One of the things I really relate to on a daily basis is the concept of “normal” -- feeling normal, wondering if I’m normal, wondering how normal other people are. But the funny thing is that normal is always subjective -- it changes with different people, with different situations, and with different places. When you travel, the standard of normal changes considerably from country to country. Whether you’re in the U.K., Japan or Mexico, there’s always a new set of “normal” -- a toolkit with which you learn how to behave, act, and treat others. Here in the US, for example, we’re taught that politeness is often more important than being honest, whereas in Israel (and you can trust me on this), it’s wildly opposite. They’d rather you be blunt and potentially hurt their feelings than tiptoe around the issue.
While the same basic human values are similar almost everywhere, you’ll notice that in different countries you’ll run into funny little alterations in your normalcy toolkit -- some bizarre new things to get used to. Let’s run through some of them.
1. Pushiness is common
This was quite literally the first bizarre thing I learned about travel, because it happened as soon as I stepped out of the airport. Cab drivers swarmed to get my business, pushing each other out of the way and berating me until I got in their cab with a sort of aggressive friendliness. “Hello mister! Where are you going?” they’d say, smile-shouting at me across the parking lot.
I noticed this all over Southeast Asia and in South America. Street vendors selling their wares would be on top of me the second I walked up to their stand, following me if I left without purchasing anything. Bus drivers would gruffly wave me onto their bus. Store clerks would insist that my non-existent girlfriend would treasure the $2 bracelet they’re selling.
This sort of pushiness, while maybe considered “rude” by us in the west, is quite common in a lot of the world, and it’s not really about making you uncomfortable. It’s just simple pragmatism -- a sort of survival of the fittest. The pushiest and most persistent vendor is the one who gets the business. The one who works the hardest is the one that earns the dollar, and the one who sits back and waits for you to come to them is less likely to make a living. Get used to it, because you’ll experience this sort of pushiness in most countries you’ll go to.
2. Haggling is a way of Life
Much like pushiness, haggling is something that’s generally frowned upon in the US. Maybe it’s because of our big department stores or inflexible corporate culture, but haggling has been a thing of the past in the US for a long time now. In the rest of the world, however, price negotiation is still very much alive, and very often used.
In many countries, cab drivers and street vendors often build the expectation of haggling into the prices of their services. A $5 shirt can cost $20 if you ask a vendor, because he expects you to talk him down, but if you don’t he still makes off with a $15 profit. If you do, then he knows that he won’t dip below a $5 minimum. In the end, he still makes his money back -- it’s just about how much.
When I first started out, I was absolute crap at haggling. I didn’t want to be rude or offend anyone by trying to undercut their asking price, but as an experienced traveler now, I know how to negotiate quite well, and can drive those “tourist prices” down to a much more reasonable amount. In fact, it’s really not uncommon to say “no thanks,” and start making your way out the door to get a better deal. You should always remember, however, that for many of these people, haggling is their livelihood. Don’t haggle for the sake of $2. It’s not worth it and in the end you just come off looking like a jerk.
3. Tipping isn’t always expected
Tipping follows the same sort of pattern as haggling. In North America, tipping is a perfectly normal aspect of a meal. You enjoyed the service at a restaurant so you tip your waiter or waitress well. You hired a company to help you move, so you tip the movers. In other countries, however, tipping is a whole other ball game. Some build the price of tips into the salary, so tipping isn’t expected or
required, and some cultures (like Japan) even consider tipping rude and elitist. Wherever you go, make sure you ask around about this before assuming it’s the same as it is back home. The last person you want to offend is the person handling your food.
4. Toilet paper doesn’t always go in the Toilet
Okay, not gonna lie...this one was hard to get used to. Depending on where you are in the world, you may be asked to throw your used toilet paper in garbage cans rather than down the toilet. Why? Because the sewage pipes used in some of these countries aren’t equipped to properly handle the paper and will clog easily. This is more true for developing countries in rural regions like Southeast Asia, South & Central America, than places like the US, Canada, and Europe.
This was one of those things that no one prepared me for -- I’ve been to all sorts of countries around the world and all but one asked that I throw my toilet paper in the garbage. Do I wish I had known ahead of time? Nah. Was it gross in hot & steamy parts of the world? Totally. But these are their guidelines and we have to respect them. It takes a whole lot more work to fix a clogged pipe than it does to buck up and toss your TP in the trash.
5. Toilets come in all shapes & sizes
While we’re on the topic of bathrooms, we may as well talk toilets. In the Western world we’re quite used to our “normal” toilets -- porcelain chairs with a weird hydro-powered tank in the back. However, in Asia in particular, you might wander into a bathroom about to bust only to find that instead of that porcelain throne you’re looking for there's just a hole in the ground with a rim to stand on. Meet the squat toilet. This odd engineering feat is weirdly enough used by an enormous portion of the world and is supposedly way better for your digestive tract than sitting on our conventional toilet. If you go to Southeast Asia specifically, get to strengthening those quads because you may not see a conventional toilet for a while.
Along the same line are bidets. Another invention that’s arguably better than what we do here in the US, the bidet will squirt a warm stream of water at your...rear. They’re rare to find here in the US, but you can find them all over Europe. And if you find yourself in Japan, you may experience a whole new sort of robotic toilet complete with sound & odor maskers. I just got back from Japan a week ago and can confirm that this is far better than what we have here in the US. I would legitimately consider moving to Japan just to be able to use their toilets on a daily basis...what a world.
6. Toilet Paper is White Gold
The last bathroom thing I’ll mention is perhaps the most important one: bring toilet paper with you everywhere you go. Do not expect it to come free with your...uhmm...stay. This applies more towards South American & Southeast Asian countries than others, but when you’re about to bust in a rest stop in Cambodia, the last thing you’ll want to do is turn up empty handed. If you’re lucky you may get 2 squares when you pay the attendant (that’s a whole other thing), but more than likely you won’t get anything. You do not want to get caught with your pants on the ground here, folks. I have been, and I have had to come up with some...creative....ways to stay clean. This goes doubly if you’re on a long bus ride, and triply if you’re on a hike. Toilet paper is white gold. Memorize it.
7. Free things aren’t always free
In the US, we’re pretty accustomed to having some things built into the price of using a service. If you’re at a restaurant and ask for a glass of water, it’s not usually automatically added to the bill. If you’re at a rest stop on a long journey, you don’t expect to have to pay to use it. Well in some parts of the world, these things definitely come at a price. In countries where the tap water isn’t entirely safe to drink, you’ll have to purchase bottled water at restaurants. And in some countries, they’ll have you pay a fee (albeit minimal) to use the restroom in public spaces. This is generally just for the upkeep of the restroom, but it can catch you off guard. I once was ready to bust at a rest stop in Laos and didn’t have enough money to use the bathroom. It’s not a pleasant thing to get stuck without any cash when you need to pee, so plan ahead and have some loose change in those pockets.
8. Gender Roles can be Old School
This last one affects my female travel companions much more than it does me. When chatting with locals, primarily in developing countries, women are sometimes asked if they have a husband or children back home, and are met with confused looks if they say they don’t. But hold on! Before you unleash a gender-role manifesto on an unsuspecting local, please don’t misunderstand -- they’re not trying to be rude or judgmental; it’s just generally their way of life.
In many parts of the world where feminism is a budding movement, traditional gender roles are still very much adhered to. Women often get married and/or pregnant much younger than they do here in the US or Europe, so when they see a woman in her twenties or thirties traveling the world alone, they just naturally assume she’s left behind a family. A lot of the time, locals who see me with a female traveler assume that we’re dating or somehow romantically involved. In most cases it’s really a harmless question, but I’ve met a lot of female travelers who were (understandably) put off by it. Just know that they often mean no disrespect by asking, and will usually still treat you with the same non-judgmental respect that you should have for them as well.
These are just a few of the many, many variations of “normal” that I’ve seen on my trips around the world, but there will always be endless nuances in what different cultures consider “standard.” What I’ve found to be incredible, however, is that despite all of these variations, the people in all of these countries still share the same basic values -- love, kindness, compassion, altruism. At the end of the day, whether we’re in the Philippines or in the Pacific Northwest, we’re all just people trying to achieve the same basic things -- happy, healthy lives with the ones we love. We just have different ways of getting there.