We pay scant attention to local customs when abroad

We should remember we are not at home

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The Independent Travel

Last Saturday, Aprilissa Sue Ann, winner of a state-wide singing competition, sang "Note to God" to a packed crowd at the Sunset Music Festival at the Tip of Borneo. It was in remembrance of 18 people killed on Mount Kinabalu during the previous morning's 5.9 magnitude earthquake.

It was a sombre reminder not just of those who lost their lives, but that Malaysia's highest mountain is both altitudinous and sacred. I suspect that Eleanor Hawkins knew – or cared – only about the former, when she and nine other Western backpackers stripped off and posed naked for photos on top of the mountain, almost a week earlier. Their actions have been blamed for angering the mountain's spirits, and so, causing the catastrophic seismic remonstration. Hawkins has been quick to apologise for her stupidity, which landed her with three days in prison and a fine of around £860.

Back in Britain, the group's actions look rather foolish. However, I wasn't too quick to criticise. When I was the same age as Ms Hawkins (23), I made my first trip to India and arrived in Goa, somewhat of an anomaly on the sacred subcontinent. Neon menus, fairy lights, and trance music weren't quite the holy cows and paddy fields I'd been expecting. Swimwear, tattoos, piercings, and yoga pants were the sum total of the dress code on the state's Arabian Sea-lapped shores.

After a week, I headed south into Kerala, lulled into a relaxed sense of what was sartorially permissible. Here, the beaches were similarly palm-lined, the interior even more lush and green. But gone were the crowds and so I greedily rolled out my beach towel and stripped down to my bikini. After a short while, I noticed a couple of men standing among the trees. Before long, they were joined by a few more; camera phones were coyly produced and pointed in my direction. Irritated and embarrassed, I pulled my clothes back on and headed to the comfort of my guesthouse. Back in the town of Cochin, men, women and children were congregating at the beach for sunset. Many of them – women included – were paddling knee-high into the sea in full clothing. To my dismay, I realised that I'd flouted the customary modesty that defines nearly all of India, save liberal, Western-influenced Goa.

Before departing for my trip, I had meticulously arranged visas, got vaccinations, taken out insurance, read up on how to avoid getting ill. But local customs? I had barely given them a thought. I was more preoccupied with the effect India might have on me than how I might affect those who live there.

Western trappings have crept into the furthest corners of the planet, with tourist resorts developed to provide our creature comforts, but we should remember we are not at home, no matter how warm the welcome, and local customs are part of the joy that travel brings.

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