Does Travel Make Us Liars?


The taxi driver is mad at me.  He flips a switch to open the trunk, but does not get out and help me with bag as is customary.  He doesn’t reply when I wish him a good day.  Is this a case where it would have been better to lie? I had gotten the taxi at the ferry dock in Cancun, returning from some rest and relaxation on Isla Mujeres.  A scout at the dock had flagged the taxi down for me and told me that it would be 60 pesos (about what I expected) to go to the bus station.  As I climbed into the car I heard him tell the driver, “I don’t know where she’s going?”

I was going airport.  It’s a relatively new thing, there being a bus from downtown Cancun out to the airport.  And it’s a good thing for travelers.  Not such a good thing for taxi drivers.  Once in the car, the driver asked me where I was going.  The bus station, I repeated.  “You go to the airport?” he asked.  So I answered. Truthfully.  This was, of course, followed by him offering to drive me to the airport.  He offered me a good price for a taxi, but it couldn’t compete with the bus fare, and I had plenty of time.  Besides, first class Mexican buses are really comfortable, better than being crammed in the back of a taxi.

So by the time we got to the bus station, the driver was pissed, and that was making me crabby.  Should I have told a white lie and said I was taking the bus to a city a few hours away?

I don’t usually lie.  I’d like to say that my reluctance to tell falsehoods is exemplar of my high moral standards.  That’s true to a point. I think that people should say what they mean and mean what they say, and I try to practice that.  But that’s not the whole story. It’s also a matter of laziness.   I’m adverse to lying for the same reason that I’m that I’m adverse to coloring my hair.  Once you start, you have to maintain it.  That being said, travelers regularly encounter situations that seem to call for bending the truth a little…

Taxis. Photo by Ben Britten.

Fictional Families

When I went to Egypt twenty years ago, the guidebook warned that a woman traveling alone would be wise to wear a wedding ring.  I refused.  “Why should I have to lie?” I thought.

My feminist bravado lasted about five minutes. While it was true that I shouldn’t have had to lie, it quickly became obvious that I would have a better trip if I did.  A few days into my trip to Egypt  I had acquired a cheap ring and started to tell people (and by people, I mean men) that my husband was back in the hotel, sick with diarrhea.

When it seemed like that wasn’t enough, I would trail a few meters beyond a Western male, and explain that I was catching up with my husband.  Once, atop a pyramid, I actually did catch up with a trio of Europeans I’d been following. We had a nice chat and then, when we had descended and were heading back to town, they realized that they had left their guidebook on top of the pyramid.  Suddenly it was they who needed me.  I enjoyed the company of my three interchangeable “husbands” for the rest of the trip. (Cheers- Fer, Rob and Andreas!)

Where I met my three “husbands”. Photo by llee_wu.

An elaboration of the facts is one thing, but elaboration with collaboration takes it to a whole new level.  When visiting Bali, my American friend and Indonesian husband often fabricate some kids.  They started doing this after the mother of a pregnant woman threw them out of her house upon learning that they did not have children.  The idea that people would choose not to reproduce was incomprehensible.  Obviously, if they didn’t have kids, it was because something was very wrong.  The spirits were punishing them and this woman didn’t want any of that bad juju getting on her daughter.  So after that, my friends started saying that yes, they did have kids.  It was the details that got them in trouble.  People would ask how many and what ages.  My friend would give one set of answers and her husband another.  To try to make it easier they would use the names and ages of kids they knew.  Then they realized that those kids had been alive longer than they had been together. Who would have guessed that being pretend parents could be so tricky?

The Perils of Politeness

There seems to be a spectrum bounded by politeness on one end and honesty on the other.  A lot of untruth happens because people think they’re telling you want you want to hear.  Or they feel that they will lose face if they say, “I don’t know.”

Travelers can be the executers or the recipients of this behavior.  On one of those trips to Indonesia, my friend wanted to walk to a market a short distance away, but a friendly tuk-tuk driver was there to serve her.  In an effort not to hurt his feelings she told him she was going to the airport (to far to travel by tuk-tuk).  Before she knew it he had flagged down a taxi for her and told the driver to take her to the airport.  Now she had to come up with something to tell the taxi driver.  So she said that she needed to stop at the market to get some last-minute souvenirs.  This made sense, but the driver wanted to wait for her (after all she needed to get to the airport), and she had quite a time convincing that it wasn’t necessary.  Oh dear…

Another gringa friend recently sent me to ask if a Mexican we both knew if he was available to work for her on the weekend.

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” I said (always worried about my performance in Spanish).

“Because culture being what it is, he’d be more likely to tell you if the answer is no.  With me he would say yes, and then just not show up.”

That’s often how it works here.  I frequently find myself trying to phrase my questions in such a way that the person I’m speaking to doesn’t know which answer I’m hoping to hear.

When Lying Fails – Resorting to the Truth

Navigating my way through the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (before meeting my three husbands), my attention was distracted by trying to avoid the man in the bright yellow shirt.  He was young, slim, well-dressed, maybe even good-looking in the sleaziest kind of way.  And he was stalking me.  He followed me from room to room, sometimes brushing up against me as he pretended to look at the exhibits.  I scowled and hissed at him, showed him my “wedding ring”, didn’t let on that I understood the lewd things he was saying in English.  I even bypassed some of the rooms in an effort to avoid him.  But it didn’t work.  Somehow my trip to one of the world’s most amazing museums had turned into a game of cat and mouse.

Exasperated, I finally confronted him.  I looked him straight in the face and spoke loudly, making no effort to hide my ugly, American accent, nor the anger that I was feeling.

“Look, I live on the other side of the planet.  This is probably the only time in my life that I’ll get to visit this museum.  Please leave me alone so I can enjoy it!”

He raised his hands, palms outward, bowed his head and stepped back, utterly humbled and apologetic.  Apparently, he had believed I was enjoying his little game.  Why hadn’t I just told him to bug off in the first place, rather than dancing around with all that avoidance behavior? It was good to be reminded that blunt truth can also be a good way to deal with a sticky situation. These days that’s my first line of defense. But maybe not with Cancun taxi drivers…

Have you stretched the truth in your travels?

Published in Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, People to Meet

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Meet the Author

Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker and wannabe Spanish-speaker.

Comments

  1. Louisa

    When bicycling in Europe, my husband wanted me to sport a Canadian flag on my bike to avoid possible anti-American comments. I refused. I said, I can’t help it if I’m American, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not! Hopefully I’ll show people not all Americans match their negative stereotypes.

    I don’t understand why your gringa friend thought the Mexican would be more honest with you. You’re both gringas– what’s the difference?

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      I think I tried the “I’m Canadian” line once, then quickly realized that I didn’t know enough about Canada and that it really wasn’t necessary. I’ve been treated well even in places (and times) when people have good reason for anti-American sentiment.

      Regarding the other situation, I think my friend thought (and she’s been here full time for over 15 years) that Enrique would be more willing to say no (if that was the true answer) to me, since I wasn’t the one needing the work.

  2. Girl at Play

    Great post – I love the examples you chose and how the benefits or issues with lying were slightly different depending on the culture or situation, making it harder to decide whether lying was actually the ‘right’ (or ‘best’) thing to do.

    I’m a really bad liar, so it’s probably fortunate I haven’t yet had to lie on my travels–it would probably get me into trouble rather than help me avoid it!

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      Yep – I’m a bad liar too. I just don’t seem to have easy access to that well of creativity. I hope you never “need” to lie, but if you do, don’t feel too bad about it.
      Jenny

  3. Kristin Addis

    I’m with you – sometimes a white lie is better than being truthful if it will endanger you or just make people upset.

  4. Andrea Weaver

    Among the three of us, you, Judy and I, if we keep up our travels will have seen almost everything and been everywhere by the time we can no longer travel. I applaud you for going on your own and being so fearless.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Links | Life With a Mission

  6. Snoesje

    One of the things that I really couldn’t get off my conscience is to see all the those locals working hard trying to make a living and I am on a vacation. Its absurd cause I earned my vacation myself,didn’t I?
    When traveling to another place, should we behave like we do at home or should we follow the local habits?

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      This is a hard one. It’s not our fault that we were born into more affluent circumstances than the a lot of the people we see. Of course, it’s not their fault either. At least when we travel in countries worse off than our own, we are redistributing the money we spend.

  7. Judy

    A travelling buddy of mine once said that lies were the social lubricant that kept things going smoothly. I like to think of all my “travel lies” as just being helpful. And there have been a lot of them! Lots of cultures feel that it’s more important to keep the peace and make people feel good than be truthful. Cheers to them!

  8. Alex @ ifs ands & butts

    As a woman, I definitely probably lie about my relationship status as a defense mechanism way more than I should. But otherwise, I find it easier to be honest with complete strangers sometimes 🙂

  9. Cindy

    I guess we’ve been told to be polite and never lie. But lying when travel does help ! If I know they will try to sell me something if i tell the truth, then i’ll go with a small white lie and avoid the trouble !

    1. Jennifer Choban Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Cindy. I just found a great euphemism for lying in a Jane Austen novel – a “civil falsehood”.

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