PEOPLE DEFINED as “indigenous” are those with the earliest historical connection to the places they inhabit. More often than not, they are isolated from modern civilization, which has both positive and negative implications. Access to modern health care and education is limited, but their culture and way of life is most often pristinely intact.
Visiting an indigenous community can be among the most eye-opening experiences a Western traveler can have. After camping with indigenous people in Kenya, Thailand, Colombia, and Peru, I’ve learned that these principles hold true regardless of where you are.
1. Use sign language.
Chances are, even if you speak the national language of the country you’re in, the indigenous people don’t. In Peru, many of the Quechua don’t speak Spanish; in Kenya many Samburu don’t speak Swahili; Thai is not commonly spoken among the hill tribes of Chiang Mai.
That said, you’ll be amazed how much communication can be achieved with simple sign language and hand gestures.
Indigenous girl in her hammock, Sierra Nevada, N. Colombia
The most basic and important form of sign language, smiling, can break the ice of unfamiliarity, almost immediately. For a long time, especially in Africa, I was intimidated by the looks I got from people in the bush. But don’t make the mistake of interpreting a curious look for a dirty one.
Remember that you are unquestionably one of the strangest people they have ever laid eyes on; they don’t understand your dress, appearance, and may wonder how the hell you just landed in their village. Smiling and laughter is universal among all cultures and societies, and often it is the single most important act to let them know you have something in common.
3. Ask before you take photographs.
It’s understandable that people will feel exploited and offended if you just walk up and start snapping away with your camera. However, since many indigenous people, especially children, are strikingly beautiful, it would be a shame not to take any quality photos of the people you encounter.
The best policy here is to ask — which can be done completely in sign language. If an elder is present, even better to ask them if you can take a photo of his or her child.
4. Show them your photos.
Two young brothers in a traditional househalfway up a volcano, N. Colombia
Once you’ve taken a couple shots, include them in the fun. If you’re just taking photos and moving on, they feel like an attraction.
If you go over and show them how beautiful they are after every shot, it will bring them into the experience and they won’t be as shy. This is the beauty of digital photography.
Remember that many of the kids, especially, may have only seen themselves in the reflection of water. A high resolution digital photo can be pretty exciting!
(Read more about travel photography and children.)
5. Always get permission.
When you’re a guest in someone else’s village, be very aware of your own actions. I’ve found that asking permission or advice about where to set up your tent, or take a pee, goes a long way.
It shows them that you respect their space and you are grateful for their hospitality. It’s almost always a good rule of thumb to assume that the oldest guy in the group has the most authority, and is therefore the one to ask.
6. Accept invites and eat up.
Curious brothers. Sierra Nevada, Colombia
Some of the best moments I’ve had with indigenous people have been over meals. The chances are good you’ll be invited into some one’s hut for dinner. Make sure you bring whatever you have to eat as well so you can all cook together.
What you brought in your backpack is probably pretty exotic to them, and since their diet is likely repetitive they might appreciate a couple new flavors.
The only way you could offend someone in this situation is by denying their invitation to eat with them, so no matter how over-the-top their offer might feel, graciously accept and don’t take a big helping of something you’re not prepared to finish.
I once had to fire down an entire bowl of cow blood stew in Kenya. Lesson learned.
7. Take a walk.
If you have the chance, find someone in the community that you can at least partially communicate with and ask them to take you away from the village and deeper into the mountains / jungle / forest. You’ll be amazed at their knowledge of their native environment.
They will be able to spot animals you never would have seen, and give you tips such as what plants will irritate your skin — as well as those that can be rubbed on your skin to repel mosquitoes.
8. Buy some of their goods.
Cooking dinner for the kids. Hill Tribe, Chiang Mai, N. Thailand
Chances are some of the children in the village will approach you offering handcrafts. Whether they’re carved wood figurines or little bracelets, they’re never expensive and it will show your appreciation for their culture if you pack a couple souvenirs for friends and family at home.
In many cases this is their only source of revenue for purchasing goods on the rare trip an elder takes into civilization, so this very insignificant amount of money could go a long way for a family.
9. Come prepared.
A little planning ahead can go a long way. Here’s what to pack in order to foster interaction with the indigenous population, and create happy kids and thankful moms.
Trinkets and candy
Bringing some tiny plastic toys or some tootsie rolls into a remote village can create hours of fun and excitement for the kids. Remember, they are completely cut off from the rest of modern civilization and don’t have access to even the most basic toys or candy. The Jolly Ranchers are a no-brainer, but pack a mini soccer ball or some little coloring books and some magic markers, and you’ll create fun for the kids long after you leave the village.
Another thing indigenous people are usually short on is simple, over-the-counter medicine. Even the most basic types of medicine such as Ibuprofen, Tylenol, or Pepto Bismol will be greatly appreciated. Usually when Westerners travel abroad, we pack some kind of prescription meds for dysentery, such as Cipro.
If you can spare a couple tablets and put them in the hands of the community medicine man, powerful medicine like this is invaluable when children get really sick in remote areas.
Feeding piglets. Thailand
10. Enjoy and respect.
Unfortunately, due to shrinking natural territories of many indigenous populations, societies that operate in complete isolation are disappearing.
As a traveler, visiting one of these rare and remote communities can be a truly remarkable experience. Enjoy this opportunity while it’s still available to you and as always, do everything you can to respect the local culture, environment, and way of life.