Travel Comment
Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

When not to make a splash


I had only just arrived in Jordan and I was sitting in a restaurant whose design was based on the traditional desert tent, savouring the wonderful flavours of the national dish - mansaf: lamb cooked with yoghurt, herbs, nuts and spices and served with rice - and enjoying the friendly atmosphere... when I made a mistake.

We were eating by hand, moulding the meat and rice into bite-sized balls, all of which contributed to making the meal a special and enjoyable experience.

But then I forgot the advice we had received on arrival and used both hands to tear off a piece of unleavened bread before popping it into my mouth with my left.

My Jordanian hosts stiffened and one of them gave me a gentle reminder that in Arab countries only the right hand is used for eating. The left hand - and he mimed this to make sure I got the message - is used to wipe yourself and so is unclean.

It was mildly embarassing, though no more than that, but provided a timely reminder of the need to respect local customs when you're travelling in foreign lands. And, really, if you're visiting another country it is your responsibility to find out what these are and abide by them.

I'm constantly amazed as I travel around at the number of tourists who don't see the need to modify their behaviour to meet the wishes of their hosts.

I've seen men strolling into the Grand Palace in Bangkok wearing shorts and jandals, couples kissing and cuddling in public in Muslim countries and young women walking into churches in Rome in the scantiest of tops in spite of it being well known - and usually underlined on large signs - that such behaviour is unacceptable. Who can blame the locals if they sometimes get upset at such blatant disregard for their standards.

But even tourists who mean well can get into trouble as a result of breaching some custom they didn't know existed.

Online travel company Expedia recently issued a list of some potential pitfalls to be aware of:

* In Muslim countries it is considered rude to show the soles of your shoes or feet to others.

* Many Muslims also find scanty clothing offensive, including on the beach and even in seemingly free-wheeling places like Dubai, so you can find yourself in trouble if you don't check the rules before going for a swim.

* In Hindu lands it is not advisable to pat small children on the head as it is regarded as the abode of the soul and is therefore sacred.

* In India leaving a small amount of food on your plate indicates that you are satisfied. Finishing all your food means that you are still hungry.

* In Egypt you should accept offers of coffee or tea whenever you meet someone, even if you do not plan to drink it, as declining the offer is viewed as rejecting the person.

* In Iran the thumbs-up gesture is considered an offensive insult.

* In Fiji, in fact in many Pacific countries, entry into traditional villages requires approval from the chief so you should wait at the entrance or on the beach until invited to proceed.

* In Asian countries you should exchange items, such as business cards, using both hands. In Arab countries, however, you should only use the right.

That's really only the beginning of what could be a very long list indeed. But, if it all sounds a bit off-putting, it shouldn't be.

As my Jordanian experience indicated, the people of most countries are prepared to accept breaches of custom, so long as they get the impression that you are doing your best to respect their wishes. It's the tourists who appear not to care who cause annoyance.

- Jim Eagles


Pictured above: A Sikh devotee stands inside the pond as he meditates in front of the illuminated Golden Temple in Amritsar, India. Being aware of local customs will help you avoid offending the locals on your travels. Photo / AP

- NZ Herald

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