BY SYLVIA KOHL
One of the biggest benefits of traveling as a student, especially internationally, is becoming exposed to the entirely different culture. However, most cultures end up getting filtered by tourist traps and “mainstream” experiences offered by a given area.
If you’re distracted by tourist centers and driven by the behaviors usual in your country (such as selecting cuisine you know from back home), you’ll end up missing out on the enrichment and exposure that travel is intended to bring you.
But at the same time, it’s hard not to be a tourist, because, in most respects, that’s what you are. You have to deliberately resist temptations and sometimes go out of your way to experience international cultures authentically.
Strategies for an Authentic Experience
Use these tips to experience cultures more authentically:
- First, don’t drive everywhere. Don’t take public transportation. Don’t even bike. If you want to make the most of your experience, you have to walk. Walking forces you to slow down and appreciate every inch of the city. You’ll notice more buildings, discover more nooks and crannies, and ultimately meet more people. Even better, you’ll enjoy your time more because you won’t be rushing to cram everything into a packed schedule. Most major cities offer free walking tours, which you can use as a jumping-off point. From there, we recommend you wander around as much as possible; some of the most authentic and surprising experiences will be ones you stumble across unintentionally.
- Don’t make detailed plans. For those same reasons, it’s a good idea to avoid making too many plans. The temptation here is to pack as many items into the limited time of your vacation as possible—after all, you have a finite amount of time, and you may never come back here. However, if you do this, you’ll end up short-changing yourself on destinations you find truly worth visiting, and you’ll stress yourself out to complete the plan, rather than absorbing the culture around you. Feel free to chart out some “must-sees,” but leave wiggle room for things you discover at the moment.
- Talk to natives. One of the simplest and best ways to experience a new culture is to talk to the people who live and breathe that culture every day. Even if you don’t know the language very well, there are other ways to communicate. It won’t take long before you’re able to start seeing the world through their eyes—as long as you’re truly listening. Locals will be able to recommend the best places to eat and visit, and they’ll share tips about how to travel, and about the “hidden gems” that you won’t find with a simple Google search. Talk to strangers—it’s worth it.
- Don’t spend too much time on the big draws. There is always a handful of major attractions in a given city, such as a museum or a historic landmark. Visiting these places can be rewarding, but don’t spend too much time on them. They’re usually geared toward tourists whose only purpose is crossing this item off their lists, so they aren’t valuable opportunities for seeing what a culture is really like.
- Take fewer pictures. It’s tempting to take as many pictures as possible. After all, you may never come back to this location, and you want to be sure you remember it, right? This logic is flawed in a couple of ways, with the most notable being that taking too many pictures can actually impair your memory of the event or location you’re taking pictures of. It also serves as a distraction; are you living in the moment, or trying to come up with the best way to remember this experience in the future? Try to focus on the present as much as possible; you’ll thank yourself later.
- Learn to live like others do. Finally, try to live the way everyone else in the area does. Do they wake up earlier or eat meals at different times? Do they seem to walk slower than usual, or have different customs for daily rituals? Learn by watching those around you, and mimic what they do. If you can – live with someone from the area so you can be even more immersed.
What to Take Away
So why does it matter? Experiencing a culture gives you new perspectives on everything from food and social discourse to fundamental philosophies on life. You may find that people in other countries live life slower and more relaxed (like in Southern Europe), or aren’t as concerned about personal space (like in Egypt), or have different priorities than most people you know in the United States.
Understanding these differences firsthand—rather than just reading about them or passing by them—will help you empathize with others, and may even change how you see the world. That takeaway is far more important for your college career, and for the rest of your life than simply visiting the top tourist traps in the area.
Sylvia Kohl is an IT teacher with more than 8 years of professional experience. Her main spheres of interest are e-education and she convinced that learning process doesn`t stop after years in school and university.