To help you become a more responsible traveler in 2018 I’ve launched a monthly series of Responsible Travel Challenges. Each month will focus on an ethical change you can make to your travel style that will benefit the communities you visit and ultimately our precious planet. Each detailed guide will contain specific tips on how to be a more responsible traveler. Adhere to these suggestions to make an impact as you travel.
MARCH RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL CHALLENGE: RESPECTING LOCAL CULTURE AND CUSTOMS
As you prepare to head out on your travels you’ve likely researched the destination’s attractions, historic sights, and cuisine. But have you read any local articles that detail the way of life, historic heritage, religious beliefs, language, or cultural norms? This is a crucial part of preparing for your trip that will not only make you a more conscious traveler but will guarantee you have a more meaningful adventure and a better appreciation of the place you’re visiting. You might even learn a thing or two along the way! Research and respect are the easiest ways to show gratitude for your ability to visit foreign lands. The March Responsible Travel Challenge is to use respect local culture. Here are a few ways you can practice respecting local culture as you travel.
Culture exchange is our duty as travelers, to absorb as much as we can about the areas of the world that are so different from our own. We are beyond fortunate, and privileged to have the opportunity to explore the world many cultures, and it’s of utmost importance to acknowledge and respect that. Cultural exchange doesn’t mean pushing your western ideas or judgment onto others, it means asking questions, listening to answers, and enjoying the unique experiences that only travel can bring. Leave your bias at home. Just because you don’t understand something, or that it wouldn’t be right for you, doesn’t make it wrong for others. If traveling to over 50 countries has taught me one thing it’s that there are a million ways to live a life, and each is equal to the other from turmoil to lavish.
When heading out to go sightseeing in a destination remember that you’re the guest, and you’re very fortunate to be able to visit places of religious or cultural importance. Don’t be upset if a certain historic building or house of worship is closed for a private event, locals get to enjoy and use these spaces before we do as tourists. Don’t intrude on private events unless you’re invited inside. If you do get invited to witness and partake in a temple ceremony or marriage festivities lucky you, you’ll get to have a fantastic cultural immersion experience! Many places will have this information online or located somewhere outside of the building–especially religious places that are closed to foreigners during services or prayer times. Schedule your trip according to these local customs whether they’re prayer times, resting times, or local holidays.
Don’t be a part of the ongoing destruction of heritage sites from mass tourism. Never climb on structures, make a mark on them, or risk your life for a whimsical shot, you could be ticketed and fined, and honestly, you’d deserve it. Disrespecting local culture can lead to serious legal issues. There are countless westerns jailed in Southeast Asia for possession of drugs or partaking in illegal sex work. Read up on the rules of the land, if you break a law overseas it’s not likely that the Embassy or Consulate of your home nation will be do anything to help you.
Many sacred places may have strict dress code requirements. It’s so important to respect these, they aren’t meant to suppress you, even if you disagree with their reasoning. I get a little baffled every time I’m in Southeast Asia and see that women can’t enter a particular temple at all, or certain places where women aren’t supposed to go when they’re menstruating. I would never imagine going to a place where it strictly says that women aren’t allowed, no matter how upsetting I may find that to be. If you’re female just keep a lightweight scarf in your handbag so that you can be prepared if you need to cover your head or shoulders. If you know you’ll be spending a day visiting cultural sites it’s best to be prepared by wearing a skirt, dress, or pants that go below your knees. Also, refrain from any PDA while within the grounds of a house of worship, I was shocked every time I saw a couple kissing at a temple in Thailand. As far as acceptable day to day dress goes take a cue from those around you, if you don’t see any locals or expats bearing loads of skin try to refrain from doing so yourself. If you’re uncertain about whether or not something you want to wear could be offensive ask the staff at your accommodation for their honest opinion before heading out. I’ve also written around 20 packing guides for Travel Fashion Girl where you can find clothing tips for destinations around the globe.
Consider local customs and superstitions when visiting a foreign land. It’s impossible to know all of these in advance as they can vary from city to city so pay attention to the way locals behave, ask the staff at your accommodation for tips, or simply state that you aren’t sure how to behave in a certain place and ask someone for guidance. For instance, in Thailand, your feet should never point towards Lord Buddha and in India, you should never eat with your left hand. Do your best to discover what respectful manners and morals are and adhere to them strictly. Wherever you’re going it’s important to be aware of the acceptable way to greet someone local, this way you won’t accidentally lock lips when a French person goes in for a third peck on the cheek or make a hand gesture that deeply offends someone in Indonesia. It’s worth noting that in many countries it is illegal and punishable to speak poorly about members of the monarchy.
It can be shocking to see deep poverty alongside luxury buildings in cities like Delhi, India and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Through my work with Visit.org I visited many slums to learn about their community development and educational programs. Each was a harrowing and yet inspiring experience. I was led by community members who work with local NGOs to raise awareness and financial support for their area. My visits weren’t spectacles, I wasn’t there to gawk or judge, I was there to learn and converse with the community members. Each time I was welcomed with open arms, literally, as guides and the youth of the community showed me how they live. Human curiosity is natural but slum tours operated by private third-party groups often put poverty on display. They tend to encourage photography that should be avoided, no one’s life should be turned into a show for the sake of tourism. Instead seek out tours led by NGOs, nonprofits, and social enterprises that are providing aid to the community.
With poverty often comes interaction with at-risk children. It’s common knowledge that volunteering at orphanages causes more damage than good for children and that some orphanages even operate on a disturbing scam system. Just like slums, it’s best to avoid orphanages unless you’re offering some sort of educational or developmental tool with a highly vetted NGO. If any tour takes you to a classroom during the school day make sure you’re not disrupting, don’t linger or take photos of the children, just say quickly say hello unless you’re presenting a workshop or something similar. In less developed areas you may encounter children who live on the streets and are begging for money. This is one of the most heart-shattering things to witness. I spoke with several NGOs to develop an article for Matador Network detailing the appropriate way to respond to these children along with actionable ideas on what to do. Never give children money or anything that they’d be able to sell. I always purchase these children a meal or water but open everything before handing it over.
Photos can be the most meaningful souvenir from a trip but it’s important to follow the golden rule when snapping pictures of others. I’ve already explained why I no longer take selfies with me in my personal essay about how a sexual assault changed the way I travel. But I’m also not too keen on strangers taking random photos of me without my permission, and expect that most people feel this way. Always respect people’s privacy and dignity and ask before you take their photo. You’ll get a better shot and have the chance to spark a conversation. If someone says no politely say thank you and move on, don’t make a scene or offer them money, how would that make you feel?
I spend a lot of time in remote areas and am enamored by local textiles so I often ask people if I can take their portrait if they agree I always show them the shots afterward, and if we can communicate I offer to e-mail them a copy. If they express interest in photography I encourage them to try the camera out and snap a few shots themselves. Children really love this, the simple interaction could spark a future passion that could lead to the next award-winning National Geographic photographer. If you’re visiting a heritage site and see signs that state no photography, do respect that, don’t try to take sneaky shots and disrespect the place and the culture.
Be mindful of the perception the photos you publish may portray about the place you’ve visited to your audience. So many of my friends from developing countries are disheartened to always see images that only capture the worst parts of their land. I’m embarrassed when they tell me about amazing festivals, waterfalls, or other unique things that I haven’t seen because their countries are only ever exposed as being poor and dirty. Do the place you’re visiting justice by sharing all aspects of what you’ve experienced through your photography. It’s also worth noting that only showcasing the beauty of a place can also be misleading. I see so many whimsical captures of Morocco and can’t help but wonder if these women faced the same torment that I did in the country. Be sure to share the whole story through your social media posts about a trip.
One of the best things you can do to respect local is to learn a few key phrases in the language. This is also the quickest way to make friends wherever you go. Don’t have an ego about your pronunciation, and ask to be corrected or for proper spelling. It will be so appreciated by those you encounter if you attempt to speak a few words in the native tongue. “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Please”, and “Do you speak English?” are the most important to learn. The longer you spend in a country the more you can pick up on local phrases for directions, ordering food, and expressing gratitude. If you cannot find anyone who speaks English don’t get frustrated, as humans we share a universal language, smiles. I’ve gone at least a week without speaking my own language and I’m not fluent in any others. Travel has made me deeply grateful to have been born into a country where English is one of the most common dialects. Whenever others are shy about speaking English with me I always remind them that their English is much better than say my Thai, Burmese, Italian, or Arabic.
Give pause and mind your language even when you aren’t traveling. I’m appalled every time I see instafamous travel gal refer to herself as a gypsy. They may not know the historical context of the word and think it’s quite harmless. Educate yourself about why Roma people find the word gypsy to be derogatory. Even nomad, wanderer, and vagabond might offend some as they’re phrases that were also developed to represent groups of people who historically wander without placing roots in one place for long. I’m sure you can think of other terms to describe yourself as a traveler. I’m guilty of this and am actively trying to change my vocabulary, my father has always referred to me lovingly as his gitana, a term he says never bothered his Roma friends in Uruguay.
Similarly, there are many cutesy ways that people like to borrow words from other languages to come up with catchy captions for photos such as literally blessed, and namaste all day. From my experience, my Indian friends actually enjoy this and do it themselves. I’ve never been told that it’s offensive. But I’d recommend refraining from referring to any deities or historical figures in a comical manner.
This brings us to cultural appropriation. To be blunt, I don’t know many non-Americans that are too bothered about this term and the accused actions. Let the voices of the culture or community in question explain how they feel about these issues. For instance, if I so much a stepped foot outside of my place in India without a bindi on a local woman would be smacking one on my forehead within seconds, sigh with deep relief, and tell me that only now was I beautiful. To not wear a bindi offended the women, yet I was constantly told by westerns I met that perhaps I shouldn’t be wearing one. The same goes for my choice to wear local clothing in order to dress respectfully and honestly to play with fabrics and clothing styles that are new to me. My education and career were in fashion and I’ll never stop being enamored with textiles.
By definition cultural appropriation is when borrowing becomes exploitation, therefore making it unethical. When posting photos that could be deemed cultural appropriation from your travels I implore you to share the backstory of the moment. Perhaps you were spending time with your host family at your homestay or some sort of communal activity where locals offered to show you their customs. I’ve been in those situations often and it would be so rude to say no. Often after I’ve been placed in traditional adornments the group I’m with usually want to take pictures. After I ask if they’re alright with me sharing them online, or if I should keep them private. I’ve been dressed up in the Moroccan Sahara Desert in traditional wedding clothing after I asked about the textiles and traditions. The women wanted to pose with me for photos and encouraged me to share. I was invited to visit one of the villagers family home in another town where I also admired and expressed interest in their traditional clothing. They immediately pulled out fabric and started to clothe my body in fabric the way they wear it on a daily basis. We took a group photo–I even had the honor of holding the youngest member of the family, a sweet baby. They asked me not to post the pictures, so I didn’t. Both of these situations were natural and spur of the moment. But I still asked if they wanted their photo posted on social media, and then supported their request. If you’re seeing women dressed in traditional clothing making money make to take photos with tourists than it’s not exactly a cultural exchange and more like a human zoo.
Just as opinions about cultural appropriation are usually self-absorbed, so are travel boycotts. They’re deeply misguided–travelers feel they’re making a symbolic gesture by boycotting, but really they’re appeasing their own guilt, which doesn’t help persecuted groups like the Rohingya in Myanmar. Travelers who support the notion of a boycott feel that their lack of tourism dollars can act as a handicap for countries that condone atrocities. Instead, they’d cripple locals who rely on tourism to provide for their families. Civilians likely have nothing to do with violence and are not responsible for the human rights violations within their nation–but they would be the ones to suffer directly from a travel boycott. When you visit a country the majority of your spending will support locals, especially if you’re a responsible traveler.
Respecting cultural norms combats the negative impacts of over tourism and serves the community you’re fortunate enough to be visiting. Always keep an open mind and heart. Listen to stories and observe your surroundings in detail. When presented with the opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and experience something utterly unique to the county you’re visiting, do it. Maintain nimble. Do everything with grace and in culturally appropriate manner. We’re all learning, everything detailed here stems from moments when I’ve accidentally offended locals. If you’re experiencing culture shock find somewhere comfortable to reflect on what you’ve witnessed and decide if you can refrain from unwarranted criticism of the culture. If you cannot, leave, you shouldn’t be there and that’s totally acceptable.
How do you respect local culture as you travel? Share with us in the comments or tell us if you think something is missing in this responsible travel challenge.