In light of the recent events which saw a Southampton graduate arrested after appearing topless on a mountain in Malaysia, here are some tips for not spending a night in a cell while you’re on your travels this summer.
When travelling to a different country, especially one outside of the EU, it is important to make sure that your actions in that country are not going to offend or anger local residents. Like it or not, you are acting as an ambassador for your country when you go abroad, and the things you do, say or appear to be can form a lasting impression on those that you meet. Whether it’s wearing a headscarf in public places or refraining from taking photos, some things might be hard for us to understand, and sometimes might even seem down-right wrong, but local customs should be upheld, and there can be very serious consequences if they are not.
- Watch your mouth!
If you are a particularly loud or outspoken person, or even if you just have an interesting sense of humour, be aware of what comes out of your mouth and keep yourself in check. Equally if someone else in your group can be particularly vocal at times, make sure they are aware that there may be times when it is safest to keep their mouth shut.
- Learn some basics in the language
Just learning how to ask how much your groceries are or how to ask for the bill will stand you in good stead with local people. They will love to see that you’ve made an effort and knowing a few words will more often than not keep you from getting into sticky situations. Even just knowing the words “yes” and “no” can make the difference.
- Bring appropriate clothing (especially if you are female)
Although seemingly unfair, women are often treated differently in some foreign countries and it is best to respect this. If you are advised to cover up by wearing a long skirt or a head shawl, do follow this advice. Not only will this prevent you from causing offence, but it will also save you some unsavoury looks.
- Be careful with your camera
In some cultures it is forbidden to take photos of certain things, for example religious artefacts or buildings, or even people. It is good to read up on this before visiting the country because going against this can lead to a confrontation, asking to delete all your photos, or in some extreme cases destruction of your camera and imprisonment. For example, certain indigenous Guatemalan and Mexican cultures believe that taking photos of people takes a part of their soul away, and can therefore get understandably angry with the hoards of camera-wielding tourists flooding their country. It is usually best to request permission if you are in a place of worship, or if you are taking a photo of someone specific. If you’re really unsure, just keep your camera hidden in your bag.
- Don’t drink in public
Unless it is part of an organised event such as a festival, drinking outdoors can often be seen as trouble waiting to happen by police forces. If you are planning a party, try and keep it within the premises of a bar, in your hostel or on private land. In many parts of the US, they follow the “open can policy”, meaning you can be fined for being in possession of an open bottle or can of alcohol in a public place. It’s best to ask in your hostel or look in your guidebook for local alcohol guidelines.
- Public displays of affection
On the whole this is mostly just frowned upon, but in some cases can spark disagreements and in some cases is illegal. It is a sad truth that some countries in the world do not accept the rights of LGBT people. Although this will seem unfair and backward to most British people, it is often easiest to abide by the laws of the country and to withhold from public displays of affection and getting into disagreements with locals. More advice on this can be found online through LGBT discussion groups or in some guidebooks.
- Do not overstay your visa
If your visa says you can only stay in a country for 2 weeks, DO NOT overstay this! Consequences include being fined, deported, imprisoned, or getting a ban from that country. Lots of countries are very strict on this and most will not accept excuses, so make sure you leave enough time to get out of the country!
- Do not agree to take anything home for anyone else
No matter who they are, how long you have known them or what the item is, absolutely never take anything across borders if it does not belong to you. If you are caught smuggling, you might find yourself behind bars for a very long time.
- Carry identification at all times
In some countries this is law, and if you are caught without, you can be cautioned, fined or taken to prison until you can provide identification. This usually isn’t a problem, but there are sometimes cases of mistaken identity. If you feel uncomfortable carrying your passport around, then print off a photocopy and carry it around in your purse.
- Research the country you are going to.
Many countries around the world have their own laws that might seem unconventional, but which you must be aware of. For example, if you are going to the UAE during ramadan, it is illegal to eat in public. Do not kill a cow in India (or a Bigfoot in British Colombia, Canada), insult the King in Thailand or buy alcohol in Sudan. It is illegal to drive wearing flip flops in Spain, or to run out of fuel in Germany. Chewing gum in Singapore and peeing in the Portuguese ocean are also criminal offences. Your guidebook will have all these local laws and more, but if you want to check for up to date advice, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website is a great place to start.
Make sure you research the country you are visiting thoroughly before you go in order to enjoy your time abroad out of a prison cell!
Photos are all authors own.