You’re walking round Sainsbury’s, doing your weekly shop and a middle-aged lady wanders out from isle 10, milk in hand with her breasts hanging out. You avert your eyes and feel a little shocked and embarrassed for her. An elderly man shuffles past you and spits on the floor in front of you and I imagine you’re disgusted. You get home and there’s a knock at the door, it’s a family of foreign people who you promised could have a look round. They spot baby Harry rolling around on the floor in his nappy and a heap of washing up by the sink and they burst into floods of tears and leave wailing in some language you don’t understand. Odd day!
You see ladies when you stroll down the streets with your bare shoulders on display in many Asian countries or wearing your shortest shorts you are shocking and upsetting locals. Not only could you be putting yourself at unnecessary risk but you are actually offending people. So don’t moan when every other person is staring hard at you. If you’ve just landed in a sweltering hot country, take a light scarf in your bag. Keep it wrapped around your shoulders until you’ve seen what the locals do. Don’t use other tourists as examples of what to wear!
It’s completely normal to spit on the floor, even indoors in many parts of China – shocking to many of us but it’s not your place to question it. Okay I admit my eyes widened when a middle-aged woman flemmed all over a shop floor but I walked past without comment. Tut all you like in your own country (if it’s not customary to spit) or be kind and explain to them that it’s not polite. I’m always grateful when locals explain the do’s and do not’s to me.
When a family or community allows you into their home, hut or village and you shed a tear ‘at how poor they are’, stop and think. How would you feel if you’d invited people into your neighbourhood and at the sight of your life and your children they leave in floods of tears? Pretty shit huh. I’ve seen it happen and it makes me want to hide under a stone I’m so embarrassed. We’re so bloody lucky to have the opportunities we do and to travel the world, even if it’s a lifetime of short getaways. Most people reading this will have been lucky enough to have been brought up in a home with running water and without a million flies on your face. Most of us probably even had our own bedrooms. Lucky, that’s all we are! It’s like a postcode lottery on an global scale.
In Thailand you never walk across a threshold, home or hostel wearing your shoes. The Royal family are worshipped so stepping on money is like stepping on the Royal family – a punishable offence. Every country has its own etiquette and part of travel is learning and respecting the local customs. Some of them may seem ridiculous but it’s important.
Now here’s a biggie! Photographing people. For those who’ve followed my travels you’ll see very few people photos. I love portraiture, especially the elderly. I’m a sucker for traditional dress and a lined face full of wisdom. But in many countries it’s really not ok to take people’s photos. In many African countries there’s a belief that you’re stealing their soul. Do you really want that on your conscience? Some 80 year old woman in turmoil because you snatched her soul just to stick a filter on it and get a load of insta-likes. Not cool. Obviously there are ways to do this properly – just ask first. Most of my people shots I’ve been asked to take by the locals who wanted to see what they look like on camera. If you plan on carrying on with your face snapping regardless please go to China and see how it feels having a camera in your face every five minutes, just because you look different.
Haggling/bartering… in some places it’s a must. I used to hate it but now I realise it’s harmless enough and adds a kind of thrill to shopping. I definitely wouldn’t advocate paying over the odds for anything BUT when it’s a bottle of water and it costs the equivalent of 10 pence I think it’s usually unnecessary to barter it down to 7 pence. Pay what you can afford and in line with local prices. People have mouths to feed and if 3 pence means nothing to you then part with it freely as it may mean a lot to the recipient.
This blog post is a little shouty and I know most travellers and tourists adhere to local customs, but I was kept up last night by a group of drunk Brits roaming the beautiful streets of El Born. Meh.
Go global, act local!