If we travel to a new country we usually do some research beforehand about said country, so that we know at least a little bit about their culture, history, language and so forth. We want to be prepared for what we can expect and also to prevent as many unintentional faux pas from happening. We are by all means not perfect and still make our fair share of mistakes, but doing a little research can help minimizing them.
After years of typing “Things to know about [country]” into Google and gathering all kinds of information, I realized that we can essentially wrap up a lot of the details into one simple truth:
Don’t be an asshole!
Or if you want to put it in a more positive way:
Because a lot of the things mentioned in those helpful lists about the do’s and don’ts should be in my opinion common sense. But if there is one thing I’ve learned throughout the last few years is that common sense isn’t that common. Many of the incidents that occur between travelers and the locals can often times be derived from the stupidity, ignorance and/or disrespect of the foreigners. In Colombia there is an idiom that says “No Dar Papaya”, which essentially means: “Don’t put yourself in a situation where you can be taken advantage of” or in short: “Don’t ask for it!”
I remember this one incident that happened in Malaysia two years ago, where a group of backpackers took their clothes off on a sacred mountain and as a consequence got into big trouble with the Malaysians and, of course, with their government. As I said in the beginning we all make mistakes, but in this particular case they should’ve known better. Being respectful and not being an asshole shouldn’t require a bachelor’s degree, it should be part of an education everyone needs to receive from an early age on. But sadly the emphasis here lies on “should”, because as we can see it isn’t.
Many of my local friends are understandably frustrated, because it casts a shadow over their country’s reputation, if it makes the headlines. Most of the locals I’ve met so far on my travels are kind and friendly, but even their patience and hospitality knows its limits.
It’s sad to see how backpackers, especially the young ones, feel like they can behave as they damn well please, because they are not at home, and rules and guidelines don’t seem to exist anymore. But they do. They are just different. Try to imagine it as a kind of game. One that has been played for decades or even centuries and you just joined this game. Maybe you know some of the rules, but usually the “main players” can explain them to you and help out if need be. Now, of course, what you wouldn’t do is to complain about certain rules, because you don’t like them. You don’t say: “This is not the way we play where I’m from!” Well, my friend, we are not where you are from and the rules are different. The two choices you have is to either play after their rules or leave the table.
So, be respectful, be kind, be open-minded. You don’t need to understand or even like every single cultural quirk in order to accept them. Just accept them! If you still want to understand them, you can either ask a local, read a book about their history or use this incredible tool we have at our disposal called the Internet. As you broaden your cultural horizon, the things that were so new to you a while back may even become a part of your daily life, if you decide to stay a little longer. You adapt to your new environment and leave your old self in the past where it belongs. Then every once in a while when you look back in reverie at the person you once were, you can only shake your head with a sad smile. A lot has changed. You have changed. You have grown in many ways.
This is the incredibly unique power that traveling possesses. It turns our little world upside down and sheds light on the darkness we never knew existed within ourselves. By walking this very Earth we already “take” a lot with us; the least we can do is to “give” back our utmost respect, attention and appreciation for its various fascinating cultures.
Cover photo: Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Copyright: Alexander Stephan Photography & Design