You're going to Burkina Faso? My coworker's daughter's boyfriend used to run a coffee shop there...
April 19, 2008 6:44 PM   Subscribe

Imagine you're planning a trip and you know someone, maybe distantly, who used to live where you are traveling. Do you feel obligated to ask that person for advice? What do you ask them?

It seems like every time I plan a trip, someone I know will have a friend or relative or hairdresser who used to live in that place. This usually comes out in the course of telling my friends about my travel plans. The friend sometimes will offer to exchange email addresses, or make some other comment like "Oh, you should totally talk to Mary, she's over there right now!" I'm a pretty introverted person and don't necessarily want to talk to a near-stranger about my travel plans, but I always feel put on the spot in these scenarios. I feel like if I refuse my friend's offer, it will seem rude or ungrateful. At the same point I have no idea what to ask. I also don't know how to handle an offer to show me around or an invitation to stay in their home which would make me really uncomfortable, especially in the case of total strangers.

The issue has come up again because one of the admins in my office is from Guatemala and I am planning a trip there. The minute I tell anyone where I am going, I know they will tell me to talk to her and I don't know what that conversation is supposed to be about. Help!
posted by cabingirl to Travel & Transportation around Burkina Faso (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
So you're saying that you don't care what advice they have to offer, but you feel compelled to ask, so what should you ask? Really I don't think it's rude or ungrateful to not follow up... I wouldn't, unless I were genuinely interested in getting some helpful input from someone who knows the destination.

But, if you simply must ask something, I suppose what you're looking for are insider tips, like where you should go for a really good meal, or where the best bar is, or what market to shop in. It all depends on where you're going, really, but I'd focus on domestic stuff, since they used to be local and that's where their expertise is going to lie. I've never been to —or considered going to— Guatemala, so I don't know what you'd ask about. Chicken bus experiences? Maybe, if you're interested in going off the beaten path, whether they know of a village that you'd have an easy time getting to and staying in, that has interesting sights to offer, but that isn't overrun with tourists?
posted by mumkin at 6:58 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: In general: you say "thanks so much, how kind." and accept the address and keep it in your address book in case you have some weird emergency while you're in the city but basically don't get in touch with the friend/relative/whatever. And then later if the person in your city every asks you, you can say "I had a great time; you know, I never did get in touch with your friend, everything just got so hectic. But I so appreciate the help."

In the case where it's someone in your office, you can ask:
-what would be great to see if I like x (architecture, food, beaches, quietude)?
-what's the best local food?
-where in the country are you from, and what's that place famous for?
Basically, give the person a chance to tell you some positive things about the country. And when asked about any specifics of your plans, you say "well, I'm still figuring that out, but i'm really looking forward to it" with a kind of vague enthusiasm.

Then as time goes on, you might have actual questions the person could help with. Or, you can just exchange general pleasantries about your plans. You're not bound by anything they say, and you can try to keep things general enough that they can't make any concrete plans for you to meet their family or whatever. ("thank you so much; I'm really not sure if I will be in that city" or even "you're too kind, I really couldn't, but thank you")
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:00 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

i wouldnt feel obligated, no. especially if youre not comfortable.

you can keep it positive. "hey, thanks, but i dont really have any questions. i already learned all about x and y from z."

(presumably you can get the information you need without these "referrals.")

if the friend trying to help you thinks youre rude, you cant really control that.
posted by gcat at 7:01 PM on April 19, 2008

basically don't get in touch with the friend/relative/whatever.

obviously this assumes that the address is given on a "oh while you're there, give them a call" basis, and the person who lives in your city has not made concrete plans for you to meet the friend/relative/whatever.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:03 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: You wouldn't believe how much this happens to me. If it's someone I know well giving me some tips, great. (Though I hardly ever remember them while I'm there.) Otherwise, I never follow up. Part of traveling to me is discovering the place on my own.
posted by meerkatty at 7:07 PM on April 19, 2008

And to answer your first question, no I wouldn't feel obligated to ask for advice. I just mean, if other people are pushing you to talk to someone else about your travel plans, or if you end up in such a conversation, the key is to keep it fairly vague and upbeat, and let the person feel as if they have given you some useful advice (although your plans are up in the air so you can't commit to meeting up with their relative).
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:08 PM on April 19, 2008

Best answer: Advice is free, they say, and you often get what you paid for.

The tactful way to get out of the situation is to say, "That's a great idea. I'll try to give them a call. Thanks so much!"

However, you find that, in the days leading up to your trip, you just couldn't find the time to contact this person.

The end.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:35 PM on April 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As someone who also tends to not ask questions until I have to, let me see if I can give you one of my best reasons ever for going and getting their advice:

In general, but especially when travelling in places where
  • tourism is less established
  • English or whatever other language you know is less spoken
  • hole-in-the-wall and unknown sites are the ones you really shouldn't miss
  • cultural experiences are the whole point of visiting
    you should really really make the effort to get insider knowledge either from people who have been where you're going or will be there. A lot of people sincerely love the places they come from, and want you to know and love it as much as they do, offering recommendations or connections that can make the visit immensely satisfying and different from the Lonely Planet experience.

    So, you shouldn't feel obligated, you should look forward to taking this first hand information and acting on it. To add to some of the questions that are above, you might want to think about
  • Are there any special events at this time of year?
  • What kinds of things should I bring back with me?
  • Do you know anyone there who might be interested in meeting for coffee or something? (if you're brave enough to meet more people - but this can turn into something much bigger with the right connections - someone to sightsee with or even a homestay. you never know)

  • posted by whatzit at 12:57 AM on April 20, 2008

    Gah, always something forgotten. Another really nice thing about a local contact is to have some individual person who you can trust a bit - even in a friend-of-a-friend sense - if some shit hits some fan and you need some quick translation, someone go to a doctor with, whatever. You may never have to call them, but wouldn't you rather know there was someone out there...?
    posted by whatzit at 1:01 AM on April 20, 2008

    It sounds as though shyness is limiting your enjoyment of life. Don't just look for strategies to avoid uncomfortable interactions, look for ways to increase your comfortableness with day-to-day interactions. There are plenty of resources out there to help with overcoming shyness.

    Use a Guatemalan colleague to tell you things that will reduce your anxieties there. How to say "Hello", "Please", "Thank you", "Sorry", "How much?" in a resonable approximation of the local accent. How much to tip a taxi, how to use a bus.
    posted by Idcoytco at 3:25 AM on April 20, 2008

    Best answer: This happens to me all the time. I travel a lot and I tell people about my plans and there is invariably some sort of "oh hey look up my friend!" conversation. I'm not necessarily shy but I'm very self-directed and busy and I'm also happy to go exploring places on my own. Some people are less like this, they enjoy having a travel guide or someone to tell them what places to go. That said, I LOVE staying in people's houses when I travel, much more than hotels or hostels, so this sort of contact information is more than welcome on my part.

    It may be that the people who are trying to connect you with their friends are those sorts of people, or think that you may be. In any case, I've sometimes looked up their friends and I have to say, sometimes it has been great and sometimes there's definitely this sense of "Oh Mary told you to look me up? How is Mary, I haven't spoken to her in five years...?" and I realize that I'm now sort of stuck in a social situation with someone who isn't really prepared or looking forward to it either. This is a place I don't like to be.

    So, I have a few rules of thumb that I use for this sort of thing in the future.

    - always say thank you to my friend who is suggesting that I contact so and so about whatever, as LobsterMitten suggests
    - try to figure out just how they know this other person [i.e. is it a good friend in which case I feel more comfortable asking questions or seeking them out if I'm in a jam] and when they spoke to them last
    - mention that my trip is pretty full just to avoid the "hey let me friend show you around for a day" offer. I do not want to be shown around anywhere for a day and I find some nice way of getting that across.
    - always keep the contact information even if I'm not planning to get ahold of them because having a local "just in case" contact if I'm someplace far from home is, in my world, much better than not having it.
    - if I'm going someplace off the beaten track often I'll email the person some general questions along my interest areas [where can I get wifi, how is the local public library, does the train really not go from point A to point B?] and gauge their interest from that interaction. Some people will be like "let me know if you need anything!" and some will not.
    - often that's it. I have a little more information, I've spent ten minutes of my life sending/receiving email and my friend feels like they helped me make a connection which makes her/him feel good about things. I do see it in some ways as accepting the transaction not because it solves a problem for my trip but because it makes my friend feel good and it's really no hassle on my end
    - I take the advice I need/want and ignore the rest and don't feel bad about it.
    - if it BECOMES a hassle [i.e. friend is pushy, friend's friend is pushy, friend is "disappointed" that I did not spend day getting local tour with friend's friend] I just repeat "Yeah thanks, didn't work out/wasn't in the cards/didn't have time, but thanks!" Keep in mind, they want ot be helping you out, assumedly, if what they are doing is not helping, you can politely decline their assistance and if they are jerkish about it, that is solidly in their court.

    You can also just use this as an excuse to chat with friends "oh what has your friend told you about Guatemala...?" and sort of leave it at that. This may just be part of a larger problem that you're shy and have a hard time with people sort of "getting up in your business" which, I'll admit, sometimes I enjoy and sometimes I just don't. If that's the case you may need to back up a little more and think about how to extricate yourself from situations you don't want to be in politely and gracefully but that's a larger issue than travel/contact stuff. Best of luck and enjoy Guatemala.
    posted by jessamyn at 7:12 AM on April 20, 2008

    Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I'll take the advice to at least talk to my coworker and get some tips and see where it goes. I appreciate that some of you agree that it depends on how well you know the person and that I shouldn't feel obligated to follow up on every offer of help or information.
    posted by cabingirl at 10:31 AM on April 20, 2008

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