Thursday, August 24, 2006
Random (and Very Personal) Observations and Some Tips for Operating in "Developing" Countries
- Treating people with respect is paramount. This of course applies to life in general, but I like to stress if you are working outside of the US and possibly training or operating with foreign troops. This is particularly important in you are either training or operating in close cooperation (face-to-face) with allies from these countries. Arrogance is universally reviled. Calm confidence is universally admired. I have never heard anyone say, "God they love arrogant pricks over there!" Competence breeds respect. Arrogance breeds resentment. Something is not "done right" simply because "that's the way we Americans do it". In other words, the American way is not the only right way. Ask how they do it, learn from it, and offer to teach them a new way. Basically, don't fit a square peg in a round hole.
FX-Note: One of my favorite activities is scuba diving. When you dive, you always need to keep in mind that you are operating in a foreign and potentially hostile environment. Look at yourself: you are clumsily swimming wearing fifty pounds worth of gear while all the fish are swimming freely and without gear. You and your other human buddies are the only ones that need air tanks down there and you are vastly outnumbered by the fish, other sealife and, possibly, sharks. No matter how fast you can swin, you can't outswim a shark. He will get to you. The shark has been there since he was born and will probably die in the ocean. You are there for only a few minutes and you probably don't want to die there. Most sealife will not attack humans if you treat them with respect. Don't poke sticks at the fish and they probably won't bite you. Sharks are usually loners and very independent creatures, but once they smell blood in the water, they will all go after the blood together as if they have been planning the attack for years.
- All politics is local. If you go into a village and there is no electricity or running water, chances are the "central government" does not have a lot of authority over the population. The central government might be dominated by some other ethnicity; the seat of government might be located hundreds of miles away from the village and might not care to exercise authority (in a peaceful way) or to provide basic services. Bottom line, talk to the local leaders/authorities. Use your local guide to help you find the people in charge. Leadership might be based on religious, ethnic, or clan affiliation.
- Get a local guide. No matter how well you think your American linguists (or yourself) speak the local language, they are still outsiders (with an accent) and might not be familiar with the particularities of a region, especially when it comes to regional dialects and customs. Try to get a guide from the same predominant ethnicity of the area in which you'll be working. Having a guide from a "rival" ethnicity might actually be counterproductive.
FX-Note: If possible have an "undercover interpreter", a trusted guy in your group who knows the language but fakes ignorance of the language. He might be useful in letting you know of any inconsistent translations if you don't really know your guide that well. Also, he might get a chance to listen to the locals speaking among themselves thinking that nobody knows what they are saying. What they say among temselves might be vastly different from what they are telling you.
- Get used to see poverty and suffering on a new level. Malnourished children, old men with missing limbs, women with their kids, they are all regular sights in some of these regions. They will see you and beg for your money. This is heart breaking, but giving money to one might incite a crowd of more beggars. A dangerous crowd. Trust me. Don't run from them but walk away briskly. If you want to help out, give your contribution directly to a local charity, a school or an orphanage. Try not to give money. Ask them what they need. They might need school supplies that you can help them acquire. You can teach them some English, play with the kids, or fix something that is broken. While your main concern back in the States might be whether or not to switch car insurance companies or which plasma TV you are going to get when you get back, some of the people you come in contact with are dealing with starvation, Malaria, AIDS, Cholera, Tuberculosis, unmentionable illnesses, systematic rape, daily warfare, genocide, the death of their children, crippling wounds, etc, etc. On the flip side, you will see riches and power beyond what you normally see in the US (unless you are a fan of The Apprentice or MTV Cribs). The rich drive custom-made Land Rovers while the majority of the population gets by with donkey carts, cutthroat "public transportation", bikes, and just plain old walking a long haul.
- Leave the area in better shape than how it was when you first go there. This might actually include getting medical assistance to the locals. Watch out for areas in disrepair, ask what needs fixing. Try to take care of the kids first. Chances are, they need shoes and new clothes. The local leaders can help you identify what's needed, but try to talk to other people (without disrespecting the leader) and get their take. All of this, of course has to be done within the boundaries of your mission or stay in the area. Don't overpromise.
- Get ready for white knuckle driving. It's pretty much every man for himself when it comes to driving in the city and the few highways that you might encounter. Use your guide wisely. Keep in mind that your guide might not know how to drive. And if he does, you might not want him driving. Traffic signs (when they exist) are often treated as "suggestions" more than something that you actually have to obey. A blacktop is sometimes just another available or suggested driving surface. Be ready to drive off the main road and into the sand (in Road Warrior fashion), dirt or mud in order to avoid incoming traffic coming at you from the "wrong" direction. Avoid driving coupes, sedans or anything that can be easily bumped off the road. Street signs are rare or non-existent. You'll probably have to navigate based on landmarks (e.g. turn right when you see the blue four-story building; if you value your life don't drive north of the big soccer stadium and if you do, do a U-turn as soon a possible, etc.). The local "maps" depicting the city or town might look like they were drawn by a third-grader in art class. "Not-to-scale" is taken to a whole new (sometimes dangerous) level. In some countries (particularly East Asian countries that are on their way "up"), the "law of the bigger ride" applies, meaning if your ride is big and mean, you'll get the right of way. In some countries (the really screwed up ones), even this law might be meaningless; motorciclists might act like they will fare well against a large SUV. Traffic jams in the States usually have some logic to it. Traffic jams in the so-called "Gap" are sometimes indecipherable or the product of stubborness, meaning "I got here first and I am not moving until you move" type of deal. Note: The Punjab Police are bad ass and experts at getting things done. They can take care of traffic jams (and other things) fairly easily. If you are riding with them and they get out of the convoy in uniform, rows of cars part before your eyes like the Red Sea letting you drive through. Every country usually has some sort of special police unit that's well respected or down-right feared, mainly because they have power and are not afraid to use it, sometimes in violent ways. Also, driving an SUV through an "Indiana Jones-style" suspension bridge is not fun.
- You are being watched at all times. Assume the enemy is watching you at all times. Your patterns. Where you go. At what time. What you do. How you do it. The absence of open combat does not mean that the enemy is not looking for an opening to harm you and your mission. Your friends in the host nation will be watching you too. More closely than you ever think. Every word you say. Every breath you take. Every gesture. You might be the only American they have seen in years or ever. Don't blow it by being a jackass.
- Watch your mouth. As a general rule, avoid talking about religion, politics, imperialism, colonianism, sex, or any controversial topics. Talk about you family back in the States, show them pictures of your kids, wife or ("safe for work", not the ones in the schoolgirl outfit) pics of your girlfriend. The weather is usually a good subject. The local food, but not in a derisive way; keep in mind that starvation and malnutrition might be part of the daily routine. Sports is okay, but keep in mind that they probably don't care about the latest NFL quarterback controversy, the Mets' pitching staff or the point spread for the Miami vs. FSU game. Most of the time, you might be "talking shop" or looking at maps and talking about the local geography. Often times, the guys you are trianing will have great stories based on their own war experiences. Let them talk. You'll learn.
- Safe sex. A very touchy and complicated subject and it varies widely from region to region. AIDS is rampant in many of these places. Abstinence is the best policy as far as I am concerned. But we are all humans. Keep in mind that you might offend local sensitivities just by looking at the local women especially in Muslim countries. Not so much in SE Asia and Latin America. On a semi-related note: if someone offers to sell you one of their teenage daughters (particularly in SE Asia), tell them you appreciate the offer but politely decline and make up some "plausible excuse" like "sorry sir, but my wife does not want any more women in the house." Also, some women in certain South American countries can be very aggressive (and possessive)...use your judgement and come back alive, in one piece, and in good health.
- Don't take sides with one group if you don't have to or the mission does not require it. Some groups have been fighting each other for decades if not centuries. They are not going to wake up one day and all sing Kumbayah around the campfire just because you showed up and told them to stop the "bullshit" and get along.
- Bring "wholesome" entertainment that you can share. This is minor stuff, but sometimes the small things make life more bearable. On several occasions I had to spend the night with the local troops in their headquarters waiting for "something to happen". My laptop and DVD collection came in handy. I spent several nights on the "watch" watching movies until the wee hours with the locals. Leave any controversial, "downer" films (Passion of the Christ, Fahrenheit 9/11, Munich, Syriana, etc.) or anything with gratuitous sex scenes behind. Big action movies are always a big hit: Predator (huge in Central America), Spider Man 1 and 2, X-Men, Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, any Michael Bay flick, etc. Stay away from chick flicks too.
- Bring unit patches, pins, insignias, mugs, t-shirts and other distinctly American souvenirs. In some countries, they love those small tokens of appreciation. If their government requested our help training their troops, it's because Americans are admired as noble warriors and professionals. Seemingly small gestures count a lot. They will remember you every time they see your "small" gift. One time on a follow-on trip, I saw a guy wearing his uniform flight cap with a pin I gave him (some countries have very liberal uniform regulations) the year before on our first trip. Goodwill is priceless.
- Learn as much as possible about the culture of your host nation. I can't stress this enough. The PowerPoint presentations you get before leaving are not enough. Read several books from different authors and perspectives. Read literature from local authors is possible. Learn key phrases in their language if you are not a fluent speaker. Your efforts will be rewarded. Never criticize their culture or religion. I say again, never criticize their culture or religion. Individuals in some of these areas see themselves in terms of their groups: family, clan, tribe, ethnicity, civilization. Criticize the group and you are criticizing the individual.
- American women. Depending on the region, they might not listen or take orders from the females in your group. Good/bad news (depending how you see it): some of these countries or regions are used to having female soldiers/warriors in their ranks and they are usually more open to following directions from a woman. Find out what's the situation before you go and be ready to adapt. Women marry young in most of these countries. A late-twenties, or thirty-something, unmarried woman is an anomaly for them and they usually have derisive words to describe these women. Or they might hit on them. To avoid unwanted attention, consider having all the single women in your group posing as married or at least engaged. Experiences may vary on this one.
- The Law. Based on personal experience (unfortunately): getting apprehended (wrongfully in my case) and handcuffed by the police in the US is a humbling experience; getting apprehended (wrongfully too) and handcuffed in "the Gap" is a humbling, shocking and traumatizing experience and can involve (at least) several slaps in the face before they even put you in their vehicle and take you to their police headquarters (in all fairness, they did not know I was American, I think it would have been a different story if I was white). I'll leave it at that. The embassy people can tell you what to do in case you get in an car accident (as an American it is very likely that you will be considered the guilty party and it might involve just paying the guy off on the spot, particularly if you are driving a POS acquired in the local economy, which most times is not encouraged or allowed if you are on official business).
- Alcohol. Okay in Latin American and SE Asia. Not okay in some Muslim countries. This tends to be more liberal in North African Muslim countries like Tunisia. Drink but never get drunk. I say again, never get drunk. This applies even if you go out drinking with the local forces. Actually, it applies especially if you go out drinking with the locals.
Thanks for the compliment. It might do that, even though it might look like undue self-promotion.
Sonny - good stuff.
Dave (AKA SWJED)
Have fun in Scotland.
Thanks for the link back in the SWC. I know there's a lot of different experiences out there. It would be great to read about some of them while keeping in mind that there are security concerns that sometimes prevent us from telling the whole story. Also, as you know, it's not all doom and gloom out in the frontier, there's always humor, and hope, even under the worst situations.
I know you're coming from a military perspective, but your points read seemlessly from the point of aid and emergency workers. In fact, quite a few American tourists in _any_ country would benefit from your counsel.
Peace Corps Volunteer (Morocco)
CD, American Refugee Committee (Malawi/Mozambique)
CD, Center for Victims of Torture (Guinea/Sierra Leone)