The Ethical Traveler: How to escape the tourist trap

Confiteor: I am an Ugly American. Never mind that I am a bilingual foreign correspondent for a national newsmagazine. There have been moments abroad, more than I care to admit, when I have acted as boorishly as one of those gringos in a Hawaiian shirt screaming at a foreign waiter for a cheeseburger.

Or a Coke—which is what I thought I ordered at the Guatemala airport one morning when I asked for a refresco. The waitress instead brought me some sort of pungent punch. So in good Ugly American style I haughtily complained about third world disregard for service—I muttered something like, “Even when we learn the language it doesn’t do us much good”—made the woman feel rotten and ran to catch my plane. Up in the air, a Guatemalan man sitting next to me asked for a gaseosa, and the flight attendant gave him a Coke. That is when I realized I had been using the wrong word (at least in this part of Central America) for “soft drink.”


I was ashamed, and not only because I had mistreated the Guatemalan waitress. I had also insulted the memory of another woman, a fictional character who has served as a piece of my traveler’s conscience since I first saw the 1979 movie “Breaking Away.”

You do not have to be from Indiana, as I am, to adore that film, especially the scene in which the working-class Hoosier mother shows off the U.S. passport she uses when she writes checks at the grocery store. She has never used it for travel abroad, but just owning one lets her dream about it. I always want to reach into the screen and hug that woman, because she is such a loving refutation of the heartland stereotype. Contrary to what snobs on either U.S. coast assume about Midwesterners, she genuinely wants to see the world beyond her borders, and when she does she will most likely be an ambassador Americans can be proud of. She is a valuable reminder that the people we so often peg as Ugly American material can just as often prove to be sophisticated travelers. And vice versa. I have seen as many Beltway-trained diplomats as I have oafs from Peoria insult foreign hotel receptionists or demand ketchup for their ceviche. I have watched New Yorkers, who never tire of saying they live in the planet’s most cosmopolitan city, commit as many cultural insensitivities from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego as Texans have perpetrated.

The Conscientious American

But regardless of which Americans were being ugly, we could get away with it until now because we were, well, Americans, citizens of a superpower whose global hegemony in the late 20th century resembled England’s in the early 20th century, when the British traveled a world they essentially owned. That is changing in the early 21st century. America’s version of “A Room With a View,” the world that we ourselves felt we owned, has less patience for the Ugly American today because the United States has less clout. I see this increasingly across the territory I cover, Latin America, where emerging giants like Brazil have become more independent counterbalances to yanqui supremacy. When the world does not see United States at its most powerful anymore, it is not as willing to indulge Americans at their most boorish.

Simply put, we have to learn to be better world travelers. That is particularly true in the developing world, which is suddenly developing more rapidly than we had anticipated—like the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). These are nations we will increasingly have to engage as equals as this century progresses. This could turn out to be something of a spiritual challenge as well. On visits to the third world, Americans have always packed a bit of missionary condescension along with their sunblock and Imodium. But now we will need more of the kind of guest humility that Jesus taught his followers to carry with them, and that Christian travelers, starting with Peter and Paul, have been expected to exemplify these past two millennia.

As the Catholic author G. K. Chesteron wrote, “The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” It is one of life’s most important maxims: Be a traveler, not a tourist, especially when you are visiting countries whose governments, economies and institutions may not be as advanced as yours and whose citizens are often, as a result, more self-conscious and sensitive about foreigners’ opinions. Travelers are true, spontaneous visitors, guests who mingle with their hosts, eat their foods—perhaps learn their words for soft drink. Tourists are gawkers at a zoo, robotically boarding buses and checking off sights but rarely if ever absorbing the places they are visiting and the people who inhabit them.

Now, before package-tour operators get angry at me, let me emphasize that I am not disparaging that genre of travel. (In the age of discount-travel Web sites, however, I am less sympathetic to the argument that regimented itineraries are all that many people can afford.) In most cases you can be on a package vacation, with its bus tours and pre-paid hotel meals, and still find time to explore its destinations yourself. What I am lamenting is the tourist mind-set we bring to developing regions like Latin America, particularly our obsession with cruises and all-inclusive resorts, whose only moments beyond the Tiki bar and the soft-serve ice cream dispenser are the excursion to Chichén Itzá and the swim-with-the-dolphins attraction.

And that goes for travel in other developing regions, including safaris in Africa (I’ve been on one and loved it, but was struck that many tourists seemed more respectful of lions and rhinos than of the Masai and Kikuyu) and sightseeing in the Holy Land. Especially in the Holy Land. I think it is great when priests and rabbis lead their congregations on tours of Israel and Palestine. But if you are the sort of person of faith who wants to see where Moses and Jesus spoke to God thousands of years ago but who is not interested in speaking with the flesh-and-blood human beings who live there today—including the Muslims we simply must come to understand better in this century—then I guess we have different ideas about the purpose of faith and travel.

En la Cantina

I am a journalist and therefore a realist, so I do not believe that striking up a conversation with locals in the rain forest will save the world. But I do believe it helps to create more mutual goodwill than merely zip-lining over the rain forest does. Toward that end, it has always befuddled me that Americans will go to neighborhood pubs in England and out-of-the-way bistros in France but not the equally inviting cantinas of Mexico. These offer the same sort of convivial refuge where you can inhale the country’s manera de ser—its way of being—but over a snifter of tequila instead of a pint of stout or a glass of Bordeaux.

The next time you are in Mexico, please try something too few visitors do. One day, instead of going to Señor Frog’s or another of the prefabricated “authentic” chain restaurants, ask your concierge to recommend a good local cantina. Head there around 3:00 p.m., when much of the country still eats its long lunch, la comida. (Note: as someone who has covered the drug war for 22 years, I would advise you to pay attention to the State Department’s advisories about which parts of Mexico to avoid, particularly in the violent northern border region. But I can also tell you that cantinas are generally safe places to frequent.)

Order a tequila reposada (aged) with the accompanying glass of sangrita, spicy tomato juice. (Oh, and if you want a soft drink, refresco is the word to use in Mexico.) Have some queso fundido con chistorra (cheese and Spanish sausage) and a sopa Azteca (tortilla soup). Follow that with some tacos al pastor (shepherd’s tacos) or huachinango (red snapper) or pollo en mole (chicken in a heavenly chocolate-and-spices sauce). Pay one of the guitar trios that often wander cantinas to serenade you with a tune like “Esta tarde vi llover.” Enjoy a tres leches (milk cake) for dessert, then have the waiter bring you a set of dominoes and play a few games while keeping your tequilas in the drink holsters you usually find on the table legs.

Most important, try to talk to someone, even if it is just the waiter. If you do not speak Spanish, this is a good way to start learning. If you do not drink too much tequila, the afternoon will likely linger in the memory as long as, if not longer than, the bus tour out to the Teotihuacán pyramids will. If you are a business traveler, this is the sort of time investment that can only help make you a better person-to-person dealmaker abroad.

What is more, it is not that hard. It ought to be easier for those of us from places like Indiana, where we supposedly value the unpretentious touch that facilitates interaction across people’s thresholds. I need only point to my aunt, who at age 60 had never been abroad but jumped at the chance to go to my wedding in Venezuela. On her first day there she sat down with my in-laws, none of whom spoke English, and learned a Spanish card game as if she had been globetrotting her whole life. Looking back on my career, I think one of my assets has been an ability, or willingness, to chat up farmers as well as presidents and elicit their thoughts about everything from federal elections to local ecology. I suspect growing up in Middle America has made me a better journalist in Mesoamerica.

Two things I do not bring into these people’s homes, cantinas and offices are my religion and my politics. I mention this only because too often I have seen American travelers assert their faith and philosophies in the developing world in ways they rarely do in developed regions like Europe. It is part of what I call the “our little brown brothers” syndrome, a well-intentioned but dreadfully executed urge to spread a message of salvation or social justice. Liberals are just as prone to this as are conservatives: too many U.S. and European “sandalistas” descend on Latin American countries run by left-wing governments as if they were revolutionary resorts. Yet any kind of tourist “solidarity” with one faction of a country simply insults the other faction and often betrays an ignorance of the complexities of that nation’s internal disputes.

Ditto regarding missionary tourism. I have the highest regard for anyone whose faith inspires them to take a week’s vacation to build houses or schools or potable water systems in poor regions like Central America. But as a journalist and a Catholic who has lived and worked in these countries, I am convinced that charity and evangelization are a bad and sometimes dangerous mix. Let the charity work do the evangelizing, because coming on too strong with the latter simply tends to cheapen the former in the eyes of most locals. I admire Catholic Relief Services in this regard. The Sudanese government looked ridiculous last year when it expelled C.R.S. from Darfur for supposedly trying to convert Muslims, because everyone knows that is not how C.R.S. operates. Its non-evangelism is an example for Catholic travelers as well.

I am not completely certain what a “Catholic traveler” should be. (I could cite Marco Polo, who seems an avatar of the travel tenets I have laid out here.) But Catholics have a special obligation to consider Chesterton’s admonition that we shake hands with the places we visit and not just snap their pictures. One of the things that distinguishes Catholicism—a precept that drew converts like me and Chesterton to it—is its rich contemplation of Jesus’ human as well as divine nature. Finding divinity in humanity is a spiritual exercise we are expected to undertake not just at home but also abroad. Read Chesteron’s travel writings, especially What I Saw in America (1922), and you meet not just a wandering Englishman but a wondering Catholic, living his faith out of a suitcase, engaging everyone from New York businessmen to rural Oklahomans.

Although the British Empire was still in full swing, Chesteron took pains not to be an Ugly Brit. Were he alive today, he would appreciate developments like eco-tourism. It is one of the many ways (if done right) that we can avoid the environmental plunder of destinations from Bolivia to Burma. This style of tourism can also put us in closer touch with people in locally owned lodging, shops and restaurants.

These days the Ugly American is hardly alone. If you are a U.S. hotel worker or taxi driver, you have probably encountered the rude, loud, euro-waving tourists we could just as easily call Ugly Italians, Germans or French. And all I need to do is visit a Miami mall to find the Western Hemisphere’s affluent new Touristazilla, the Ugly Brazilian; I have even heard a few of them get testy with waiters who don’t know what a Guaraná is. That is Brazil’s favorite soft drink. You should order one, politely, when you visit.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Edward Visel
7 years ago
Dear Mr. Padgett,

There is a terrible irony in how your calls to abstain from condescension are themselves thoroughly condescending. Your pedantic assertions fail to reach beyond the same tired narrative that everyone who has read a guidebook knows. Worst of all, your words have a whiff of an unpleasant bias against your own fellow citizens. None of these problems are particularly unique, which makes this writing a bit dull. That is sad, as I think there is space for original thought on the issue.

Personally, I find that there are balances to be found between esteeming and denigrating your own country and the one you are visiting. While travelling with an open mind is important, this includes a mind open to embracing the parts of your own culture that you like better than those elsewhere. Yes, we should be polite and try to fit in as possible, but not at the expense of our identity.

There is much more to say, but the nature of generalization creates a minefield of political correctness. For now, just please consider being as polite a writer as you undoubtedly are a traveler.

Best regards,
7 years ago
It is refreshing to read an article like Tim Padgett's "The Ethical Traveler" (2/6) which reminds us about the importance of openness to other cultures, and discovering their diversity and enjoyment through local food and drink.  I particularly enjoyed his Mexican cantina stories, reminding me of the chicken feet appetizer I was served once with my tequila.   On the wall was inscribed a quaint proverb,  Si el agua destruye a los caminos, que no hara a los intestinos (If water destroys roads, imagine what it can do to your intestines).    Another cantina was  named La Oficina (The Office), allowing husbands to avoid lying when asked by their spouse where they were.


The latest from america

“The Wife” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” feature female protagonists with strongly contrasting stories.
Michael V. Tueth, S.J.February 20, 2019
Frederic Martel boldly told reporters at a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in Rome on Feb. 20 that “the great majority” of the more than 200 members of the College of Cardinals are leading double lives.
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 20, 2019
Does the Church, as the Body of Christ, offer a response to the sex abuse scandals?
Daniel PhilpottFebruary 20, 2019
You might ask, “Shouldn’t we all pretend to be Jesus?” We should, but that does not seem to have gotten most of us all that far. Perhaps a humbler role is a better beginning.
Terrance KleinFebruary 20, 2019