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Travel Safely: Tourist Appearance

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Tourist Appearance


At all stages of our lives we develop, practice and refine our appearance for various private & public venues. 

We look like a slob in our condo bedroom, yet spruce up when we mix with our roomies in the kitchen. As a child, our mom teaches us what to wear before we can leave the house because our appearance defines not only ourselves but our family. My Wyoming high school did NOT allow cowboy hats to be worn inside.

We relish the ‘slob’ freedom of our bedroom because we don't have to worry about what others think about us.

OTOH, when we leave that bedroom we confront a multitude of different venues each with a different set of values.


Each of these venues is unique and demands our conscious pre-planning and preparation.

We make great efforts to create a personal appearance that we hope projects what we want others to believe about us.

Sometimes, if lucky and with good planning, we may actually get feedback from others. (“Wow! You look great.”)

Our foreign travel appearance should be designed to do the opposite.              

We don’t want to stand out any more than necessary.

Our personal travel appearance will be based on:

    1. our own cultural experience,

    2. our travel needs (dinner party vs trekking), and

    3. our host country’s cultural guidelines. 

While some of our proposed “travel appearance’ elements will be obvious like NOT wearing a hat in a church or temple, other appearance elements we may not realize their offense: EX: letting the bottom of our feet ‘face’ an Asian temple’s altar.

Most of our tourist appearance and behavior can be understood and prepared for before you leave your home airport.

ANECDOTE: our 4 selves

    my 1960 college psychology class —

I learned one important ‘life concept’ in my college psychology class: “Individually, we have four selves

            1) who/what we actually are,

   2) who/what others actually think we are,

   3) who/what we think we are (or want to pretend we are) &

   4) who/what we think others think we are. (re-read if you like — its powerful medicine.)









A. We'll never know ...

    1) who/what we actually are, or 

   2) who /what others actually think we are because ....

.... it will always be hidden behind our own self-serving delusions & other people’s subjective perceptions including your psychologist’s well-cloaked psycho-jargon.

The most we can hope to do is frequently search our motives & actions for a deeper self-understanding.

We do know in some limited fuzzy sense what characteristics make us who/what we think we are, kinda, …. depending on the commitment, if any, we have made to discover our ‘truths.’ 

But some of our 'characteristics' we are ignorant of, OR purposely hide, display or even flaunt. We do this in concert with 4) who/what we think others will think of us. This is an extremely unreliable exercise.

Yet, the above '4 selfs' concept is the core of our “travel appearance & travel behavior' discussion. 

In spite, of attempting to solve this impenetrable psycho-puzzle in our own culture, when traveling we have to almost start all over again because the host culture is different. 

Bus tour & cruise guests are the least susceptible because they are traveling with their own socio-economic culture enclosed in an almost antiseptic capsule (bus) thru this new host culture. 

Solo independent travelers (SIT) must try to understand this new host culture & people for its standards of decorum & risks AND, we must try, if not before we travel, to do so very quickly once traveling. 

How many Amer/Euros know that you never let the bottoms of your feet face toward an Asian altar? 

How many tourists have died in London looking left instead of right before stepping off the curb into oncoming traffic? 

How we, the foreign traveler, appear & behave influences our host country's people's opinion of us.

Failure to attempt to know such risks is both naïve and foolhardy. How many inconsiderate, ignorant travelers incense parishioners of Europe’s cathedrals and Asia’s exotic temples with their sleeveless blouses, short shorts & loud jabberings?

We, foreigners, are always recognized and assessed by the host country’s people & particularly by its prowling soft criminals.

B.  ‘Travel Appearance'

How we are perceived by others will often dictate how we will be treated. If we appear safe to others, we will probably be treated kindly. But, if are perceived as disrespectful or too strange, we may be treated with reserve & suspicion.

There really are no hard and fast travel wardrobe criteria except for some simple almost obvious guidelines.

If traveling in a large tour or cruise ship group you will probably look like most of your mob. Your loud jabbering group will visit tourist sites whose locals will be quite used to you, if not financially dependent. Your guide should forewarn you of any peculiar wardrobe or cultural requirements. 

It is the SIT traveler wandering the back streets and small villages by tuk-tuk & motorcycle taxi far off the tourist routes who may have to more carefully consider their wardrobe so as not to offend. Ironically, the farther from the crowds, the less likely are pickpockets & scams.

Gwen Elise, writing for “student cafe blog’ in her article” “Dressing Respectfully While Traveling Abroad.” had this wise mix of insight & opinion for men & women. Strongly suggest you read.


“I’m just your average white girl....."



Dressing Respectfully

“I’m just your average white girl. My hair is neither blonde nor brown, and I am neither short nor tall. Many of my clothes come from Target, and I speak unaccented “American” English. For better or for worse, I blend in when I’m in the United States.

That all changed when I traveled to South America in college. Suddenly, I seemed fairer, blonder, and taller. Quite frankly, I stood out, and there wasn’t much I could do about it, but I could control my wardrobe. …..  fit in better and avoid becoming a target for theft or harassment.;    easier to relate to locals. 

Every country is different, and trends change all the time. 

Let’s get more specific: ———

For our purposes, 'appearance' refers to 'what you look like' while behavior literally deals with the way you publicly behave.

IMO, foreign travel attire is a balance between the social mores of your host country AND your travel comfort, practicality & safety.


1. My Travel Wardrobe Experience:  

When I first started traveling, guidebooks cautioned that in Mexico, Guatemala & Belize men wore trousers and that shorts were frowned upon. I had worn shorts almost constantly in warm weather since my middle 50s because more comfortable; cooler. 

Even more so in Asia, the mantra was ‘pants, pants, pants; trousers, trousers, trousers.” Occasionally a guidebook would offer some slack for shorts, but never NEVER in a church and other such facilities. 

20 years ago, after several foreign trips,  I realized that nobody cared anymore perhaps because:

    a. It was obvious I was an old man and somehow intuitively had a certain immunity from norms and,

    b. Tourism had become so commonplace that locals just accepted tourists as we were.

So, my evolving travel experience & confidence gave way to almost total use of shorts everywhere in the world when warm. 

Only occasionally was I confronted with a church prohibiting shorts. Most sensitive churches/temples clearly post this restriction at their entrance occasionally providing a sarong-type device &/or sleeved blouse. I was gracious and happy to do so.

Proactively, my seamstress friend created lightweight, Velcro-attached lower pant legs I could quickly put on/take off when required & fold into my rear pocket. (PIKs:  tear off pants)

Yes, I have bought such shorts/leggings before, but I wanted less bulk, so I could carry in my back pocket most of time.

    ANECDOTE: Visoki Dečani monastery

          At Visoki Dečani monastery northwest of Prizren, Kosovo,  realizing I had forgotten my Velcro leggings,  I picked up a plastic bag lying nearby figuring I could cut a hole in it & wear it around my waist to cover my legs if I had to. Didn't come to that.  [ytlk: EE1: Visoki Dečani monastery]

Over the years around the world in Europe, South America and Asia, I evolved a very standard ‘Scott look’, not consciously, but as a result of my attempt to balance local decorum with my comfort whether sitting in a long distance bus or walking the sloppy soaked , slippery root infested trails of Stewart Island, NZ. This costume provided several very important /specific functions:

Ironically, When I have occasionally had the courage to look at myself in the mirror while traveling or in a storefront window's reflection it seems painfully obvious that I have violated my advice to you.

I know my ensemble invites recognition, but when, for example, I am the only Caucasian walking thru a remote Chinese village I obviously, inescapably, irrefutably definitively, decisively, clearly , convincingly, definitely, undeniably , irrefutably , indisputably, incontrovertibly & ultimately —- am a foreign traveler. I CANNOT avoid that. 

How hypocritical was I?  How do I justify my conservative advice to others?

   a. My garments are highly functional IMO, 

   b. Their very overt quirkiness, hopefully, makes me a mere curiosity (think “pink unicorn" walking thru your livingroom”), and

  c. I 'think' my ‘mannerisms’ suggest I know what I'm doing, where I'm going, and that I am street savvy & physically capable. (OK, last part is fantasy and self-delusion, but my deception seems to work)

2. My Wardrobe:   

Let me describe my ‘wardrobe’ more precisely: —

                    [pplk: 'My Wardrobe - in detail' post - to come]

   a. Tilley Hat: Quirky hat with my self-designed “Larry of Poland” cape protecting my head and face from even more damage than they had suffered in the prior 55 years.

   b. Reflective curved sunglasses with my jury-rigged, heavy-duty polypro lanyard. PIK

   c. My pasty white skin (can’t do much about that😀). 

   d. T-Shirts: mainly fast-drying synthetic, neutral colored w/a pocket.

   e. Dress Shirt:  rolled up & wrapped around my waist, but with 10” or so hanging down in front like an apron so I could hide the video camera I always carried. Also, it was a very light, chilly early morning jacket. 

   f. Jackets:   [lite/heavy JKT PIK] varied from 

      1) light or heavy for temperature variations ...with added hidden pockets.

      2) for light rain or stormproof conditions: (e.g.: Venice’s 2-week drizzle .. to .. Argentina/Chile’s Magellan Strait storms),  Each with hidden pockets for storm pants, gloves & miscellaneous)        

   g. Cargo shorts/pants [shorts/ pants PIK] 

fast drying with multiple pockets for organizing daily stuff and avoiding use of thief-tempting day packs and belly packs….. and, of course, displaying my beautifully muscled old calves (I biked/hiked a lot even in my mid-70s)               [pplk: 'My Wardrobe - in detail' post - to come]

   h. Web pants belt: [PIK redo ] with a secret compartment.

Also, Hidden Money Pouch. 

[ytlk: Money Belt]


 i. Hiking shoes: Even tho my age exempts me, TSA still wants a closer look at my disgustingly well-used hiking boots.😀 Low ankle style, yet solid & comfortable for walking major city streets or hiking mountains or jungle trails.  

   j. Shoelaces [Yutube link to come] self-designed stretch cord for easy on/off compliance with Asian temple rules. 

Trip Savvy: Etiquette for Visiting Buddhist Temples, by Gregory Rodgers:

                  [pplk: 'My Wardrobe - in detail' post - to come]

So, in sum, I quickly went from “appearance paranoia” to a balanced use of the above features without any negative cultural responses that I can recall.

In all fairness, perhaps it was the quirky look of my entire outfit that somehow desensitized the fears /annoyance that guidebooks tried to warn me against.

Moreover, when actually in a sensitive context like a church or temple I was overtly respectful, often asking if my attire was acceptable, as intrusive as possible &, of course, always removing my Tilley hat. 

OTOH, there are cultural attire guidelines that if violated may make you suspect, insulting to the host country’s local folks --- and more ominous — prompting criminal attention you don't want.

ANECDOTE: Hot Southern Mexico

     How do ‘hijab’ dressed Muslim women cope with the heat?

During my 3 month RV van trip along western Mexico's coast through Guatemala and Belize & back along eastern Mexico's coastline it was too incredibly hot to wear pants and again nobody seemed to notice my shorts.








wardrobe suggestions

Generally, I would suggest the following guidelines for striking the balance between what's locally acceptable & your comfort:

1. Subdued colors - unless you want to be easily seen (solo hiker’s rescue, meeting someone in a crowd)

2. Conservative, respectful styled attire - sadly, many cultures are not as forgiving of women's dress as United States. What would your Grandma feel comfortable with?

3. Expensive possessions: none or hidden cell phones, cameras, etc. when possible, don’t flaunt your wealth: your airfare alone is an unimaginable extravagance to some local people. You don’t need to flatter yourself at their expense. PIK (watch guy)

4. No backpacks: (day packs, fanny belts, or belly packs) because too 1) visible, 2) too vulnerable & 3) and usually suggests all stuff — expensive, important, or not — is stuffed in it. [pplk: Osprey Daypak post to come]     [ytlk: Osprey Daypack]

SOLUTION: Minimize what you carry on your person each day. If, rainy weather, wear or tie jacket around waist; use its pockets for miscellaneous storage.

5. No political/social/advertising messages on clothing. You may think you are ‘witty’ or 'cool', but,

    a. many locals may not understand or appreciate your message, 

    b. may be illegal in some countries (USSR’s hammer/sickle in Latvia)

    c. you are just foolishly looking for trouble. 

  "You travel to learn about a culture, not infect it."  (Me)



ANECDOTE: Ambercromby style

Avoid 'flash' unless you're Johnny Depp on promo tour!

In Cuernavaca’s Cathedral Park, a lovely genteel, older couple wearing expensive-looking, matching Abercrombie & Fitch®-like Safari outfits ambling arm-in-arm in the twilight.

I can still picture them. Classy looking for sure, but obvious targets — almost begging for pickpockets to slink out of the shadows.

High fashion, expensive-looking clothes not only advertises the historic “Ugly American" image, but is like gluing a $100 bill to your forehead.

Remember, if you are a Caucasian tourist traveling anywhere, particularly, in emerging countries, locals presume your wealth because your airfare alone humbles them.





1) Dress modestly & simply

2) Same is true, IMO, with new, expensive-looking luggage. 

My rolling luggage was so ratty-looking PIK after a few travel years that TSA regularly ‘randomly’ (LOL) pulled it out for a post-check-in inspection. Yet, ironically, its tattered look belied its valuable contents. [ytlk: 'Rolling Luggage' post - to come]






ANECDOTE: Costly visible stuff

     Flaunt your wealth and risk losing it!

Too often, everywhere I have seen tourists strolling naïvely with an expensive camera or handbag slung loosely over their shoulder or a cell in-hand just begging the skilled 'snatch & grab' bicycle thief to rip it away as they pedal past. 





Simple, comfortable & respectful!

1) Dress modestly & simply

2) Same is true, IMO, with new, expensive-looking luggage. 

SPECIFIC Safe Practice: If you think someone is dogging you on a busy street…

    a) Look in store window’s reflection for someone close behind you.

    b) Abruptly turn right & stop forcing the person behind to walk by you or expose their intent, 

    c) Abruptly turn right into a store to safetly look outside.

    d) Do an about-face directly into them forcing them to expose their intent, if any.              This is very direct & proactive,          BUT be prepared to apologize if an innocent follower. 😇


II. Hairstyles & beards:

For centuries hairstyles & beards have reflected religious or cultural fashion: Hassidic Jew’s side curls, China’s queue or cue, ancient Greek’s toga, 18th Century Eurpean courtier and the startling hairstyle of today’s celebrity.

Hairstyles can be symbols of social class, age, marital status, racial identification, political beliefs, and gender identity. Some people may cover their hair totally or partially or go bald for cultural or religious reasons.

Hair textures, color, style & shape may serve as definitive social markers, determining among other things one's race/ethnicity, charm, beauty, religion, age, and so on. Your hair is an integral part of your identity and especially so for women whose hair may be their crowning glory.

Different pop culture bands/groups often adopt unique cultural hairstyles (think ‘dreadlocks’) perhaps believing it gives them an international cache. 

Yet, such an irreverent adoption may be offensive to those who attach great religious or cultural significance to their hairstyle.

Regardless of the reason, hairstyles definitely affect our 'four selves' ,  most particularly how we perceive ourselves & perhaps how we want to be perceived.

Your host country’s folks may fairly or unfairly judge your traveler’s hairstyle &/or beard as disrespectful, threatening/untrustworthy, irreverent, or at least, strangely bizarre.

More relevant to our safety discussion, your hairstyle may make you
more noticeable to harsh crime & soft crime hustlers. who may incorporate your ‘cultural theft’ into their scam.

..... But perhaps that’s the price you wish to pay for your individuality.

Special Note: Beware the cute & bouncy ponytail. It can be an easy 'control handle' for a thief or rapist.   PIK :Ponytail



ANECDOTE: My Aukland  haircut

Throughout my 50’s I wore conservative, moderately long hair, but on one broiling hot Auckland, NZ walkabout, for some reason, I can't recall, I paused at a barber shop. Then, went in and said, “Please give me a “Julius Caesar’ cut.     

I've worn Julius for the last 20+ years because easiest to manage & have barbered.... traveling or at home. 






Hairstyle is so personal, particularly for women, that I will only offer observations rather than suggestions

    a) Julius is an easy cut to manage & barber to execute.

    b) If traveling for months at a time, a haircut may become a must.

    c) A woman's complex or highly styled hairdo may require too much maintenance possibly curtailing some travel opportunities or leaving her feeling unkempt. Instead, perhaps, an easily managed style you can feel good about.

4) Side Note: One travel treat I always relished was a spur-of-the-moment neighborhood barbershop experience surprising both of us.

“Julius’ was always an easy simple ‘cut for barbers around the world and I didn’t sweat the outcome because I wore a hat most of the time … and besides, who really cares?










Facial makeup, apparently, dates to 6,000 BCE (before current era) when men & women used facial makeup (elaborate eyeliner) as a mark of wealth & an appeal to the gods.  Tattooed skin dates to Ötzi the Iceman (3370 and 3100 BC) & 2 Egypt mummies (3351 & 3017 BPE).

Currently, facial makeup & tattoos seem widespread among men & women. Tattoos & beards often dominate in some cultures. 

The irony is that the human face with its 43 ‘expression’ muscles is perhaps the most versatile ‘behavioral billboard’ amongst all living things. So, I’ll dive deeper into ‘face’ when we discuss “Tourist Behaviors.” below.

My MALE suggestion: be prudent & conservative ... presenting yourself in your best light.

I always remind myself that most people I encounter have never seen me before, never will again, and probably didn't really care that much when they did. Just another human among almost 8 billion.

In contrast, soft criminals assess everyone.



Travel Safety 1: INTRO & Risks END

Travel safety knowledge equals confidant, prudent travel anywhere!

So,  carve out a balance between 1) What you think you are and 2) how you want your host country's folks to see you --- including pickpockets & scammers. Prepare your simple, flexible wardrobe & then ... go with it.

So, what’s next??? ….

      Next, we’ll discuss “Travel Behaviors.”…

      2nd, we’ll get the scary ‘harsh crimes’ stuff out of the way AND 

      3rd, finally, we’ll move quick & deep into more typical 'soft' crimes

Safety Post #3: Tourist Behaviors  [link] to next TOC item


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