One of the most common misconceptions about travel is that it is inherently and inevitably meaningful. Go to a foreign land and have a life changing experience. Simple as that, the work is done for you. It took me a long time to understand just how detached from reality this line of thinking truly is. Travel is not just something you do, it is a skill, some would say an art. Seasoned vagabonds know that there is a difference between traveling well and merely placing one’s body in a foreign country. It is the difference between burying one’s head in a Lonely Planet or becoming immersed in a conversation with a local. To travel well is largely an act of remaining persistently inquisitive, but it also requires a bit of planning and preparation as well. It is as much about knowing what to avoid as what to pursue.
I have by no means mastered the art of travel, but I’m making progress by learning from mistakes. I gathered the value of the following 9 lessons through slow, often aggravating, trial and error. I share them now so that you may have a shot at taking the path of less resistance. See the end of the post for additional resources.
1. Know the recent war history- It is all too often true that the countries we visit have a recent, often brutal, history of armed conflict. Understanding the nature of these disputes can be essential to understanding the country on the whole. I think travelers coming from developed and/or peaceful nations can have a difficult time appreciating this, and therefore tend to underemphasize war history when we are gathering information on a country. War is nasty and unfortunate, no question, but whether we like it or not, the reality persists that countries are sometimes defined by their violence.
2. Learn a bit of the language- Given the nature of modern travel, speakers of the English language can most often get by in a country without a knowledge of the local tongue. Just because we can, however, does not mean we should. Learning a small handful of words in the native language has many significant practical advantages, but is also signifies a certain respect for local culture. There is a particularly odious brand of traveler (usually American, sadly) who actually gets upset when native people cannot communicate in English. That these people even exist baffles the mind, but they can be useful as a guide for exactly how not to act while traveling in a foreign country.
3. Have a plan- I have wavered over the years in determining the proper amount of pre-planning for a trip. I’ve planned months ahead of time and in great detail, but I’ve also left for foreign countries without the slightest clue of what I was going to do when I got there. All I can say for certain is that neither of these strategies were conducive to having an enjoyable experience. Plan too much and you leave no room for those magical days of aimless wandering. Plan too little and you are bound to miss out on experiences you might have enjoyed immensely. The perfect amount of trip planning will be different for everyone, but you will be well served to stay away from the extremes.
4. Take great pictures- I’m not saying that you need to go out and buy an expensive DSLR (although this can be a very rewarding piece of gear to have); indeed, some of the best travel photos I’ve seen have been taken on point and shoot cameras. The point here is to make an effort at taking interesting and memorable photos. Prior to leaving for your trip, give yourself a two hour crash course on travel photography. You will be glad you did, and not only for the beautiful album you’ll have to show off when you get home. Taking great photos is a process that requires us to slow down, see the world with an artist’s eyes, to be completely present in the moment, and to appreciate the fine details of our surroundings. As any travel photographer will attest, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of taking exceptional pictures.
5. Understand the political climate- It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but this is a mistake I’ll never make again. I visited or lived in no fewer than 20 countries knowing next to nothing about their national politics. I even managed to live in Korea for an entire year without paying even the slightest bit of attention to that country’s political developments. It’s not so much that I struggled without the knowledge, but acquiring it makes the experience of being abroad so much more interesting. Encountering a public protest, for example, it is the difference between wondering and knowing what has sparked the conflict. In a bar, it is the difference between having a fascinating conversation with a local and not being able to find common ground. And again, making an effort to understand is a tremendous sign of respect.
6. Minimize time spent at the major tourist attractions- If there is one lesson in travel that consistently rings true, at least for me, it is that major tourist attractions are almost always disappointing. That said, this tip may not be for everyone. As difficult a time as I have understanding it, some people seem magnetically attracted to these sorts of places. For me, however, I almost always end up getting frustrated with crowds and disenchanted by the appropriation of national treasure by tourist dollars. If you’re like me, nothing will make you feel more disconnected from local culture than going to see this or that with a hoard of Teva wearing, camera toting, gift shop pillaging white folks.
7. Develop a base knowledge of the country’s prominent religions and moral beliefs- This tip is valuable for most of the same reasons as # 5. If you find yourself in a deeply religious country (and there are many), understanding the faith/moral background will add color and context to your experience. In much of Asia, for example, an understanding of Confucianism will lend itself beautifully to making sense of many customs which are unfamiliar in the West. It will also significantly diminish your chances of committing an embarrassing faux pas.
8. Learn about local foods before you go- If you love to eat (and by the way, we’re probably not going to be friendly if you don’t), do yourself a favor of investigating local cuisine prior to departure. Again, this is a lesson I learned late in the game, and it resulted in my missing out on a number of dishes that I’m sure would have been incredible. It also resulted in eating some of the most disgusting nonsense you can imagine. Knowing about food upon arrival thus offers two forms of insurance- that you will not miss anything delicious, and that you will know to avoid anything you suspect you will find repulsive.
9. Make a local friend- If these tips were listed in order of importance, this would surely be number one. For those who haven’t traveled much, it may come as a surprise just how easy it is not to do this one essential thing. Hostels, staff included, are filled with fascinating people from all over the world, folks who are more than worthy of your time. It is common to link up with a group of foreigners and end up spending the entire day with them, all the while not having a single interaction with a person native to the country you’re visiting. Why is this bad? Because without the guidance of a local, you are likely to miss out on the hidden gems of a city or town. Moreover, people tend to take a great deal of pride in their hometowns; allowing them to show you around is not only a great benefit to you you, but it also gives them the chance to show off a bit of what makes their home so special.
Two book recommendations-
Vagabonding by Rolph Potts- This is the essential how-to for the art of travel. I’ve read this book three times and plan to read it many more.
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux- An anthology of travel wisdom compiled by perhaps the greatest travel writer of our time, The Tao of Travel is the ultimate companion on any trip.