50. Reverse Culture Shock

July 27th, 2014

There’s a term for this now: “First World Problems.” And in this social-media dominated universe, the term’s become a hashtag. It means complaining about something banal — on a “public” soapbox like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – because it’s a minor nuisance. It’s shameful because your quality of life is high enough that all your first world amenities are met (health, nourishment, shelter, education, public transit and a means of watching The Kardashians) and yet you have the gall to whine about how much it costs to fill the tank of your crossover SUV.

First World Problems are so commonly vented, they’ve become cliché.

#FirstWorldProblems has become a popular hashtag because our lives are so good these inane complaints become cliché.

First World Problems alone aren’t the topic of this blog post exactly. But their realization among people who’ve traveled or spent an extended period of time in a developing-world country is kind of what Reverse Culture Shock feels like. It’s a feeling many backpackers are familiar with.

A homeless mother with her baby rides on

The reason it’s called Reverse Culture Shock and not simply Culture Shock is because you’re shocked by what you’ve come back to. Culture Shock is just being shocked by where you go. For a first-time backpacker to the Philippines, Culture Shock is seeing the squalor of Manila for the first time, as the sticky hot wind off Manila Bay blows the smell of raw sewage through your jeepney, as strangers pass you their change to hand to the driver, and a grimy, dusty homeless kid pops up in the window selling you individual pieces of Juicy Fruit for a penny, while his family sleeps on the boulevard behind him.

Culture Shock: Disbelief at what you see in a foreign country.
Reverse Culture Shock: Disbelief at everyday things you see upon returning to your home country.

Reverse Culture Shock is when that backpacker goes back to Canada and is rattled to his core by the amount of food thrown out nightly by the restaurant he’s working at.

I know Reverse Culture Shock is actually a thing because when I got back from a Canada World Youth/Journalists for Human Rights exchange program in Senegal (beenou), the CWY people sat us down for a “welcome back to Canada” orientation (disorientation?) in Montreal before letting us return to our home cities. They told us, “The world around you has changed in the 3.5 months you were away.” They brought us up to speed on local and federal current affairs (this was 10 years ago, mind you — wireless networks, the Internet and world news reach wasn’t then what it is now) and warned us, “Some people won’t understand what you experienced overseas,” and “Not everyone will want to hear about your experience,” and “You may be shocked by everyday things in Canada that you took for granted.”

Costco

They were right. Costco shocked the hell out of me.

There’s a scene in the 1993 Oliver Stone movie “Heaven & Earth” starring Tommy Lee Jones, where the female lead — a Vietnamese lady married to a U.S. marine (Jones) who fell in love with her after the war and brought her back with him — arrives in the United States as an immigrant. The lady wanders the fluorescent-lit shampoo aisles of a major grocery store or pharmacy, her eyes as wide as saucers, gawking at the sheer abundance of not only shampoo, but of everything.

I was watching the movie with my parents and my mom immediately blurted, “I remember feeling that way when we arrived in Canada. Your auntie and I looked up and down the shelves and I said to her, ‘Dolly, it’s like ‘Stateside,’” meaning it was like the Navy Exchange store on the U.S. Naval base in my mom’s hometown of Olongapo. Until that point, that was the only other time my mom had seen so many shampoo bottles in a single store. Culture Shock.

Before moving to Canada, my mom had never seen as many shampoo bottles in one store as at the U.S. Navy Exchange in Olongapo City.

When I was in Senegal, our host families and exchange brothers/sisters (or homologues, as they called them in French) often raved about one of their most popular dishes,  le Yassa au poulet. It was delicious. It’s a sort of pan-fried chicken coated in a sauce of onions, dijon mustard and various spices, and served on a bed of rice. Everybody loved it, so they served it pretty often. I continued loving it, yet by about the sixth or seventh time it was served to me, I noticed they would always serve quarter chickens, leg and thigh connected. Never any white meat.

I asked my homologue Thierno why they never served white meat in the Yassa au poulet and it gave him pause. Theirno replied, “You know, I never really thought about it, but yeah. They rarely serve the white quarter pieces (breast and wing).” He just laughed and shrugged it off.

The following day, when I asked one of the reporters with whom I worked at Wal Fadjri Quotidien where all the white chicken meat was at, he laughed too. But then he shot me a serious glance and said, “You won’t believe it.” He explained that on the outskirts of the city and in the rural areas, they butcher a whole, local chicken, so you’ll get white pieces in the Yassa au poulet there. “But here in Dakar, the grocery stores and markets are sourced from larger chicken farms, which only sell the dark quarter pieces.” OK, then where do the white quarters go? “Morocco,” he replied.

It was weird to me that, wherever we ate in Senegal, they rarely served white-meat quarter chickens.

I was floored. The white pieces of chicken were worth more to the chicken farmer (or more likely to the soulless chicken corporation that runs the farms) when sold as an export to nearby Morocco than it is when garnishing the plates of Yassa au poulet served in restaurants and homes across Dakar. I thought about all the times I’d gone to the grocery store in Canada and been able to choose packages of whatever cut of chicken I wanted, or heck, just buy a whole chicken. These options weren’t as readily available in Dakar.

Several weeks later, after our désorientation in Montreal, and after unpacking my bags and sleeping in my old bedroom in my parents’ basement, I went to Costco with my mom. I’m looking at the industrial coolers, 15-20 feet long, packed full of cellophane-wrapped packages of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 18 breasts to a pack, and my jaw drops.

This, my friends, is Reverse Culture Shock.

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Backpacking in the News: ‘The Faces of Travel’

October 17th, 2013
Credit: Justin Mott for the International Herald Tribune

Credit: Justin Mott for the International Herald Tribune

I stumbled upon a great little slideshow from the New York Times yesterday, called “The Faces of Travel.”

“The people who help you during a trip often are the ones who make the journey truly memorable,” they wrote.

I couldn’t agree more.

And it’s not just the tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers, but also the random travelers you encounter along the way. Six years ago, My buddy Mitch and I met a 65-year-old Jewish-American guy named Howard in Vang Vieng, Laos. Spent two days with him. He was a real character and an amazing storyteller. He honestly made our Vang Vieng trip. We still talk about him to this day.

When riding a bus from Laos into Vietnam, I sat beside a Japanese guy named Kentaro who happened to be from the Gunma Prefecture. He assumed I’d never heard of it, but I informed him I’d actually visited Gunma on an exchange program when I was 16. He was floored. I spent a few days with Kentaro and we became friends. I ended up visiting him and staying with his family when I went to Japan a couple months later.

Come to think of it, Kentaro and I actually sat on tiny red stools, drank $0.10 beers and ate grilled cuttlefish in Hanoi — just like those two guys in the above photo. Good times.

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Backpacking in the News: Flocations Lets You Pick Your Destination on Map, By Price

January 7th, 2013

Link to article: Flocations Is A Travel Booking Site That Helps You See Beyond Your Budget

Screenshot: Flocations.com

Screenshot: Flocations.com

A few weeks ago, I came across a TechCrunch article about a new airline booking website called “Flocations.”

Founded by four guys from all corners of the globe (specifically France, Singapore, India and Canada), Flocations allows you to visually compare flight prices for a number of different destinations at once, simply by entering your budget and clicking on the cities of your choosing.

When you click on a city, you get a list of fares and airlines, as well as hotel suggestions.

“While people might have well known destinations like Phuket and Bali in mind, it would take them time to compare the prices for those, while on Flocations they can compare them in a second, as well as dozens of other places they did not even think of,” says French co-founder Florian Cornu.

TechCrunch‘s Catherine Shu writes:

Southeast Asia is currently the Singapore-based startup’s target market. It’s a good place for the Web site to test its potential in because the “region offers hundreds of affordable, fantastic destinations,” says Cornu. He notes that there are 56 destinations less than four hours away by flight from Singapore, while travelers based in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok enjoy a similarly rich array of potential weekend getaways. Cornu says that the company also hopes to expand to Europe and North America by 2013.

The team gets flight information directly from airline Web sites and manages it in their own database for fast processing. They also have partnerships with hotel booking providers. While the company won’t disclose exact numbers, Cornu says Flocations has “several thousand” repeat users. The Web site will monetize by offering hotel bookings through the site.

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Backpacking in the News: Celebs Want to Backpack Too You Know

July 2nd, 2012

Link to article: Hip-hopper wants to ditch first class and rough it for a bit…

Tinie Tempah at 2011 Brit Awards

"Sometimes I just wish I could be normal. Only sometimes, though."

U.K. rapper Tinie Tempah wants to go backpacking.

The 23-year-old recently told Bang Showbiz he felt he’s missed out on some of the young and wild and free shit normal people get to do because he is a cashed-up celebrity.

Boo hoo.

Hate to break it to you, Tinie. You’re not identifiable enough to be mobbed when you go backpacking anyway. Honestly, if you ditched the plastic frame glasses, 97% of people wouldn’t even know who you are. With the glasses on, 90% of people outside the U.K. don’t even know who you are.

So I would suggest you take a month off your loathsome schedule of touring, recording, partying, and kicking it in limos/VIP rooms/luxury hotels with models (God man, how DO you do it? Sounds awful.) and just go on a trip. Besides, you won’t be alone in your quest to fit in among the proles (See 28. Rich kids pretending to be poor).

“I’m looking forward to visiting some of the countries I’ve fallen in love with and seeing them properly,” he said.

You’re 23, dude. Go do it now.

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49. Photos with Local Children

June 2nd, 2012

kids6

Why do backpackers insist on taking photos of children wherever they go?

Sure, foreign kids are cute. I’ll give them that. But they’re also often super dirty and smell funny. I suppose all kids are dirty and smell funny though, not just foreign ones.

kids

But do immigrants come to Canada/U.S./U.K./Australia, wander onto a schoolyard and have someone snap photos of themselves with their arms out, surrounded by white children? Just wondering.

The following is a journey into the mind of a backpacker taking photos of local children, particularly in the developing world:

  • “OMG look at how cute these local children are!” (snap)
  • “Look at these kids. they live in tin shacks, but somehow they’re so happy.” (snap)
  • “Look at their genuine smiles and the joy in their eyes. These kids literally have nothing.” (snap)

kids2

  • “I’m honestly shocked they’re not asking me for money or trying to pickpocket me…” (snap)
  • “…like those damn gypsy kids in… Hey, kid. Take your hand outta my pocket.” (brushes kid’s hand away) (snap)
  • “Look at this one, touching my face and my hair. Never seen skin or hair like mine before. WOW!” (snap)

kids5

  • “I am so enlightened by this experience. More enlightened than my friends back home.” (sigh) (snap)
  • “I am so glad I came to (developing world country). I appreciate (developed world home country) more now.” (snap)
  • “Seriously. Look at these children.” (snap)

kids7

  • “I don’t want to say that I’m like Jesus. But I love little children, just like Jesus, which explains my arms-out messianic pose.” (snap)
  • “I hope their parents don’t come out during our photo shoot. I don’t want them thinking we’re exploiting their kids.” (snap)

kids3

  • “Hurry up, Kevin. Take the picture. I think that might be one of their parents.” (snap) (takes off running)

For those of you interested in “The etiquette of photographing strangers” (of any age), check out this article by Lonely Planet author Richard l’Anson.

“Photographing strangers can be daunting, but it needn’t be,” he writes. “Most people are happy to be photographed. Some photographers ask before shooting, others don’t. It’s a personal decision, often decided on a case-by-case basis.”

But approaching foreign strangers and children in a palms-out messianic stance certainly can’t hurt.

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Backpacking in the News

December 10th, 2011

Lonely Planet Launches iPhone App for Soliciting Friends’ Reviews in Real-Time

Wenzani

Lonely Planet recently launched (Dec. 5) an iOS app that grants users access to friends’ reviews and recommendations, in addition to content from a number of travel publications — all in real time.

The app, called Wenzani, “brings together recommendations from your friends and the world’s most trusted publishers into a fun, location-based guide that is constantly being personalized for you.”

It’s a good move on the LP’s part, to curate backpackers’ interactions via social media like Facebook and Twitter. Ultimately, the advice being exchanged can inform their own travel guide content, particularly for identifying hot new restaurants and small businesses. Because it’s all in real time, it helps the LP keep its advice fresh and updated to the minute.

One of the coolest things about the app is its ability to let friends notify each other about upcoming concerts and events in places they plan to visit (watch the video on Wenzani).

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Backpacking in the News: Aussies Hurting Themselves

September 24th, 2011

Link to article: Croatian cliff casualties mount as Aussies dive into danger

dubrovnik

First things first, the URL for this Australian newspaper is www.smh.com.au. When it’s reporting news like this, SMH is an appropriate acronym.

Something about Aussies diving into danger doesn’t feel that unusual to me. Take a look at the photo I chose for my first post about Aussie Guys. I don’t even know if the guy leaping into the crowd is Australian. I just saw the photo and thought: That dude’s gotta be Australian.

I’m not trying to make light of people’s serious injuries or even their tragic deaths. But when a 20-year-old woman “does not judge the distance correctly and falls onto rocks near the water’s edge,” or when a 24-year-old woman “plans to jump from the cliff but decides at the last moment to withdraw only to slip, fall and plunge to the rocks below,” breaking both her arms, her jaw, ribs and hip, and requiring that her kidney and spleen be removed, it’s a matter of people just being idiots.

Sorta like planking. For the record, I like planking and I think it’s hilarious. What’s not hilarious is when a 20-year-old Aussie man plunges to his death after “planking” on a seventh-story balcony.

SMH.

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Backpacking in the News

August 17th, 2011

Link to article: Can you ever be too old for backpacking?

Apparently not.

Apparently not.

A few weeks ago (July 28), Kim Wildman wrote an article for MSN.co.nz saying you’re never too old to go backpacking. She’s 41. The people in the above photo are closer to 71. That’s false advertising, MSN. Come on, now.

Wildman is honest: Having gone on her first backpacking trip at 27 (across some southern African countries) and her first solo trip (to Eastern Europe) at 30, she admits to often being the oldest person in the dorm room.

“For me, age always has been, and hopefully always will be, a number,” she writes. “It’s more about how you live your life rather than how many candles are on your cake. At the same time, as the years have marched on I’ve noticed the gap between myself and younger travelers at hostels is indeed widening.”

I disagree. You can be too old for backpacking. When you can’t carry your luggage on your back anymore* or you can’t stand “roughing it” in cheap, dirty accommodations, that’s when you’re too old to be backpacking.

In spite of her surname, Kim is no party animal. She proceeds to identify the following features of the young backpacker’s landscape:

And yet, Wildman is accepting of her counterparts, regardless of their age. “No matter whether my dorm mates belong to gen Y, gen X or the baby boomers, as long as they share my independent traveling spirit then, as far as I’m concerned, they can only make my hosteling experience richer.”

Her tolerance should be commended.

*About luggage: “I’ve already traded in my traditional rucksack for a far more practical and convenient (and might I add less backbreaking) trolley backpack,” Wildman writes.

I stand corrected.

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48. Party Hostels… with your parents

June 25th, 2011

One day, when I get old, will I hate something I used to love dearly? Will I become jaded or just realistic?

These are questions I asked myself when I recently saw the Kabul Hostel listed among The Guardian‘s 10 Best Hostels in Barcelona.

Kabul Hostel, Barcelona: "An institution in the best possible sense."

Kabul Hostel, Barcelona: "An institution in the best possible sense."

I have stayed at Kabul on two occasions: Once, when I was 22, on my first backpacking trip to Europe, and a second time, when I was 30, on my first backpacking trip with — get this — my brother and my parents. No joke. My parents are cheap. They didn’t want to stay in a hotel. They wanted an “authentic” backpacking experience. They were also the only people over 30 in the entire building, cleaning staff included.

The receptionist took pity on us. He at least put is in a room with only four bunks; our family had our own room.

The party atmosphere was a shock not only to my parents, but also to the young people we met in the hostel bar.

“We’re here with our parents,” my brother told an American girl we met. “You’re fucking kidding, right?” she said. “Nope,” I said. “They’re upstairs sleeping, or trying to sleep. They have earplugs.” People were incredulous.

“Why on Earth would your parents want to stay here?” she asked.

“Well, I stayed here years ago and loved it,” I explained. “The location is perfect and it’s dirt cheap. I warned my mom that it would be a little crazy and the funny thing is, her eyes lit up when I told her that. I think she wanted a glimpse of what the young backpacker scene is like.”

We asked for it.

“A Barcelona institution in the best possible sense, the recently renovated Kabul has been housing backpackers since the pre-Olympic days, before the sailors and prostitutes patrolling the nearby Rambla were replaced by Geordie stag parties,” writes The Guardian‘s Sally Davies. “It’s an unbeatable location, right on the arcaded Plaça Reial in the centre of the Barri Gòtic, but is really aimed at hard-core party people –- the cheap beer and all-night comings and goings of the clubbers make it less fun for anyone here for a quiet weekend of sightseeing, especially in the larger rooms (mixed dorms sleep up to 20 people).”

After three sleepless nights in Barcelona (which my brother and I thoroughly enjoyed), my ‘rents had seen enough. Or maybe they’d heard enough: girls shrieking in the hallways, people shouting, listening to loud music and drinking boxed wine in the adjacent rooms before going out (with all the windows open, as there was no air conditioning).

“This is unbelievable. These kids do not sleep!” said my mom, on the second night. My dad grunted from behind his sleep mask. The earplugs offered little relief.

But we were operating on opposite schedules. Mom and Dad were getting ready to go to bed, just as we were all getting dressed to go out.

We stayed in a private guest house in Venice, the next stop on our trip. No more party hostels for Mom and Dad. NOW, they realized the peace and quiet was worth the extra money.

Honestly, I don’t hate the Kabul Hostel. I had a blast both times I was there. My parents hate it.

Growing up kinda sucks. And so, I resist (see 44. Finishing school/Quitting your job).

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47. Missing Sports

May 14th, 2011

Happy I get to watch this guy play right now.

Happy I get to watch this guy play right now.

Whenever I’m traveling, I tell myself it’s good to be disconnected from home. And it many ways, it is. More often than not, backpackers are excited to escape from home — school, a former job, a breakup, whatever — so being overseas (in some cases where you can’t even speak the local language) is refreshing. (See 44. Finishing school/Quitting your job.) Not for sports, though.

Missing sports makes me homesick.

I realize my opinion has been colored by the following:

  • I’m North American and apart from basketball, the professional sports I like to follow are not widely played overseas.
  • I’m not a hard-core soccer fan and don’t pretend to be (see 41. Soccer)
  • I’m not a holier-than-thou hippie who strums his guitar pretending he doesn’t care about sports, to pick up girls (see 18. Guitar)
  • I’m back home, living in a city whose team is on a Stanley Cup run.
  • I went and saw the Heat-Blazers game in January, which the Heat (currently the Vegas favorites to win the NBA title) won in OT. Beenou.
  • The NBA Playoffs are fantastic this year.
  • I didn’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. local time to watch the Super Bowl in Spanish this year. And I wasn’t in Vietnam drinking by myself when the Riders were in the Grey Cup (which I wasn’t able to watch anywhere) either this year.
  • I watched basically all the March Madness games and went to Vegas to watch the Final Four, in what was one of the best tournaments of all time. Or did it just seem that way because I was actually home to watch the whole thing? I dunno. Beenou.
  • I just slept in, made breakfast and watched a wicked E:60 piece on Carl Crawford. Found out he’s a stud all-around athlete from Fifth Ward Houston. I wouldn’t be able to watch that in Paris. I mean, I’d be in Paris… Yeah, I wouldn’t have seen it, nor would the MLB standings mean anything to me there.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, it’s good to be home and watch sports. Friends, family and 1st-world infrastructure are all right too, I guess.

All of that said, I can’t wait to go on another trip.

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