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Rookie Mistakes by Two Seasoned Travelers

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Well, even after visiting sixteen countries, we still make mistakes. Some of these faux pas are funny, but….some are a little embarrassing, so no judging! This is a judgement free zone, and I’m putting myself out there to help you learn from my mistakes and have a great trip (making mistakes of your own…lol!) Yes, you will make mistakes when the language, the culture, the food, the currency and even the cars are all foreign. Just remember this quote and travel with a healthy dose of humility and respect for the people who call that country home:

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

by Robert Louis Stevenson
Hitching a ride to the bank in the back of pickup.
Hitching a ride to the bank in the back of pickup.

Mistake #1 – Don’t assume you can exchange your money upon arriving at your destination!

Most of the time this works and you do get a better exchange rate, but to be safe, get some money exchanged before your leave home, or at least exchange a little on the way! Your money could be refused if it is old or appears damaged. Or…..you just might arrive on the wrong day of the week like us! We arrived in the Cook Islands on a Sunday which is the Christian Sabbath or day of rest. As a Christian, I one-hundred-percent respect and admire that these islands stick to their religious traditions and practice a day of rest. But, I wasn’t prepared for everything (banks included) to be closed on Sunday. We couldn’t exchange any of our US dollars anywhere, so I thought, “I’ll just withdraw NZ dollars from the ATM.” ….which leads me to mistake #2.

Fitting in with the locals as we wait for the bus
Fitting in with the locals as we wait for the bus

Mistake #2 – Don’t rely on ATMs or credit cards!

The Cook Islands have two or three ATMs on the island of Rarotonga; one or two ATMs on the islands of Atiu and Aitutaki; while other islands have ZERO ATMs. When we finally figured out how to get to the ATM (walking), the ATM swallowed my debit card!! Apparently, it had been reported lost or stolen, so I could go to the bank to get it back, but they were, of course, …..closed! Arghhh! We were hungry and had no currency, no debit card, and no one accepted credit card! Thank goodness for friendly people who exchanged for us and then exchanged it back once we had NZ dollars.

Note to remember: you will encounter MANY restaurants on your travels that accept cash only! When you are hungry, you don’t want to spend the evening searching for a restaurant that accepts credit card. It is also very common for a restaurant or store to accept your credit card only to inform you that the card machines are out of word due to a power outage or weak wifi signal!

Hiking in a jungle in Malaysia with Kuala Lumpur for a backdrop
Hiking in a jungle in Malaysia with Kuala Lumpur for a backdrop

Mistake #3 – Don’t dress for the weather; dress for the culture!

You’ll be so much more comfortable if you notice and conform to the cultural dress patterns before you look at your weather app for the day. An easy starting place would be to cover up your swimsuit. While swimsuits of any style or coverage are permissible at the beach, most countries will be very put off if you go walking through town or into a restaurant wearing shorts and a bikini top – in some places you can even get ticketed for it! It never hurts to ask around and do a little research. I remember being told in Brazil that if I wore shorts, some people might assume I was a prostitute. Yikes! My mistake was made in the country of Malaysia and I’m still mortified thinking about it. Malaysia is probably the hottest place I’ve ever been, so of course, I wore shorts and a T-shirt when we went hiking. That was completely fine because everybody else was hiking in shorts as well! Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that we weren’t going back home to change before visiting downtown Kuala Lumpur and the Batu Caves. Surrounded by the Muslim and Hindi culture, I became increasingly aware that everyone BUT me was wearing pants or skirts down to their ankles. I had to rent a skirt to go into the temple at the Batu caves because they wouldn’t allow me to enter in shorts, and the rest of the day I was so uncomfortable and self-conscious with my legs exposed. I felt humiliated and scolded myself for being the worst kind of traveler who disrespects a culture’s dress standards. Learn from my mistake and do a little reconnaissance when deciding how to dress in a foreign country.

Wearing a "rental skirt" over my shorts into the Batu Caves
Wearing a “rental skirt” over my shorts into the Batu Caves
Feeling SUPER self-conscious in my shorts in downtown KL
Feeling SUPER self-conscious in my shorts in downtown KL
Screaming "AMERICAN TOURIST" by our clothing.
Screaming “AMERICAN TOURIST” by our clothing.

I hope you got a good laugh or maybe felt embarrassed for me! Either way, I’m sure we’re not finished making mistakes that will call for a good ol’ face palm, but the memories and laughter will last us a lifetime. Learn from our mistakes and go make your own! Hopefully, your mistakes will give you a gracious attitude and patient spirit when you see a foreigner struggling to adapt to your own culture!

We’d love to hear about your cultural faux pas! Comment below and share your stories!

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