My parents, through years of continuous pressure and pounding, managed to instil in me a few fundamental core values. Through all my eye rolling and sighs, despite my relatively thick skull, and the belief I was intelligent enough to make up my own mind, conditions I continue to suffer from as an adult, a few of those core values stuck. I use the term ‘adult’ loosely.
Amongst a propensity to be a gentleman, treating women like they’re human, and refusing to accept my gay friends are sinful monsters, one of those values was a great respect for cultural differences, which is a rather turbid subject that raises the ire of nations and incites conflict, from disgruntlement to war.
I have a mixed race, and thus a mixed cultural, ancestry. I get the best and worst of a number of cultures and have been taught that each needs to be respected, within limits, even when parts of it seem unusual or disagreeable.
What has always irked me as a traveller is the complete disrespect for other cultures some people display, especially when visiting a different country. I find it difficult to understand how people travel, yet refuse to adapt their behaviour to suit local customs, traditions, and even laws.
As much as I enjoy reading stories of fools being arrested overseas for showing such disrespect, it is something that every person who is travelling should take the time to learn. It takes little effort and, while you may have to moderate your behaviour, you will be rewarded by locals with friendliness and acceptance. They will see you are making an effort and they will love you for it.
There are a huge number of local customs that differ from what you may be used to. In many Buddhist nations, for example, if you get angry or raise your voice, everyone around you will think you’re an asshole. You are not displaying assertiveness, you are showing a lack of composure. People may smile at you uncomfortably, showing they’re embarrassed for you because you cannot control your temper, like a child throwing a tantrum. Show “jai yen” or “cool heart”. It will get you further.
Much of the world is more conservative than the West, and while some may be accepting as you wander around the markets in a singlet and shorts, others are not. Anyone looking to travel to any country, should do some research on the local customs and expectations. Here are a few suggestions I would make to anyone travelling.
- Learn about where you’re travelling to. I know you have access to the internet, unless someone has printed this out and handed it to you. Don't laugh, I have seen it done. There is a lot of information available and while some areas of where you travel may be more relaxed, it will pay to know the local customs so you don’t get caught out.
- Keep an open mind. You will see things you think are strange, unusual, or just plain weird. They may not make sense. They may seem crude or silly. The humbling part is understanding that what you think doesn’t matter. I have had a lot of conversations that have ended with a shrug and a "this is the insert-country-here way".
- Do not expect your customs to be accepted elsewhere in the world. Some countries find tipping extremely rude. Others do not like direct eye contact. Some believe refusing food or drink is bad manners. What you may have believed to be good manners your entire life may have a very different meaning in another place. Personally, I think sending me cash is both acceptable and good manners.
- Your money will likely mean more to them than it does to you. In some parts of the world, bartering with the locals is an attraction in itself. However, in the end, you should pay a fair price for the goods or services you are receiving. I have caught myself in a small stall, bartering with a man over a t-shirt while I considered if it was really worth the four dollars he wanted for it, or if I could get it for three. Maintain some perspective.
- Respect human rights. This should be a no-brainer, but some need to be reminded that people shouldn’t be treated like slave labour just because you're on holiday. Sure I'll have a back massage on the beach every day for three weeks, but I will pay a fair price. Unfortunately there is an ominous side to this as well. The dark shadow of the sex industry hangs over tourism everywhere. Indulging in this is not lighthearted fun. It is fuelling a corrupt system thriving on suffering.
- Protect the environment. Yes, I’m a greenie. I have this love for nature and it disgusts me seeing it exploited. That adage: take only photos, leave only footprints. Preferably don’t leave any footprints either if you can help it. Lumbering about like a rhinoceros on coral, for example, can do decades of damage. As for animal entertainment, my basic rule of thumb: if you get to touch the animals, don’t do it. OK so maybe horse riding is alright. Even basic rules have exceptions.
- Learn the laws. This is less about respect and more about not getting your ass landed in hot water. I have never heard anyone say jails in Guatemala are like 4 star resorts. There are any number of obscure legal transgressions you may make, but ignorance is rarely a strong defense.
Enjoy your travels!!