Many people travel to places just to “see the sights.” Stay at a fancy hotel with nice sheets. Eat at a nice restaurant by the beach. Sit on the white sand and watch the ocean. And because of the lack of vacation time, they pretty much get-in-get-out and move on. In some circumstances, a relaxing and luxurious vacation is needed to recharge your batteries. But WAIT a second… You could be missing one of the most important things:
Traveling can ALSO give you a lot of insight into other cultures: how the people live, what they eat, what their priorities are, where they work, what they do for fun. It’s interesting, fascinating, educational, and sometimes it can also be downright sad. But either way, it’s LIFE—it’s their life—and there’s always something to learn from observing somebody else’s routines and customs. Culture really provides a lot of depth to your own overall travel experience. I really believe learning and soaking up culture is one of the most important parts of traveling, and sadly a lot of people miss out on it when they venture out to a new city or country.
Think of it this way: We pay thousands of dollars to go across the country or world just to check into a hotel that has all the comforts (or more) of home, watch cable TV, and eat foods that you can get at your local neighborhood restaurant. Well, tell me: what’s the point in that?
There are so many amazing people, landscapes, and foods to sample all over your country and all over the world . . . why not step a little out of your comfort zone and see what happens!?
I feel it’s also really important to keep an open mind when you travel and realize there’s a whole LOT of world out there to explore, and not all of it will be pretty or comfortable. Sometimes that’s half the adventure! But no matter what, it’s all an EXPERIENCE, and that’s what can really matter in your travels in getting the most out of everything a city or town has to offer. In the end, getting out there and experiencing the REAL culture often ends up being a VERY rewarding experience; from the people you meet, the activities you engage in, and the reflection you make on your own life and realizing what you’re most appreciative of and back home.
There are a few things I’ve learned along the way that have really helped me get more depth out of traveling, and I’d love to share a few suggestions with you to help get more out of your own travel experiences:
Don’t stay at a 5 star hotel
Heck, don’t even stay at a 3 or 4 star. If you’re in Cambodia, BE IN CAMBODIA. Staying in a modernized, wait-on-you-hand-and-foot hotel in another country will probably not get you any type of cultural experience other than “I’m an American/Brit/Australian staying at an overpriced hotel in a very poor country.” Of course, check reviews just to make sure you aren’t in any danger of your safety or health (bad neighborhood, bed bugs, etc.), but chances are, by staying in a guesthouse, B&B, or non-over-the-top hotel could give you a glimpse into the way the people live in that country or city. If you’re a bit more brave, try out websites such as couchsurfing.com or reach out to family and friends to find connections in the city you are visiting, and actually STAY in a local home with somebody who lives there.
Also note that this doesn’t mean you need to go live in a small tent in the 95 degree humidity for the whole time you are visiting a place where people may live this way; maybe limit yourself to a couple days or whatever you think you can handle. If you go overboard you might spend the whole time miserable and regretting this “cultural decision.” A little sample is enough to gain some perspective.
Engage in a local activity
Besides going to see the local sights or laying on the beach, research or ask around to see what type of activities there may be that could immerse you into the local culture. Some good examples include: taking a cooking class, riding bikes through the countryside, traveling to a local village to see the way people REALLY live, participating in a religious ceremony, volunteering for a day or just a couple hours with a local nonprofit, or joining a day-tour that explores the local culture with an experienced guide to give you some facts about the area. Even if you are staying at a nicer resort with all the amenities you could possibly need, the hotel may offer cheap or free activities and demonstrations that can give you an insight into the people’s lives, such as how to crack open a coconut, or how to prepare certain types of local dishes.
Sometimes it’s hard to fit in everything you want to do on a trip, but delving into a local activity can be a really rewarding, eye-opening, and educational addition to your trip.
[Maybe, as inspiration to go out and interact with the community of the city you are visiting, watch this video of the fun we had at a local school in Trat, Thailand, singing English songs with the kids!]
Travel is never perfect. And sometimes the way other people and cultures do things may not be as fast, precise, relaxing, or fill-in-the-blank as YOU are used to. The United States, as a whole, is pretty modernized, educated, advanced, and “Westernized” compared to the rest of the world, so try to remember that some other places (even within the US itself) might be a little more “behind the times.”
Instead of immediately getting upset, uncomfortable, or judgmental, try to just let it “roll off your back” and wait it out. If you try to practice as much patience as you can while traveling, bite your lip, and just “go with it,” you will often get a REAL perspective on how things are done elsewhere. What you end up learning could either impress you, or just simply make you realize how much greater you have it back home.
Meet up with a local
If you’re planning to go to a new city or country, ask around to your family and friends, or even make a post on a social networking site, and ask if somebody knows a local who lives in the city/cities you are visiting. There are also forums and websites dedicated to connecting travelers with locals who want to help out, so this might be a good place to start.
By meeting up with a local for a day, or just for a coffee or a meal, you can get some insight into the native culture in that city. You also may learn about what local places you should visit or avoid, as it’s easy to get caught up in “the tourist trap” when you travel.
Lastly, by meeting up with a local, you may just make a new friend as well!
Sample the local cuisine
Since you’re visiting a new city or country, why not try the local cuisine? If you want to know more about the local people and what they eat, try to avoid the easy fallback-foods of pizza, hamburgers, and sandwiches when you are traveling in a new place (unless that area has a specific pizza or sandwich specialty!) You can get these foods back home. Instead, try something completely new! Maybe ask a worker at your hotel to suggest a restaurant at which THEY would personally eat, NOT the places they normally recommend to tourists. You may be surprised to discover how many amazing foods there are out there that you didn’t even know you liked!
Realize not everybody does things the way you do, and that’s OK. Maybe think about that for awhile . . .
Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand: Not everybody out there in the world thinks like you do, likes the things you like, or acts the way YOU do… and most of the time, that’s just OK. That doesn’t make it “wrong” or “bad”: it’s just DIFFERENT. And it’s good to realize this as you travel to a new place and embrace the differences in culture, because in the end it’s pretty fascinating to see the other side of the spectrum and try to find answers to: “Why IS ________ so different?” “Why do the people __________ if it seems so hard/wrong/different/inefficient/time-consuming?” If everybody is doing it in this other culture or country, then obviously they have some kind of belief in this practice or habit?
Take, for example, in China, many Chinese babies traditionally wear “open-backside pants” instead of diapers. When the child has to “go potty” they simply squat down in the street, or the mother holds the child over a bush, garbage can, or whatever happens to be nearby while the child does his or her “business.” Sounds pretty gross, right? Well, of course was exactly our thought when we witnessed these acts throughout the country, often joking and commenting on how disgusting and unsanitary this practice must be, and how can a baby really know when it has to go?? **The fault, here, is we made a snap judgment and didn’t really learn the background of this practice and WHY it was that everybody was doing it. Upon further online research, we learned more about the interesting background into toilet training in China, which promotes a very close mother-child relationship; with the mother learning and reading the baby’s signals, and the baby waiting for the mother’s response of approval. In addition, this practice saves a SIGNIFICANT amount of money and plastic from the lack of diapers, and virtually has the child toilet-trained by the age of ONE! And because so many people in China—and actually some in Southeast Asia—practice this method with their children, it is not looked down upon socially to have a child training and “going potty” in public.
On the flipside, I have read that people who use this method often look at the Western, or more modern way of toilet training a child (with diapers), as “lazy” because the parent is taking the “easy way out” and is simply strapping a diaper onto their child (which they consider an unsanitary practice, as the child sits around for hours in their own “duty”). In addition, they believe the Western practice of training is also “lazy” because many children aren’t potty trained until three or sometimes four years of age, and that by throwing the child into a stroller–rather than spend close and quality time carrying him/her around—it takes away from the close mother-child bond. [In case you want to read more about this open-pants potty training practice, I found a fascinating and thorough article about it here.]
Point is… there are two sides to every story, whether you agree with it or not. Try not to make snap judgments of other cultures while traveling. And even if you do, stop and think, “Well, why are they doing that?” and maybe you’ll come to an interesting and educational conclusion all on your own.
Breathe. And wait for the culture shock to pass
Culture shock is hard. If you haven’t experienced it before, it’s basically an overwhelming feeling of, “This is WAY out of my comfort zone and I want to run away!” Or more simply put: “This sucks!!” “Why am I here?!” “What am I doing?!” and/or “I want to go home NOW!!”
When you’re in a new place and things aren’t exactly the way you like them or want them to be, just SIT IN IT for awhile. You will often find that the feeling will eventually pass . . . or at least die down. Also, you most likely will just learn what you like or really do NOT like in a travel experience. Either way, it’s usually best if you don’t run away, change hotels, go back home, etc., and instead wait it out and see if you learn something about yourself. And you might just be proud of yourself for doing so!
Traveling can make you ponder your own life, your own fortunes and misfortunes in the past ____ years, and question why you—or the people you meet—happen to be SO lucky or unlucky in life. I find myself almost every day of traveling thinking something like, “Why wasn’t I born in a poor village in Vietnam during the war?” “How come I didn’t grow up in a society where you don’t have the freedoms to say whatever you want to?” or “Why was I fortunate enough to have the brains, courage, family, support, drive, and opportunities to not only afford—but WANT to attend and graduate from—a four-year college?” Not everybody has the same opportunities and support in the world, that’s just a fact.
Whether you envy the cultures you observe that have a tight family bond you may be missing in your own life, or through your travels learn how much more efficient transportation is back home, or you simply just come to realize just how fortunate you are to have a job and a safe and dry place to call “home,” you often will learn a greater form of appreciation through travel. Look around you: What can you learn from other cultures that can help benefit your own family or business back home? And what types of things do you see that could be improved in their systems?
Put simply: TRAVEL and CULTURE together provide you with an amazing education that you really cannot obtain from anywhere else. The next time you step foot outside your door to explore your own neighborhood, a nearby city, or a country far far away, you might want to make a little extra effort to learn about the culture around you.
Chances are, you will be rewarded more greatly than you ever could have imagined! And in some cases, you may often walk away a changed person.