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June 19, 2009



This is a great post ~ thank you!

I often struggle with the cultural sensitivity issue when I travel. I lived in Kenya a few years back, and when I arrived, I was told that people there don't say "no" but rather walk around a conversation to avoid being confrontational. I did this for several months until I felt so worn down and harassed I could barely stand it. I avoided saying no but was hounded and treated very differently than a Kenyan who said the same thing I did.

The fact of the matter is that, even if we, as travelers, are culturally sensitive, many locals in that country don't treat travelers the same way they would treat their neighbors. This puts travelers in a difficult position between trying to balance that need to be appropriate in a particular culture and fending off unwanted treatment - such as being scammed - that comes with being a stranger in a foreign country.

It's a very fine line and a difficult one to walk.

Colin Wright

EXCELLENT article. I'll definitely be looking out for this kind of thing when I move to Buenos Aires (though I've lived in LA for a few years, and traveled between Chicago and New York many times, so hopefully a few of the schemes I've come across in these places will help my reflexes a little!).

Leigh Shulman

That's an excellent point, JoAnna. Because we're tourists, the cultural norms don't really apply to us in the same way.

We had that experience in Panama as well. Local kids would walk into our place, open the fridge, look around for candy. Initially, I chalked this up to the fact that everyone on the island knew each other and all locals had an open door policy. But the kids would never have been that pushy with an aunt or cousin bc they probably would have received a smack on the ass.

Leigh Shulman

Thanks, Colin.

Living in big cities definitely helps you develop a scam-shield. You don't let people touch you without permission, and you don't let them take things from you.

I think you also tend to be more skeptical. Which I guess can be both a good thing and a bad one.


seriously, my daughter and i had this happen in peru--you are a gringo, therefore you are a mark. they assume you must be rich and they are out to scam you however they can. we got into a legit taxi, but i ALWAYS negotiate the price prior to getting in. he told us a price and it was only slightly high and it was for BOTH of us. well then mr. taxi driver pulls over a few blocks away--in the middle of busy traffic and tells me the price will be that much but from EACH of us--and i told him no way and started to make like i was getting out of his cab and then he capitulated. screw cultural sensitivity in these cases. i take alot of time and effort to learn your language, your customs, be polite, learn your culture--and all you see in me is dollar signs? nope! not gonna fly with me. one side note: anyone reading this, NEVER get into a cab with another passenger in it--even if it's a lady with an infant. do NOT do this and never let your driver pick up another person. you are the fare, you and only you. this is a good way to get kidnapped. and for pete's sake, put away the louis vuitton and your diamonds if you're in a 3rd world country. you might as well scream: "rob me, ransom me!" ok, 'nuff said. loveyou, leigh!


Dan and I would like to think that we're rather travel savvy after all this time on the road, but we got scammed yesterday entering Nicaragua from Honduras. Your advice is right - doing prior research, asking lots of questions, trusting your gut and reporting the incident afterward.

In our situation, our bicycle taxi guy spoke English and was over our shoulder everywhere we went (at immigration, swine flu check, etc.). Each time we tried to ask a question of someone in Spanish, he'd answer it in English, thereby discouraging anyone else from answering. We agreed on a price in advance (we knew what to pay since a Nicaraguan guy on our previous bus had told us) after he said, "Just pay me what you want."

He kept going on about how tourists give him big tips, which really annoyed me. I gave him the agreed amount without a tip (because of his behavior) and he complained. We got on the bus and another guy came up to me asking for money for the bus ticket. It was about the same amount we had been told for the ticket, so I handed it to him thinking it was for the bus.

A moment later, all the Nicaraguan women on the bus started yelling that it was too much money and they had someone go after him. Turns out it was a friend of the bicycle taxi guy. We got our money back and the women gave us a lesson on being more careful.

When we got off the bus in Leon, we got another lesson on how much to pay the taxi to get into town. Unfortunately, taxis the world over renowned for scams and cheating. Always be cautious and do your research in advance.

C. Russo

Thanks for another great post Leigh! It's unfortunate you went through that. These scam artist think they are so smart; but like everyone has said here, just make sure to do your research. With research and those wonderful resources Leigh shared, we can be well prepared whenever we travel!

Leigh Shulman

Good advice, Judy. I will say, though, in Bocas del Toro, we did often share cabs with people. But that's because it was such a small place and a waste for a cab driver to take just one person when others waited on the side of the road for a ride.

But I also noticed that locals paid a different price than we did.

And yes, while many will automatically assume that tourists are carrying large amounts of money, showing your jewelry, computer and the like is just bad practice.

Miss you too!

Leigh Shulman

Everyone, no matter how much you know, gets caught sometimes. Great that the women on the bus helped out, though. Shows you that people, in spite of scammers, are decent and willing to do the right thing.

Leigh Shulman

Thank you again, C. Russso, for your compliments!

Luckily, the tourists routes are well traveled and it's generally easy to find someone who can give you advice on the best way to go and how much something should cost.

One thing, though, I found interesting, both airports in Buenos Aires advertised lists of prices to the airport. And yes, that is what cabs will charge, but my experience heading to the airport from Buenos Aires the meter clocked in at almost half the price.

Ken & Hanako

The norm in St. Petersburg & Moscow is to hail any random passing car, tell the driver where you want to go and then agree on a price. Seriously. If they're interested, they'll stop; if not, they won't. Usually you don't wait more than a minute or two (and that's in an area without lots of traffic). I was a bit freaked out about doing it the first time (especially since I don't speak any Russian), but it worked like a charm every time. Just say the name of the place you want to go and then start holding up fingers to indicate how much you want to pay.

Leigh Shulman

Wow, so ANYONE can be a taxi if they want? Not even with a hint of any control or overarching monitoring system? That would freak me out too.

Panama was imilar. Except for a little sign on the door or window, it's hard to know the difference between taxis and regular cars. In smaller town, anyone can choose to give you a ride as well, although it's not neccesarily the norm.

But it seemed to work there too even though there are no addresses and you pretty much make your way around town by landmark.

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