479309% sure that I was not going there to live, thankyouverymuch, but just to visit. By day 3, however, I was saying “what if”, and by day 7, I was saying “when I live here”. But it terrified me. I felt a doubt. I’d get choked up. “Wait, Maëlle” the voice inside me would ask by grabbing a hold of my throat, “what about winter?”. Like in the all too well-known show Game of Thrones, winter in Minneapolis is not something you’re going to mess with. As anyone who doesn’t come from MN but knows someone from there knows, Minnesotans are kind of obnoxious about their pride in dealing with cold weather, snow, and winter in general. (On my Facebook, my MN friends have monopolized winter. If ever I make a statement about it being cold, someone will be bound to chirp up and talk about how no, it isn’t REALLY cold where you are, because you aren’t in MN.) but once you’re there, you understand. Winter is a part of life, even when it isn’t winter yet. They’re just equipped for it. So equipped, in fact, that they’ve even learned to enjoy it and take part in it. There’s activities to do in it, like sledding, ice skating, and snowshoeing, festivals and fairs still happen during winter, and if you need tips and tricks on how to survive the sunless days, you will immediately learn that there’s such a thing as a sun lamp, and they’re actually kind of amazing.

Still…just because people had learned how to fare the winter, didn’t necessarily mean that I would. Sunlight is so unbelievably important to me. I get cold very easily, and become practically inoperable when I get too cold. I have very real and good reasons to certainly NOT live there.

 

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Winter in the Twin Cities. Photo by Cory Zurowski

But then when I was recently asked, why I was living in France, it got me wondering about how anyone chooses where they live, ever. It made me think about why I was here to begin with, what I had wanted from this trip to France, and had I actually achieved it.

The reasons for deciding to live in France were fairly simple, and very few. Three, in fact.

First, I wanted to be close to my father so I could experience him more, spend more time with the man who I had essentially come from, and understand who he was, as well as giving him an idea of who I was, now as a full-grown adult, and not the kid he had last seen.

Secondly, I wanted to be in France because I was half French, and maybe I thought that being in a country that I half “belonged” to I would feel less foreign, or be less foreign. (I was completely wrong.)

And finally, because France is gorgeous, and the energy of the land feels like I live in a story book.

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How many people DREAM of living in a town like this? Well, I get to DO that. That ain’t nuthin’. 

And while the third reason is still very much in tact, the other two are no longer standing.

In fact, it was in coming here that I truly realized how foreign I will always be, but that if I ever felt at home anywhere, it was in the American continent. Like I previously mentioned, I am nothing if not Latinx American. I was hesitant in being American, rejected it even, as if by being placed under that identity my Colombian and French heritage would be drowned out, like being American is the ultimate goal. I do not want to be called American any more than I want to be called Mexican, because I am neither, and I want to fully represent mi bella Colombia and let people know that we’re here, and we’re good people. I love Mexico, and it’s partially my home, but I’m Colombian.

Being in France has only made me feel foreign and alone. People here are so very cold and distant, always ready to complain and criticize, not ever as quick to want to help or appraise. It is unfair of me to say that while having unbelievably amazing friends that have been helpful beyond anything, generous, and selfless. There is a little bit of everything and I will only ever seek out the best. As a people, however, walking out into the street on any given day, I was not met with the welcoming warmth and open friendliness I had gotten used to living in Mexico and the USA. Me being so dependent of that warmth, France’s people have been slowly depleting me.

As far as my father is concerned…I’ve spent time with him and have had experiences that I will keep with me always. I have learned so much and he has provided me with tremendous growth opportunities. Basically, I got what I came for, and it’s enough.

The third reason, France being gorgeous, is still very much there, even more so than before because I LOVE my country, and have gotten to see her so much more. France is stunning.

But it isn’t reason enough for me to live here. Be here, yes. Enjoy being here, yes. But not enough reason to stay.

The only reason that maybe sneaks in is the fact that now my baby sister (and by baby I mean 20-year old) is living here, and that leaving France would mean going years without seeing her. That…would be hard.

I have enough of an interest and an idea in projects I’d like to fulfill to keep me in France for a little longer. However, ultimately, I don’t know that I can thrive here. I think I always traveled looking for adventure, and trying to find and lose myself. I came to France thinking I’d find stability, but had no idea what stability looked like, or how to go about acquiring it, so going to a completely unfamiliar place, without really a plan, or an idea of how to make it…looking back, I feel like it makes sense that I am where I am right now. I guess what I’m trying to say is, and this is hard to type…I’m ready to leave France.

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Boom. I said it. It’s out there. 

I’m not saying I’m leaving tomorrow, because I can’t. I’m also, actually, not saying that I’m going to Minneapolis.

What I’m saying is, I was totally willing to deal with the winter in Minneapolis because my priorities changed. I felt community and purpose were my new priorities, because Minneapolis made me feel like I had community and purpose. It made me seriously consider going there and start brainstorming solutions for upcoming obstacles, because of how bad I wanted not the place, but the people, and how the place would make me feel about myself.

I don’t know if home is Minneapolis, but I do know that home is not on this side of the world, and I don’t think it ever was. This has just felt like one very long trip. I still have things I’d like to do here, and moving is extremely expensive, so honestly it’s not like I’ll be leaving any time too soon. I’m not sure what the next steps will look like, because you have just witnessed me fully admitting this to myself now for the first time, without a ‘but’ after.

Things could change. I could meet the right people that might make me want to stay a little longer. However essentially, my entire family is on the other side of the planet, with the exception of my sister being here, everyone that I really need to be close to and want to see and be there for isn’t here, or even close to here. So why am I?

I’m not sure what to do now. Essentially, if I knew how, I’d just try to raise the money to get the eff out of here. Maybe that’s what I have to figure out. Moving is already hard. Moving across an entire ocean is another story, moving across an entire ocean with a cat, is a saga. Granted, my cat is not just any cat.

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Pilo and I on our way to the beach. La Rochelle, summer of 2015.

 

Pilo is rightfully my son and has been on walks, in trains, to the beach, in a tent, on a scooter, hiking, and yes, on a 10 hour plane ride. While it exhausts him, he handles it like a champ and doesn’t get overly stressed. But it is still an expensive and complicated thing to do.

So I say this, but who knows, I may end up staying in France another couple of years. I’d like to not though, because at this point, I feel like it’ll be me barely making it by. As I found out the hard way, when you live somewhere, there has to be substance to your reasons. You cannot shallowly be somewhere just because it’s pretty. And even though initially it started off as something more than that, France and I have come to just that. I find my country beautiful, but its general personality unpleasant. I’d like for me to leave here while we can still remain on friendly terms. I’d like to start living a purposeful life where I am using my talents and qualities, and I can’t wait to be in a place where my sense of humor is fully understood and I don’t get social anxiety just from going to the supermarket. I want to live somewhere where I know how to make a difference and can. I also need to, for my own wellbeing and survival, be closer to family and friends. Dear America (no, not North America. The real America. The ENTIRE America…) I belong to you. You are my home.

It took me this long to realize it because I always thought home was a tiny place. But it isn’t. It’s a feeling. A community. A people.

And being away from home hurts. But finally understanding where it is, that is something that perphaps I may not have gotten had I not lived here in France first, and felt disoriented for a while.

Now, I’d like to orient myself. So I guess that’s what I’ll do.

 

 

 

On my cultural pride and appropriation

It’s ColOmbia with an O. 

I’ve been reading a book about Colombian history, sort of. I’ve been reading a book about a colombian journalist’s relationship with Colombia.

She’s a bit older than I am and was there longer, (I, myself, was only there for a month after I was born, then only visited ocassionally)  so she experienced more of it. But the disconnect with the country for not knowing it’s history or having heavily experienced its culture was there. I realized that with my own lack of knowledge about my country of birth, despite all the love and reverence I felt for it, I had not felt the respect that the land and its people so meritfully deserved.

Likewise, Colombia welcomed me with open arms but I still needed to own its respect . I guess maybe, if I’m honest, I’m like that too. 

It was in living that, and understanding, that I realized what it could be like to appropriate a country despite one being from there. In feeling I had a right to all its culture, I failed to fully comprehend the privileges I had been born to and how they were the fruit of years of violence, rebellion, and hope. 

However, the love was, has been, and is still there. I am citizen of the world and multicultural latinx of European descent, but I am Colombian. 

Me, in Bogotá in 2013, loving paradise. 

I have met my people and for the most part, we are welcoming and kind, we are warm and friendly, sassy in humor, quick to entertain . ..we are flawed, like every other, but mostly, Colombia is magnificent . 

And so in being multicultural, I am even more fascinated to learn about more cultures, to fully respect them and acknowledge them, to listen to my people and know who they are. Only respecting the lines that have been drawn for me. Growing up in a Dominican school with many afro latinxs does not make me knowledgeable enough on their experience to ever speak over or for them. 

Being born in Colombia doesn’t give me the insight that having been raised there would anymore than spending four years in france gives me the insight of someone who grew up here. 

In reality, loving Colombia means loving all of Latin America. We come from and are everywhere. Here in france, I already know where the Colombians and other latinxs hang out. Because of my super Mexicanized accent, I of course, lose cred immedieately. I have to earn certain points. That’s ok. Just a little disadvantage of the privileged multicultural lifestyle I was born, raised, and live in. 

I understand better the love behind knowing history, and how we owe ourselves the minimum of knowing where we come from, to better respect not only our own roots, but that of others. 

Where are your parents and grandparents from?