Last week I began a new monthly column for Transitions Abroad* with a story of what happened to me on an Indian bus that turned me into an “Ugly American.” I’m not ashamed of it. At all. Particularly if you go back and look at the original meaning of that term, “Ugly American” — it’s essentially the ultimate in “travel like a local.”
The phrase is usually reserved for loud-mouthed, culturally insensitive travelers away from home actually began with Homer, a sleeves-rolled-up Pittsburgher working and living with locals in Southeast Asia in William J Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s 1958 book The Ugly American.
He’s the book’s undisputed hero, but ultimately trivialized by diplomats who seem hell-bent on sending the US into a war against communism in the region. Published a few years before the US entered war with North Vietnam, the diplomats ended up getting what they wanted.
By the way, the woman photographed above is or isn’t an “ugly American” by any of its definitions. I don’t know. But I do find sporting a “USA” bikini in 700-year-old ruins sort of hilarious.
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*The name for my column with Transitions Abroad, “How to Enjoy the World,” borrows a phrase for a book idea Robert Louis Stevenson once considered. My rediscovery of Stevenson has been a surprise for me in recent years — as a traveler, more so than a novelist of pirate tales. After reading his Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, I tracked down the site of his immortal mantra — “travel for travel’s sake” — in France recently. And “how to enjoy the world” seems the most direct description of what a travel writer does, or tries to do, as I’ve seen. Plus my name’s also Robert.