Indeed there are some native tribes who believe that having one’s picture taken steals your soul.
I found this out the hard way:
In 2009, I traveled to Taiwan. I flew into Taipei, however, whenever I can, I try to venture out into the countryside of whichever country I visit (if time permits). Although the details of a trip I’ve taken four years ago can be fuzzy, certain scenarios have burned themselves into my memory for years to come.
One such scenario was when I decided to visit a tiny, mountainous aboriginal village called Wulai only an hour bus ride from the bustling metropolis of Tapei. I traveled by myself to Taiwan. However, I met a nice bloke in my hostel who volunteered himself to come with me to this little town for a day’s venturing. So off we went!
The word Wulai actually means “hot and poisonous.” Not one to easily be scared away by unusual sounding customs, I went forth anyway. Upon arriving, we were greeted with a lovely, hilly town, full of open air markets selling spices and foods, their aromas wafting the air, greeting you as you walk by. Less than a half hour walk later, we heard the familiar sounds of a waterfall and pepped our step just a little to receive some of its cooling mists. As it was, the weather was heavy with humidity and our uphill walk left my little purple dress soaking in places I wish it weren’t. Not to mention my relaxed hair at the time getting frizzy by the minute. The path leading to the waterfall is aptly called: Lover’s Path, with its waters leading to an aquamarine river gorge below. Not surprisingly, we ran into two lovers who wanted their pictures taken, and based on their giddiness at meeting us, probably assumed that my new friend and I were also lovers.
After relaxing by the waterfall for a few minutes, we ventured further uphill until we reached the tiniest train station I’ve ever seen. We noticed a “chu-chu” train going up and down the mountain and thought it was just a tourist attraction model. As it turned out, it was a real train called the Gondola, with the shortest train route in the world, presumably.
On our way up an even steeper hill, we ran into the first aboriginals of the day. They were working in an empty cafe on top of the hill and stopped dead in their tracks upon seeing us. I smiled and nodded my way to the surprised looks, laughter, pointing and poking, as did my new friend. They saw the camera around my neck, and like schoolchildren, demanded we take pictures with them. Again, I was burning hot, sweating and out of breath from the hilly climb. The last thing I wanted to be was the inevitable tourist attraction. But I complied, and my friend clicked away.
I must insert a sidebar here: as it seemed, the excited aboriginals were only interested in having their pictures taken with me, while my friend acted as the polite and patient photographer, and had I not lived in Asia for almost two years at this point, this may have seemed strange. We were both foreigners, after all. However, we couldn’t have looked more different. He, a tall milky white Caucasian man and me, a not-so-short Black woman. I learned later that they hadn’t seen a Black woman in their village in over 25 years, and she was from Congo. I was the first Black American they’ve ever met. So I willingly acted as their guinea pig. One thing I didn’t understand, however, was why during our picture taking sessions, they hugged me tightly and one lady even cupping my bum as if it were the normal thing do while taking pictures. I had to stop her hands from going for my chest, because that is just too far.
Finally, as a much needed reprieve from the heat, humidity, and molestation, we arrived to the main reason for our trip: natural hot springs. At this point, I realized that I didn’t meet any other Western foreigners. I’m not sure if it was a low season or if this little town wasn’t popular with them, but I didn’t mind one bit. When we arrived to the springs, we noticed only older locals, soaking away their day’s work. I innocently started clicking away, impressed at some of the shots I was getting, when a man proceeded to run towards me, yelling “No photos! No photos!” while blocking my viewfinder with his hands. I was shocked as his demeanor. I don’t remember our exact conversation, but he proceeded to tell me that his village believes that having their pictures taken will steal their soul.
My mouth was gaping wide. Not so much at what he told me, because I vaguely remember hearing this elsewhere. I was shocked because for the first time since arriving in this little town, here stood a local aboriginal, sans shirt or footwear, sporting only Hawaiian shorts and an erudite facial expression, speaking in perfect English and introducing himself as CIA! Where do they do that at?!?
What followed after meeting CIA alone made this trip to Taiwan worth it.
After my faux-pas and subsequent apology at stealing his villagers’ souls, he showed us the proper way to prepare our soak into the hot springs. We promptly changed and soaked away, amid the many stares. He then proceeded to show us his favorite restaurant on top of yet another large hill. At this point I didn’t mind. He was the most interesting person I have met so far, so we gladly went forth. When we reached the restaurant, the views of the foliage covered mountains, whose tops were covered in misty clouds felt like being on top of the world. CIA, who refused to tell us his real name, ordered some of the most delectable aboriginal specialty dishes for our pleasure: wild mountain boar, mussels, chicken, bamboo tube rice, pasta, a selection of tropical fruits, including papaya, pomegranate and star fruits. And to top it all off? A bottle of millet wine, which tasted sweet, smooth and left a satisfying buzz. I remembered sitting back, like a satisfied glutton, saying the words: “Life is good.” And it really was good, sitting in this restaurant, on top of a mountain, in the middle of an aboriginal village, in the middle of Asia, with CIA and my new friend.
I’ll never forget crazy CIA, and I’m sure he’ll never forget the innocent Black girl who stole the souls of his villagers.
How about you? Have you ever committed a cultural faux-pas that led to unexpected results? Share your story in the comments!