Sunday, February 15, 2009

Today's Older Traveler

There's a breed of traveler that you see all over the country, but I guess it wasn't until I went to the Galapagos that I really felt compelled to write about it. They often travel in packs, but have been known to wander out on their own or with another partner. I'm talking, of course, about older travelers. Those who have hit middle age and want to go on an adventure to a country they've never seen before. First, let me just say that I think it's great that older people still want to get out there and travel, especially to a country like Ecuador where you need to rough it in many parts. Yet there are just some things about these travelers that boggle my mind and the quirks need to be pointed out. Let's begin.

Bring Proper Attire

For some reason, every older traveler wears the exact same thing. I don't know if there's some special store that the AARP is recommending their members shop at for trips to South America, but they are all in cahoots on this one. A typical outfit consists of something like a safari jacket or shirt. This could best be described as a olive drab shirt with cargo pockets and zippers in random locations, either for design or to fool a potential thief. An alternative to this can also be brightly colored button down or collared shirts.

For the pantaloons you can expect cargo pants or shorts matching the shirt and always tucked in. For the women, you can also find loose fitting elastic waist pants or a summer dress. At times, you might also find these older travelers wearing shirts boasting the last spot they visited. We're not talking "I Love New York" kind of shirts, but you know that the shirt or hand bag wasn't bought in the States or Europe.

A generality, yet also the truth, are the knee high socks and ankle shoes or sandals. Maybe it's to protect against mosquitoes, even though there aren't any high in the mountains. A backpack will almost always be on and a camera slung around the neck. Not that the locals would have any trouble identifying them as tourists, but it just seals the deal from miles away. From time to time you can also see them with a guidebook in hand, a finger pressed into the pages to save the mark on the current city they're in. A map could also be replaced in this situation.

And something that I see more often in Cuenca than anywhere else is the Panama Hat. The reason I always find this funny is because only two groups of people where the Panama Hat in Cuenca: the indigenous, who would never be confused with tourists, and large groups of tourists. There always seems to be a group of tourists, straight from the hat museum, all touting their newly bought hats. I love sitting in the park in the center and just watching these large groups walk by in their hats, all being hassled by street kids to shine their shoes.

Act Accordingly

Some people might think I would feel uncomfortable being the only gringo on a bus or in a neighborhood. On the contrary, I actually feel less comfortable when I'm surrounded by other tourists. The reason is that they stick out and draw attention and are always going to be a juicy target for whoever wants to take advantage of them. One time on a bus from Riobamba to Cuenca I was the only gringo, yet I felt comfortable. At one stop about 10 gringos got on, dressed exactly as I've described, talking loudly and obnoxiously. I didn't feel right until they all got off the bus a couple of hours later. Everyone knows that a tourist will have a camera, a wallet with money and credit cards, and possibly an iPod or some other luxury. I just don't want to be near the action.

But it's also the demeanor of these tourists. For one thing, they don't seem to understand the culture of bargaining. It's not an insult to bargain, and it's actually expected, so when they pay the first price someone quotes them, it drives up the expected price for me as well, taking me longer to haggle. And at times, they can get rude about it too. Sometimes these travelers will simply take advantage of the locals and the low prices, abusing the fact that they have money to spend.

Another time on a bus an older couple was trying to argue with the bus attendant. When people get on the bus they have to pay, but the couple assumed everyone had already paid and the attendant was now making some people pay again. "Senor, por que? Es malo, es malo," the man said in his awful Spanish. Accusing the attendant of stealing money isn't really a good idea unless you're positive it has happened, and to you. I tried to explain to them what the deal was, and finally they let it drop.

When traveling in packs, they usually at least have the security of numbers. Yet they still come in like an invasive species and take over the area they are in, making a scene as they move through. But when they are alone they are more prone to being worked over and seem lost. I don't understand why it is, but the older travelers always seem to act in the same way, and I find it amusing at the very least. That isn't to say that younger travelers don't act like this sometimes as well, but in my experience it is much less common.

Whatever this rant was, it was just a way for me to discuss some of the quirks of the travelers that I see around here in Cuenca and Ecuador as a whole. Don't hate me for saying it, it's just the truth.

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