Traveling is certainly many things to many people, and few places is that evidenced more than at Travel Country, where people come in to visit places all over the world for myriad different reasons. And that is great, because there are few things more rich than experiencing a new culture for the first time. For me, it is the best thing about travel and, ultimately, I don’t think travel is healthy unless it is rooted in the traveler immersing himself/herself in the local culture. This can be quite difficult and definitely takes work. But when you choose to do it, it can make such a difference in your experience and—more notably—the experience of those whom you interact with on your visit. A nice byproduct is that when you do this, you can fit in quite nicely and experience a truer version of that culture.
Now, here is my list of top 5 things you can do to honor the culture you’re visiting:
This is everything. For starters, it shows that you care enough to be proactive in your pursuit of knowing the people and their culture. So, it’s a great first step! Study:
You’ll naturally gravitate to wanting to learn certain things more than others. Find those things and get to learning! Besides being beneficial, it can be quite fun.
Set Healthy Expectations
You’re going into a new place with all different types of customs and standards, so be careful not to set any particular expectations about what will occur...at least not specific expectations. Check those ones at the door and set wide expectations. How would you generally like to experience the culture? What are some ways you’d like to interact with people? What types of things would you like to see?
Once you get there, use what you’ve already learned and partner those things with what you see happening around you. Cultural cues are everywhere and you’ll miss them if you’re not quiet and observant. If you haven’t done your homework, observing will be like looking for clues to a puzzle without knowing what they are. If you’ve done your homework and have set healthy expectations, you are able to observe practices, attitudes, and anything else you can get your senses on and it will be like accelerated learning. There are also some things that you don’t need to have done your homework for (though it helps). One example is looking for lines when you go to eat. It can often be beneficial to use Yelp! or TripAdvisor to find the best restaurants, but if you see an inordinately long line where people are behaving themselves...they’re waiting for a reason. I had some of the best pasta of my life this way as I was headed to a pizza place in Bologna, Italy but saw over a dozen people waiting outside on a street where there were no other people. I got in line and reaped the benefits.
Build in What You Need
The very last thing you want to do is impose your culture on the countries where you travel, which is abhorrent. Those Kazakhs or Chileans don’t need to learn English because you’re in their country and you should expect that. But...you should figure out how you can still be yourself in the culture. For me, that means finding the best way to go for runs, the best markets to find produce, the crucial time for me to spend praying/meditating alone, and more of the same. What are yours? Do them in light of the research and observations you’ve already engaged in, and with your broad expectations in mind.
You’ve researched the culture, you’ve set grand expectations instead of narrow ones, you’ve observed further knowledge, and you’ve figured out how to still be you in that place and time. Now, you’re ready for most normal happenings, but just remember: things always change. Everything you’ve done up to this point will make it so you’re best able to withstand changes. And when you’re able to engage with the culture wisely, when you’re still maintaining your personal identity, and when you have the people of the culture in the forefront of your mind, you’re not just ready to interact with a place, you’re able to become a part of it. And that is when travel gets particularly special—when you’re not just visiting somewhere, but living a day in that place as it is.