My Uber driver and I start to chat. He’s driving me to the airport in Southern California last week and it doesn’t take long until we land on a topic of mutual passion: travel.
He’s retired and now drives part-time for Uber (a taxi-like service where drivers use their own cars and your rates are all determined ahead of time) to support his travel addiction. His travel mode of choice: cruises.
We discuss the pros and cons of cruising and in particular, the dilemma of food: you have a menagerie of delicacies available to you 24/7 on the ship, so why bother eating on shore? There’s one good reason: You’ll never gain a taste of the authentic food of the region on your floating hotel.
And so he tells me about his stop in Istanbul, one place where he definitely wanted to partake in the local cuisine.
He was visiting the Grand Bazaar with his wife and friends. They were having a very pleasant conversation with one of the ubiquitous purveyors there of rugs, lamps and interesting clothing options (the photos you see here are from my time at the Grand Bazaar a few years back including the outfits shown below). This particular rug seller had been extremely friendly and helpful, so my driver asked him about good options for lunch.
The merchant said he knew just the place and personally walked them to a restaurant around the corner and spoke to the owner who seated the group of four enthusiastically. The women in the party opted to wait for food on the ship, so the two men ordered, asking their hostess to select “typical Turkish cuisine” for them. Soon, she brought out a series of appetizers and finally the main course.
My driver described how it was all tasty, but then they got the bill: for just two of them at lunch at a casual restaurant, the total came to over $150. He and his friends were outraged. They quickly realized they had been scammed, but at that point, they realized also there was not much they could do about it without causing even more of a scene.
They returned to the ship poorer yet wiser. But worst of all, they left with a bad taste in their mouths: a negative impression of the whole place caused by one unethical restaurant owner (or perhaps two if you figure the rug merchant was likely involved as well).
My driver stated that he cannot blame all the people of Turkey for one bad experience. And yet, just one encounter like that can’t help but influence you and affect your perceptions of a place. I work in branding and marketing and thus, though we may not like it, I know from experience how much perception is our reality.
That was an unfortunate situation for my driver, but it made me realize something else. It just takes one bad encounter to tarnish our view of an entire country or culture. But do we ever think about that in reverse? Meaning, did you ever realize you may be the only American (or whatever your nationality) that a person in another country meets?
We think of the people we encounter on a trip as windows into their culture. And they are. But it’s a two-way window.
That adds both great responsibility and a great opportunity to us and our trips. What kind of impression will we make? What kind of memory will we leave, about us and about our country? We may not feel as if we represent all Americans but someone overseas doesn’t necessarily know that. To them, we are America.
It doesn’t take hundreds or thousands of Americans to make an impression on someone overseas.
It just takes one.