I read a quote some time ago about how a traveler who’s been traveling for a long time starts to blend in with the locals wherever he goes. It was easy to read this quote and just robotically nod my head as though it were true. It’s not. It’s a representation of a fantasy view of travel, nowhere near the real thing. The whole “Paul Theroux, fly on a wall” image of a traveler is completely false. Inconspicuous is the last thing that a traveler is — or should ever want to be.
The myth of Hombre Incognito
This is perhaps a myth that is perpetuated by hundreds of years of Western travel literature where “going native” and blending in to the local culture was highly touted as the epitome of the savvy traveler. We are influenced by mounds of stories about how travelers like Richard Burton could blend into Arab culture so well that he was able to sneak into Mecca and Isabelle Eberhardt being able to poise as a local man in North Africa. One of the most self-serving accounts of this “inconspicuous traveler” tradition was William Burroughs explaining in Interzone how the touts of Tangier would call him “Hombre Ingognito” because he could, apparently, walk down the street without them noticing him.
If travel is sold as an escape from a mundane life and a stepping out of your culture — becoming someone else — then these stories of going native abroad are models for emulation. It’s too bad that this deeply seeded urge for personal metamorphosis often ends up manifesting itself as a fantasy that obstructs the real personal development that could otherwise occur.
Now, I’m going to tell you right now that there’s no way that a six foot tall, decrepit looking, skinny old white guy dressed in a suit topped off with a fedora was able to go anywhere in Tangier “incognito.” I’m also going to state that no hippy with dreadlocks has ever been taken into a village in Thailand and treated like a “local.” But this is the myth of the “traveler” that we’re lead to believe and try to live up to. It’s bullshit. But even if you were a linguistic master and could blend in with a foreign culture like Burton, why would you want to?
I tried to blend in once with the crowd when traveling in Chile in 2002. There are a lot of white people with dark features there, and I realized that I could easily camouflage myself. So I set out for the holy grail of the traveler and tried to look local. I decked myself out to look like a fashionable youth, cut my hair and beard into a style that other guys my age were wearing, and decked myself out in clothes that I bought locally. I blended in pretty well — so much so that people would ask me directions or otherwise look surprised when I would speak Spanish with a heavy American accent. My guise seemed to work, but I gave it up after a few weeks.
Because it was awful boring blending in.
When you can walk through the streets without anybody noticing you you’re not going to meet many people. Where you blend into the landscape you’re treated as landscape.
This is the last thing that I want when visiting a country and trying to learn about it and its people.
I want people to notice me when I travel. I want to make people curious and draw them in. I want to attract attention, talk with people, and make friends. Half the process of meeting people in the streets is you noticing them and going up and starting a conversation, the other half is of the process is them noticing you. If I wanted to fit into a crowd, I’d go back to my hometown. If I wanted to walk through the streets without anybody noticing me, travel would be the last thing that I would do.
One prime attributes of a long term traveler is that they seem to have learned how to make the most of their social position as a foreigner — an outsider, the other — wherever they are in the world.
Be conspicuous, not a sore thumb
Nobody wants to be the white dude in the flying saucer hat, khaki shorts, and button up fishing shirt with the big, expensive camera around his neck and fanny pack around his waist walking around a foreign land with a proverbial sign flashing above his head saying “check out this moron.” But standing out does not mean being a sore thumb, it means harnessing the attention that you’re inherently going to receive just by being a foreigner as a way to engage the people around you.
I know a long term traveler when I see one. They are the most conspicuous people on the planet. They walk through the streets as though there is a giant spot light shinning on them at all times, they are talking to people, joking around, saying hello, being friendly, engaging the place they are passing through. For these travelers, the myth of trying to blend in had worn off long ago. Their stage is the streets of planet earth, that’s where they ply their trade and learn about this world.
These travelers are not only comfortable with their status as a foreigner but have devised methods to turn their inherent conspicuousness into an advantage. People all over the world respond to confident people, and there is perhaps no better way to exude confidence than by 100% being yourself.
I don’t walk through the streets like a meek little mouse trying to blend in and go unnoticed. Not only is it at this point not possible (i.e. I’m now covered in tattooing), but it’s not something I would want to have happen. No, I walk through the streets watching people, asking questions, taking photos, asking for demonstrations of various trades and arts, being a curious foreigner. I know my role, and I don’t just play it, I live it up. I’m a foreign fool, and because I make this evident people go out of their way to teach me things, tell me stories, and show me a little of their way of life. You don’t have these kind of experiences trying to be inconspicuous.
Traveling is about being a participant observer. This means that you actually interact with the scene before you, becoming a part of it, not just sitting back as an observer watching the show. Paul Theroux often talks as if he’s sitting in the back corner of train cars just watching people. This may be in keeping with the travel writer tradition, but it’s nowhere near the reality. To write stories about people you need to engage them, you need to step over the line and put yourself out there, you don’t try to blend in.
If you want to just gawk at people, then watch feeds from CCTV cameras that are set up in the streets around the world — you don’t even have to travel anywhere. Travel only if you want to be the center of attention and make whatever you can of it.
What about attracting the wrong element?
Far too often this bad, thoughtless advice is given to people preparing to travel abroad:
“Try to blend in with the crowd.”
Now, if you can tell me how a two hundred and fifty pound white lady from Omaha can blend in anywhere outside of the USA, I’d like to hear it. It’s just not going to happen. The same goes for just about any person traveling to another country. If you’re a foreign traveler, 9.9 times out of 10 blending in is not an option. It’s a better strategy to learn how to channel the attention that you’re going to be given and use it as a wrench to learn about the places you visit.
In many cites, street thieves pick off locals just like foreigners. Don’t think of yourself as a super big target just because you’re from another country, because you’re not. You just hear about foreigners being robbed more because that’s the community you’re more in-tune with. Talk with the people who live in the cities of countries with high amounts of street crime and they’ll tell you how they get robbed too. So don’t think for a moment that you’re defending yourself against street theft by trying to “blend in” with the crowd.
Anyway, if someone makes their living preying on foreign tourists, there is little you can do prevent them from noticing you. These people know where you go, what you do, what you want, and, most importantly, who you are. There is no hiding, so why try?
It’s my take that it’s far better to walk through the streets proud, confident, and overtly engaging. Say hello, be open to the scene around you, make micro-connections with the street vendors and people hanging out in the streets, and act big, act big, act big. Do the exact opposite of what you think “blending in” entails, and, before you know it, the onerous elements of a place vanish.
A traveler who is alert, confident, quick-witted, with good street senses, who looks people in the eye is often not the first person that’s going to be targeted for street crime. The quiet, meek, the backpackers slinking around like little mice are far easier targets. Trying to be inconspicuous by being mousy is the last thing you want to do in terms of safety.
The reason why I write this tip is because it is my impression that foreign tourists and backpackers are being mind-screwed into “trying to act local” which often manifests itself as acting cagey, nervous, meek, and vulnerable. It is actually far safer to act the exact opposite of this, to be a big, loud, confident, and completely conspicuous and exuding an image of being in control.
There is no hiding in the throng when you go abroad, and knowing your place and embracing it is a far better strategy than trying to deny reality and pretending to be something you’re not.
I like being signaled out as a foreigner, I like being treated as an outsider. This is my crank shaft to spin the wheels of discovery. It is my impression that the desire to “act local” is a tourist’s daydream, but it’s one that often leads to not putting yourself out there enough to make the most of a journey.