I love to see how different cultures live. Apart from shoveling a variety of tasty cuisine into my gullet, observing people is my favorite part of travel. It’s fun to discover all the small nuances, odd quirks, and nonsensical rituals that make up a new culture.
Seeing different ways of life always reminds me that our own rituals – the ones we lose sleep over, cry over, and go Bridezilla over – are nothing but a bunch of made up rules. Much of our daily stresses are really just a bunch of meaningless trivialities.
From place to place, the Rules of Life transform. In Thailand, for example, pointing at people is considered to be extremely rude, and pointing your feet at another person is so vile that you may as well be flipping them a double bird. So guidebooks advise that, when sitting, you should tuck your nasty little hooves under your butt in order to avoid dishing out reckless fuck-you’s to innocent Thai people.
But what happens when you see something really shocking?
It usually takes a lot to shock me. I grew up in a household that was frequented by musicians, writers, eccentrics, Playboy bunnies, nudists, and pretty much every freak that lived within a two hundred mile radius of my parents’ home. I was taught to be open-minded and accepting of all types, so I’m rarely shocked by other people’s behavior.
But I was shocked by something I saw in a tiny South Pacific island …
While sailing the Tuamotu Archipelago, my partner and I discovered a paradise in the middle of nowhere. Only one family populated the island, and the closest civilization was four hours away by speed boat. When we first stepped ashore, the family accepted us with the kind of warmth you’d expect from close relatives. It was lovely, because I was desperately homesick, so a surrogate family was exactly what I needed.
One day, we were all relaxing together on the beach in front of the family’s home. The matriarch was entertaining her eleven-month-old grandson. She was bouncing the naked boy on her lap, making him laugh, when suddenly, she lifted him up into the air, cupped her mouth over his penis, and munched down. Nom, nom, nom!
The boy let out shrill squeals of joy.
I suppressed shrill squeals of disgust.
And my new surrogate mother just kept on munching. Nom, nom, nom!
My cheeks flushed with an overwhelming sense of disappointment. Why is she doing that? I thought. She’s violating him. She’s scarring him for life.
But then I began to put the situation into perspective.
This family had no radio, no shopping mall, no schools, no corporate offices to go to, and no daily newspaper deliveries. Their only outside influence was us, and other visiting sailors. All of their customs were unique to them, and all of their behaviors were completely organic.
I wasn’t sure if I should feel ashamed for her, or ashamed for myself. My culture has a lot of sexual taboos, and it’s my own conditioning that makes this behavior seem very wrong. Yet to a woman living in a tiny, isolated island, it was most likely nothing but an innocent game to make the boy giggle.
What is right and what is wrong?
It’s impossible for us to make clear judgments about other cultures. Throughout history, entitled people have traveled to foreign places and forced their own Rules of Life onto unique societies, robbing them of their identities, and leaving behind a gentrified version of something that was once delightfully exotic.
We need to be careful about judging the people we don’t understand. We have to let go of our conditioning and experience the world with an open mind.
There are no Rules of Life. If we try to dominate with our own value system by expecting everyone else to follow our oh-so-fantastic ways, then we’re nothing but a bunch of bigots.
And, in my opinion, bigots should really just stay at home.
Have you ever witnessed anything shocking on your travels? Have you ever insulted someone by accidentally breaking a cultural taboo?
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.