cultural idioms

Cultural Idioms – Every Culture has Something to Say

No matter where you travel around the planet, every community, culture and country has insider language. These are the cultural idioms that every traveller needs to learn if they want to sound like someone “who knows the score”

So as a traveller if you want to “hit it out of the park” then all you need to do is “buckle down” and “put your nose to the grindstone” for the task ahead. Are you the “one in a million” who can understand each one of these cultural idioms. “Don’t pass the buck” give it a shot and see if you can ace this test!

Here is a great list

check out all the various world idioms  – see how many you can get from the list

Cultural idioms fade and bloom

Wherever there are human beings who talk to one another, we form poetic and short-form language. It is easier to say “we made it by the skin of our teeth” and not going into a long explanation about traffic backup. Our idioms sound normal to us, but to a visitor, they sound foreign and sometimes a little crazy … After all, what kind of teeth would have skin on them?

If you are working hard to be a polyglot, you need to excel at language. It sure helps if you listen to and learn the local idioms.


Did I miss any of your particular favourites?

Racism in Canada

How to Understand Racism in Canada

Is racism killing black people in the US? I hope not, and as a Canadian, it is easy to pat myself on the back about our lack of racism when we watch our American neighbours implode every weekend with news about cops shooting another black kid. It made me wonder how racism in Canada affects me?

I was visiting family in Newfoundland when I began chatting with my father’s uncle, Bruce. That’s when I found out I was an Indian. It was a surprise.


Bob Geldof is Pimping the Poor

Bob Geldof is Pimping the Poor.

“Do they know it’s Christmas?” That is the lyric of the Bob Geldof song. The song he sang with a bunch of celebrities 30 years during the BandAid concert to raise funds and awareness about starving people in Africa. He is trying to do it again for Ebola but this time lots of people are telling him that he should know better than pimping the poor.

In 1984 Bob Geldof decided to tell people about one of the greatest disasters of his time. The famine in Ethiopia was staggering and countless people were dying. Bob raised an amazing amount of money for a problem that the world was trying hard to ignore. I have to heartily applaud him.

The problem is that he is trying to do it again.

Why is this a problem? There is still a need. Poverty and disease are still problems. The West/North/Developed world still has no clue about Africa and needs to be made aware (my recent experiment proved that point)

Bob you asked if Africans know it is Christmas?

Coptic Christians in Egypt (an African nation) recall that Jesus spent his first two birthdays in Africa. There are 2.5 times more Christians in Nigeria alone than the entire population of Canada. In fact, the majority religion of many African nations is Christianity. I dare say that they all know about Christmas. Bob, the song sure sounds condescending.

“where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow, do they know it’s Christmas at all?”

Bob I know you didn’t start BandAid to educate Africans about December 25 on the calendar. You sang the song to collect money for a country of starving people and you succeeded. Shouldn’t I just thank you and move on? So much good came out of it!

A lot has changed since that first song.

What is the last image you remember from a charity that works with the poor? If they work in Africa it might be a poor black kid and his mother in front of a dirty hovel of a house. A white person stands there with a gift in hand and the child’s face lights up with a tremendous smile.

The irony is that donors give a lot of money because of those kind of pictures. Aid agencies know this and take more of those kinds of pictures. This ultimately means they  make money from the exploitation of children and women.

Mr. Geldof, it is called poverty porn.

Or pimping the poor. And as offensive as those terms sound, it is even more offensive to be made to feel like you are the needy subject of pity. An agency in Norway gives ‘awards‘ out to the worst offenders of this kind of advertising. We need to stop this kind of thinking.

Mr. Geldof, the world has changed since you first sang that song. Aid work has come a long way. Development workers have tried to get rid of the earlier paternalism that lead them to fixing other people. Some people have discovered that people in Africa are not a single faceless needy horde. I appreciate the first time you sang us the song, but it is time for a change.

Pimpin’ ain’t easy.

It is really easy is to criticize others. I find it a lot easier to find fault with someone else than to create something better. Bob, I don’t want to be your critic because it is the boring way to avoid the adventure of getting involved. I don’t ever want to stand by and take shots, or worse, make snide comments about you in a poorly read blog.

I also don’t have your ability to call even one artist, let alone pull an international cadre of superstars together. I don’t have anyone’s phone numbers. But Bob, I do think you still could do something that might make a real difference. Here is my unsolicited advice.

How to Stop Pimping the Poor

Bob Geldof if this ever reaches you, I think your motive is probably right but you need to reconsider your method. Think about your own life. At your personal poorest would you have wanted to be described as a “victim of poverty” or would you rather be seen as an “aspiring talented musician”? The same goes for everyone.  Don’t describe people by what they don’t have or don’t know, rather describe them by what they hope to be.

If you wouldn’t want it said about yourself and your kids don’t say it about African mothers and fathers and their kids.

  • Pull off the BandAid fast (it hurts less) and use the old song but co-opt it. Be subversive. Reverse the storyline.
  • Show Africans in positions of power and have them sing as ridiculous a song to all of your celebrities.
  • Have fun with the fact that the 30-year-old song is maudlin tripe.
  • Let everyone know you are in on the joke.
  • … and yes, please raise a tonne of money, we need you to use the drawing power of your A-list celebrity friends. I will be first in line to donate.

In short. Please Exploit the song. Not the Africans.

Thanks for listening Bob.

If you could talk to Bob Geldof, what creative advice would you give him?

Mark Crocker

I knew people would be upset, but you will NEVER guess what made people mad.

Last week I started up a war. I wrote a controversial post about the country of Africa and said that due to bad press because of the Ebola media hoopla, I was going to share some “lesser known facts” so people could understand the ‘real Africa’. I wrote a blog post. A lot of people complained when I said Africa is a country. It struck a nerve.

The Country of Africa

So why did I say that Africa is a country when I knew it was not true? It was all a joke of course. I know that Africa is an ancient city-state stretched along an enormous archipelago of 15 large and hundreds of smaller islands just off the western coast of India. For reference purposes, I have included a quick sketch of that fabled land (not to scale):

Africa is a country
A map of the Country of Africa

Why did I write the post? I had some noble reasons: I wanted to break stereotypes, stop the ‘poor African’ storyline, and to share a conversation with a wide audience, the same conversation I have shared with plenty of Africans  over the years.

I also wrote the article to have a little fun and I figured more people might read it.

There was a method to the madness, but if I am honest, it wasn’t until I saw the comments on Facebook or Twitter that I really understood what I had written. In the middle of the backlash one small niggling fact really stuck out for me. I learned a lot from it.



First of all, if you missed it, go read it and then come back here. I can wait.

In my post I tried to give plenty of cues that I was writing satire. I kept repeating that Africa is a country, and then wrote something else equally silly. Most caught the hints. If you were just skim-reading you may have missed what I was trying to say. Here are the clues I tried to leave:

  • I gave my article a sensational over-the-top title like the headlines that flood my Facebook stream.
  • I made sure that every single sentence I wrote was ridiculous or wrong, or both.
  • I made up absurd facts. Some were so crazy I thought that I had gone too far.
  • I used the most condescending language I could think of
  • I made up senseless quotes from imaginary people.
  • Each of my links in the post actually told the exact opposite story.
  • I kept the ruse going. I played an arrogant jerk or a clueless idiot in my Facebook responses when people reacted.
The Country of Africa
“up to your usual jackassery”

Africa is a Country: The reaction

I got a lot of confusing “WTF!?!” type responses. A number of people tried to correct my uninformed facts. But I must say that I was personally surprised by one little thing. Most people would only scold me about the error of my title. Again and again I was told:

“Africa is a continent, not a country!”

I was surprised that with all the dumb things I said about Africa, people were mostly concerned about my geography. They ignored the bigger picture. No one questioned my condescending tone about the needy people in Africa waiting for a brave hero from the west. People were fine with the thought that volunteers should go to Africa to hold babies and give away stuff. Or that an African’s favourite sport was war. No one challenged those statements.


I am not sure, but I have suspicions. Most people got the joke of course (many Africans loved it!). But for others I wonder if it has a lot to do with how we have grown up thinking about Africa, or maybe it is about reverse racism where we elevate people unrealistically. I don’t know. All I know is that I am sure glad I wrote the article. I loved the reactions! It has definitely given me some ideas for future posts!

Enough serious reflection. Back to the funny!

One of my favourite recent videos comes from a  group of students in Norway. SAIH has made some hilarious videos about this way of thinking. Do yourself a favour and please watch this genius clip! Maybe Africa is a country you can visit to save a child?

Other videos from SAIH are here on their Radi-Aid page. They are so brilliant that the only fault I can find is that I jealously wish I could have made them.

Know any other great videos like this? Share the link-love and post them in the comments below!

Mark Crocker 

The second worst way to think about the poor. 

I was in the middle of a boring class and unfortunately I was the teacher.

My nightmare is to have too many people nod in agreement while I am speaking. If everyone already agrees with you, it feels comfortable like a warm hug on a sunny summer day. A great recipe if you are trying to have everyone enjoy a luxurious long nap.

Bloody terrible for a memorable teaching moment.


How do you think about the poor?

The people in front of me were preparing to get involved in poverty reduction. They figured that they knew more about poverty and travel than 90% of their friends and family and they were used to being the experts. They were not yet practitioners, but they knew the language, they understood the stats, they had made some visits. Everyone in the room identified with the poor. They felt their pain.

The problem was everyone in the room thought they already ‘got’ what I was teaching.

I was talking about how many people think about the poor. How we see their needs more than we see them as people. The students were nodding in agreement with me. It was terrible.

This is one of the toughest groups to train. People who quickly agree with you have invariably mentally checked out. I could read the thoughts coming from some of their heads, “I hope so-and-so is listening to this, THEY really need to understand!”

My friend Paul once taught me a technique I still use. Great teachers will occasionally create some tension and disagreements in the classroom. Everyone pays attention to an argument. The problem was that I couldn’t find someone to disagree with me. Everyone was being too agreeable – thus boring class.  Here is a hint, if you ever find yourself falling asleep in class, vehemently disagree with the prof. It will make the time go by a lot faster!

I felt like I was becoming the kind of teacher I hated –  a fool blathering about things everyone already knows.

As I tried to push people to think a little different about the poor, suddenly I caught a little break. A great student began to speak, she said “I understand the poor, I was recently spending time with some poor people and they began to complain about their poverty. So that’s when I told them “In many ways you are better off than me.’ …”

It was a perfect moment for a disagreement and I did. I responded. “Really!? If you really think that the poor are better off than you, go ahead and trade places”

How would you respond?

Would you trade places?

If you wouldn’t trade, then the poor people you are talking about are probably not really better off than you. Sure you may admire or even want some parts of their life or their community, but that is not the same as saying you are actually better off than me. That rings hollow.

That brings me to my point. The #1 worst way to think about the poor is that The poor are victims waiting for our help. Most international workers have learned how offensive and destructive this is.

The solution is not to try to think of the poor through the exact opposite lens. If you do, you will hit the #2 worst way to think about the poor. “The poor are magically noble.”  People who have worked with the poor for a short time will say things like:

  • The kindest person I ever met is homeless
  • The poor are so noble and super inspiring
  • The people in [insert poor country here] are the friendliest people you will ever meet!
  • On the street, they really know how to give


Is it true that the poor are inspiring?

Sure, sometimes, just like any group. But I am suspicious of any sweeping generalization. Places with extreme poverty also have people who want to manipulate and rip you off. Platitudes about the poor that ring hollow don’t help. The poor are not some second-coming of Gandhi, Buddha, Robin Hood and Jesus.

Stereotypes rip people off from real friendships
 Don’t get me wrong. I understand why people want to embiggen the poor. It comes out of a healthy wish to right the wrongs. To reverse the terrible tragedy of seeing the poor as hopeless and incompetent. But sharing any simple opinion about a huge community is not helpful even if it is tries to paint them in a noble light.

To deal with poverty we must stop all one-dimensional versions of the poor. Negative and positive. The people who make a difference in poverty are the people who see the poor as friends people. Actual friends people. Occasionally witty, sometimes annoying. Like your friend who is always late, the one your mom likes, the one who forgets your birthday, the one who always calls you to go for lunch at the exact right moment.

People we want to share our lives with. Real. People. Just like you or me.

Have you ever been guilty of talking about the poor in unhealthy noble terms? What has been the result?

Is It Ignorant to Ask “Where Are You REALLY From?”

I was once called by a survey company. I began to busily give my opinion about whatever it was that interested them. As we neared the end, the interviewer needed to know some demographic information and he asked me “Where are you from?”


“Canada” I replied.

“But what is your background, where are you from?”

“I am Canadian.” I asserted.

He then asked where I was originally from.

I replied that I was an 8th generation Canadian (at the time, I didn’t know I was also Status Native). He was really stumped…


How to reduce the threat of militants who are trying to kill you

My brother was working in Pakistan, in an area where terrorist attacks have become commonplace. He was there to aid the local people rebuild after some devastating mudslides had torn up their homes, communities and lives. While he was helping, militants were actively looking for ways to kill people who look like my brother. It was and still is a dangerous place. Thankfully he made it back home safely and I recently asked him what he considered the secret to his safety.

I too have felt the results of war a few times – In the Palestinian territories as I talked to the soldier in Bethlehem square, blocks of concrete whistled past my head at a guard post. The soldier clicked his gun off safety and ran towards the youth. Later that same trip as I walked up a hill to find a moment to myself, my persistent guide began to shout for my attention. I ignored his cries until I heard him say “They are shooting up there!” I decided to turn around.


Driving the shooting gallery

I have worked in a war zone in DRCongo, the longest running war in the world with a death toll of over a 1,000,000 people in the last 20 years. I most remember the striking image of the rocket launcher slung across the shoulder of the militant. She was there to protect me I was told. I missed a border crossing and had to run the hazardous trail from Bukavu to Burundi in the afternoon – the time when the local militias got trigger happy. My friend, Raha, kept calling and checking in every moment he could reach us by cell phone, frightened for my safety.

In the grand scheme of risk, my stories do not share the same drama that others have faced. Much more horrible things happen to international workers. I got a call from a volunteer within hours of the moment when he held a man as he bled to death. A construction accident on a job site building a children’s home.

The equipment burst in his hands, sending a shard into his heart.

There is real danger in travel.

Most development takes place in places where there are greater dangers than home. Disease. The Environment. and Armed Men With Guns all play a part.

Back to my brother in Pakistan. He was surrounded by razor wire, and high fences. The guards on the compound carried guns. There were protocols and procedures. Safe areas and meeting points.  Still that is never enough. He let me know his secret to personal safety, the same one I use.

He got to know the neighbours.


Like most of life, the secret is relationships

He dropped in often to the neighbour next door. He brought over food. Learned the names of the kids. He drank endless cups of tea. He asked questions about their lives. He shared his own experiences. In short he became a neighbour, not a foreigner.

After getting to know them, at one point he asked about the dangers of local militants, “What should I do if something bad happens?” His neighbour pointed out how the neighbourhood worked, the narrow streets that felt so confining also held an advantage. The houses were all close together for a reason. He told him, “if ever you are feeling in danger get on your roof – jump over the gap to our house – we will shelter you.”

When surrounded by danger, no amount of protective razor wire or fire-power is as powerful as the protection of a neighbourhood. The first step to safety is to become a fellow human begin and get to know the neighbours.

Have you ever been in a dangerous situation?

Mark Crocker

Photo Credit: gfairchild via Compfight cc

The Biggest Travel Etiquette Blunders

This might be the most offensive post I have ever written. So far…

Photo Credit: daystar297 via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: daystar297 via Compfight cc

Have you ever offended someone and you didn’t know until it was too late? When I was about 20 years old, I remember driving down the Deerfoot in Calgary with a few other friends.  We happened to drive along a police car and noticed that the cop in the passenger seat was chatting with his partner, he was relaxed and had his finger casually hooked into the window frame. The funny thing was that it was his middle finger and so he looked like he was flipping us all off.


We did what we thought was right. All three of us in the car likewise returned the favour. We flipped him the bird. We gave him the Trudeau salute. We showed him the finger.

Brave or stupid, we were about to find out

He finally noticed us and he frowned. We quickly pointed at his own finger, smiled broadly, and began to sweat that this was probably not a great idea after all. Luckily the officer noticed what we were doing and had a great sense of humour. He split up laughing and pulled down the offending finger.

When I travel I also find myself in similar circumstances. I may think I am simply relaxing, calling a kid over, or saying “great job!” and be completely unaware of how much I am confusing or offending any number of people who pass by. Thankfully, most of the time they will also laugh along with (at) me as I obviously don’t know the local rules.

Curious how you would do? Here is a great fun way to find out!

(if the story already offended you, don’t check it out)


The fatal flaw to understanding another culture

A few years ago I was in India and I met a travel writer for Outdoor magazine. We chatted about life, travel, writing. I was a little jealous of his life and work. I had overheard him talking to an Indian guy about his wife and so I asked about his family. He told me that he wasn’t actually married, but in Indian culture it made sense to refer to his partner as wife.

Indian Women with Headscarves

I understood why he did so. I was also there with my wife Supriya, although at the time she was my girlfriend. We had gone for a walk in Pune one night, we held hands and, looking for a place to buy water, made our way into a roadside pub. Almost immediately Supriya’s cousin Biyah appeared to ask why we were there? It seems we had violated a number of unspoken cultural taboos. (more…)

89 reasons why you think about poverty the way you do

When I think of living out in the country, farm-life, the picture that comes to mind is of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Little House on the Prarie”. Those were the shows I watched as a kid. Sod-busters. Barn-raising. Ice cream socials and square dancing.

So when I think of village life I think of rustic, hard-working strapping men and women who may be poor, but by using their few resources they pull themselves up by hard work and gumption.

If there are any problems, they were solved in about 22 minutes – or 44 if it was a two part episode.

The first time I walked into an African village my perspective of the quaint village shifted.

Some things are similar.

A village in Africa is also filled with hard working men and women.

They are real people with full lives. They wake up everyday and get the job done. But the village there is very different than the village I learned about on TV. In a developing country, living in a village usually means you are poor.

Nothing wrong with being poor of course, but most people don’t want to stay that way.

What picture comes to your mind when you think village?

Pictures stick with us, sometimes for decades. For me it was the first time I went to Ethiopia, I knew the famine was long over, but those images during the 80’s were in my head. Of course that wasn’t the reality anymore when I went and so my perspective had to change.

How many pictures of Africa do you think you have seen? How many pictures of aid work? We have all seen 10’s of thousands of images of international aid workers.

What story do they tell?

I searched the web for pictures of people doing aid work and put 89 of those images together into this short slide show. Individually, each of the pictures probably tell a version of a story that is strangely different when you take them all together.

a perspective that was probably not intended …

Here is my suggestion.  Watch the video and ask yourself a question:

What is the story that is being told through this collection of pictures?

Mark Crocker

How to tell time

We left our guesthouse just after 7 am because our host had told us that the high mountain road was under construction. There was only one way in, and there would only be a couple moments when we could get through. We had to get there before 8 or we would have to wait until after noon.

How to Tell Time
We were cutting it close, but I felt good, we were going to make the deadline. We kept up the pace, until suddenly we rounded the corner to see a long line of parked vehicles in front of us. We stopped for what would turn out to be an unexpected lesson. (more…)

How to Tell a Story so People Pay Attention

A number of years ago I met Foday. He was tall, lanky and busy. Always moving. His young sons would run to hang on him whenever he could find his father taking a break, which was not often. Foday knew how to smile. A kind man, he quietly lit up a room.

Boday Sierra Leone
Foday & Sons – Kabala, Sierra Leone

Foday wanted what every good father wants. The best opportunity for his sons to succeed in life.  I don’t know if I really understood that as much as I do today – my two daughters have probably helped me understand this in a new way.

The problem was that we were in Sierra Leone. A country that had just come out of a savage and brutal time. Many people in the community shared the physical scars of the war.

Foday introduced me to a farmer with a missing arm.

Rebels had stopped this particular farmer and asked him a question”Do you want a short sleeve or a long sleeve shirt?(more…)

How language almost starved a 12 year old boy.

When I was a kid I went overnight camping with a group of other boys. We got into normal shenanigans. Lit fires. Chopped down trees. Got into fights. Our leader had enough of us and at one point in frustration he shouted his threat “if you don’t shape up you won’t be getting any mail!”

Mark Age 12Strange right?

I did not understand. It was a weekend camping trip. I didn’t expect mail and the threat seemed hollow. Weak. “Who cares about mail!?” I thought. But everyone seemed to calm down in a hurry. In the sudden silence I wondered if I was missing the point.

So I asked him, “What’s a mail”?

My question only seemed to increase his frustration. He grew visibly more upset as I repeated my question. A little louder. A little more forcefully.

“What’s a MAIL?”

I did not help to reduce the tension. If anything his temperature was sky-rocketing. I felt like he was going to lose it on me, and for what, “mail“!?!

Scott StillerIt all made sense

That was when my friend Scott grabbed my arm and told me to shut up. “Meal! Mark. MEAL! He is telling us we will have to skip a meal if we don’t listen!”

I immediately shut up. Few things matter more to a 12 year old boy than food.

Everyone there thought I was just bring a cheeky little snot and was trying to aggravate him. Fair enough – I often was. But in this case it was an honest mistake. His British accent, although tempered by years spent in Canada, still came on strong. Probably more so when he was sick and tired of playing babysitter to a dozen boys (…looking back – good on you Keith).

You don’t have to speak different languages to require a translator

As I travel I have discovered that people speak differently.  I am not referring to language. I mean that people who share the same language will use it in very different ways.  I may be speaking English to someone, but I need to know the other rules of communication. One key rule, is the difference between direct and indirect speech.

  • Direct speakers say things like, “What do I think? I disagree. Why don’t you try it this way?”
  • Indirect speakers say things like, “I love your plan! Have you heard Petra’s idea, what do you think about it?”

Not too complicated, but most cultures have preferences.  Roughly 3.5 billion people on the planet prefer to speak directly; and 3.5 billion people prefer to speak indirectly.

deceptive or unrefined

If you belong to a highly direct culture you will find indirect speech seems evasive and tricky, maybe even a little deceptive. If you belong to a more indirect culture you will find direct speech shockingly abrupt, it seems unrefined and rude. The same sentence will mean very different things.

As a Canadian I tend to speak directly and I wonder if I really understand how indirect communication works.  Maybe as a direct speaker I have some weird unconscious bias against indirect communication. I think it gets in the way of getting things done. Although, I must admit, Japan and India prefer indirect ways of speaking and they sure make things happen. They lead the world in productivity. So I wonder how they are able to get so much done, when it seems like they never directly confront problems? I wonder if I am missing a perspective? Do I have a cultural blind-spot? Understanding this would certainly be a valuable skill if I was working with people who prefer indirect ways of talking – Don’t you think?

Did you see what I did there?

If you followed that last paragraph, then guess what! You understand indirect communication. A much more direct approach would have been if i had simply stated: Direct communicators, like myself, have an unshakeable and somewhat arrogant belief that we have the right way of communicating. I am wrong.

Although all cultures have preferences about direct and indirect communication, cultures tend to use both. You do better if you know the preference for the place you are travelling.

Have you ever felt like you were communicating clearly, but totally missed the point?


Mark Crocker

Say Hello - Creole

How to say Hello in Creole

I am on my way to my 5th visit to Haiti and I am totally embarrassed to say that I don’t know how to say ‘hello’ in Creole.

Seriously. How lame is that?


I know how to say ‘bonjour’ of course, and knowing a bit of French can get me by. But in Haiti, the majority of people speak Haitian. A patois, partially French, partially local and all Haitian.

I have good reason as to why I don’t know how to say hello in Haitian. I travel to many different countries in my work. Much of my work is seminar style. I am in and out quickly. I don’t stay long in one place. Over the last couple of years alone it would have helped if I could speak French, Spanish, Filipino, Japanese and Swahili. I can’t learn them all!

Sounds convincing right?

The problem is that I can always find a good excuse not to learn some of the language. In doing so, I join myself to a special group of international workers. A group I am not proud to belong to.

Around the world I have met long term workers who have lived in their countries for years, occasionally decades, and they still don’t know the language. This, they assure me, is not a problem. There are plenty of local people who want to learn English. Translators are cheap. They have systems in place and look at what they are accomplishing. Ultimately, they tell me, they are too busy with their successful projects to stop and learn the language.

Still sound convincing?

I wonder, isn’t there more to life than accomplishing tasks and getting projects done. What about your evenings and weekends? Who do you hang out with then? Other expats only? The few who speak your language? Is this simply all about accomplishing tasks and getting projects done?

Knowing another language is more than understanding the code for your own language. It is a way to understand the soul of a community. Something different happens when you chat after the meeting. When you can walk through the community and discover your neighbours concern for their son. The grandfather who is ill. When you can come back on the weekend and hear what happened that week.

When Supriya and I travelled to Newfoundland soon after our marriage I found myself in the role of an interpreter. As the kitchen party went on later into the evening, my uncles grabbed guitars and sang the old songs, the stories of our history were trotted out again “Pops cup” gets told and retold, growing every time.

The dialect grew broader as the speech clipped along faster and faster. Stories evoked gales of laughter that I needed to interpret to Supriya as she was forced to smile and nod.

It was a lot more than than translating a few words. The language was the culture. The culture is the language. I need to be able to say hello, I know better.

By the way, “bonjou” is how you say hello in Creole.

Do you think learning the language matters that much?

Mark Crocker


How to know if you are a traveller or tourist

I don’t hear anyone saying that they want to be known as a tourist. If anything, when I find out someone has just got home from a cruise, they sometimes feel the need to explain themselves. They explain that they got away from the group every chance they got to have a ‘real local’ experience. What is a real hard-core traveller supposed to do, with travel so easy and cheap, it seems like everyone is doing it.  Don’t fret! Here are the top five tell-tale signs to separate the hard-core traveller from the cruise-line tourist:

Traveller or Tourist







 photo by Ian T. McFarland

1.  Tourists go and buy travel gear at travel stores before they leave – Travellers go and buy the more expensive travel gear at travel stores before they leave.

2. Tourists learn a few phrases of the local language before they go. Travellers explain that they could not possibly learn a few more phrases since they travel to so many other places in a year. The tourist is grateful when a traveller helps out, not with a few words in the local language, but with an iPhone app.

3. When walking down the street in a new country, tourists make eye contact with other tourists when they see one another. Travellers will pretend not to see each other.

4.  Tourists say, “Where are you going on your next vacation!”  Travellers respond with a world-weary sigh and suggest “When you travel as much as I do you don’t always know where the road may lead …”  Travellors know that eager desire to see new places is not cool – Yoda-like pronouncements are cool.

5. Travellers call themselves something funky like “expats” or “temporary nomads” – tourists call themselves ‘travellers’

What do you think? Are you a traveller or a tourist? Is the word ‘Traveller’ just a newer hipper word instead of ‘Tourist’?

Got any more to add to the list?

Mark Crocker

The 11 people you meet in the boarding lounge.

Sitting in the boarding lounge before a trip to haiti.
We are on travel time. Not real time. A portal to elsewhere.

Flight crew saunter in and wait in the no mans land between the gate agents desk and the security doors. Flight attendants read People magazine. Captains and first officers brightly chat as they carry and ferry Starbucks to flocks of flight attendants.

Wheelchair porters stand ready. Chatting quietly with one another until it comes time to push a passenger forward. Then the appropriate charm or chill will come out according to some internal barometer of passenger patience.

Gate agents try to create order of the mass of people. Continued calls for various passengers to approach. Facing down the horde who lie in wait for the hint of upgrade. The list grows ever longer. Super elite. Elite. Sapphire. Gold. First. Business. Emergency row. Plus. Group one. The crush forward. Older annoyed passengers exclaim ‘we are all getting on the plane – no use in rushing to sit down!’

STM team members wear matching tshirts. Comic sans font proclaim team name and English scripture references. The groups resting on and around luggage piles. Members smile and chat as middle aged men share the finer points of culture or travel advice back and forth with one another as Haitians listen on.

Young Aid workers wearing jeans and fashionable scarves sit hunched over macbook pros. Older more jaded NGO workers wearing wrinkled quick dry long sleeves sit hunched over beaten-up windows machines with stickers of their aid agency stuck on the back. Both read from spreadsheets, graphs and endless email.

Black men, affable and portly in clerical collars walk by with cheap luggage. smiling at everyone and no one alike, slightly baffled at the intricacies of the airport.

Mixed race couples with children sit together even as they are casually separated by various I-devices. Familiar with the routine they amble forward at the call for business class passengers.

White women with Haitian babies held protective and close. If you catch their eye they look a little longer. Willing you to ask them a question.

Business men in blazers on cel phones. Those with Bluetooth gadgets in their ear at some point in the call announcing the fact that they are in an airport, credentials as an international traveller appropriately noted, they continue with the more banal news of collegial deadline and meeting – the gossip of the office.

The modern backpacker – Hipsters rest with their girlfriends. Sharing screens and earbuds. Carry on luggage artfully aged in vegan dyed leathers shunning the convenience of handles and wheels.

Young men dressed in dark jeans, loud t-shirts and gold chains sport bright red Beats headphones. They point at friends greeting and meeting their way along to the gate.

Then my group is called …


We are on travel time. Not real time.

Have you ever stood here?

Mark Crocker

3 secret rules to learn a new language quickly and easily.

I once sat with a guy in Guatemala. For over 30 minutes we talked about our lives, our families, where we came from and where we were going. The funny thing is that we didn’t actually speak each other’s language! He spoke Spanish, and I didn’t.

How do you learn a foreign language?

Photo Credit: tobyct via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: tobyct via Compfight cc

Ever wonder why some people seem to learn a language quickly? They seem to have it so easy. Do you wish you had their skills? Here are the secrets: (more…)

The secret test used by experts to decide if you deserve their time

I am heading out to the DRC this weekend. While I am there, I am helping to build capacity for an ERDO project with CFGB and CIDA funding for a variety of program participants including OVC’s and  IDP’s.  In case you were wondering, the FBO or NGO we are working with is CEPAC.

Are you lost yet?

Additionally, today I was on the CDC site to check out what vaccines I might need to catch up on.  If you are a traveler, you should know the CDC site is a great resource.

Photo Credit: antony_mayfield via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: antony_mayfield via Compfight cc

Confused with all of the lingo? What if I told you it was intentional, and for a very good reason [at least in some people’s minds]. (more…)

Close but no Engrish!

No Parking in IndiaPeople in other countries sometimes go out of their way to communicate with English-speaking tourists. Here are several signs, seen in locations around the world.

Cocktail lounge, Norway:



What it feels like to be your victim

This is a poem i often use as I assist volunteers to prepare for work and life overseas. Consider the words. They are incredibly important:

Great White Mother

You, great white mother,
take beggar-African-Indian children;
You who feel so much for yourself and your world
will reach out to touch them and save them!?

You, great white mother,
and your mate, the great white father,
working ceaselessly in your own ways
to save and to touch us all;

He bombs us
in Lebanon and Libya,
massacres us
in Central America and Abyssinia,
starves and mutilates us
wherever he finds us,

while you pour out your sick, guilt-ridden love
over our tired and broken bodies
the spirit in us chokes — and suffocates — and is

What your mate, the great white father,
could not accomplish
with all his bombs and armies and churches,
you, great white mother,
will have accomplished
with your charity and goodness-filled heart.

He would break our spirit
and disempower us with his might;
You would break our spirit
and disempower us with your love.

So you, great white mother,
who give birth to dead children,
massacring their humanity in your womb
and in their childhood
by silent compliance with the great white father,
will love and touch us?

You, who cannot respond
to your poor-jobless-starving-homeless-battered-heatless
white sisters–will love and touch us?

Do you not see
that we are still burning from your touch?
That my sisters are being butchered and sterilized
while you are having fantasies
about birthing like women do in Africa?

That our children are poisoned by the drugs and pollution
your mate dumps onto us,
while you sit dreaming of poisoning their humanity
with your lily-white love?

Your New-Age missionaries
to replace
the great white fathers’ old church missionaries,
all attempting
to dehumanize us,
deny us our rage,
our hatred,
our strength,
our right to liberate our humanity?

And you, great white mother,
do all this in the name of love.
Yet, we both know that your existence depends on us!

You cannot play
the saviour,
benefactor, civilizer,
pure-white, charitable, loving, forgiving,
noble, highly-evolved, good mother
unless you make us become
poor-starving-sick-beggar-African-Indian children.

Well, great white mother,
you just try to touch me or my children …
You just try to love us into your salvation!
From your nice white position,
high up there,
above the rest of us;
You just try–and I will smash you!

Sunera Thobani
Editor/Publisher of Aku, magazine for forum on East Indian views in Asian immigrant community, Vancouver. The Brown Bagger Vancouver Cooperative Radio, May 10,1991

Would you like to be the victim in someone else’s story?

Mark Crocker

How do you say hello in Korean?

My brother just returned to Canada from language learning in Costa Rica. He brought his Korean-American partner Mary home with him. My wife Supriya and I thought that we should greet her in Korean, we did so very very formally. She got the joke and laughed.

Photo Credit: jovike via Compfight cc

I cheekily told her, “Wow, your english is great” (this should not be a surprise, she was brought up in America)

Her response … “So is yours!”

Fantastic response!

I find it curious when I hear someone say “They don’t speak any English here” while they are travelling in another country.  Why should they?  The better comment is for us to say “I don’t speak any Korean” the traveller is the outsider. The expectation should not be that others speak your language.

Anyways in Korean “Welcome” is “Oso oseyo” which surprisingly I spoke in an understandable way!?

Do you know how to say hello in another language? Share what you know here!

Big Lies: get to know you game

Here is a great icebreaker I often use when training people. I am afraid I don’t know the source, but it is simple to play and a lot of fun. Check out these BIG LIES.

The concept is simple. Write down three statements about yourself, the catch is that one of the statements is true, while the other two are complely false. The team then votes to determine the true statement. Here are a couple of examples. Remember only one of these statements are true

  1. I have eaten dog in China and loved it.
  2. I have eaten crocodile in Kenya and liked it.
  3. I have eaten mouse on a stick in Malawi and hated it.

Guess which one is true about me! (more…)

Hearing from the Margins

I am hosting an incredible tour for CAUSE Canada right now. We just had our first event, one of our guests, Jepamani from Sri Lanka shared her story of what it was like to be present when the Tsunami hit her village. She talked about what she heard, saw and smelled over those early days, and she continued to share how they still live in tents today … Five and a half months after the wave.

All too often we hear from media, or from visiting Aid workers. This tour is helping share the stories of the actual members of the margins. Those heros who live there today and will continue to live there into the future, supporting and helping those around them

It was a powerful night. I only wish that everyone could hear from our guests firsthand.