Being The Chameleon Globetrotter
Becoming a chameleon when traveling overseas is an art. Despite what you do to be an incognito traveller, quite often your natural attributes will give you away. If you are blessed with a crowning glory of red hair (6% of the world's population), unless you shave your head and become a chrome dome, you have no chance whatsoever. For the other 94%, no matter what clothes you drape your body in, the moment you speak, your pseudo local cover will be blown.
As a globetrotter you can stick out like a sore thumb and make yourself a target for any unscrupulous locals, or you can moderate your appearance and mannerisms to that of not quite native, but at least a well-traveled soul that knows what they are doing and where they are going. Don't completely abandon your true self in an attempt to blend in, as some locals are as interested in you as a visitor to their country, as you are in them.
Learn a few phrases, at least the "polite" words of please, thank you, hello and goodbye. No one likes a rude person and generally the locals will be happy to help you out with the words you need, after much laughter at the slaughtering of their language. Remember your loud boisterous voice may be offensive, so speak half as loudly as you normally would.
You may have mega bucks in the bank and can stay at any super luxurious property in any country, but it will not give you the real experience you may crave. Stay "local", off the beaten track and you will be surprised at the interaction with those around you. You will get to see the real country and its people, not a tourist cosmetic version through rose colored Armani glasses.
Mannerisms and Behavior
Take the time to sit in a local gathering area (aka plaza, square or on the bench seat outside the local shop) and discretely watch how the locals interact with each other (elderly, male and female may all be different) by way of personal space and greeting gestures, such as shaking hands or kissing cheeks. Note how many kisses and left to right or right to left, as it will matter - you don't want to be planting kisses on lips, gnashing buck teeth or clashing heads.
Walk like an Egyptian and mimic those around you in the way they saunter, dress and their social behavior, up to a point. This does not mean that you should be spitting red globules of chewed up betel nut on the ground - unless you want to come home sporting blood red teeth and gums. In some countries direct eye contact or actually smiling at a person is an invitation of the wrong kind.
Attempt to eat where and when the locals do, don't expect dinner at 5pm in Europe as the locals dine around the 8.30pm mark, whilst in Asia you can usually find curb de cuisine 24 hours a day and eating all day is a given.
Look like you know where you are going at all times and walk confidently, even if you have no idea where you are and you want to throw your arms in the air in a plea to the heavenly gods. Wait until you get to a cafe or a shop to pull out a map or to ask for directions. Read up on local gestures as they vary from country to country and you wouldn't want to give someone the thumbs up, when to them it may be totally derogatory. Take into account the local tipping habits, whether you need to take your shoes off when you enter someone's home or what parts of the body are no go zones. I am talking about the head and the feet in this sentence. Groping a female's body parts in any country will not be appreciated. Local religious customs should be on the top of the list, as you don't want to end up in jail because you were eating in the street during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia.
Don't even think about packing the white Nikes, unless you want to scream out that you are a freaky foreign. Before you leave home check out a few photographs of locals on the Internet, chances are they won't be wearing the latest cargo pants. Unfortunately most "travel clothes" look exactly like "travel" clothes, which is not the style you should be going for. Leave the dangling earrings at home as well, because you don't want an earlobe ripped off. Remember, wealthy tourists are magnets waiting to be ripped off.
Do travel lightly and buy clothes at your destination from a local shop, keeping in mind local customs of modesty and above all be comfortable and appropriate for the country you are in. It may just be a case of dressing up or dressing down, throwing on a few stylish or not so stylish local accessories (mock feathered head dresses may not go down with a chief in Africa).
Not many people can pull off that total traditional dress look and it may not be appropriate (bare breasts and a grass skirt may excite your traveling partner but not so the locals), so don't even try. Instead go for inoffensive clothes in muted colors and headwear such as a scarf when required. If you don't want to wear a chador, then don't go to Iran. If you want to wear your belt-sized arse exposing shorts that ride up your crack (male or female) then don't hang out in a Muslim country. For the ladies or those that like to cross-dress, stilettos and cobblestones are a definite travel hazard.
What is hanging around your neck?
Flashy gold jewellery and a huge lens on a super expensive branded camera will be waving a red flag to the local thieves; so leave the jewellery at home and be a tad circumspect about where you pull out the camera. Remember not to point it where you shouldn't. Keep guidebooks, maps and that fanny pack in a local grocery bag. If you insist on carrying expensive gear with distinct recognisable logos, accessorize it with masking tape (this also hides a logo), as if it is old and broken.
You should have an idea of the country's currency - what it looks like and the conversion rate, before you leave home. Never pull out your wallet in the street and only have enough cash on you for the day, plus a copy of your passport. Leave your original passport and any huge wads of money locked in a hotel safe or wear a money belt under your clothes. Shop at the local stalls and if you are in one place long enough, go to the same shop each day. Familiarise yourself with prices and ascertain whether bargaining is acceptable.
If the locals pedal their way around, then rent a bicycle and sling your local shopping bag over the handlebars stuffed with your necessary goodies. This does not include the dare devil practice of having 5 people on a motorbike with not a helmet in sight. If the locals rush around like madmen then get into the fray with them, but if they slowly meander, take your time and stroll. Try to get your head into the same space as theirs and feel the heartbeat of the space you are in, whether it is chaotic madness or where time has no meaning.
Tolerance and Patience
Travel with an open mind and don't expect the culture of your home country to be what you will experience in a foreign country, so go with the flow. If you feel yourself getting totally frustrated, take a deep breath and count to ten, or maybe 50 if you are naturally a hot-headed redhead.
Gail Palethorpe, a self proclaimed Australian gypsy, is a freelance writer, photographer and eternal traveller. Check out her website Gail Palethorpe Photography and her Shutterstock profile.