Borneo Travel: Etiquette with photos of kids

When travelling, you want to notice the differences between your hometown and your destination. That is the point of travelling – to see what else is out there, how it is different, and learn from it. It’s not a big deal. It’s just the way our world is set-up.

And others will notice how different you are too. And that’s okay. But what do you do when it becomes a little less okay? Or even a lot less okay…

A few blog posts back, I talked about the way our family “stands out” in Kuching. Of the four of us (travelling at the time), N is the fairest – really white skin; strawberry blonde hair; bright blue eyes. S has more olive skin, with darker hair and hazel eyes. B and I are a mix of the two. (NB: We now have Z as well, and her colouring is like N. Same issues may arise in the future. Read on.)

In Kuching, it wasn’t a big deal. We had a lot of people commenting, coming up and saying “Hi”. There were many who were fascinated with N’s hair. I wasn’t totally surprised – a friend had a similar experience in Japan with her bright red hair and freckles.

It started to become a problem in KK. When we first arrived in KK, there were at least 5 billboards on the way to our hotel, all highlighting the problem of human trafficking. One was particularly focused on the risk to tourists. It was rather confronting and the first time I had ever needed to really think about the issue.

When we were out on the islands, it really hit home. While I was watching N play in the water (B and S were snorkelling), I saw a couple walk straight towards him. I would have been 5m away from him, but they walked right between us and crouched down around him. Then I heard the woman say, “I would love to take your photo! You are so cute!! You are so beautiful!! You should have lots of photos! Come over here so I can take your photo!”

And then they tried to take him out of the water and away from me.

Right there in front of me.

Needless to say, I reacted quick smart – and not short of reporting them to security. No-one could find them after that. But it did make me more cautious. Not fearful, but certainly more on-edge.

This whole issue really hit its peak in the airport at Sandakan. Waiting for our flight to KK and onwards to KL – and, this time, B is with N. Just checking out a shop. And suddenly, this woman starts trying to take photos of N.

B realised pretty quickly what was going on. Considering my experience in KK, B took a more subtle but physical approach. He positioned himself, quite obviously, between N and the other woman.

So she moves. So B moves. And this continues for a few minutes. Until B had enough and quite forcefully said to her,”No. No Photos. Stop it now.”

For added effect, he said it first in Bahasa Malay and then English. Yes, folks – not only do we learn the basics of Hello / Please / Thank you / Goodbye but now we have added “No Photos. Stop it now” to our repertoire.

And she still didn’t stop. She then proceeded to follow B and N out of the store.

We chose to head straight to our gate (though a little early) and mentioned it to security on the way through. We didn’t see her again after that.

And it didn’t stop there. We had a similar scenario in the Menara Tower in Kuala Lumpur (KL). As we were walking around the observation deck, B noticed a cleaning lady taking photos. She was trying to hide her mobile phone behind the cleaning products in her trolley. By the time B could make his way over to her, she was gone.

Now, yes – there is some discussion on the fact that our kids are darn cute. And yes, she may have just been trying to take a photo. But when you have people who know they are doing something wrong, and it involves kids, and they don’t care – that makes me both very angry and very nervous. And it’s not just Malaysia – we had a couple of similar circumstances in Italy and Hong Kong.

This is not a post to elicit fear in people travelling with kids. On the contrary – I think this is a fantastic opportunity to learn from. A lesson on how to read people, know when a situation is starting to sour, and knowing when to act.

Fortunately for us, nothing serious happened. Both kids remained safely in our care, no-one was attacked or taken away. And everyone survived the journey back to the mainland and KL. But it is a reminder – don’t be paranoid about every person you come across on your travels. But do remain diligent. Always know where your kids are and have a plan if they are approached by someone.

Just because they are cute doesn’t mean your kids are obliged to have their photos taken at any time. Ask the kids first if they want their photo taken? Some kids love it; others can be quite emotionally drained from the forced interaction. All of them are people – young people. Ask them and the parents.

And to those people who really want to take photos of random kids on holidays – ask first. If you feel you have to hide it, then clearly you know you are doing something wrong too.

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