There are a lot of people who will argue that you should do stuff for yourself. They say things like, “Having someone do certain things for you is like getting someone to chew your food for you.” [Ze Frank]. That sounds really clever, but the trouble is that this kind of argument looks really black-and-white, on-or-off, unless you keep in mind that it is limited by “certain things.”
For example, I enjoyed ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycling’ as much as the next person, but Robert Pirsig spends a lot of time arguing that you need to chew your own food. That sounds fine, but it’s a very First World attitude – Pirsig’s wrenching and riding was in the US. Yes, of course you can weld up your own parts and then machine them to fit as he suggests if you have a machine shop at home. But not in Tanzania on your way to Dar es Salaam. There are a lot of things that are difficult to do by yourself if you’re on the road, and a local mechanic can often be a genius at fixing them.
Another thing I don’t think you should do for yourself if you’re out on the Long Road is providing sleeping accommodation. Camping is a First World solution and simply doesn’t hold up in many places. Sure, there have long been venerable options like the near-legendary Gol-E-Sara campground in Tehran or the nameless one at Marrakesh but in most of the Third World there are three arguments for availing yourself of the almost ubiquitous local hotels.
One, wild camping is risky, although it is up to you how you evaluate your own safety and the security of your bike. Appropriately equipped and guarded campsites are unknown except in tourist centers. Two, while cheap hotels will not be havens of luxury, they will protect you from the weather and wild dogs, and will be close to restaurants. Eating out is just about always better because it will likely be cheaper – ingredients can be costly for tourists, and are often sold in bulk which you will not be able to carry – and more interesting. Three, staying in a hotel will allow you to leave your bike and gear and mingle, which is a large part of the attraction of the Long Road.
Markets are ubiquitous in the Third World and even in much of the First. France is a good example for food and clothes, but even Germany has peripatetic food markets. Many markets are great places to buy clothes unless you are built like my friend Utz who is 6’5”. He always has to have his clothes made for him. Not that that is expensive in Thailand or Ghana. I once asked him if he ever regretted his body-building; he reached for a pineapple, crushed it between his fingers and said “no”. Markets are also wonderful places to buy unusual and useful souvenirs, like typical local cooking utensils. And you get to meet people, and the food is absolutely local and therefore fresh.
The thought of food brings me to the thought of tipping. North American readers will find this amazing, but tipping is not the same around the world as it is at home. Your relationship in a Third World restaurant is not with your server but with the owner, who will supervise your service and collect payment. Tipping him is kind of pointless. On the other hand, it is common to tip when you stay somewhere exceptional. If you spend a few days on a houseboat in Kashmir, for example, you might leave an old pullover for your host.
After my first stay on Lake Dal in Srinagar, I was going to give Ghulam, the manager of Houseboat Goldenrod, a jumper when he shyly pointed to a two-thirds-full bottle of slivovitz on my bedside table. “But Ghulam,” I said, “you are a Muslim!” – “Oh, for medicinal purposes only,” he replied, palms outward. How about that, finding a WC Fields impersonator high in the Himalayas.
The best way to approach tipping is to do what the locals indicate you should. Don’t worry, they won’t be backward.
As for being backward… what to do about beggars? This is perhaps the toughest question I have found myself confronting on my travels. Not just in Calcutta, either, but even in San Francisco. I won’t presume to read you on it; my usual reaction is that if I can make someone’s day significantly better with a small gesture, then I’ll do it – but not when there is a whole forest of importunate hands. Picking favorites feels awful.
What does feel good is being able to speak a few words of the local language. Even if people don’t understand you, they’ll get some amusement from hearing you mangle their mother tongue. But India alone has 19,500 mother tongues according to the Indian Express newspaper, and you cannot rely on someone you meet to speak even one of the 22 scheduled, or official, languages. Exclusive local dialects are common elsewhere too. So while mangling a few words can feel good, the more useful alternative is to develop a facility with body language and gestures.
Keep in mind that the same gesture can mean something different in other places. In Thailand I tried asking for directions to a hotel by pressing my palms together and holding them next to my inclined head, a common sign for ‘sleep’ in Western countries. I received wales of laughter. Apparently in Thailand it means you’re looking for a brothel.
On the subject of human failings: I am with Omar Khayyam when he praises “The Grape… the subtle Alchemist that in a Trice, Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute,” and with WC Fields when he notes that “A man’s got to believe in something; I believe I’ll have another drink”. In short, I believe that the odd beer is a human right.
Many jurisdictions disagree, but as with my friend Ghulam above, the people often have different ideas. It does not hurt to indicate that you’d like a snort of the dram that cheers. In some places you will be directed to the big international hotel up the road; in others, a bottle will appear from below the counter, or someone will be dispatched to a distant shop that just happens to stock the otherwise forbidden fluid.
That’s just about enough. It’s getting late, and I hear the siren call of a bottle of Gramp’s 1918 Barossa Shiraz. Just to conclude: if you’re going to South Asia, take some octane enhancer. The ‘petrol’ sometimes contains very little. And take some small denomination US dollars. They can open doors that Khayyam’s Sufi howls without.