There was never a day I didn’t get back to town in the early afternoon covered with dust and craving a long shower after a morning of traipsing around farms and fields. I grew up in an agricultural community, and have done plenty of farm work, but I’m no longer accustomed to dirt under my nails.
So it was with some amusement that, when the topic of cultural stereotypes came up, my Nicaraguan friends told me that Americans are thought of as dirty.
That’s not what I think of when I think of an American tourist, and I was a little puzzled.
But Nicaraguans are on the whole a fastidious lot, and when others aren’t, they notice.
The next day, I noticed it too.
On the way back to town with a truckload of Nicaraguan volunteers, we stopped to get a cold drink and snacks at a mini mart that serves sandwiches.
It is air-conditioned, one of the few places that are in those parts, and so it gets a lot of foreigners dropping in.
As we all sat with sandwiches and Cokes, my friend Tatiana nudged me and lifted her chin a fraction, sweeping her eyes off to one side.
“That’s what they mean about Americans,” she said, and I looked over.
There, piling in through the doors, was an incredibly scruffy crew.
They’d been climbing volcanoes; that was clear by the backpacks piled in the back of their truck.
But they’d been grubby a lot longer than that.
They were of that ilk of traveler that tends to wind up in places like León, a city that is pretty far off the tourist track and only ever accessed by people who actually like to avoid the more popular places.
I actually like that kind of traveler a lot. They tend to have been everywhere, and they have great stories. They are a brave, even brash, group of people, hitchhiking or busing alone or in pairs through remote third world spots, picking up scraps of languages and wearing an odd mash-up of indigenous and REI clothes.
They tend to do it because cultures fascinate them, and they pride themselves on appreciating culture.
But right there in the mini mart, I realized that it might stun some of those travelers to learn how much they aren’t respected and appreciated in turn.
In fact, they stand out glaringly and rather offensively, caked in dust and wearing clothes that are stained and beat-up, hair badly in need of washing and faces covered in a five-day beard, in a country where farm kids wear immaculate white shirts to school every day and people iron their jeans.
I felt bad for the volcano climbers. They were oblivious to the censure of the people they’d come to visit. I know it would have stung.
People who love to travel for the joy of seeing how other people live might do well to pay attention to things like that. If you want access, acceptance into a community, it doesn’t hurt to take account of how you come across to the locals, and make a bit of an effort to at least give a nod to local custom.
Otherwise, you don’t just make yourself look bad.
You can make your whole country look bad.