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How To Be More Than "Just Another Cozumel Tourist"

If you've ever traveled outside your home country, you probably have your own collection of "Ugly American" (or Canadian or French or German or Japanese) stories to bring back home. The harridan who loudly insists on cottage cheese in an Argentinian restaurant and makes a nasty scene when it's politely explained to her that it's not a popular--or available--item in that country. The jerk who races his rental car through little towns scattering children and chickens in his wake. The lout who shouts louder because he figures maybe the natives will understand English better that way.

The unfortunate truth is that, when visiting a foreign country, some people display behavior they'd never dream of letting all hang out in their own hometown. But even the more sensitive souls among us can make cultural mistakes without even realizing it. These little social boo-boos might not relegate you to the Ugly category. But they encourage the locals to dismiss you as "Just Another Tourist."

Cozumel is a safe, friendly place to visit. And because tourism is such a big industry on the island, you'll more than likely be treated with politeness and decent service no matter how awfully you chose to act while you're here.

(Service people will just tell stories about you behind your back and less sophisticated locals will watch you in wonder and think "so THIS is how they act in other countries!")

But if you want to fit in on Cozumel; that is, if you want to be seen locally as a "real" person, a minsch, a nice, honorable guy or gal by the local folks, here's some tips that will earn you good service, respect and who know? If you're lucky, maybe even the start of a friendship or two.

Um..About That Outfit (or Would Granny Approve?)

Mexico is a conservative, Catholic-dominated country. And although the majority of the tourist-area wait staff and shop help have actually migrated to the island from larger, more sophisticated cities like Vera Cruz and Mexico City, local Cozumelenos still have more traditional small-town attitudes about how people should dress.

For men, there aren't many rules to appearing "respectable" in town. Anything from a tee-shirt and shorts on up is acceptable. But don't whip off the tee-shirt until you get to the beach. Bare chests in town are a no-no.

For females, unfortunately, the rules of respectability are a little stiffer. Although women and girls will be perfectly safe venturing into town braless breasts a-jiggling and sporting skintight short shorts, you should realize that, unless you are "in the protection" of a male, you will be considered fair game to local Lotharios ranging in age from teen to way too old not to know better. (Or so one would think.)

If you're a woman on your own and don't wish to be endlessly hit-upon, you'd do wise to emulate the local women. Save that bikini top for the beach. For the grocery or for walking around in San Miguel, bring a simple little mid-thigh or longer dress or skirt or a pair of walking shorts and a non-form-fitting shirt. At the beach, anything short of topless goes. Also bikini bathingsuit tops in town are frowned upon. Save it for the beach!

Practice Graciousness

Carey's mother has a saying: Treat servants, shop girls and other people that you may consider to be "beneath you" exactly the same as you would a millionaire business man or movie star--and vice versa. This advice holds especially true in a Mayan/Spanish culture like Cozumel. Here people are judged not by what they do for a living, how much money they make--but by the kind of person they are. Is a man good to his family? A woman loyal to her friends? A child polite, respectful and with a sense of humor that lets her roll with the punches? Qualities like these are considered far more important to Cozumelenos than the fact that you own a 40 ft motor launch or a million-dollar house on the beach.

So if you wish to score high in the all important Personality Department, dust off your nicest smile and your Sunday drawing room manners before you hop the plane. You'll find they'll be greatly appreciated by everyone in Cozumel from the lowliest housekeeper at your hotel to the well-dressed Mexican couple at the table next to you in a swank restaurant.

Specifically, smile and look people in the eye wherever you meet them. And sprinkle your interchanges liberally with thank you's (gracias), please's (por favor) and excuse me's (permite). Always greet store help and wait staff with an Hola or Buenos Dias. (See later in the article for other easy-to-acquire Spanish words and phrases that can make all the difference in how you're treated.) And if you want to be really nice, when you leave the store, call out "Gracias. Muy Amable" or Thank you, Very nice. (GRAH-see-us MOO-ee ah-MAHB-leh)

Along these same lines, consider using your Cozumel trip to practice the art of Patience and Forbearance. Latin Americans are generally not in a hurry because they're taking the time to enjoy the moment instead of worrying about what's going to happen next. This may not be an attitude you'd adopt back home with 3 kids to get ready for school or a boss breathing hot air down your neck over a deadline. But remember, you're on vacation now. Work on mellowing out, relaxing. Let the little things go by while you watch the fountain trickle or the wind blow through the orange petals of a flamboyan tree.

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