It seems to me that when we travel to another country, we should automatically respect the culture of that country. I believe firmly in, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” but this does not seem to be the way many travelers think. Is it their arrogance or ignorance that makes them repeat offenders?
I remember one incident in Jerusalem’s old city, when I visited Israel. It was 1993, and I was on my way to see the Wailing Wall, also known as the Western Wall. It was an incredibly hot day. I was wearing shorts and a T shirt, and started toward the wall. Within moments I was wrapped in a long cloth, and asked to cover up. The Western Wall is believed to be the western wall of the Second Temple, and a very sacred place for Jews. I was so embarrassed, and apologized over and over to the man who intercepted me. When I turned around I saw that he had a heap of wraps lying at the entrance. I guess this must have happened a lot. It put a bit of a damper on my experience, because I should have checked first. Since then I have always made sure I knew as much as I could about a destination before traveling.
I checked through the websites of a few embassies and tour companies and couldn’t find any tips on how to avoid an act of cultural disrespect. That surprised me. I came to the conclusion that you need to give yourself quite a bit of time to scour the internet, talk to experts and visit the library. It might be too late to wait until you actually arrive at your destination, having said that, it is never a bad idea to talk to locals.
Here are a few ideas to think about before traveling.
Research your destination
Learn a few phrases in the local language. Things like, “May I please”, and “Thank you”, or “Could you please direct me?” etc. Your efforts will be appreciated.
If you aren’t sure, ask first. May I take a picture of this shrine or other religious building? May I hand out candy to children in a rural village? First ask the village leaders.
Check on the dress code, especially for woman. Dress code is not only important for sight seeing religious destinations, but could also be an issue on beaches. Make sure you know what is accepted and what is not.
What are the courtesy customs? I can think of Moroccan markets for instance. You may want to buy a hand woven carpet and negotiate a price. The shop keeper will no doubt offer you a cup of mint tea. Don’t refuse it, this would be rude. Mint tea is a traditional refreshment taken during price negotiations. In Southern Africa a man will walk through a door before a woman. He is not being rude; he is proceeding first to make sure the passage is safe.
Body language could be really important. See if you can find out what is considered polite or not.
If you mess up, and do something that is offensive to a local person, be sincere and apologize. You will more than likely find that the apology is accepted. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to strike up a conversation, and ask about local culture.
The whole issue of respect for a foreign culture when traveling could turn into a serious problem if you inadvertently broke a law. It just isn’t worth it to spoil your holiday. Some things are simply logic. Don’t try and peel off a bit of rock from a shrine as a souvenir, or autograph an ancient tree. It could get you into a heap of trouble with local authorities.
I guess my whole message here is not to give examples of polite or correct behavior in every country. That would be impossible. I am just saying, think before you leave. Find out as much as you can about the country you will be visiting.
Have you experienced or witnessed anything mentioned above? I love hearing feedback from our readers.
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Author: Principle writer – Celeste Wilson
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