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?

Vegetarian Festival in Thailand.

Vegetarian Festival in Thailand.

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? 

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21 Response Comments

  • GRRRL TRAVELER | Christine  November 4, 2011 at 6:54 am

    Ha ha… nom nom nom… I can laugh at it imagining it, but had I been in your shoes I would’ve been equally mortified. In Cambodia, I’ve seen elementary kids running around (even in the marketplace), completely butt naked with a parent nearby laughing. The naturalness and lack of taboos, I found refreshing… after a good minute or so of trying to figure out how I should be processing such an incident. Western culture has so many hangups; we’re a culture of fear and inhibition. I like rural countries and their lack of it.

  • Miguel  November 4, 2011 at 6:59 am

    I find when I am traveling I accept everything as normal. It seems like no matter what happens where I am, I’m just like whatever thats normal even if its not.

  • Rease  November 4, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    I would be totally shocked, embarrassed and horrified too! I don´t think this woman is a molester or anything, but had she been in a different environment, I certainly would. I think it would be really hard for me to accept this, but I definitely see the point you have made.

  • Tatiana  November 4, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    This is called cultural relativism and it’s really important to keep in mind – mostly I’m thinking of issues of social justice. Often times as Americans, people feel that what’s normal in the States is the general code of conduct for other cultures (perhaps more so for non-westernized seeing as how there are fewer similarities).

    So then you end up with culture shock. This is probably why travel bloggers are always suggesting that people travel to foreign countries. I don’t disagree, but you can always better prepare yourself by learning a bit about the countries you’re traveling to, especially if they’re not westernized or americanized.

    Cultural imperialism is a problem (forcing your culture onto others) because it’s disrespectful and implies cultural superiority. Respecting people’s cultural space as it were is paramount in a world where things like this happen all the time!! :]

  • Jenna  November 6, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Interesting, and I totally agree with your point about there not being any rules of life… I actually do not see what this mother did as being a huge deal (although I would have been shocked like you were). As a mother of two young boys, I know how easy and natural it is to goof around with your kids. My Brazilian mother-in-law does some things that we Americans think are strange, but we are so rigid and disconnected in some ways with the beauty of being natural with our kids. I am not implying that we should do what this mother did…I am just saying that joking around with your own child’s body in a way that is not sexual or makes the child uncomfortable is not something we should judge.

  • Sarahsomewhere  November 6, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I think this story is really cute, and actually makes me long to be immersed in a culture where there is no reason to question an innocent act like this…

    On another note, I saw a man drink cow wee straight from the cow in Varanasi, India, and was totally shocked by it! I had to suppress my gag reflex, as my mind forced me to imagine the warm urine going down his throat…

    I swear even the Indian people standing around were staring, so maybe it was weird for them too.

  • Smoorsy  November 9, 2011 at 6:03 pm

    I was lucky enough to be warned about pointing my feet toward people in Thailand, but I still managed to insult a sweet Thai lady as a guest in her home. Where I’m from, a guest is expected to be at ease and graciously accept any hospitality offered. In Thailand, though, being a woman, I should have headed directly for the kitchen and started helping. Now I know… ladies, if you’re a guest in Thailand, roll up your sleeves and get to veggie chopping!

  • Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot  November 9, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Oh dear! I have tried many things to entertain my children but never that:)

    Almost everything shocked me when I went to live in rural Zimbabwe for a year! I’m still in shock 20 years later. Some things you just have to see to believe.

  • Davis  November 10, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Are we talking about judging other cultures or are we just describing times when we were brought up short by something we encountered on our travel? The first calls for heavy-duty chin-stroking, definitions and qualifications and I really think lies outside the bounds of travel writing. The latter, remarking on our own reaction, is straight-forward reporting and is the sort of thing all travelers have been doing from the beginning and doesn’t require us to agonize over anything, but just enjoy having been there and seen amazing things.

  • Chris  November 10, 2011 at 3:20 am

    What a fascinating story. I can imagine I’d have shared your reaction at witnessing that, but it’s a prickly one. What is and isn’t normal?

    Loved this post. Very insightful.

  • 50+ and on the Run  November 10, 2011 at 4:02 am

    I’m fairly hard to shock, but this one would probably have shocked me. Still, it’s a big world–with room for lots of different kinds of ideas. Nom, nom, nom…lol

  • Alouise  November 14, 2011 at 4:30 am

    I’d probably be shocked by that too, but your right about not judging situations we don’t know. There’s a variety of cultures and norms and what one person thinks is normal is completely foreign to someone else.

  • pablo  November 15, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Is good to see that all cultural behaviours have to be respected. Yet, I feel the question needs to be asked: will you really respect ALL cultural behaviours? How about burkas? How about the sexual initiation of males by older males? how about different forms of body (including genital) mutilations? These are all behaviours exhibited by actual human groups.

    Are you having doubts?

    Think about your own society.

    How many of your male friends were circumcised as babies?

    It is a wonderfully diverse world – and we are part of that diversity – but accepting it is not as easy as it seems.



  • Meg  November 17, 2011 at 3:04 am

    Is this for real? WOW. But you are right. Who is to say it’s wrong? I’m about to travel the world and I plan to do it with an open mind.

  • David W  November 17, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    This is exactly why we travel.

    If you’re not being moved, challenged, or blown away, well it’s time to keep moving on.


  • Adam Dudley  November 29, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Torre…thank you for sharing such an important story and powerful lesson.

    I’m a pretty even guy that doesn’t get ruffled by much, but I admit that I felt a little uncomfortable about the penis thing until I let my “world view filters” fall away.

    Well done. 🙂

  • crazy sexy fun traveler  April 12, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    I am not aware of insulting anyone while traveling but just thinking what shocking things I’ve seen … but definitely nothing like this photo, disgusting!


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