Some years ago I was visiting Chichen Itza in Mexico. It is one of the largest of the abandoned Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula – with many features including temples and ball courts. Though sometimes called a city, it was, in fact, even the days of the Mayan empires, a place with great religious significance. Most of the building there served the theological classes of that culture. It was therefore a sacred site.
Though the Mayan political system largely disappeared just prior to the arrival of Europeans, the people are still there. You can see it in their faces, many of which resemble those carved in stone. You can also see it in their religious rites where Catholicism is wedded to ancient Aboriginal traditions and practices. Like most Aboriginal peoples, these practices are closely tied to the land, especially waterfalls and jungle pools, as well as to man-made structures.
On this particular visit a small group of us were being escorted by a guide – actually a local college teacher – who was well-versed both in the history and current significance of the place. He asked us to speak in low tones and generally behave in a manner that we would adopt if we were visiting a gothic cathedral in Spain or England. Even if we didn’t believe, we should act with respect.
In the course of our tour we came across three or four twenty somethings, stretched out on one of the shelves of a pyramid, sunbathing. They were dressed only in their bathing suits – very skimpy ones. To say the guide was upset would be an understatement – you could see it in his face and body. But he calmly went to them and explained that they were violating a sacred place with their behavior and that local people – who had already lost so much to colonialism – would be offended and hurt by their actions. Maybe it was his manner; maybe these people (all Europeans) were more sensitive to issues of oppression than some others – but in any case they were clearly embarrassed (I told you they were nearly naked and I can attest that a full body blush is possible). They apologized profusely, gathered up their clothes and slunk away.
Respect is not a hard thing to grant people and cultures not our own but all too often tourists arrive in a place, completely ignorant of the people and places they are visiting. It is all just a theme park to them. They paid their money and they seem to feel they have a right to take the ride any way they please.
That’s what the situation in Malaysia is all about. People arrive from foreign lands and want to do something – they seem to have no idea that their actions may cause cultural earthquakes if not real ones. How is stripping off your clothes (with your sister!) and pissing on a sacred site different from doing it to a war memorial or in a church? Of course, there are some people who have no problem doing that either.
Maybe the ability to show respect for other cultures should be one of the questions people get asked before they are granted a visa to go.
But that’s ten minutes.