by Katrina Spencer
Twenty years ago I made my first trip abroad to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was 18 and had long been curious about the world. There I learned about milanesa, a popular breaded meat cutlet dish, the Iguaçu waterfalls that shared a border with Brazil, and the dynamic of homestay living. I was there for three months and, if history reveals anything, it appears I was bit hard by the travel bug. The next 20 years would take me on adventures to over 10 additional countries on at least three continents. Once you start, as they say, you can’t stop. Costa Rica, England, Ghana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Senegal, Spain… if there was an opportunity to get there by plane, I was on it. Amongst many Black American crowds, I’d be considered a seasoned traveler. In others, I’d wear the badge of modest adventurer. As the world grows smaller with the advent of online communities, travelers learn to hack the systems for cheap flights, and borders seem not so far away as they once were. More and more Black Americans are packing our bags and renewing or applying for our passports for adventures abroad– and even permanent stays as expatriates. From the little that I know, let me hip you to some tips, cultural faux pas, and pitfalls to avoid for tourists that will better prepare first-time travelers for what they may encounter abroad. Here’s some thematic music, too, to enjoy along the way.
There are many open air markets where customers can find fresh produce and artisanal goods. Tip: Many Ghanaians are superstitious about their first sale of the day, believing that their first successful sale will be prophetic for a day full of profitable sales. So, if you arrive as the first customer at a business owner’s stand, you are more likely to be able to secure a well negotiated bargain as it is in the vendor’s favor to close their first sale as opposed to not making one at all. Prices on goods are unlikely to be listed. It is standard practice and expected for the buyer to suggest a price, for the seller to ply for more, and for the two meet somewhere in the middle. Moreover, after you make a selection of an item you desire and seek out a price, don’t be surprised when you’re asked, “What else are you looking for?” The seller would prefer for you to do all your spending in their shop as opposed to spreading your spending money around. Often a vendor will prefer to settle on one price for an entire bulk of items than to negotiate piecemeal.
Negotiation of prices at small businesses and for cabs is also customary in Senegal. Travelers, for example, should negotiate a fare before getting in a cab and try to keep small bills for appropriate payment. Don’t rely on your driver to have change for large bills.
While Islam and Christianity are practiced in Senegal, it is the Islamic tradition of greeting others exclusively with the right hand that reigns supreme. Historically, the left hand has been reserved for the maintenance of personal hygiene and offering it in a greeting can show a negligent lapse of training. Islamic traditions will also appear elsewhere. For example, expect to hear the call to prayer throughout the land and the Arabic “Allahu akbar!” (God is great!) to be projected through the local mosque’s speakers.
Full disclosure: I have yet to make it to any of the countries that make up the broad expanse that is Asia. I have no doubt I’ll make it there over the course of my life. There are innumerable draws: the temples for people on spiritual journeys in places like Thailand; the rising popularity of K-pop music in South Korea; and new and colorful treats like jalebi in India that I’ve long been curious about. I keep my ear to the ground collecting bits and pieces of information deciding which destination will be my next. In doing so, I’m exposed to news that educates me in ways I may not have expected. For example, I have learned that what may be considered inoffensive in the West can be criminal elsewhere. I am not deterred from my future visits, but I am better informed as a result of keeping abreast of international discourse. Let me use this section as an opportunity to encourage readers to not only look for great travel deals but also to avoid poor intercultural communication and stereotypes associated with “the ugly American” tourist.
Did you know that in Singapore it’s against the law to chew gum? That an Iranian couple was handed a prison sentence for the subversive act of dancing in the streets? Or that Indonesia banned sex outside marriage? Also remember the case of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier who was detained in North Korea for acts considered seditious. While chewing gum, dancing, and having sex may not raise concerns at home, in some parts of the world, certain seemingly mundane acts can be seen as threatening to the social order.
The last thing I want to do is malign Asia. From what I am told, Asia offers affordable travel options, delicious cuisines, and uncanny experiences with nature. What I do want to do is underscore the importance of researching your destination’s cultural norms before departure from home and setting appropriate expectations in advance for yourself and the members of your travel party. Knowing the political climate and cultural morés wherever you go and making an effort to display exemplary behavior is essential to successful travel experiences.
Be careful with the phrase “Te invito” (I invite you.) In English, “I’d like to invite you to…” means “I’d love to share your company.” In Spanish it means “I’d like to see you so much at this event/site that I am willing to pay the bill for the both of us.” I learned this the hard way so you don’t have to.
Having spent two years in Spain, I also found it much more common to readily engage in political discussion in public settings. In a broad swath of social crowds in the United States, it isn’t considered as polite to discuss topics considered sensitive or controversial openly. In Spain, it would be odd for a party guest not to engage a slew of discussion topics despite their sensitivity. Here, political discussions might be likened to a game of dodge ball in which players strategically avoid matters that might offend. There? It’s more like doubles in tennis: you’re not doing it right unless everyone gets a chance to strike the ball.
When I went to San José in 2008 to visit my grandfather, the country was as beautiful as the postcards suggested with ample nature reserves and wildlife and cool water sports. One thing that surprised me was that when my grandfather gave directions to a taxi driver, it went a little something like this: “Drive one kilometer north, hang a right where the old church used to be, and drive 800 meters east. Then arrive in the driveway at the house with the red roof.” I’m not sure to what extent mapping and driving instructions have been updated in the last 15 years, but I found the reliance on common, local knowledge new, challenging, and exciting. It certainly took me beyond “123 Maple Drive.”
I met a French man of Ivorian descent in Quebec some years ago and when we returned to Montreal from Toronto after celebrating the New Year, we parked my car on a wintry road near his place. He went to work the following morning and when I went to retrieve my car, it wasn’t there. I found out a short time later that it had been towed to an adjacent street because we parked along a route that needed to be cleared of snow. It was hard to decipher the sign the night prior as it was dark, the information was in two languages, sometimes seemed contradictory, and there were several of them atop each other with no indication as to which was authoritative and up-to-date. Montreal’s parking signs might say something like “No parking Thursday to Sunday between 6:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. from September to April, except delivery and taxis,” and you have to check your calendar, watch, vehicle type, bilingual dictionary, and logic before you put your car in park. Take the signs seriously, and when in doubt, park further away. The walk will save you a fine. I promise it’s not just me. See this parking guide and images.
In 2010, I spent a summer in Guadalajara, Mexico. As a Los Angeles native, I didn’t feel so far from home. However, aside from avoiding the consumption of tap water as liquid or ice, there were at least two novelties I recall. One was that in homes and businesses, the norm was to discard used toilet paper in a trashcan adjacent to the bowl as the plumbing might not withstand the wads clogging its channels. Another was that when it rained, locals could expect flooding up to their knees in the street. I’d never waded through water so high outside of a beach atmosphere. It was a good thing I wasn’t too invested in the shoes I wore that day. If you head to Guadalajara, check the predicted weather before you go out and dress accordingly.
When I first arrived to Buenos Aires, Argentina, I was a bit surprised to hear the local university students greeting each other with “boludo” (moron) and “pelotudo” (dumbass). They said these words so affectionately, smiling, with their arms open for a warm embrace. My cognitive dissonance didn’t last long because I knew that the tone they used with these words was not an indicator of verbal violence but one of intimacy and trust. Perhaps just as certain words in local community vernaculars have been reappropriated and repurposed over time, so have these words in this capital city.
Remember that once you travel south of the equator, the seasons reverse. So when I arrived to São Paulo, Brazil in December of ‘22, the attire called for flip flops, tank tops, and sunglasses. There were certainly no autumn leaves or icicles to behold. So if you’re looking for warm getaway from snow a blizzards, south is the way to go. The closer you are to the equator, the less likely you are to see dramatic shifts in temperature patterns.
There are countless topics to explore and discover when it comes to international travel: “passport bros,” common scams, drug trafficking, English as a global lingua franca, immunizations, LGBTQ rights, pickpockets, sex trafficking, visas, and more. And while I have shared some of my lessons above, some we must learn on our own. As I close this piece, I want to educate new travelers, encouraging us all to be aware of cases that center Black Americans like that of the detainment of Brittney Griner in Russia, the fatal cartel encounter in Matamoros, Mexico, and the Florida couple kidnapped for ransom in Haiti. While travel has historically not been a common pastime for Black Americans overall, a general lack of experience does not make us exempt from potential dangers. Be a savvy traveler, keeping your eyes open, planning ahead, taking safety measures, erring on the side of caution and, importantly, leaving room in your heart and your bag for lovely souvenirs. For more orientations from other Black travelers, see BuzzFeed, HomeExchange, and TravelNoire.