Doin' Things the Local Way

Exposure to foreign cultures is mind-blowing - it reveals a grittiness that's only appreciated if you approach the streets with an open mind, an insatiable curiosity, and a disregard for hygiene and sanitation. More often than not, I've seen Western tourists shudder when they enter a temple and are requested to remove their shoes, gingerly stepping on the marble floors of the Taj Mahal as if any Indian bacteria will corrupt their pedicured feet. It's equally embarrassing to watch Westerners squeal in horror when they see their first squatter toilet - and refuse to "go in these conditions." Those who do plug their noses and squat over that hole in the ground then make the novice mistake of throwing toilet paper down the same hole...sigh.
Although I can't claim to be an expert on cultural customs, I think of myself as better trained than most (thanks to two years in a dusty Bedouin village). That said, once I get over the absurdity of some Westerners' reactions to local practices, it's easy to laugh.
In Jordan, we sit on the floor to eat. And we eat with our hands. Oh yeah, and when snot-nosed Bedouin kids stick their grubby hands in the communal dish, it's common. And, since it's hot and in the middle of the desert, flies are constantly buzzing around the food and in your face. But, the Jordanian dishes are delicious, so it's best to ignore these...distractions, and to wash it all down with tap water from the communal drinking bowl (It was hilarious when my friend's mom came to visit my village - and, after eating the greasy meal, used the communal drinking bowl to wash her hands. All my neighbors stared in disbelief, but graciously let it pass without comment).
In poorer regions of the Eastern world, toilet paper is not available. Instead, you're left squatting in a cement closet with a bucket of water next to you. If you want to truly convert, then use your left hand to wash yourself. If you're not quite ready to make that full plunge (and I don't blame you), then always enter the bathroom equipped with toilet paper. Just remember to throw it away in a proper trash can (sometimes hard to locate) and not down that ominous hole.
Another habit of foreign cultures is to eat with the hands - using either fingers or bread as utensils. This would never fly in a white-tablecloth restaurant in the States, but you're not in proper America, so stop asking for the invisible fork and knife. In Jordan, the Bedouins use their hands to shape rice in their fists, then jam the "dumpling" in their mouths. In India, chapattis are used to sop up curry, to ladle vegetables, and to wipe the metal plate clean. Atkins diet would never succeed here. Nepalis' method is to pour dal (lentil soup) onto a heap of steaming rice, then to nimbly mix it with their fingers. When the consistency is right, they use their four fingers as a ladle, scooping both dal and rice in one deft motion that ends in their mouths.
And, after the meal, it's not rude to belch. The louder, the better, and the more pride a chef feels. Burping is a way to express satisfaction with dinner, and is followed by openly picking at your teeth with a toothpick. Farting also isn't considered to be impolite, except in the Middle East - "Only babies fart out loud," as my Jordanian neighbor used to say.
Another culture shock? Spitting and blowing snot rockets onto the street is a common affair in Asia. Some "modern" countries have made it illegal to spit (Hong Kong and Malaysia), but it's ingrained in the rest. Trekking in the Nepal Himalayas, I found myself watching the trail so that I wouldn't accidentally slip in donkey shit, cow dung, or porters' snot or spit wads. It became my wake-up call when, in the teahouses, the sound of porters hacking and coughing and blowing their noses at 5:30 am echoed through the entire village.
Although some habits are disgusting (one which I'll never endorse is the open crotch-scratching by Indian men), that's part of the thrill of traveling. You meet new people with strange customs, you watch them in horror, and then you attempt to adopt the same ways. When you succeed, it's inevitably met with gleeful laughter and immediate acceptance by the locals.

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