Friday, November 18, 2005

Reputations, Fathers and Sons and Overhyped Countries.


Governments of countries often tell their military or athletes that they represent their country abroad, and that the natives will judge the country based on the behavior of these groups in the host nations. This is only true if the host nation is of a similar physical appearance as the guests. In all other cases, you will be representing a "race" or "all foreigners". Or even a group of people that you have nothing to do with. If an American disgraces his country in Japan by loud , obnoxious behavior, the reaction of an ordinary Japanese may not be " I do not like Americans anymore", but " I do not like "gaijin"- foreigners anymore". If a Brit misbehaves in Mexico, he will be dishonoring not the UK, but the very general group called "Gringos"- light skinned, English speaking "John Smiths"- which is how an average Mexican will perceive you. In the Middle East, your bad behavior will earn "Khawajas" an ill repute. " Khawajas" is a very general "Frankish" group that all, lighter than Arab, Western people belong to. So, if you are treated with suspicion or hostility in a foreign land, it may not be because your compatriots did something evil, but because someone that roughly looks like you ( to the host that is) did a booboo there.

A twisted example of how these things can happen is what befell my Puerto Rican friend who was studying in Wisconsin in 1980. He was walking home from school when a bunch of thugs started running after him while uttering racial slurs against Iranians ( of all people). He was told " to get out of the US" for Muslim fanatics were not welcome there. He eventually got out of the continental US and returned peacefully to San Juan after completing his studies. So, the taking of the US Embassy hostage in 1980 marred the prestige of all slightly darker people with moustache. So, next time in a strange land, please behave yourself. You will be earning a good name for a much larger group than you'll ever know.

Fathers and Sons.

People from former colonies often forget who the "father" of their country used to be. I remember an American guy in Saudi Arabia who was saying that Britain was a Third World country and that the only reason that the Brits were arrogant was because they "looked like Americans". I tried to argue that it was possibly the other way around- Americans looked like Brits, at least, to the Saudis they did. He remained adamant and kept saying that Brits were walking around Saudi like they were kings and enjoying fear and respect that Americans earned for them simply because they looked like them. When again I tried to explain that in many ways Americans descended from Brits and it would be unfair to say that a "father" looks like his "son", he said that in the eyes of the Saudis, Brits were just "a bunch of Americans". A similar example given by him was that the reason Saudis were hiring so many South Africans was because they "looked like Americans" for there were white people and black people among them. That would put Saudi patients in hospitals at ease- "See? you will have an American doctor and an American nurse to take care of you". Heck, they wouldn't know the difference, would they?

I can understand that when one talks about South Africans, since partly they descend from Brits but saying that about Brits themselves sounded preposterous to me.

Once, my Filipino girlfriend and I were watching a Spanish TV channel. She could not understand Spanish but when a list of actors appeared at the end of a program, she exclaimed " Look, their names are just like those of Filipinos!" It was hard for her to see the Spaniards were in fact " fathers". This was another one of those cute misunderstandings that occur in the increasingly globalized world where many of us still unconsciosly see it as an extension of our own culture.

Over-hyped Countries.

With very few exceptions, when there is a popular rage about some foreign country that everybody is going to on vacation, to retire or to find friends or money, I take it as sign that the country is no longer suitable for any serious sojourn. When I hear about huge numbers of expats retiring in Costa Rica or Panama because one can live on "half the money" there, I try to give such countries a wide birth. Once they are on the net or in the newspapers as desirable places to live, they are best to be avoided. If they are in the news so much, that means that prices are going up, people are becoming less friendly to foreigners and women are becoming more and more demanding of men who go there- normal guys are no longer welcome- they want a guy with a red BMW. Such countries are on the fast track to becoming another plastic, materialistic local as the one I am trying to get away from. They are half the price? I know of places that are one sixth of the price of back home, and I hope these will not be in the news for a long, long time.

In over-hyped countries a new, starry-eyed tourist is a sheep ready for slaughter. He is a target for con games, rip offs and even open scorn. Many people there are getting sick and tired of so many insolent foreigners coming in and buying up their land and taking their women.

However, when people start making bad comments and wry faces about my next trip to Slovakia or Uruguay or Cameroon, instead of Thailand or Kenya, then I know that I am on the right track. The best country is the one that is never in the news, good or bad. Robert Frost once recommended that we take the road "less traveled by". I prefer to stick with his advice. I will find people there who will not see me as just another foreign face to be ripped off, where women will be conservative, where traditions hold strong and where I can have genuine friends who will invite me to their house because they just want to socialize and not because they want to sell me a condo.

The "Good Life" section in the "Newsweek" this week featured 3-4 bedroom luxury villas in the Bahamas that rent for $4500 a night. There was also an article about some luxury resort in Phuket. I am sure that rooms there would be within the same price range. However, a 6-bedroom villa in Oman costs some $360 a month from September to July, the beaches are just as great and the scenery is breathtaking. Oman is a safe and modern country but no one knows about such cheap villas in Salalah, Oman. Many people have never even heard of Oman. So, they keep going to such overhyped destinations, or worse, they will not go anywhere thinking that it may be out of their reach. Those who are in the know will go where they can have a good life at the fraction of the cost. Being rich does not always mean that you have a lot of money. It can mean that you have enough money to get the goodies you want .And if you know where you can get them cheap and live a luxury lifestyle at a fraction of the cost, then you are by all means, rich. Because you are smart.

A European vacation can cost you a pretty penny, too. And if you decide to spend a summer in Europe, it may turn out to be very expensive. So, why not head to Uruguay? Uruguay is for all intents and purposes 'Europe'. The architecture is a mixture of French, Spanish, Italian and other classical styles. The people are a mixture of various Europeans. The beaches are great and all services are available. And it is three times cheaper than the US. But people do not know about Uruguay. Who goes to Montevideo on vacation? Not many.

It is also worthy of being noted here that very often a bad rap that a country gets in the news serves as a protection for that country from the hordes of boorish tourists. Colombia and Philippines come to mind. These two countries are quite peaceful and the people are great, however, there are critical areas where foreigners ( or even locals) should not go to. If one knows safe places in these lands and stays there, one will have a much better time socially than if one went to a much-lauded destination such as Hawaii or Hong Kong where one will often be a nobody.

Often one can take advantage of very cheap deals in countries that suffer from a bad reputation because they are located in a dangerous part of the world. While there is a war in Iraq or terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, it affects the whole region as now people do not wish to travel to the Middle East, period. But Dubai is safe and modern. So is Abu Dhabi. So is Oman. But these get painted by the same brush because they fall within the miuch broader category of "Arab countries".

When there is starvation in Ethiopia or disturbances in South Africa, people do not want to go to Gabon or Senegal which are safe and peaceful countries. Those Americans who think that Mexico is too "third world" for them, refuse to go to Buenos Aires, Argentina, believing that it must be just like Mexico. They speak Spanish, don't they?

So, ignorance in the field of geography and a distorted view of the world, coupled with tourist and investment propaganda that people are being bombarded with at travel agencies and from the press, keeps millions from enjoying a luxury lifestyle for very little money. Something they could do if they only knew where to look.

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