For a few nights in Ethiopia, I was off the grid and so had the opportunity to people watch (v.) a lot of tourists. I wrote about them. Slightly unkindly.
None of the pieces ended up being long enough to stand alone, but they work well enough together.
(And yes: clearly, writing about tourists as “others” is a distancing mechanism. A not wholly convincing distancing mechanism. While I’d like to think of myself more as a “traveler” than a “tourist,” the distinction is often more semantic than anything else. Still.)
Shooting From the Hip
The sheer diversity of cameras hanging from the necks of tourists is astounding.
Some use an iPhone or Samsung, snagging selfies in stone churches; others have a basic DSLR with the capable yet unassuming kit lens. A few carry what can only be considered weapons: enormous 18-inch telephoto lenses with barrels that could launch a rocket-propelled grenade (no doubt the centerpiece of a long-forgotten CIA plot). Their lenses have handles.
But, it’s not the size of the camera – it’s how it’s used. How someone takes a picture opens up a sliver of insight into that person, just enough to construct a faded picture of him or her. Recognizable, but just barely.
One group of photographers seems to eschew people altogether, focusing their energies and viewfinders at buildings, trees, or animals. You’ll often find these people crouched inches away from a subject, putting their macro feature to good use: focusing on the tree, blurring the forest.
These people are in the minority, especially in faraway places where the people look (pick your word): exotic/local/different/African. Most photographers focus on people. In my experience, people photographers fit in one of three buckets: the Asker, the Taker, and the Hip Shooter.
Of the three, the Asker is the least common. She (it’s usually a she) takes pains to make sure that her subject consents to his or her picture being taken – often through a game of charades, with the Asker making the universal picture-taking gesture, typically with sound effects. It’s uncommon for the subject to say no. The Asker will often show the picture to her subject, a gesture partly for affirmation, partly for absolution. She is generally better at this than her male Asker counterparts – especially with women, children, and grandmothers.
The Non-Asker is either more brazen or less respectful or both, and uses a person’s presence in the physical world as answer enough to a question never posed. He takes a picture of whatever will make a good shot. If prompted by a group of children, he’ll show the picture quickly and move onto the next shot.
(My jerk side wants to – and occasionally does – pull out my camera and garishly take a few pictures of a Non-Asker when I know he’s looking. See: picture of tourist with bazooka)
Last is the Hip Shooter. This photographer likes to take pictures without his subject knowing she is in the frame. The Hip Shooter likely chooses this method for one of two reasons: authenticity or shame. The Hawthorne effect kicks in when a subject knows he or she is in a camera’s sights, so the Hip Shooter, in his quest for perfect authenticity, surreptitiously captures the moment in time without the subject’s knowledge, or consent.
Or it could be shame. The Hip Shooter knows that taking a picture of a subject without his or her consent is at least questionable, but still really wants the picture and doesn’t want to ask for permission.
As a journalist, I fall squarely within the Asker camp; if a picture is going to be used for an article, it’s going to be with the subject’s consent. Full stop.
As a traveler (let’s be honest: as a tourist), I tend to photograph non-human nouns, or masses of humans indistinguishable from one another (markets and the like). I try not to take pictures of individuals without asking, and I rarely feel comfortable asking. I break my rule constantly. I can’t ever remember being a Hip Shooter.
On the Sartorial Sins of Tourists
Tourists make terrible fashion choices.
This isn’t particularly insightful – I’m sure there are Tumblrs on Tumblrs on Tumblrs filled with pictures of oddly-dressed tourists, and any cartoon or movie with a tourist character inevitably clothes him in a ridiculously ugly outfit (Exhibit A) – but oh my God is it true.
It’s worth hammering home the point. Maybe it’ll stop one tourist from making a bad decision. So. Tourists: please do not wear the following:
If you haven’t traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa (or, I’m guessing, East Asia) you’ve probably been spared “African” pants: MC Hammer-style parachute pants (though not shiny) with a vaguely African-inspired design (often elephants). Usually but not exclusively worn by women.
These pants are dumb and you should not wear them.
It’s not that these pants aren’t flattering (though they aren’t). It’s that there’s nothing remotely “Africa” about them – the designs are way closer to Indian and East Asian patterns, and they almost certainly come from that part of the world. It’s stupid to wear them in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Nothing boggles the mind like seeing a guy purposefully wear pants that are eight inches too short – even if it’s fashionable in Europe to do so. The only thing capris are good for are floods, and even then, it’s probably better to just have six inches of wet pant.
Convertible Pant Shorts
A kissing cousin of male capris, you’ll often find this particular pant/short hybrid on men, though occasionally women wear the style, too. Technically, it’s a pant but with zippered legs, so that if the wearer is so moved, he or she can unzip the bottom portion of the leg off, leaving behind shorts with half a zipper.
I’m ashamed to admit that I had a pair of these once: a bright, shiny gold-colored pair. The zippers repeatedly got stuck. I was 11.
The rationale for wearing these seems to hinge on the desire to stay cool in hot climates. But would being able to expose 18 inches of leg to the sun really help?
On Easter Sunday, I saw an elderly Italian man with the next generation of convertible pants: double-zippered so that he could wear them as pants, as shorts, or as capris.
You know the kind: khaki-colored, adorned with innumerable pockets, pouches, and zippers, the safari vest is ubiquitous amongst a certain set of travellers (older men).
There’s simply no good reason to wear a safari vest – on or off of a safari. The sheer quantity in use would indicate that there is some reason that people wear them, but whatever it is, it isn’t a good one.
Shiny, Synthetic Pants/Shirts
Wearing synthetic clothing is the least of the Sartorial Sins above. I bring them up only to make the point that few people wear them when not traveling, but seem to think that bringing along a pair or two is a good idea while traveling.
It’s not. The pants aren’t any better than the alternatives (see below). Synthetic shirts should only be worn by runners/outdoor athletes and golfers.
Anything you would not wear in public at home
Simple enough. I guess if you’re a guy that wears male capris at home, go right ahead and wear them in Ethiopia, too; if you just love a good pair of African pants, be sure to pack them for your trip to Uganda.
But for everyone else? Wear the sorts of clothes you would wear at home. If it works for you at home, it’ll probably work for you while traveling.
Now: I should not be trusted as any type of fashion authority (ask any of my past girlfriends or just… look at me), but if you’re a ramblin’ man still yearning for the zipper pants/capris/shorts combo, just buy these two things instead:
Unlike shiny synthetic pants, linen pants look like something you’d wear to a barbecue or the park at home. They’re light, easy to wash and dry, and travel well (i.e., you can wear a pair for a few days in a row if you have to and it won’t get too dirty or smelly).
Banana Republic has a few styles; they’re like $50. Just pick up a pair.
Simple Long/Short-Sleeve T-Shirts at Target
What you want in a shirt is simplicity and disposability. If you’re traveling a lot – and especially if you’re traveling by public transportation – you’re probably going to ruin a few.
So get them cheap. Target always has simple t-shirts on clearance, so you can grab like five shirts for under $20. JackThreads is an online store that sells slightly more expensive shirts that are slightly higher quality. When you inevitably have to jettison a few, you won’t feel too wasteful.
(An aside: if you think it’s no longer good enough for you, it’s probably not good enough for whomever you’re thinking of donating it to – so don’t)
Make sure to buy one or two long-sleeve shirts. You never know when you’re going to travel someplace that’s chillier than you expected, and they’re light enough that you can wear them to hide your lobster-red arms from the sun and still not feel too uncomfortably warm.
Eat Local Food. Not Too Familiar. Mostly (for) Memories
I can’t stand eating at a “local” restaurant and seeing the tourist next to me order a cheeseburger.
This is a pet peeve. A stupid pet peeve. People should order whatever makes them happy, right?
Sure. But come on.
The other day, I’m at this amazing Ethiopian restaurant in Lalibela, minding my own business (or, well, not minding my own business, I guess), when this group of ten European tourists sits down and orders, in succession: two burgers with cheese; two omelettes; three plates of pasta; and three miscellaneous salads.
No injeera. No shiro. No wat at all.
Now: maybe this whole group went out to a local joint the night before, ordered all of the traditional Ethiopian wats, shiros, and tibs they could, and fell violently ill.
Maybe they’ve been traveling together for six months through all of rural Ethiopia, and this is their first chance to have a form of “home-cooking’” after eating the same injera day in, day out. Even wonderful food gets old after a while.
But let’s be honest: they were probably just doing the tourist thing in Lalibela for a few days to see the churches; hopefully, they at least tried injera once, then thought it was too something (sour; wet; bland; unfamiliar), and went back to what they knew: cheeseburgers and pasta.
Here, I’m resolutely biased: I love Ethiopian food, and have had it all over east Africa and America. It is delicious and if you haven’t tried it I will personally buy you your first Ethiopian meal.
But more broadly, I see food as a way into a different culture, a way of connecting to a specific group of people, a place, and a time. There’s nothing more Ugandan than a heavy plate of posho, matooke, and beans; Israel without the savory breakfast of olives, cheeses, and tomatoes isn’t Israel.
When I have beans, or hummus, or shiro in New York City, the result is pure Proustian: I’m transported back to the sights, smells, and feelings of the places I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in and experience. A cheeseburger, owing to its American ubiquity, can’t do that for me.
And presumably (again with the presuming), a cheeseburger won’t make this tourist group recall this restaurant or its amazing view. That’s why it bothers me to watch a tourist order a cheeseburger at a great Ethiopian restaurant: when tourists eat like they eat at home, they deny themselves the ability to travel back to that time and place.