Cancel culture in the wrong country can get you failed, fined, and finished.
Ko Chang, Thailand, is one of the world’s gems. The sand is sugar, the water breathtaking.
The only time I’d shared a trip with a companion, in 2011 my then-friend Sandy and I (not her real name) spent a few days on this gorgeous island. Prior to heading to Thailand I’d invested some seven months learning as much of that challenging language as I could.
It is beyond wonderful how warmly you are met in any country when you can speak a few words, or a whole phrase. You get treated like a queen.
Then there’s this:
I remember one morning at our hotel, standing behind a loud, rude German man who was abusing and belittling the hotel staff about towels.
The Thai people are among the most gracious, kind and polite in the world. Too many of us reward that with showing up in our bikinis, our body parts hanging out, in this deeply conservative Buddhist country. Every guidebook asks you to cover up. Guess that’s too much to ask, to respect the host country’s beliefs.
I could go on. You get the drift.
The rules don’t apply to me. I’m special. I’m entitled to free fries with that. I deserve.
Americans aren’t alone in this. Hardly. But this article is about my fellow Americans.
I’ve spent a total of six weeks in Thailand, from one end of the country to the other. Two trips, years apart. I have great respect for the culture. I am also aware of the dicey sex trade undercurrents all throughout Asia. But that’s not what this is about. This is about how Westerners, and it seems particularly Americans, show up overseas and embarrass those who really do have respect for our host countries.
This is about selfish, self-serving Americans who punish hotels or hostels or concessions because they didn’t get what they wanted. Or they were mad about a bill. Or didn’t get an upgrade. Or whatever didn’t please their pretty little privileged heads. And how that can backfire.
TripAdvisor is already rife with dishonesty. Hotels buy fake reviews to boost ratings. It’s hard to discern what’s honest any more. I’ve written plenty of reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m respected because I take the time to write in-depth, detailed explanations. You can usually tell the real reviews; we include loads of specific details. Classic fake review: IT WAS GREAT.
Sure, Sparky. Sure it was.
Yet TripAdvisor reviews are important, especially for small and family-run outfits. Those places can’t afford negative reviews, especially if the reviews are fabricated, vicious and intended to do harm. While I’m not privy to all the facts, the problem is that I’ve seen this kind of thing before. I tend to lean into what the hotel says if for no other reason than I have seen what unfair, hyperbolic reviews do to small firms in developing countries.
As Covid has peeled back the self-righteousness that so many of us carry inside us, our feelings of entitlement about where we go and when, masked or not, this issue with Mr. Barnes is a snapshot of how we show up as ex-pats, use and abuse facilities overseas and believe with all our hearts that those outfits should operate like American firms. As though they had the same resources.
There is now an epidemic of what’s called “begpackers” in Asia, privileged White folks begging on the streets. Many of those who give, are too poor themselves. Not only is this an appalling abuse of our right to travel, it utterly disregards the reality that these people live with. Their kindness funds our booze.
But it’s not just that. If you read the story about the man who is in trouble in Thailand, it appears that Mr. Barnes broke a house rule, didn’t pay the proper corking fee for bringing his own booze to the hotel, which isn’t allowed, and then engaged in a smear campaign.
Now again, I don’t know the details. But here is something I witnessed first-hand, which is a perfect parallel.
In 2016 I went to the Amazon the first time, to the Tahuayo Lodge along the river of the same name. The night I arrived I found myself sitting at a table across from an American woman, roughly my age, who was loudly holding court about the events of her day.
Let me set the stage. It was rainy season. Rainy season in the Amazon Jungle is RAINY, beyond belief rainy, rain like you have never seen before. This time of year the snow of the Andes melts and the river rises. That means that trails that you and I might hike other times of the year are several feet under water. You paddle everywhere in canoes.
That also means that you’re in the trees. Branches brush your face, and your gear. Usually completely hidden, because that’s Nature’s way, until something lands on you and just does not like you.
I can’t even begin to tell you what’s in the water, in the trees that can bite, maim or kill you. Useful to know ahead of time. Not Disney World, Skeezix.
“Something should have been done”
This woman was bitching at the top of her lungs about how her backpack had been brushed into the water by a branch. How it was the guide’s fault. How something “should have been done.” Her iPhone had been submerged and she felt the Lodge should reimburse her.
Turns out she was from Littleton, just down the road from me in Colorado. Encouraged, she turned to me for righteous outrage and validation. Join my army against these Third World cretins. I am OWED.
Wrong adventure traveler, Sparky.
Here’s what I asked:
You were aware it’s rainy season? You have any idea what that means in one of the wildest places on earth? This kind of rain? Amazon Rain Forest in rainy season? That not mean something to you? NOPE.
Did you read Dr. Paul Beaver’s book, as we were instructed to do, so that you would understand the nature of the world you were entering? (BTW the book is terrific reading) The conditions, the dangers, the weather? NOPE.
Did you stop to consider that bringing a super expensive, non-waterproof piece of digital equipment might not be a good plan to a place guaranteed to be soaking wet most of the time? NOPE.
Did you bring a plastic bag, waterproof box, ANY kind of protection for your phone? NOPE.
Did you bring a waterproof backpack? NOPE.
Did you lash or tie down your backpack inside the canoe? Put a tarp or plastic over it?
Did you even bother to consider the free in-room, dry lockable safe? NOPE.
Did you bother to purchase travel insurance? NOPE.
I was relentless. She was furious. SOMETHING SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE.
Yeah, Sparky. You might have made a series of thoughtful, intelligent decisions. That’s what should have been done.
You might have done your basic due diligence, followed instructions.
I contacted Dr. Beaver and let him know what I was ready to do. I had by that time spoken to the guides; I knew precisely what had happened. As the American woman geared up for a fight, encouraged by her husband, so did I. Beaver’s outfit is largely run by members of his wife’s Peruvian family, staffed with people from up and down the river. They aren’t rich, and they are in no position to pay off loudmouth American assholes just to shut them up.
Especially when all the information on the website, the materials we are sent, give highly specific instructions on what to expect, what to bring, and how to protect ourselves and our belongings.
She and her husband wrote a foul, dishonest review which I challenged detail by detail on TripAdvisor. They pummeled the very kind, quiet and dedicated Dr. Beaver regularly, likely ruining the rest of their Peruvian trip. They carried and spewed their vitriol and hate through every day, all day, the rest of the time out of country.
And it ended there
After they got back to Denver, they contacted Tom Martino, a local consumer advocate who had gone national. These cretins wanted to drag the Beavers across the coals and cancel their business.
Over a series of stupid mistakes that THEY made, that THEY wanted someone else to pay for.
Martino looked into it. The issue ended there. Why? Because the pissed off, entitled American couple was dead wrong. Oh, they were pissed. But that was the end of it.
Tahuayo Lodge ten, American assholes zero.
But there was a cost to the Beavers, whom I got to know and deeply respect. Time, emotional effort, distraction, worry. Someone’s stupidity takes them away from transformational work that is lauded the world over. They put incredible time, effort money and resources into the some seventeen communities they serve, including hiring locals (including female and LGBTQ guides, which was a first for Peru). Alongside their communities’ people, they built the only high school on the river, a medical clinic and a huge, beautiful arts building where local women could sell their crafts.
Dolly also started this not- for-profit:
The crafts effort utterly transformed the lives and economic opportunities of many families. Women sell their weavings, their houses and homes and lives improve, and their kids get educations. I spent two amazing weeks following Dolly around and watching. I was stunned.
These are the “evil, selfish, greedy” people that those evil, selfish, greedy, immature, irresponsible Americans did their best to put out of business.
This ended well. Often these situations don’t end well. I have had to write TripAdvisor reviews and articles to challenge outright dishonesty, misinformation and abusive reviews written by baby White people who didn’t get a pillow, who decided that certain animals were being abused (they weren’t), that they should be allowed to run a horse on a concrete sidewalk next to a busy highway full of noisy trucks despite the fact that they were rank rookie riders.
Don’t get me started.
You can’t regulate selfishness, stupidity and ignorance. Greed and self-righteousness and entitlement. The right to be greeted with love and respect in another country is earned. We as a nation have in many ways lost our right in how we behave as a country and as individuals in other countries. We mock cultures, color and ways of being. We attack religious beliefs, wear offensive clothing and beg money from poor locals.
Again, we are hardly alone in this, but I am only addressing my country fellows. This isn’t how we lead. It is how we lead the world to view Americans as boots.
Now when I travel, I avoid White Americans like the bubonic plague. I’ve learned the hard way. I’m not proud of this. But I have difficulty being around people who behave like Trump in a world which has the right to expect far better from us.
White Americans do not own, run or get to push the world around. The more of us who do such things who get jailed, fined, caned or whatever it takes to get our attention, the better. Countries have begun to set boundaries on abusers.
For my part, that’s good news.
“I’m an American. I’ll do what I want.” That was the Twitter line from a thirty-something nitwit in New York who was proud to be out in crowded restaurants just as the Corona virus began to wipe out the young.
Yes. You do what you want. And every so often, as with Mr. Barnes, it might just catch up to you. If so, don’t bother sending me a link to your GoFundMe Campaign to get your Angry White American patootie out of a Thai jail.