In your travels, chances are you will be in countries where religion plays a significant role in the day-to-day life of its residents. This can manifest itself in every aspect of their lives, from how they dress to what topics they will or will not discuss. A better understanding of the religious backdrop is not only a way to show your respect for local culture, but also will help you avoid situations that are uncomfortable at best and potentially offensive.
“Vaya Con Dios”
Take Latin America, for example. While the region is predominantly Roman Catholic, numbering some 425 million, that percentage varies greatly from country to country. According to a Pew study conducted in 2014, 69% of the population is Catholic, with a percentage as low as 26% in Brazil and more than 40% in most of Central America. Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina), in fact, is the first pope from Latin America.
So how does the predominance of Catholicism impact life in these countries?
There are notable exceptions: same-sex marriage became legal in Uruguay in August 2013 and abortion has been legal there since 2012.
Your sightseeing will probably include visiting some of the too-numerous-to-count churches and cathedrals in both cities and smaller towns. While this may seem like a superfluous comment to some, it’s important to dress appropriately when visiting these religious institutions. And you will probably hear religious references peppering your conversations, with expressions like “Gracias a Dios” (Thank God) and “Vaya con Dios” (Go with God).
Communing with the Spirits
In the Andes of South America, less common religions like Animism and Shamanism are common. Animism involves attributing a soul to all things, including plants and inanimate objects. In Shamanism, a practitioner accesses both benevolent and malevolent spirits and is able to channel these energies into the world.
Lately, it has become very popular in countries like Peru to partake in shamanistic rituals–in particular ayahuasca ceremonies. Ayahuasca, which is used as traditional spiritual medicine among indigenous people, is a plant-based hallucinogen that is illegal in the U.S. and many other countries.
Throughout Cusco, a tourist mecca and gateway to Machu Picchu, there are many signs advertising ayahuasca retreats. Unfortunately, there have been reports of people falsely posing as shamans to conduct money-making workshops and there have even been some deaths of young foreigners eager to try the drink that is considered a gateway to the spiritual world.
In Buddha-full places
On the other side of the world, in Southeast Asia, Buddhism is the predominant religion. In countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam you can view some of the most breathtaking temples in the world and see monks going about their daily rituals wearing signature robes.
In ancient times, the robes were dyed by using vegetables, flowers, and spices, including turmeric and saffron. This gave rise to the name of the popular yellow-orange “saffron robe.” You can also see robes in shades of curry, cumin, and paprika.
When visiting Buddhist temples there are a number of guidelines that, unfortunately, many tourists tend to ignore. But typically there is someone stationed at the entrances to remind them.
Unless permitted, you should not take pictures of the sacred space (some tourist sites do allow photos). Your shoes should be left at the entrance–and, yes, you will get them back.
Both men and women need to show proper respect by covering up their shoulders and knees. That also means no cleavage, ladies. Some temples may offer you a sarong or other cover-up for a fee if the gatekeeper feels that too much skin is showing. And, by all means, show respect for the Buddha statues by not touching or climbing on them. Suffice it to say that there are legal implications if you do.
Have you had a chance to experience the religion of other countries? If you have any tips or experiences you’d like to share, we would love to hear about them!
by: Eileen Brill-Wagner