As a Tourist, Sometimes You’re an Accidental Jerk

by Sarah G on August 29, 2010

in Advice,Inside Inhabit,For Travelers,Inhabitant Travel

There’s no preventing it, avoiding it, or fighting it. So you might as well just accept it: Sometimes when you travel–especially when you get off the beaten path and hang with the locals–you become an accidental jerk. You don’t mean to be, of course. It just kinda happens. After much deliberation, two of the ladies behind Inhabit Vacations are ready to confess their shameful stories of accidental jerkattude:

Umlazi, South Africa, township

Walking around Umlazi township, Thanda leading the way

Sarah’s story: The Traveling Township Pants

I studied abroad in Durban, South Africa during college. On my second night there, some college kids and I were invited by some friendly locals, Thanda and Quba, to attend a huge coming-of-age barbecue celebration in a township nearby called Umlazi. We left for the barbecue at noon, and since it was 80 degrees and humid outside, I wore shorts (horrible decision in hindsight, for many reasons).

When we got there, Thanda introduced us to what seemed like everyone in the entire township. They were so excited to see white people there. They viewed us as ambassadors of a sort and kept telling us to bring our friends back.

As the day wore on, the barbecue still hadn’t started and it suddenly got very chilly out. I started shivering in my shorts, so a local girl lent me her pants to wear. I saw her rip the tag off; they were brand new, and therefore an incredibly valuable item.

Cut to 11 hours later…

Turns out the celebration is a 24-hour shindig. By 4AM, my friends and I were about to pass out from exhaustion when we were finally offered a ride back to the university. We took it, with me–the privileged American–still donning the township girl’s prized pants. I felt terrible.

Rebecca’s story: Pierogi Pilferer

I lived in Warsaw, Poland for a year while consulting for an international company. I was lucky enough to make friends with some local Poles, whom I constantly pumped for recommendations. When it came to restaurants, they enthusiastically urged me to go to a Milk Bar, described as “one step up from a soup kitchen.” I was dubious, but I knew enough not to question locals’ recommendations.

Apparently the Milk Bars–holdovers from 1960s Communism–are all the rage with the elderly, the poor, and Polish hipsters. How they work is this: Each day, a list of food items and associated prices is posted (no profit is allowed, so prices fluctuate closely with commodity prices). You go up to a window and order from the never-English-speaking lady, then step down and collect your food from a cafeteria-style window.


An old school Milk Bar in action

I was ready to live like a local and rock the soup kitchen. After ordering my pierogi and paying my 2 złoty (about 60 cents), I stepped down to the cafeteria window and retrieved my food, just as I’d rehearsed in my head.

But something was off. Fast yelling with lots of consonants was my first clue that I’d done something wrong. With the entire Milk Bar staff and patrons as my audience, I took a step towards my table. The volume of the yelling increased. I took a step back towards the cafeteria window. The volume decreased. Aha! They want me to change something I’ve done.

Concluding the mystery, a huffy, stout Polish woman stormed up to me and snatched my plate of pierogi. Apparently I’d taken her food from the cafeteria window. Mine wasn’t ready yet. I sheepishly shrugged, contorted my face into an expression of remorse, and quietly prayed that my audience didn’t think that this American girl intended to steal food from an old woman at a government-supported soup kitchen. Honestly, I didn’t mind paying the 60 cents for my meal!

But the thing about accidental jerks is…

They redeem themselves. Yes, we were jerks. We took people’s stuff. But we’ve always made sure to give back when we’re traveling too. We do our best to restore the balance. At the end of Sarah’s stay in South Africa, she gave away nearly everything in her dorm room: linens and towels, cooking utensils, a mini-fridge, and even the township girl’s pants. Before leaving Warsaw, Rebecca gave a portion of her work wardrobe and apartment furniture to her Polish friends. Including some frozen pierogi left over in her freezer.

Do you have an accidental jerk story? Don’t be shy (or make us feel even worse!)…spill it!

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  • Sofia

    Great stories you shared! I think we all mess up some times and are accidental jerks, most of the times we probably never realize it!
    As you say though, we always make up for it later – maybe not to the actual person we did it too, but to someone else!

    • Rebecca

      That's right, Sofia – It's all about striving to maintain that karmic


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