Cultural Considerations

 

“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”

- Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of  Hieronymus Bosch, 1957

CLOTHES

As a foreigner, you will usually be cut some slack in regards to your attire. Nonetheless, dressing in a culturally appropriate manner will go some way in helping you to gain the acceptance of your hosts. Remember first impressions matter. By not drawing attention to yourself you are making a conscious effort to adapt. Your efforts will be appreciated.

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Pictured with fellow pilgrims | Mount Kailash Kora, Tibet, 2006

In developing countries, the reality is that women are often held to a stricter code of dress than men. For information on what is considered culturally appropriate clothing for women in developing countries, see Journeywoman.com, an excellent online travel resource aimed specifically at females venturing abroad.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Never take someone’s photo without first asking permission. Ask yourself how you would feel if complete strangers, who neither spoke your language nor seemed to have anything but a fleeting interest in your culture, came up to you at regular intervals and started snapping away before promptly marching off to find their next subject. The novelty would wear off pretty quickly, no? Would you feel as if the person taking the photos had any interest in your friendship? 

HANDOUTS

When visiting Third World countries, many foreigners give out sweets, money and other gifts without a second thought to the long-term repercussions of their actions. Their mindset is: “I am only here for a short time, what harm can it do?” Such an attitude is short sighted. It doesn’t take long for begging to become endemic. If rural children know that they can make easy money simply by smiling and holding their hands out to foreign hikers, what’s to stop them from making it a full time career? In the case of sweets, many rural kids don’t have regular dental hygiene habits. In regards to other gifts, such as pens, often children are more likely to sell them than use them at school.

So what to do? If you really want to make a contribution, one possibility is giving a donation direct to a local school. Another is actually volunteering at a charitable organization or NGO. A third is to simply make the effort to interact with and get to know some of the locals. Show your interest by spending time with them rather than handing out tokens.

(R to L) Ishmael, Tsering & I | Machu, Ladakh, Indian Himalaya, 2008

LANGUAGE

When hiking in remote areas of developing countries, even a few words of the local language will be greatly appreciated. If people see that you are genuinely trying to communicate, then nine times out of ten, they will make the effort to understand and help in any way they can.

If on the other hand, you just start rambling on in English without making any effort whatsoever, then chances are that people will be a lot less likely to assist you. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you react if someone came up to you in your country and started speaking to you in a foreign language, seemingly under the assumption that you are automatically going to understand and assist them? Wouldn’t you be more inclined to help, if you sensed that they were at least making an effort to communicate in the local language?