I’ve spent the biggest part of my life in “bad places”, either as part of my job or while in the military. I grew up in New Delhi, Athens, Frankfurt, and Bangkok. When I turned 18 I came back to the U.S. to attend college, then joined the military, which sent me back overseas to Germany, Italy, Johnston Atoll, Turkey, Greece, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and a lot of other worse places. When I retired from the Army I took a job with the government that required almost constant worldwide travel to “bad places”. That’ll be our generic term from this point forward. Yeah, they’re exciting and fun places to go, but a bit off the beaten path. Still, some of the most exciting things on Earth can be found in “bad places”, and many people go on “adventure vacations” to them so I thought you might benefit from my lesson learned. Everyone’s been to Aruba, but how many of us can say we’ve survived Bujumbura during a coup, been shot in Sudan, bit by a snake in Botswana, or in a helicopter crash in Mozambique? THOSE are truly bad places. But they were fun and my memories are vivid.
Cultural Security and Weirdness
Most of the places, Africa in particular, will wear you down both physically and mentally. There isn’t one, single thing that causes this, but instead will be a combination of many, many little things. The people working in different embassies have told me they experience this “wear down” when outside their compounds, but are able to rejuvenate themselves inside their walled refuges. Outside the “protected” compounds, your senses are overloaded with a variety of smells, confrontations, and security concerns. People are constantly in your face, yelling for your attention, waving their hands, or grabbing your hand or arm – all trying to sell something. At traffic choke points (not necessarily stop signs or lights) they’re all over your car, grasping at the handles or holding things in front of the windows – desperately trying to get your attention. We’d be easy to kill. There’s too much activity to possibly keep track of. This happens every time you enter or exit the hotel, embassy, or grocery hut. The host nation often provides security guards to keep them to a minimum, but can’t possibly stop them all. However, you’ll rarely feel physically threatened – just overwhelmed with the sea of humanity shoved into a tight space. There’s commerce in most countries, but mostly on the subsistence level. Mostly they’re selling cell phone cards and fruits and vegetables but anything is possible. I’ve seen street hawkers selling batteries, bathroom mirrors, bicycle tires, radios, bags of rice, candy, tools, light bulbs, and everything in between. Chaos in action.
THIS is what you’ve gotten yourself into but no mere words can possibly prepare you for your first visit to a truly bad place.
The other “wear down” was what I’ve taken to calling the “not quite right” factor. Having Internet that doesn’t work, for example. Air conditioning that only circulates hot air. A TV with only one station in the local tribal language. Food orders only partially filled. Condiments never offered – and when you do ask, it’s like it’s the first time in history anyone’s asked for salt or pepper. Hamburgers with only half a bun and made with goat meat. Rat roasted on a stick. Variable price structures are determined by the time of day, temperature, and/or air quality. Negotiable everything. Constant power failures. Phones don’t work. Switches don’t work. No hot water. No cold water either, just ambient temperature. Washing your hands about 100 times per day because everything you touch is visually filthy or covered with some kind of greasy film. Everything takes at least twice as much time, usually more. Some things ARE impossible – trust me. Anyone saying different has never been here. Quality is half what you expect and this drives my German counterparts CRAZY. Time management is an alien concept. Appointments are kept by rounding up (never down) the agreed upon time to the nearest hour. Or two. Toothbrushes are in short supply – as is soap, antiperspirant, and personal hygiene. Vehicles are abandoned and stripped for parts where they fail. Hulk frames are set on fire and left in the road. The moment a vehicle hood is raised it will never run again. Livestock wanders freely everywhere and is frequently hit in traffic. Crashes are considered good entertainment with crowds forming for hours. Dead animals are left to rot. Only human remains are pushed to the roadside.
THIS is what you’ve gotten yourself into but no mere words can possibly prepare you for your first visit to a truly bad place. You’ll only believe half of what I’ve written but I promise you, it’s 100% true and accurate. Be prepared for the worst possible conditions and you will not be disappointed. But wait, there’s more…
Walking into the Storm. My words can’t prepare you for the amazing things you will see, hear and smell on your trips to bad places. Weirdness and kooky things begin when you arrive at the airport, so pay attention. Don’t be the first in line for anything, hang back and keep your eyes and ears open. Watch what the locals do when they get off the plane. How do they act at immigration? Do they bum rush it or stand in an orderly queue? Is money changing hands? Are certain people expedited ahead of everyone else? Is there a special immigration line for Diplomats? Is it manned? If you have a diplomatic passport don’t be the first to process through, hang back and let some other sucker go first so you can see how they treat him. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to go through that line. Once through immigration and get to the baggage claim area, stand with your back to a wall and watch how people behave. Is there are lot of yelling and shoving? If so, hang back until you see a clear opportunity to get your bags. Work as a team with one guy securing the bags and the other fetching them from the claim area. Shoving, yelling crowds is an excellent place to get pick pocketed. Once the crowd has died down and you’re clear, get your bags and proceed to customs. You will be screwed with there about 100% of the time. Obviously a foreigner they want desperately to see all the exotic stuff you have in your suitcase. Try flashing your diplomatic passport and you’ll be waved through about 70% of the time with no hassles. The other 30% they don’t even know what a diplomatic passport is. You could refuse and try to educate them but that’s a lot of unnecessary pain. Instead I just let them paw through my stuff – then get on with my life – minimum delay and pain.
Another sensitivity that we have is the concept of personal space. When we talk to someone we’re comfortable standing about a meter apart.
Abandon your cultural perceptions of orderliness or social fairness. There is none. Queues don’t exist outside of N. America and Europe. The people in the places that we travel to are operating at a more basic level than you’re accustomed to. They’ll rush to the front and cut everyone else off without a second thought. They will move in front of you in the slickest ways imaginable. They see absolutely nothing wrong with this, and there isn’t. Remember, you need to adapt to their cultural practices, not impose yours onto them. Don’t get upset when it happens, just accept is as the local norm. You may think it’s a good idea to adopt the same “rude” habits and shove your way to the front – don’t laugh, I’ve seen other guys try it. That never works and you end up looking like a clumsy widget. Unless there’s a fire or other valid reason to hurry, just hang back, remain cool, and wait for the crowd to work itself down. Look on it as a form of free entertainment.
Another sensitivity that we have is the concept of personal space. When we talk to someone we’re comfortable standing about a meter apart. Everywhere else in the world they stand closer, almost face-to-face sometimes. Be ready for this and don’t step back from someone talking to you – it’ll be an insult if you do.
Greetings. Keeping your eyes open at the airport lets you see how people greet each other. Most simply shake hands and smile but there can be variations on this. For example, watch how people greet older, more senior counterparts. Many will shake with their right and grip the opposing forearm with the left hand – a more intimate and personal gesture.
Some will follow the handshake with a little hug before releasing the handshake. Perhaps something as simple as a shoulder to shoulder touch or something as complex as several little hugs, alternating each shoulder. Three (left, right, left) is the most I’ve ever seen. In South America they have the “Yaquero (cowboy) Hug” where men hug but bend dramatically at their waists so there’s NO chance their crotches will touch. Another variation I’ve seen is the “Head Bump” where two men gently bump foreheads before releasing their handshake. How this is accomplished safely is very specific: The elder partner initiates the head bump, never the younger. Women never do it, although children do. Once initiated, the younger partner bows his head and holds it still, allowing the elder partner to move his head until they gently touch at the forehead. Study this one closely before trying it because there’s great potential for screwing up. Men of approximately the same age always perform the head bump, probably to get the practice before they get old. Head bumping is an excellent way to share head lice and fleas – yep, I’ve had that happen in Swaziland. Be ready for it. Sometimes there’s kissing involved, sometimes not. Be careful about how you greet women – most often a simple handshake is all you need to do. In some societies, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia a head nod is all you should do. Touch THOSE women and you’ll get your hand chopped off. These are all things you can observe and learn before even leaving the airport while waiting for your baggage or customs line. Look on these waits as educational opportunities, not as unnecessary delays.
You’re a Diplomat! Like it or not you’ll be representing your country and the locals view you as a diplomat. You’ll be invited to events or dinners, possibly with senior members of the local government or tribe. These take a little preparation on your part. You can count on being called upon to make a formal introduction or statement. Think about what you’ll say ahead of time and make some notes in your hotel room. Keep it short and “mushy” – don’t commit to anything. You may be asked something very directly – an attempt to get you to commit to something on your country’s behalf. In these cases, I simply say I’m a soldier, not a diplomat, and can’t really say anything outside of my realm of expertise. If someone from your Embassy is there, defer to them. Don’t get sucked in. As soon as you answer one question it’ll be quickly followed by a more difficult one. You’ve been tricked.
Let’s say the worst has happened. You got sucked into a contest and swallowed a lot of the alcohol. All is not lost but drastic measures are required to save yourself. You have to get it out of your stomach and you need to do it quickly, before your body absorbs too much.
You’ll be invited to meals and there are a couple of things you’ll need to be prepared for. First, there will be liquor – probably some variation of pure alcohol like vodka or raki. Understand up front that these liquors will kill you and your host’s job is to convince you to consume as much as he can. He’ll use a variety of techniques to accomplish this. The most common is through toasts. They’ll begin making toasts to everything you can imagine, then slam down a shot. You can probably survive 2-3 of these before your brain begins shutting down, so you’ll need a strategy before finding yourself in one of these contests. I have a couple of techniques. First, I may do 1-2 complete shots to show that I’m a good sport, but only take a tiny sip on all the following toasts, thus keeping most of it out of my bloodstream. Another technique is to have a prescription bottle in your pocket (I carry my Ambien bottle because it’s smaller). After a drink or two I say that I’m on medication – hold up the bottle – and must switch to juice after only a couple “celebratory” toasts. Another is to say you have an ulcer, then switch to beer or something else. After your hosts are pickled and not watching too closely, you can refill your shot glass with water before the real liquor bottle comes around. If there’s no chance of getting caught, throw the drink over your shoulder or quickly dump it out. Watch out for open flames, though. Throwing pure alcohol over your shoulder and hitting the guy smoking at the table behind you is bad form. Under NO circumstances should you try to keep up with your hosts in a drinking contest. They will win.
Let’s say the worst has happened. You got sucked into a contest and swallowed a lot of the alcohol. All is not lost but drastic measures are required to save yourself. You have to get it out of your stomach and you need to do it quickly, before your body absorbs too much. This requires a little forethought on your part. (This next part is a little gross, or if you are queasy or easily offended by non-PC advice, skip to the next paragraph). Shove some napkins into your pocket and grab a large glass of the liquor. Find someplace where you won’t be observed – the parking lot is good; the jungle is better. Carefully put the glass down because this next part is a little violent. Shove your fingers down your throat and think about drinking dirty water out of a ditch or something like that. You’ll heave up a little bit then stop. It ain’t over. You’ve got to get it ALL up. Think about slurping up the stuff you just threw up – put your face close to it – and that should do it. Your body will take over and start convulsing automatically. Once it starts you couldn’t stop it even if you wanted to. It’ll seem like GALLONS of junk is coming up – and that’s good. When your stomach convulsions subside, use the napkins to wipe your face off. Use the big glass of liquor to gargle with then spit out. Take a couple of minutes to calm down before heading for the bathroom to rinse your face before you head back to the dinner. Done. If you brought your Visine (redness relief formula), now would be a good time to throw in a few drops. It’ll burn like hell. Suck it up.
Eating Other Lifeforms. I’ve eaten snake, lizard, crocodile, guinea pig, sheep heads, turtle eggs, monkey, dog, grasshoppers, and God-knows-what-else. You will too because if you refuse it’ll be an insult to your host and diplomatic faux pas. You can be sure I didn’t ask for dog meat, but in some countries the things we think of as pets, they’ve selected as a food source. Take Guinea Pigs for example. We buy them as pets. In Ecuador guinea pigs (cuie) are considered a delicacy normally only enjoyed on rare special occasions, like weddings. To be offered a guinea pig is an honor, a special event. To turn it down would be disrespectful to your host and insult all his efforts to arrange the expensive meal for you. Maybe it’s because I grew up in India, Greece, and Thailand that I’m not really upset by eating weird stuff. Still… sucking raw turtle eggs out of their soft shell in Honduras makes almost everyone a little queasy…
Here’s how I manage to choke stuff down. First, and probably most importantly, is to insist your host go first. After all, how many non-Albanians know how to go about eating a sheep’s head? Fortunately, most animals are symmetrical with two of almost everything. In the case of the sheep head my host used his index finger to pluck out one of the eyes and pop it into his mouth. I would never have guessed that was the proper way to disassemble a sheep’s face, but enthusiastically popped out the second eye and threw it down my gullet. Unlike my host I didn’t chew but swallowed it whole, said “mmmmmm”, and chased it with some of the evil liquor. Test passed with nobody offended. Now, here’s my secret. I pretend the nasty stuff is Ben and Jerry’s Rocky Road ice cream and just swallow it. You’ll need to mentally convince yourself that you’re swallowing one of your favorite foods – even if only for a few seconds. If they can eat it, so can you. Just so you know, snake, lizard, crocodile, and alligator all taste a lot like some kind of flaky, white-fleshed fish. They’re actually pretty good. Turtle eggs, eaten only raw, are like eating a raw chicken egg except the shells are soft, which doesn’t affect the taste at all since you don’t eat it. I don’t like their texture or taste very much. Monkey, dog and other bush meat is stringy, dark colored, and tastes like tough beef but with a wild, gamey flavor. Not bad, just different than we’re used to. Grasshoppers and locusts, usually roasted over an open fire, are just crunchy with no strong flavors. Careful though because chewing insects with an exoskeleton creates sharp edges that can hurt your gums. Chew slowly and carefully. Guinea pigs are like the really greasy, dark meat part of a turkey. It’s almost always deep fried, so be ready for the grease. It’s not my favorite meal but I’d have no trouble eating more of them.
Just do your best to at least try whatever they put in front of you. You might find you actually like it. Probably not, but maybe. If you find you don’t like it, at least mangle it up to make it look as though you tried. Spread it around your plate. Eat all the other stuff, like fries, garnish, and vegetables to it looks like you ate something. If you can do it unobserved, shove part of it into your napkin, put it in your pocket, and later take it to the toilet for disposal. If one of your team members actually likes whatever it’s, let him eat it but make the transfer without insulting your hosts. Whatever you do, don’t blurt out “It’s SNAKE! I’m not eating that!” Work with me. Make me proud.
Hand Holders. Don’t be surprised if a local grabs your hand. You’ll be walking along talking and suddenly he’ll just grab your hand as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. For him, it is. In many countries hand holding is a measure of respect and friendship. To yank your hand back would be insulting and rude – a rejection of his offer of friendship. Be expecting it and just go with the flow. There’s only ONE rule: Don’t take pictures of each other holding hands with your hosts. Nothing good will come of it when you return home and find it posted on your friend’s Facebook wall.
Our host country indigenous personnel rarely score very highly on the personal hygiene scale and usually don’t even try. Given the lack of water and electricity in many of the countries it is understandable. I mean, if we had to walk 2 miles to bathe in a river would we take daily baths? Heck no. And they don’t either but I wanted to pre-warn you of the situation so it’s no surprise. Don’t be offended or tell them they smell. They know. When they stand close to talk to you, try not to flinch when their breath hits you squarely in the face. If it’s unbearable, I usually look down and discover that my shoelace is untied. While I’m down there I adjust the other shoelace as well. I also drop stuff like loose change or my car keys, allowing me to bend down and grab a breath of fresh air.
You’ll often have to travel in vehicles with the locals to get to distant locations. If possible, make sure you get a window seat so you can roll the windows down if needed. If a particularly fragrant escort gets the shotgun seat, try not to sit directly behind him unless all the windows are down. On rare occasions the vehicles have air conditioning, the last thing in the world you want it to be in an enclosed space. I usually say “it’s such a beautiful day outside, let’s leave the windows open”, even though its 200 degrees outside. Another tactic is to roll the window down and start snapping pictures explaining that the glass obscures the photo. Distract them by asking questions like “what mountain is that?” or “what is that statue?” as you snap. Finally, always carry a few Hall’s mentholated cough drops just in case. These are most effective if you shove them up your nose. Sucking them works too.
Booger Mining. In our culture we don’t dig in our noses in public. Aside from the obvious sanitary reasons it just looks disgusting. Some cultures don’t see it like that and feel that digging in your nose is just as acceptable as scratching your ear – both need to be done. They see absolutely nothing wrong with booger mining, even while talking to you face-to-face. Would you hesitate to scratch your ear while talking to someone? No. And they feel the same about booger mining. The problem lies not with the actual mining (I’ve gotten used to seeing that) but with the extraction of any findings. What to do? I was once in negotiations for site access with a country’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, a General Officer. As we’re sitting at the table in his office he casually started mining – all the while keeping eye contact and talking with me. Any minerals he managed to extract he examined, then casually wiped on his fatigue pants – as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Now, if you’re thinking ahead you can see a dilemma. What do you do when it comes time to shake hands goodbye? Of course you know I shook his hand because you’ve read about my conundrum and pre-positioned a bottle of hand gel in your pocket. Be ready for it and try not to be too grossed out. Hand gel is your friend.
Pollution. Polluting the environment seems to be a national sport in many places, particularly in former Soviet countries and the Balkans. Throwing trash out the car window is totally accepted and expected. Waterways look like some kind of garbage emulsion. Roadways are littered with trash, food scraps and dead stuff. I’m always amazed when seeing someone walk out of their house and throw their trash into the street, wondering where in the hell they think it will go. Many cities smell like old garbage or burning garbage. The other national hobby is burning things. If a pile of trash gets too big they just set it on fire. In Albania they have installed big dumpsters on every block in Tirana, the capitol but people continue to throw their trash onto the street. The city has workers that go around to collect the garbage and put it into the big containers. Once the container is full they just set it on fire, so the city exists in a constant fog of stinking, garbage smelling smoke. Albania has some of the most beautiful mountains in the world when viewed from a distance. Unfortunately, the locals carry their garbage up into the mountains and throw it all over the side. When the pile gets too big they set it on fire. What a system. In Africa the preferred disposal method is throwing everything into a waterway. No fire.
Real Life Observation. Below I’ve pasted a short clip from a trip I took. I think you can read my frustration and disappointment.
A conversation normally needing two minutes often requires 20+ minutes in the (country).
Our observations over the past several days have been rather disturbing. We’ve seen how the officers treat their enlisted personnel in day-to-day interactions. Poorly is a good word. Like slaves is also accurate. We’ve both been amazed at the officer’s over-developed sense of entitlement. We’re also both deeply disturbed by the deep and wide chasm dividing the upper and lower class where, normally, the middle class resides. In the (country) you’re either rich or poor. There’s no middle ground and the rich have no interest in how desperate the poor really are. This was never more evident as the convoy passed through dirt poor villages in their brand new, air conditioned Land Rovers blowing horns. At first we thought this was to warn villagers to get out of the way. We later noticed it was to notify the residents that a “VIP” was passing through; a kind of “look at how important I am!” Speaking of “VIPs”, almost everyone in the (country), with the exception of the very poorest people, consider themselves a VIP. Queuing for VIPs is unheard of. Just go the head of the line and cut in front of everyone else. At airports and train stations there are separate VIP lounges and in many cases, the VIP lounge is larger than the terminal for the “non-VIPs”. All this effort to keep the classes segregated, yet the ticket prices are identical! Make no mistake: There’s a class war smoldering here – and there’s plenty of guns to go around.
- Everything seems to be more difficult here. This ranges from getting service in a restaurant to paying a hotel bill. There’s no single thing you can point at that makes life harder; it’s simply the combination of hundreds of different little things. But they eventually add up to frustrate the best of plans or intentions. Things like having to carry your own toilet paper, rarely finding running water, substandard electrical power, cellular phone failures, lack of Internet access, etc., etc. Compounding the difficulty is the obtuse communication style, combined with local dialect and slang, makes everything more difficult for the Embassy staff, even fluent French speaking ones. A conversation normally needing two minutes often requires 20+ minutes in the (country). Everything is a negotiation of sorts. Everything requires compromise. This is definitely NOT a posting for a type-A personality. The embassy staff earns every cent of their differential pay.