How to argue while traveling

How to argue while traveling

Argentina

Clouds on the horizon: the prelude to a stormy day?

“Stop wasting my time! Open the bus and let me check,” I yelled to the bus driver. I was so exasperated that I eventually raised my voice. People around us stopped and held their breath. I guess I scared them.

I am a hot tempered Italian. Worse than that. I am Sardinian, which also implies that I am stubborn and chances are I (almost) always want to have the last word.

Read more about the stubborn Sardinians on my post “Eleven things you should never do in Sardinia”.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t endorse arguing as a daily practice. And surely, I don’t burst at just about every little thing. In fact, I try to avoid direct confrontation as much as I can, and to be as understanding and polite as possible.

So, if people scream in my face, I generally make it a point to keep my cool and stay calm. I do this for two reasons. First of all, I don’t think that just because someone is screaming, it means they are right or they should get their way. And second, the sadistic part of me enjoys the dirty pleasure of seeing others getting increasingly frustrated as I keep my cool (I know it is passive aggressive but I take it as a sociological exercise).

My general policy is to be respectful and demand respect. I can’t stand discrimination of any kind and the minute I sense I am being treated disrespectfully either because I am a woman, or because I am a foreigner, I try to put people back in their place. And on some rare occasions, I do argue quite fiercely: frustration builds up to the point I eventually explode.

The following are just a few tips, based on the lessons I have learned from some of the most epic arguments I have had while traveling, and how I reacted each time. Feel free to draw from my experiences!

Keep your cool

Do what you can to cool off before fighting

Try to keep your cool  

“There’s a cockroach in my bed!” I ran to tell the owner of the hostel were I had just checked in, in Playa Las Lajas, Panama.

I had arrived in Playa Las Lajas after about 8 hours of traveling from Bocas del Toro. It was a fairly isolated place, with not much in terms of facilities for tourists. All the better for me, as after the crowded and dirty Bocas del Toro, I needed somewhere quiet.

I had not bothered making reservations for a hostel. I had just read online that there was one, and I showed up at the door. It was around 7:00 pm, and the owner let me in saying that I was lucky: she would lock the gate at 8:00 pm and after that, no new guests would be allowed in. Just in time, I thought!

Before showing me to my dorm, I was lectured on the hostel rules.

“This is an ecological place” they said, sipping a glass of wine. “Please turn the lights off when you leave the room, and make sure to take very short showers so as not to waste water,” they added.

The yard was dark. Really dark. I couldn’t see a thing dark. I switched the light on in the dorm, and picked my bed. I made my bed and carefully placed the mosquito net around it. I then walked to the toilet, and went to wash my hands before going to dinner. That’s when I spotted a huge crab right by the sink. Except, it was not a king crab but the biggest spider I have ever seen.

One hour later, when I walked back and got to the dorm, I spotted something moving on my mosquito net. A closer look and I realized it was a cockroach. And it wasn’t outside. It was inside! There was no way I could sleep there. I appreciate the need to respect the environment. But I can’t take dirty and I won’t accept cockroaches as roommates.

“Sorry to bother you, but there’s a cockroach in my bed,” I warned the owner who was still sipping wine.

“There’s no cockroaches here,” she said, not making a move.

Except there were, not just in my bed but around the entire property. And, despite years of backpacking experience in tropical climates, I still haven’t managed to overcome my sever cockroaches fobia. They. Just. Disgust. Me.

Cockroach

I don’t like sharing my bed with cockroaches – photo courtesy of jo.sau (flickr)

“Well, perhaps if you came to my dorm you could see…” I started.

“I told you, there are no cockroaches here!” she insisted.

There was no point in arguing back, I realized. So I went back to the dorm, grabbed my backpack and walked back to reception.

“Look, I didn’t even use the sheets or the towels. If you give me my money back, I am out of here,” I suggested.

She stood up, slowly walked to the office, and handed me the money back. Then she started insulting me in Italian. She had known all along I am Italian, and it turned out she was too (we had only spoken English and Spanish until then, and I picked an accent but was unsure).

“Careful, wherever you may go it may be worse than here” she started.

“As long as there’s no cockroaches,” I said.

“This is not a place for snotty Italians” she started.

I didn’t answer to that. I just made my way to the door. As I walked out, I could hear her screaming all sorts of swearings in my direction. My total lack of reaction must have aggravated her alright!

Respect

Always stay calm and show respect

Respectfully put people back in their place

“Pasen y vean,” (come in and take a look) is the typical welcoming sentence that souvenir shop owners in Central and South America use to invite tourists in. Usually, saying “no thanks” and moving on is sufficient to discourage an eager vendor. However, at times the vendors become “too welcoming.” So welcoming indeed that they feel intrusive, if not outright rude and aggressive.

“No, thank you!” I automatically yet politely replied to the shop owner inviting me in, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. As I turned to talk to my sister, he heard we were Italian and decided it was a good idea to insult us.

“You stupid Italian w@@@@s,” he screamed as we walked away.

I really dislike racial and sexual harassment, so I stopped, turned around and right there, in front of his friends and co-workers, I calmly said to him: “We may be stupid Italians, but at least at the end of the day we have food on our tables. With that attitude of yours, we’re not sure you’re going to be eating tomorrow.” Not a word more, and I left. He was so surprised by my reaction that he didn’t reply. I wonder if he’s figured out that rudeness is not a good marketing technique.

walk away

Walk away from situations you can’t endure

Know how much you can endure – and walk away when you’ve had it

“I am leaving tomorrow,” I finally told the owner, after having only worked at her farm for 3 days.

“You are going to have to pay for tonight’s accommodation, then,” she said. I guess she didn’t take it well.

Soon after arriving in Tucurrique, Costa Rica, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to survive at the farm for nearly as long as I had planned.

I had been “employed” as a volunteer at the farm to tend to rescued animals – dogs, cats, a horse and two pigs. That seemed a noble enough cause to dedicate my time and efforts and to volunteer for.

Find out what I think about voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”

However, soon after arriving at the farm I found out that tending to the animals would only be a minimal part of my duties, which included endless cleaning shifts for what was meant to become a profitable business. All of this, in a place that was severely infested with cockroaches (thankfully none in my room) which I wasn’t allowed to kill – due to the owner’s belief – and where I was pretty much starved due to the owner’s dietary fixations (which she wanted to impose on me).

Pig

Feeding the pigs? No problem!

Every night, I pondered on what to do. I loved the animals, but the fact that I was literally starving didn’t help and after yet another horrible night, I eventually announced that I would be leaving.

When I was told that I would have to pay for that night’s accommodation, I replied before I actually had time to consider the various options.

“Fine, I am leaving today then,” I said. I went back to my room to pack my stuff and go. The fact that it was the 1st of January and public transport may not be running as normal, if at all, didn’t worry me. I may hitch a ride if necessary.

Not long afterwards, she was banging on my door, screaming that she’d call the police.

“What for?” I asked. “Exactly what crime have I committed?” I didn’t barge. I closed the door behind me, finished packing, and left.

The minute I was out the door, a car drove by and I hitched a ride to the village. As I was waiting at the bus stop, I spotted the owner of the farm. She had been driving around, looking for me. She was begging me to go back. There was no way on earth I would.

Things to do in Cuba

Customer service – a lo cubano!

Accept that customer service is not a given in some countries

“I am going to call the police,” said the short, bulky travel agent in Spanish.

I was in Trinidad, Cuba. After 10 days of fiercely haggling my way around with taxi drivers, working hard on avoiding scams, dealing with dodgy guides who’d take me where they wanted rather than where I wanted, I’d had it.

Read more about Cuba on my post “Things to do in Cuba: the ultimate guide for a trip to Cuba.”

“Let’s book a tour with a travel agency,” I begged my sister, who was traveling with me. So we went to one of the State owned agencies, and browsed around for a tour that would suit us. After asking the agent about a million questions, we decided to visit Cayo Blanco. We’d travel on a catamaran that would take us to the coral reef, were we’d be given gear to snorkel, then head to Cayo Blanco to have lunch and relax before heading back to town.

It was an all inclusive tour, so we’d have drinks included (“Even mojitos?” I asked, hopeful. “Yes, even mojitos!” the agent confirmed), lunch included (“Beware I am severely alergic to bell peppers!” I told the agent), transport included. And, most importantly, not a single worry about being scammed, about any service, product, souvenir, guide, or whatever else forced on us. That sounded like a good deal to me.

customer service

Customer service?! What is that?

Too bad we didn’t get to do any of the things the brochure and the agent promised. We never saw the coral reef and never stopped to snorkel. Lunch was a sad business where I had to beg for some food as everything had bell peppers; and there surely were no mojitos included – though the rest of the people on the tour were not bothered and got drunk on cuba libres.

The minuted we got back to Trinidad, the westerner in me could not resist: I went to complain about the tour and to demand at least some form of compensation. A conversation started, in Spanish as the agent didn’t speak a word of English. Try to explain the concepts of “customer service,” “customer satisfaction” and “compensation” to an agent who works in a State run agency in Cuba, and it’s easy to understand why I call it mission impossible. They have zero incentives to give a better service, so they make close to zero effort.

“You said we’d stop at the coral reef, but we never did,” I explained.

“Yes, you did,” said the agent.

Luckily, some other people who were on the same tour walked in and confirmed my version of facts, because it was pretty clear that the agent had no intention to listen to me.

“Since we didn’t get to do anything that was promised to us, we’d like compensation – we want at least a partial refund,” I suggested.

Bewildered looks followed. “A what?”

“I want my money back,” I stated more clearly. “You sold me a tour that said I would go to the coral reef, and I never did. So I want my money back, or at least some of it.”

That’s when he started getting seriously mad at me, suggesting I had called him a liar and I had offended him. I suppose the fact that I was a foreign woman didn’t really help: in a country where I was generally seen as a sexual object or, in the best case scenario, as a tourist to be ripped off, being a stubborn foreign woman demanding respect wasn’t exactly expected nor welcome.

“I am calling the police!” he announced.

“That is fine, let’s wait here to see what they say,” I gingerly said.

Saying “I am calling the police” in Cuba is a good way to get rid of someone. People generally don’t like having to deal with the police. I suppose I was meant to be afraid too. But I wasn’t in the least.

In the end, I was offered to go on another tour to the barrier reef the following day as compensation. But I had to pass on that offer as I was leaving to go to Cienfuegos. Needless to say, I never got my money back and it turned out that I just wasted my time arguing. Do I regret wasting that? Not one bit. If anything, at least I gave him a piece of my mind, I showed him that I could not be easily fooled and quite importantly so for me, I proved myself that my Spanish is good enough to get into some heated conversation and even have an argument if needed.

Smile

When a pretty smile doesn’t work, be prepared to have a row

Lose it when you need to

“I am sorry, sir, I think one of our day packs may have been left on the other bus,” I told the guide as soon as we realized that one of our day packs was missing.

I had been traveling through Argentina for a few weeks and for some reason I decided that joining a guided tour of Torres del Paine, in Chile, was a good idea. That was simply poor thinking: I read the words “Torres del Paine” and was hooked. I hadn’t realized how vast Torres del Paine National Park is and how much there is to see there. I had not consired that the best way to see such a fantastic natural attraction would be by hiking one of its many trails and not hopping on and off a bus where at most I’d be allowed 1 hour to walk around by ourselves. I guess this goes to show once more that I am an unsuccessful backpacker.

Read more on why I think I am a lousy backpacker on my post “How to be an unsuccessful backpacker.” 

At 4:00 am sharp I boarded a bus that would take me to the border. The guide seemed nice enough. The driver, on the other hand, was snappy.

“Hurry up!” the driver yelled at me after a stop to use the toilets.

“I am sorry, but there was such a line for the toilet!” I offered as an apology. There had been such a long line that of course the 10 minutes we were allowed off the bus turned into almost 30. I would have imagined that, since he was right there with the rest of the group and saw that most of us were in line, he’d notice. Apparently not.

I took my seat again, not bothered by his rudeness.

Chile

Be prepared to raise your voice when needed

As we reached the border, immigration procedures were longer than expected. Apparently, despite having been told several times not to, someone on the bus was carrying fruits across the border, and the Chilean authorities were fining him. The overall process took a long time, so the guide told the group to wait at the coffee shop (it was so windy that waiting outside and walking around was not an option) while the driver and he would transfer our bags on the bus that was waiting for us right across the border.

When we eventually were called to get on the (new) bus, we noticed that one of our day packs was missing.

“One of our bags is missing,” I warned the guide. He immediately stopped the driver, so that we could get on the other bus, which was still parked outside, and check if it was there.

He explained the situation to the driver as politely as I could. He didn’t flinch. All he said was “We took all the bags on the other bus.” That was it. He didn’t offer to check.

“Well, I looked everywhere, and the bag just isn’t there. Do you mind if we get on the other bus and check? Could you just open it for me please? It will only take one minute,” I promised.

“No. All the bags were taken to the other bus. You already made us wait forever when we stopped for the toilets, now I can’t wait for you any longer.” That was it. He had been picking on me all day for no reason. We had been stuck at the border due to someone else’s, and there I was, trying to explain that if he’d just let me on the bus, we could quickly check, and move on.

I raised my voice: “You’ve been picking on me all day and it is time you stop. Just let me on the bus now!”

I guess he wasn’t expecting such a potent voice to come out of such a small girl. Taken aback, he finally let me on the bus, where I triumphantly found my bag which he had omitted to carry to the other bus.

Was raising my voice worth it? Totally. This guy had no intention to listen to me. He was on his own agenda which did not include being polite to tourists. That put him in his place and we could finally move on, and (not) enjoy the rest of our day.

Read more about Argentina on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”

Don't mess with me

Do not mess with me: I am small, but I am tough

Today, I have somehow fond memories of those arguments, as they still represent a crucial moment of my travel and life experience.

Have you ever had an argument while traveling? What did you learn from it? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

 

To WWOOF Or Not To WWOOF

To WWOOF Or Not To WWOOF

I have abruptly terminated my first try at WWOOFing in Costa Rica after only three days, as it was close to a total disappointment for me. And apparently I am not the only one who had a bad experience. I literally fled the place after having a bad argument with the owner. There was nothing organic there except the dirt. The owner portrayed the farm as a natural, organic place where she’d grow coffee, fruits and vegetables and take care of animals. It was nothing like this: she had the animals, and she may want to grow her own things eventually, but so far, she has nothing. And again, the cockroaches, only this time not the small ones, but the large ones, and I am not supposed to dislike them or try to kill them, but I am supposed to politely ask them to leave. SERIOUSLY.

Coffee Costa Rica

A coffee farm in Costa Rica

I went there ready to do my share of work, but my understanding was that I would not be the only one having to work. It appears to me that the owner here does her own thing (who knows what? To me it seems like she did nothing and since the minute I walked in the property she would be on vacation, I would be working while she spoke nonsense to me) while I had to clean, scrub, feed the pigs, the horse, the dogs and the cat – who, by the way, are absolutely adorable and loving. So there I arrived, understanding that in exchange of my work I would be given 3 meals per day and a place to stay. I was getting a nice place to stay, indeed, but no real meals. Indeed, I was pretty much starving.

The owner is an obsessed and obsessive vegan who does not allow the consumption of any animal products there (no dairy, no eggs), and of course no alcohol. This would have been ok if she was not trying to swiftly but firmly impose her way of life on me. So, the reality was that she doesn’t really eat, and she won’t let others eat either. One thing is to be vegan, one thing is to starve! I was only given coffee and fruits in the morning, then no real lunch or dinner. I was preparing my own meals in the cafeteria that she had me working on so that – I am guessing – she can open it again.

WWOOF

My only memory of WWOOFing is the cockroaches

Everything was ruined, rusty, rotten, dirty and cockroaches are all around. The only working fridge was in her house, and I had no access to it. In order to have a working fridge, I had spent my days washing a huge professional fridge sitting unused in the cafeteria, which was completely rotten inside (and I was doing this using a mixture of vinegar, water, baking soda and salt) and still needed to be painted on the outside. Same thing with the oven and the rest of the oppressive, dark, dusty and rotten cafeteria.

I went to buy bread, and the owner pointed out that bread is processed and she expected I would want to eat all natural food. I told her I was starving, and she said we could bake our own bread. I replied that yes, we could, but not till I fixed and cleaned the (obviously) rotten, greasy, dirty oven, and meantime I needed to eat as fruit was not enough to fill me up. She was almost shocked. I am sorry, but having just fruit is not going to keep me going 4 hours, but 1 at most!

costa rica countryside

The gorgeous nature of Costa Rica

Another thing she did, which I think was crazy. I was expected to only consume coffee in the cafeteria. I like having my coffee by myself in the morning, it is my introvert moment, and I very much needed to recharge and prepare myself in order to be sociable. So I went in the filthy cafeteria in the morning and made myself coffee which I brought back to my room. She told me she was really disappointed, and she was shocked when she went to the cafeteria and could not find her “precious” French cafetiere. So, it looks I am only allowed to drink coffee in the cafeteria, which I do not want to as it is dark, mouldy, dirty and not cozy at all in there. I want some light, fresh air, and a clean place to relax while I have my morning coffee! What could be so wrong about it? Having noticed that she has several Italian coffee pots she did not use, I asked if I could use that instead, and if it was ok to take that to my room, and warned her that in order to use that I would have to run the coffee in the pot at least once in order for it to be drinkable (I know how Italian coffee pots work, you know!).

She said she doesn’t get the whole point, she said she knows a whole lot about coffee and the French press is, in any case, much better to make coffee (what does she care how I like my coffee?), and when I eventually asked her if I can buy the pot from her, she said no. 5 minutes later, she gave me some cheaper quality coffee, gave me the Italian pot, and put the coffee she normally uses in a bag which she took away to her place, as if I would “steal” it otherwise. She then justified herself the morning after, saying that she did it because, since we were not having coffee together in the morning, she’d also want to have it at her place. Yeah, and I am so fool I would believe it (most of all, as she barely drank coffee!). As if I had not been the only one working on her knees to clean scrub etc while she just stands there talking nonsense about organic, vegan etc (oh, btw, when we got out for a snack, she actually had mayonnaise on her tortilla, which is NOT vegan and is so processed that there is nothing natural about it!).

The best part was when at the market, while I was picking toothpaste, she “suggested” I should be making my own with baking soda and salt (btw, that is BAD for the teeth, it scratches them badly) as the one over the counter would have chemicals in it (this is the same person who is using regular detergent for her clothes and dishes, not organic one!). What when I asked her if she has an extra pair of gloves that I could use for cleaning, and she said she doesn’t as she never uses them. I guess, what she should have said is she never cleans, but demands her volunteers to do so.

Sloths in Costa Rica

A sloth in Costa Rica

The last drop was when, yesterday morning, my toilet leaked – it leaked everything (poo etc: she never fixes broken things!) so I ran to ask for a mop and other stuff to clean the bathroom. She gave me stuff (I then realise the mop was no real mop, but a rag!) and spent over an hour to wash away the poo, clean the bathroom and disinfect it till it would be fixed. I was obviously late for breakfast (yeah, she calls that breakfast), and when she eventually walked in and told me “this is not our schedule, so that you know!” I did not even attempt to reply, I just told her “I am leaving tomorrow” (remember, it was 1st of January, many things would be closed!), she said I would then have to pay the extra night, so I told her I was leaving the same day, and she said ok. I went back to my room, and packed, and after 5 minutes she was there, knocking at the door, saying I would have to pay the previous night. I told her she could forget it, as I worked so hard the last few days to get nothing in exchange, not even real food, and she started screaming, saying that she had been trying to make me more comfortable (how so? Putting me on my knees to scrub a rotten fridge?). I told her that her overall attitude is ridiculous, like with the coffee issue, and that I am not a child anymore, but I am a 38 year old who holds a PhD and she can’t bully me around. I then shut the door in her face and told her to leave me alone. She kept talking from outside, and said she was going to call the police (what for?). She then started carrying staff to my room, ie coffee, the left over fruits, etc, saying I should take them with me (I guess she thinks I am a miserable broke?).

I ended up leaving while she was crying (what for? I should be the one crying), saying “Please talk to me, I am sorry!” and I was just so infuriated that I ignored her. I hitchhiked to the main village (a police officer stopped!), then got information on a bus to Cartago, which would then connect me to San Jose. While waiting, she drove by – she had gone look for me – and again told me to go back, she asked me to talk to her (ie wanted to force me to do that), that I could leave tomorrow, when the buses would be running. I suppose she wanted me to stay longer (of course, when would she ever get other people to work for free and so well?), but I left. I am sorry, but I have to think about myself and my health first, especially my mental health!

Anyways, my take is that she wanted to open up a business, like a café-restaurant of sort, but she has no real money to do so, so she calls in volunteers which have to live by her absurd rules (ie starve) and do jobs which she would otherwise have to pay for. I eventually told her that, if she has no money to invest in a business, she would just have to give up, without having to treat people like thieves and slaves which she would try to indoctrinate.

WWOOF was created as a way to connect travelers and farms for a rich cultural exchange. My overall view though? Farms that can’t afford to pay for skilled workers exploit labour of travellers and make profit from it. This is not an exchange and I didn’t learn anything from it. Other than I should stay away from it!