I like to fancy myself a person who has pretty well developed cross-cultural ‘antennae’. I read ahead about the cultural norms, I advise my travel companions about the local sensitivities and customs of the countries and regions that we’re about to travel to, I listen and watch carefully to avoid offense or that American ‘boorishness’ that we seem to be well known for in some tourist locales.
That’s why I was so stunned on a recent two-week, 115-mile trekking trip along Turkey’s lovely Mediterranean coast on the Lycian Way, when our sweet and gentle Turkish guide exploded on day 11 of our trek, about a completely legitimate feeling of offense that I had completely missed as it had developed over the previous several days.
If you don’t already know, we Americans seem to exhibit two particular behaviors more commonly than people I encounter from or in other countries. First, we are exceptionally particular about our food. Nowhere else I’ve traveled have I encountered so many different food allergies and specific requests. On a multi-day trek high in the Peruvian Andes supported by donkeys, it may be difficult to provide separate meal options for vegans, lactose-intolerants, gluten-intolerants or adherents to the Paleo lifestyle. Yet we still sit down at a meal hand-prepared for us by an earnest young Peruvian guide from the back of a donkey, or by a mother-daughter team cooking on a wood stove and brick oven in a remote village, and ask for all dairy, meat, nuts, gluten-containing grains and beans to be separated out for us. Of course, we must avoid situations in which our fellow travelers with nut allergies go into anaphylactic shock from eating something fried in peanut oil. But often it seems that we take our food preferences far beyond the basic severe allergies into intricate dietary systems that can cause us to avoid some of the best local foods available, and to insult the fine gentle people who are working so hard to serve us.
Second, Americans can tend to be germophobes. We are often found in far-flung tourist destinations with gallon-sized containers of hand sanitizer hanging in handy decorative cases around our necks, and we may be found deploying it after every doorknob that we touch. We purchase cases of bottled water, no matter that the bottles may have been gathered up from the trash and filled by a local street urchin from the river downstream from our hotel. (OK, probably an exaggeration….or at least I hope so!) We faithfully follow our guidebooks’ advice and avoid eating those fabulous raw catcus pears or hot dumplings on offer by street vendors, no matter how lovely and chin-drippingly sweet or unctuous they might appear. Even in the most pristine mountain environments (including those at home), we often deploy our costly high-tech filter or ultraviolet water treatment devices to eliminate any potentially virulent bacteria, viruses and parasites that could possibly be present at a concentration of 1 part per quintrillion .
Now, I myself admit to taking some of these precautions. I have personally experienced the joy of intense gastric distress after drinking bad water or eating a shrimp from a roadside stand in a distant land. Once on a group trekking trip near Cuzco and Machu Picchu my entire party was struck one or two at a time over a period of two weeks with such severe food- or water-borne illness that they were prostrate in bed with fevers for two days (not to mention other unspeakable symptoms). When one has invested a sizeable portion of one’s disposable income and time to plan and undertake travel to an exotic land, the last thing one wants to risk is a horrific trip-ending stomach ailment.
So, it was with considerable shock and embarrassment that I – culturally sensitive world traveler that I fancied myself to be – stood and listened to our gentle but very proud Turkish guide lose his cool after 11 days and, red faced and shaking with anger, express to our group his deep sense of insult over our behavior on our trek up to that point. You see, along the Lycian Way in Turkey, provision has been made to funnel clear mountain water from springs to flow out at various points along the trail to meet the drinking requirements of trekkers along the trail. At the start of our trek, our guide assured us that the water was clean and safe for us to drink, and all along the way he demonstrated his confidence by filling his canteen from each spring and drinking deeply. After a few days I took the chance and also began to fill my water bottle from the springs. But many people in our group, due to an abundance of caution or past bad experiences or both, meticulously avoided the springs and insisted on being provided with bottled water, or used their filter or UV device to treat the water. To be fair, we would generally treat the water even from our pristine local mountain streams (you never know if a herd of mountain goats had ‘fertilized’ the meadows above, or if an elk might have perished and rotted in the nearby lake that fed the stream). But few other nationalities of trekkers seem to be as fastidious. Our guide apparently had felt deeply offended, himself and for his country, by us turning up our noses at their pure mountain water, and ignoring his assurances that the water would be safe for us to drink. Further, by buying bottled water all along the way we were contributing to a growing trash problem that his developing country was having trouble coming to grips with.
The lesson? Sometimes cultural norms that are so deeply ingrained as to be invisible to us can, by the same token, manifest as deeply offensive to someone from another culture. Perhaps we will never have enough self-awareness to recognize and avoid all of these. Perhaps we are justified in some of our extra-cautious behavior. But, at least for myself, this was an immensely valuable lesson about how ingrained values and beliefs can be perceived as insulting or at least appear excessively self-indulgent to others. The traveling life is indeed a series of lessons – and ones that I often seem to learn by missing some questions on the final exam!