Posted by: Tommy | February 1, 2011

A-hole Americans

One thing you realize pretty quickly, as an American backpacker, is that you are seriously in the minority.  There are tons of British, Australian, Irish, German, Dutch, Belgian, Swedish and French backpackers.  Japan, Israel, Finland, Italy, Spain and Brazil have more than their fair share, as well.  Once you leave Europe, though, the American backpacker is largely non-existent.

So far, we’ve met 2 Americans on long-term trips.  Two, total, in almost 4 months.  One in Egypt, the other in Jordan.  In Africa (no one considers Egypt to be Africa) we met a family of 4 Americans traveling for a short time. We’ve met a ton of Peace Corps volunteers and a few mission-trip people and some HIV/AIDS workers.  But that’s it – the sum total of Americans we’ve met in Africa.

As we are something of a novelty, people from other countries we meet tend to open up and talk about (their perceptions) of America.  We’ve met people who think America should step in and solve all of their countries problems. We’ve met people who think we should butt out of everyone’s problems.  People who love Obama, people who hate Obama. (not a single person who likes Bush – shocker).

The saddest perception about America occurred in South Africa, at the Johannesburg Airport.  We were at the VAT office (VAT= sales tax) turning in our receipts to get our sales tax refunded on items we’d bought there and were taking out of the country (mostly our camping gear).  The process takes awhile and at the very end, the woman behind the counter asked us where we were from.  She had taken our passports and made copies of them, so this was confusing.  “America” we said.  “No, but originally?” she asked. “America” we said.  “Like you were born there?” “Yes, in Texas”.  “Hmm.”

“Why?” we wanted to know.  Her response, “I’ve never met nice Americans before.  Never.”  Which made us sad – this woman deals with nothing but foreign tourists all day, every day. She must deal with hundreds of Americans each week, but thought we were novel enough to remark upon it.  To be fair, the South African system of tax rebating is ridiculous – it takes forever, they charge commission and handling fees so you get back roughly half of what you think you are owed and they have screwy rules for deciding which things they’ll even partially refund (best example: we had to pay $200 in VAT to receive our Christmas box of items that our parents had bought in the States and shipped to us.  This VAT is not refundable, because customs is a service.  What?)

Anyway, we have tried very hard to not be the a-hole Americans that other backpackers talk about and that the VAT woman encounters regularly.  Until we got to Windhoek, Namibia.  To get around the vast deserts of Namibia, it is essential to rent a car.  We had intended to spend a day or two in Windhoek, trying to find people who wanted to share the costs of a car.  There are two major backpacking destinations in Namibia and most people go to both, so we didn’t think it would be difficult to find people sharing our itinerary.

Sure enough, when we arrived at the hostel there was a note on the noticeboard from someone named Lauren, looking for people to share a car.  We asked about Lauren at reception and were put in touch with her.  Yeah, she wanted to share a car and she was hoping to see the two places we were wanting to visit.  Better yet, there was an Irish guy who she’d already talked to about splitting a car.  With us, we’d have a full car and could leave the next day – splitting the cost 4 ways.  We were excited – you (usually) can’t beat the Irish and Australians (Lauren was Australian) as travel partners.

Sadly, Lauren and Aiden (the Irishman) were not typical of their countrymen.  They weren’t the fun, convivial backpackers that we normally associate Ireland and Australia with.  Lauren was 22, Aiden was in his 50s and neither seemed very interested in socializing.  Which was fine – paying for half of the $70/day rental car goes a long way toward making you an acceptable travel partner, in my book.

We planned to leave around 1, so at noon I approached them about going to get the car.  We are currently disputing charges with American Express (Thrifty is trying to bill us  $733 from the “cowsitting” – even though they told me the replacement cost on the hood was $300 and they overcharged me $80, that was to be applied to the replacement) so Anna and I were unwilling to use our credit card for the rental.  We’d pay cash to which ever of them wanted to put the car on their card.

I brought up the issue of credit card with them, explaining that we wouldn’t put ours down but we could pay cash.  Lauren then tells us that she doesn’t have a credit card at all, just debit.  Oh, and she’s 22, so they won’t rent her a car or let her drive.  Great.  Well, Aiden is the senior member of the group, he can put it on his card.

Nope, he doesn’t ever travel with a credit card – it’s dangerous, he says.  Oh, and he doesn’t have a driver’s license. FANTASTIC!

The plans to get the car are now on hold – Anna and I go to get lunch and talk, privately, about what we can do.  As we’re leaving, Lauren and Aiden are sitting on the couch at the hostel, talking.  We walk to a restaurant that has internet and spend 90 minutes researching companies in Windhoek that will rent cars without credit cards.  We buy a SIM card for our cell phone and call other companies; we get quotes, we discuss routes and day/time options, availability, etc.  Eventually, we come to the conclusion that everyone requires a credit card.  So we walk to the place we’d picked out, use our AMEX anyway, and drive the car back to the hostel.

Where Lauren and Aiden are still sitting, exactly where we’d left them 4 hours ago.  In the amount of time we’d taken to evaluate and solve our problem, they’d managed to – do absolutely nothing.

In a unanimous, split second decision, Anna and I both decided that we would probably be better off on this trip by ourselves.  They couldn’t do any driving and we’d inevitably be doing all the work, as we had so far.  They weren’t going to be good company, either. Maybe at our first stop we’d find someone worth sharing the car with.  We ran inside, picked up our bags and threw them in the car.  We could see them looking at us expectantly, but how do you say to someone, “Sorry, you blew it.  We have a car, but we’d rather pay double than ride with you.”  You don’t – you play the American a-hole and just get in the car and drive off.

We felt kind of bad – we almost turned around and went back.  But then we thought about it  and came to the same conclusions that most Americans probably do when traveling, before acting like a-holes.  We’re only going to be in Namibia once.  We worked too hard to earn the money to take this trip – we aren’t willing to suffer through a bad time just to be polite.  So let them think poorly of Americans – we’ll be having a good time, not thinking about them at all.

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Responses

  1. I believe that most people don’t have very good impressions of Americans. Hopefully, thanks to you guys, they at least know that Texans are the nicest Americans out there! 😉

  2. Great story. That’s sad about the lady at the Joburg airport. I haven’t had anyone say anything like that to me since moving here, but maybe they are all thinking it 🙂

  3. I hope my yankee-ness doesn’t bring us down in India…. 😉

  4. Tommy I had to laugh. Good story to share. I also found that some places think American’s are a-hole’s, but they always said the English, and Asian where the worse and treated them like servants.

    You guys are seeming to be having great experiences.

  5. Anna and Tommy,

    I wouldn’t spend much time feeling guilty about leaving the Irishman and Aussie behind as they were most likely a financial risk considering the credit card situation. When I read your story, I suspected they might not even have had the cash to pay their share of car rental and gas. Good move.

    Miss you!

    Aunt Shelley


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