Travellers, don't forget to pack cultural sensitivity
FOUR hikers were recently jailed in Malaysia for "committing an obscene act in public" - taking naked photos of themselves at the summit plateau of 4,095m-high Mount Kinabalu, one of the highest peaks in South-east Asia and a popular tourist destination.
The four were part of a group of 10 Westerners who were coming down after an early-morning summit ascent. It was apparently a "dare" that led them to strip, despite protests from their mountain guide.
Perhaps the incident would have gone unnoticed, had it not come right before the magnitude-6 earthquake that struck near the mountain on June 5, killing 18 people and devastating the mountain.
Officials from Sabah, as well as many netizens, blamed the tourists for the deadly quake, saying their act was sacrilegious, considering that the mountain is regarded as sacred by the Kadazan-Dusun people.
The tribe's paramount leader was quoted as saying: "Whether other people believe this, it's what we Sabahans believe. When the earthquake happened, it's like a confirmation of our beliefs. It is a sacred mountain and you cannot take it lightly."
Later, Malaysian officials criticised the Western media for sensationalising their coverage by suggesting that the accused were charged with "causing an earthquake". The officials insisted that the foreigners would have been prosecuted regardless of the deadly quake.
Meanwhile, the hikers have pleaded guilty to the offence and apologised for their actions.
Said Eleanor Hawkins, 23: "I know my behaviour was foolish and I know how much offence we all caused to the local people of Sabah. For that, I am truly sorry."
WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO
Arguably, the uproar over such an act would be more vociferous in a conservative Muslim society such as Malaysia's, but it must be pointed out that the act of stripping in public is an offence all over the world, whether in London, Manila or Kota Kinabalu.
Just to exhaust all possibilities, however, let us examine certain contexts where nakedness - or nudism - in the outdoors is tolerated, even embraced.
In Germany, the first "clothing-optional" trail opened in 2011, joining the ranks of countless nudist beaches all over the world. This movement is inspired by a classical ethos that views the naked body as the ideal vessel through which to experience nature.
Of course, the offenders on Mount Kinabalu were in a totally different context. The guide's admonitions should have made it clear that what may be accepted in some secluded trail in Europe would not be perceived the same way on Malaysia's highest peak.
The Mount Kinabalu incident also reminds us of people's tendencies to search for explanations after unfortunate events, and that these explanations often engage notions of morality.
When Reyster Langit, son of Philippine veteran broadcaster Rey Langit, succumbed to cerebral malaria in 2005 after an assignment in Rizal, Palawan, the indigenous Tau't Bato attributed his death to his insistence on entering a cave that they considered sacred.
However, such thinking is not the province of indigenous peoples alone. In the United States, for instance, some commentators blamed Hurricane Katrina on immorality and homosexuality.
Strange things - and strange people - are vulnerable to being the objects of blame because people are always looking for something out of the ordinary to explain another extraordinary occurrence.
POST IN HASTE, REPENT AT LEISURE
Finally, we must realise that social media continually blurs the lines between "private" and "public". Pictures can go viral, and when they do, it is too late to press the "delete" button - screenshots have already been made and circulated all over the world.
The immediacy with which we can post pictures can take away the time to reflect on their ramifications, sometimes with devastating effect.
For instance, what made the Kinabalu incident "public" to begin with was the fact that it was photographed and circulated online.
Cultural sensitivity means acting in a way that is acceptable to locals, regardless of whether such actions are "right" according to one's own perspective.
Nakedness on a trail in Germany will not turn heads, but nakedness on Mount Kinabalu - and in most other places around the world - will offend local sensibilities.
The spirit of cultural sensitivity does not insist on asking whether things are factual or rational ("Seriously, can an earthquake be caused by people?"), but accepts the feelings and beliefs of others as sufficient basis for one's action.
Cultural sensitivity in our time also involves filtering what we post online, making sure that we do not offend the sensibilities of others.
The world is a fascinating place, and visiting other countries and cultures can teach us the valuable lesson of being open to other ways of life.
Documenting ourselves while on the road - or on the trail - is doubtless part of the joy of travelling. We just need to make sure that in whatever way we choose to experience the world, we should always be considerate of locals' feelings and values.
Indeed, wherever we travel, as indispensable as our passports and our cameras is a dose of cultural sensitivity.
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
The writer is a physician and medical anthropologist.