The act of stepping through a gateway is generally unremarkable. You move from one room to another, from inside to outside or vice versa, from one humiliating security station to the next. Rarely does the thought that you’re crossing a threshold actually cross your mind. That metaphorically stepping over the line allows you to mentally shift your behaviors and attitudes.
Travel functions as a convenient method for this transformative experience. Compare your recent travels to your everyday life: did you feel like a different person on those trips? Were you doing different activities, eating different food, or being more outgoing? You might notice a discrepancy now that you didn’t observe then, one that seems integral to the act of traveling. Of course you’re going to be more active, more adventurous, more loquacious while you travel, right? That’s partly why we love to travel! To escape our often less active, less adventurous, and dour livelihoods.
Many treat travel as an escape from the “real world,” and the tourism industry helps us binge by serving up pre-set menus of country highlights. I’m not attacking the industry, just stating facts here. Even with a so-called “menu,” these travels are bursting with memorable and unique experiences. But it won’t be long before your eyes start roving elsewhere, and if you’re reading this you’re probably ready to try something different.
Over the last couple of months I’ve met loads of people looking for more from their travels than fancy hotels, tourist-bedecked beaches, and thronged monuments. While these are worthwhile pursuits in their own rights, the experience can be lackluster especially when you’re seeking something deeper or more challenging. Maybe it’s just sitting in a cottage reading a book as Scandinavian snow softly falls, or working rough rocks from untilled vineyards in Chile, or scrubbing mussels off a boat’s hull in Half Moon Bay.
Mundane? Unglamorous? Perhaps. Buoying? Meaningful? Absolutely.
The highlights are easy to find; experiencing how other cultures live, well, that can feel a bit like getting to Mount Doom. I’m talking about experiential travel, a term that implies an interest and engagement in the cultural milieu. It’s a delightfully loose definition by any standard, but one way to look at it is: “doing as the locals do.”A common epithet that’s much easier to parrot than to practice. Here are four ways to help you set the stage for experiential travels of your own, broaden your trip narrative, and put that parrot back in its cage.
Sleep with Neighbors
No, not actually; you should get your own place. Ideally, pick one that allows you to get to where you want to go without causing too much hassle. The key is to kick hotels, hostels, and sometimes B&Bs from your traveling diet. These are places tourists stay and they effectively create a bubble in which the native culture is scarce. Unless, that is, your goal is to hang out at the hotel – then by all means enjoy your all inclusive holidays. You’re far better off renting an apartment (for long stays) or couchsurfing or doing a home stay (for shorter stays). There are all kinds of interesting and telling daily routines you can pick up on in residential neighborhoods that can be totally absent in hotels, hostels, etc. These neighborhoods also very quickly fill you with the sense of living in the place because the pace of life has a tendency to remind you of your daily routines back home.
Eat Off the Street
You don’t eat at a restaurant every night when you’re not traveling do you? I just heard one of you say “I do…” but the fact is most people don’t. Eating out all of the time is a fantastic way to see a bunch of other tourists, especially if you’re booking out of guidebooks. The reality is that many upscale restaurants are more reflective of the chef’s creativity than of the local cuisine. Treat eating out as a special and rare occasion. Instead, dive into the local street food, markets, and grocers. Understanding a culture’s food goes a long way toward understanding the culture, and these venues act like veins to its heart. To get really hands-on, take a local cooking class and see how the availability of local ingredients has shaped the country’s national dishes.
Party with the People
What do Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Semana Santa in Sevilla, Hogmanay in Edinburgh, and Pukllay in the Andes all have in common? Hordes of locals enjoying the good life would be correct. Participating in cultural celebrations provides insights into the inner workings of the people – what makes them tick – and it’s also a hell of a good time. Celebrations reflect a culture’s origins and values, and they make chance encounters many times more common. Be sure to check out the celebrations that will be happening during your visit.
Mix Some Work With All That Play
An aspect of experiential travel that really interests me is the inclusion of work to complement all the toasting to the good life at night. Shearing sheep, manning a fishing boat, picking crops – many of these opportunities exist for the enterprising traveler willing to donate some elbow grease. There’s nothing like putting in a hard day’s work and relaxing in the evening to highlight the differences and similarities of your cultures.
Follow me as I look into each of these overarching ideas in more depth in future articles. They represent fundamental principles for my own future travels.
What do you do to better understand a culture?
Listening to: Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Drinking: Highland Park 12-Year Old Single Malt