The fact that more and more of us are able to visit places for enjoyment, but it does not diminish either the privilege or the obligation. You also need to be at the places you knew, and that the people around you are still busy, even though you’re not. You need to learn a few simple words and phrases if you’re going to a place where they’re speaking a different language (even though they’re speaking yours as well).
And you need to know the difference between the look and the gawking. The former is one of the greatest pleasures of travel; the latter is not only rude but a profound threat to the guest-host relationship.
One of the main areas where we seem to get this distinction wrong is in the field of religious sites. Many who travel are either not religious or visit locations where people observe various religions.
It’s a fine line, going to a place so important to others just to take a look, but if you keep these four rules in mind and obey them to the degree you can, you’re likely to find yourself on the right side of the visitor-intruder divide.
Rule # 1: Don’t take too many photos, even though you’re allowed to do so.
This is both the most complicated and perhaps the least intuitive of the rules because it only applies – as all these streets do – to active places of devotion because of worship (not churches that have been converted into condos or museums, for example).
With the advent of mass tourism, and more precisely after the introduction of the smartphone, every person clicks the photos. Just because you don’t see a sign with a red line from a camera or tablet, that doesn’t mean you ‘re going to have to take pictures.
Rule # 2: Pay attention to people who look like they’re in there.
Not all places of religious and spiritual interest are the same. Some, like your average Catholic cathedral, is dark and quiet places intended for silent prayer and sanctified preaching.
Others, like some Buddhist temples, have a ring of gongs and songs. Some of the sculptures and paintings are intended to be touched. Some are not.
Rule # 3: Spend at least five minutes on one side looking, listening, smelling.
These areas are areas of reflection, almost without exception. You may want to discuss something different from worshippers and devotees, but try to be contemplative in your own way, out of the way. Note the textures, sense the aromas, look up, look around, see what people are doing with their hands, their feet, their mouths. How’s the light going in here? What’s that lying on? Maybe that’s not accidental.
Rule # 4: If you have a donation box, use it
These places were never intended for visitors, but the way of the world transformed them into attractions. If you’re in an old house, or in an old museum, look at how brick, wood, and metal have been worn down over the years. Thus if you would donate, it would be kept preserved.