There were mobs of us in Prague, back in the Czech Republic, but after that, it was as if the people from Tennessee, Texas, Alabama and Ohio all dropped off the map. I saw a tour bus of them in Egypt, with my countrymen hidden behind black windows and sheltered in the fortified Hilton on the Nile behind armed guards -- they might as well have been traveling in a Thermos. But I havent found any mingling with the hordes of Swedes, Germans, Russians, Finns, Spaniards, Aussies and New Zealanders that you find everywhere here in Backpacker Land. So far, Ive met just two others: nurses Helen and Jason, who were on my tour in Egypt.
I cant help but wonder if its simple fear that has kept Americans locked in their own country, or else confined to hermetically-sealed resorts in Mexico or package tours in Europe. Perhaps its no surprise: as Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Colombine, the American media is obsessed with spreading fear of everything from killer bees to Chinese teddy bears. And for the media, foreigners are the worst of all -- our fears roil like an episode of 24 with Snidely Whiplash villains in the guise of Arabs and the Russian mafia lurking inside the friendly neighborhood ice cream truck rolling through your neighborhood.
Of course, its entirely possible that there are armies of Americans here, but were simply traveling in different circles. Possibly, they are holed up in the Radisson on a Ten Days in Asia tour. If so, my apologies.
But imagine enduring many American travelers biggest fear: youre rushed by two dark-skinned men in a lonely place in a Muslim country with no chance of escape.
But this is no mugging -- these guys just want to shake your hand and say how thrilled they are that an American is visiting their country. They practically have tears of joy in their eyes.
This happened to me a number of times in Egypt and also in the Kingdom of Bahrain, where an innkeeper assured me that Americans are the best of the best among all of the foreign travelers, and he wished there were more of us stopping by. A cab driver in Thailand also claimed Americans were the best of the bunch, but there were few visitors.
One of the things you get asked everywhere in foreign lands is, Where are you from? Australia? England? Germany?
I always answer, America, because I love seeing peoples reactions. But Ive heard from other travelers that there are some Americans who are fearful to admit where they are from, perhaps because of the dumb moves our government has made over the past few years, courtesy of the Bush administration.
Some Americans will even claim to be natives of Canada, England or Australia. No doubt, they are afraid that someone will say something mean or even assault them.For my money, theres nothing dorkier than a tourist marching around with a Canadian maple leaf flag on his pack, as if to say, Dont hurt me, Im a Canadian, not one of those nasty Americans.
But theres little reason to fear foreign travel because the dirt-poor citizens of the world are so used to living under incompetent, corrupt governments that George Boosh (as they call him) looks like amateur by comparison. They have ghastly leaders like Hosni Mubarek in Egypt or Mush in Pakistan. And the Spice Girls could run India better than the fanatical Hindu clowns who govern that country like an insane asylum. The poor people of the world could care less about American politics -- its tourist dollars that matter, along with the desire to spread them lavishly.
In fact, they love Americans, because we tend to be big-hearted and dont pinch every nickel like many other Westerners. Some Westerners bargain so hard in the markets that it verges on being cruel, considering that the tourist junk for sale is a matter of pennies to us, but means a great deal to poor merchants.
So buck up, Americans. The people of the world still love you, and would be pleased to have you as their guests.
At a shop on the Red Sea in Egypt, my roommate paused for a moment over stating where he was from. The Muslim shopkeeper picked up on his hesitation.
Why are you afraid to say you are from America? the shopkeeper asked. We know you have bad leaders, just like us. But thats just politics. Your people are good, just like our people are good. Even the Israelis come here and we know they are good people. You must always say with pride: I am from the United States of America.
Amen to that, brutha. If you cant stand up for your country, you cant stand up for anything.
Personally, I believe this side of the world could use a few more Americans spreading goodwill.
For instance, I like to buy souvenirs from craftpersons along the road, usually paying full price instead of haggling (assuming the price isnt just nuts), or bargaining just for fun and then giving them what they asked for.
I was buying some trinket jewelry from a wizened old Bedouin woman at a godforsaken oasis deep in the Sinai desert. Perhaps she was younger than me, but her skin was as parched, brown and wrinkled as a camels nose and her little dark eyes peered out of deep folds, brutalized by the sun. Someone in our group from London said, You shouldnt buy from them -- it just encourages them to sell to the tourists. You should give your money to charity instead.
Hey, give them a break, I shot back. You are a millionaire or a multi-millionaire by comparison, and these people have nothing.
Im not sure that anyone on the bus agreed with me, but I believe that charity would crush the dignity of this proud Bedouin nomad. Instead, she made a clever necklace with her own hands and sold it at full price to a passing tourist. Now, she can tell all her friends about her big sale and impress her husband as well. And the whole family will eat better because someone bothered to reward her industry. And I have a nifty hatband and a vivid memory.
My only regret after making those small purchases is that I didnt look into that desert womans eyes and say, Thank you for selling your jewelry to an American.
I spent Christmas morning getting lost on the streets of Hanoi in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Here, at last, I begin to hear American accents in the museums and temples -- they are former U.S. servicemen whove brought their families here to visit the old battleground.
Hanoi is a gray, chilly place. Wandering down a maze of narrow alleys, I found a carnival of colorful sights: people butchering meat at tiny stands, women tending small piles of vegetables on the sidewalks, live fish wriggling in shallow pans, women in coolie hats bowing beneath poles with heavy baskets of oranges strung at either end, and bicycle riders wearing surgical face masks to ward off the pollution.
Crossing the streets of Hanoi is like fording a river full of metal fish on two wheels. Thousands and thousands and thousands of motorbikes glide endlessly along, some with as many as five riders. To cross this stream of motorbikes, you must step into the current and walk slowly forward with the conviction that they will flow around you. Dont even think of making a sudden move.
I made my way to a pleasant spot by a lake in the center of town where I found a small Christmas tree, a cup of cappucino and some chocolate cheesecake.
Out of the blue, a dozen Australians appeared, marching down the street in Santa Claus outfits, shouting seasons greetings. Some of the women were dressed as angels with Victorias Secret wings. A skinny Santa bellowed, Merry f-in Christmas! in my ear. Its good to know the season hasnt been forgotten in Hanoi.
I made my way to an old French cathedral and offered a Christmas prayer in thanks for all the blessings in my life and Gods protection on this trip around the world. It was a very long list of things to be thankful for.
Theres so much more to tell... but it will have to wait til next time. Happy New Year to ya from Vietnam.