By its very nature, travel taps into the adventurous side of our personalities. It pushes us into new directions and inspires us to do things we normally wouldn’t do, perhaps outside of our comfort zones. I’ve certainly bought into that mentality, having visited more than 70 countries. When faced with a “should I or shouldn’t I?” proposition, I’m more likely to dive in and make the most out of my travel time. But I can say now that there have been many times when I wished I hadn’t fallen prey to a "just do it" mentality. Regrets? I have a few — ones that still haunt me and make me wish I’d tempered my zeal for new and different with more common sense and awareness.
When I think about my visit to the Dominican Republic, I feel sick recalling my experience swimming with the dolphins at Ocean World. The Royal Swim package includes being able to grab on to the pectoral fins of a pair of dolphins and go for a “ride” through the water. I was one of about a dozen people in my hour-long session, which included an orientation and half an hour in the water, where guests were allowed to hug, kiss, pet, and feed the animals. The moment I hit the enclosed pool, I wondered why I was there. It was filthy. As I waited for my turn with the dolphins, I tried in vain to splash away the copious amount of feces floating in the water. Once I had my ride, I got out of the pool and went to get changed. I wasn't elated like the others in my group. I felt sad as I passed the photo souvenir shop and saw my grimace in the digital picture of me petting one of the dolphins. I thought of them repeatedly being fondled by tourists, all day long, in that dirty water, under the guise of education. My time with the dolphins really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but in a bad way. Foolishly, I thought my swim with manta rays in Antigua would be different, since our group was told that they were out in the ocean and not in an enclosed pool. Under dark skies, we hopped into a small boat and headed to the rays. The clouds looked nearly black, and the wind was blowing with gusto. “Are you sure we should be going out in this?” I asked. “Don’t worry. It will be fine,” I was told. Not wanting to be a party pooper, I shrugged off my concerns. The rays were in the ocean, as advertised, but penned in on all sides. The guide jumped into the enclosure, dove down to grab one of the rays, and lifted it out of the water. He flipped it upside down to show us its underbelly as the creature gasped for air; then, nearby, there was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning. A storm was rolling in, and we were sitting ducks out in the open ocean, with nowhere to take shelter.
The skies opened up, and the rain whipped against my skin; it felt like the sting of thousands of needles. We huddled in the boat and tried to curl up as small as we could. You could feel the electricity ripple through the air with every lightning strike. As the storm raged on, I thought, This is how I'm going to die. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. I was livid that we had been put in danger by a tour operator who preferred to risk it than refund our money. I was also mad at myself for going along with something when I felt it could be dangerous — and for not asking about whether the rays were captive or not. In Florence, Italy, I didn’t think I was putting myself in jeopardy when I went to the apartment of a gay man I’d met at a café; he said that he could sell me some leather goods at a decent rate, since he had designed them. After I sat on his sofa and looked through a catalog of stuff he sold, I was shocked when he put a cassette tape into his boom box, said he wanted to do a special dance for me, and unzipped his pants. I bolted from the room, down the stairs, and ran like mad through the maze of streets of central Florence. He was running after me. I ended up near the Uffizi museum and near a policeman. “Get lost!” I screamed. “If you come any closer to me, I’m going to get you arrested.” He left. No more impromptu visits to the homes of strangers for me.
Sometimes the most responsible thing is to just say no to a new experience.
If you’ve been to India, you know that it can be an onslaught to the senses: the colors; the din of the traffic; the men roaming the streets with pots of chai; and the smells of sewage, animals, and bougainvillea. Poverty is at a level very foreign to most Westerners. It’s humbling and angering in equal measure. When four very polite children approached me and asked me for money in Mumbai, I instantly went for my wallet, handing out U.S. $1 bills to the crew. Later, when I asked about the prevalence of panhandlers and street kids, my guide chastised me for giving them money. She explained that organized gangs use kids to approach tourists and that any cash I forked over would never better the lives of these youngsters. Panhandling was a business, and children were recruited specifically to appeal to unknowing, well-meaning suckers like me. Lesson learned. Or was it? When I was near the border of Haiti on an eco-tour on horseback, I came prepared with notebooks, pencils, crayons, and pocket calculators for the local school kids whom I knew I’d meet at our stop in a small village. I was happy to play Santa Claus and dole out those little gifts when we met the kids along the riding path. But as I did, I noticed that the tour leader didn’t look too happy. Later, I approached him. “Did I do something wrong?” Yes. Indeed, I did. It turns out that the kids know the schedule for the excursion I took quite well. When they know that there are tourists coming, they skip class in order to greet them and hopefully get gifts and/or money. I learned that the better option is to give directly to the school, and it will make sure the kids get the stuff — most importantly, while they’re attending school. Through the years, I’ve become a more careful traveler. I don’t make assumptions about how I can help the communities I visit. I ask a lot of questions and do my own research about any planned activities, especially those involving animals. And I’ve learned to listen to my gut when it tells me that maybe I should sit this one out. Sometimes the most responsible thing is to just say no to a new experience. I don’t have to do it all.