In short: whether it is sacred monuments or people, ask first.
Throughout Sri Lanka, India and Nepal we have visited a lot of temples. Some were beautiful, some fascinating and some awe inspiring. The inevitable urge was to capture the weird and wonderful on camera, but is this ok?
The general rules we follow are:
- Ultimately, no two temples are alike, we quickly check in with a monk, or other official representative, to make sure it is ok to take photos. Assuming normally respectful behaviour appropriate for a place of worship is followed, our experience has been that temple staff are very happy for us to take photos, encouraging us even where we didn't find the subject particularly photogenic.
- When given the ok, feel free to click away with your camera, but do not use flash photography, which can damage ancient art work.
- In Buddhist temples do not turn your back on Buddha.
In short: take your cue from the locals. If they're not showing any leg, you probably don't want to either.
It's hot in Sri Lanka and India, damn not. The temptation is to wear a singlet and shorts, but is this ok?
When we arrived in Sri Lanka - after 32 hours in transit that began in chilly autumnal Vancouver, and ended in stiflingly humid Colombo - our bags had been temporarily lost by the airline. I had to spend the next two days in the clothes I had worn on the plane, a singlet top and a pair of tracksuit pants. Sri Lanka is a lot more relaxed about dress codes than India, but while the women will usually have bare legs from the knee down, they almost all keep their shoulders covered. I endured an uncomfortable couple of days feeling very disrepectful showing off my bare décolletage.
After being reunited with my backpack, the items which I have been most comfortable in are a full length black skirt and a couple of kurtas I picked up from a local market.
One of the highlights of our trip has been visiting rural villages in India and Nepal. The tea houses along our trek through the Himalyas were a god send, giving us a warm bed, hot food and pots of chai. It has been fascinating to see village life, which is a world apart from what we are used to in our own countries and very different from the urban areas of their own countries. There are any number of tours offering visits to these villages, but is this ok?
Of course, tourists come in their hundreds to visit London boroughs and Sydney suburbs. The difference is that these suburbs have a high street - very public spaces - houses are set back behind fences or gardens and family life happens in the private space of houses. In rural Indian villages, a few huts are clustered around a communal space. Life largely happens outside and a stroll through the communal area feels, if not invasive, incredibly intimate. I wanted to give something in return for the very intimate look into the villagers day to day lives. This is not as straightforward as it might seem. Here are a few of the rules we work by, for more information check out the guide to travel giving, developed by the Centre for Responsible Travel.
- Apart from my slip up with the hairband, we do not give gifts directly to children. It encourages the sort of shake down we experienced. If you have a gift give it a responsible adult.
- In many cultures it is tradition to give a small gift to someone in exchange for their hospitality, if this applies in the country you are visiting then it is a dignified way to say thank you, maintaining the relative equality of the recipient as host (rather than a beggar) and you as the tourist. Think about the gift, tea, rice or something from your home country will often go over well. Less so sweets. Had we been forewarned about the village visit we could have been better prepared - with a packet of hair bands for the whole village, for example.
- Bigger contributions should be relevant to the local community and definitely require some research. Villages along the trekking routes in Nepal make this easy, posting donation boxes along the trail with a sign explaining what the community has decided it needs the money for.
In short: this is another case of 'do your research'.
There has been a lot of coverage lately about the poor conditions under which animals that are trotted out for tourists enjoyment are kept. The elephant rides, the tiger photos, the whale performances. In many cases, the treatment of these animals raises serious ethical questions. We were well versed in this. We stayed away from certain animal 'sanctuaries' in Sri Lanka, because we did not agree with their treatment of the animals. However, when 12 caprisoned elephants, plus rider, were paraded as part of a Kochi temple's Diwali celebration, we happily photographed the spectacle. We also enjoyed getting a blessing from Hampi's temple elephant. It was only later that we stopped to ask, 'is this ok?'