No matter how well-traveled you are, there are always new things to learn about yourself, the places you visit, and their cultural contexts. One constant in all of this ever-changing reality is the way you decide to approach, and learn from, your travel adventure.
I tend to think that travel can be as unique and your own as you make it. I’ve written the following six suggestions so that you can do this yourself while abroad, to really get to know your surroundings. These tips will help you as you familiarize yourself with a new place, and will give you the opportunity to develop travel-related skills.
1) Take public transportation
Cram yourself on the subway, metro, chicken bus, or collective van-bus to get to where you’re going. Sit next to the young child or elderly woman that is selling empanadas (and maybe buy one). Ride the buses that seem to have more farm animals than human beings on them. Why? Mostly because why not! This is a prime way to really see local life and not just the touristic version of a city.
Blend in a little (as best you can). If you’re unsure about the scheduling, ask a local. If you don’t speak the language
, try anyway! Hand gestures go a long way.
Riding the public transportation has become like a sightseeing tour to me. It’s an easy and cheap way to see a nice chunk of a city, and to interact with the locals. Do keep in mind that different countries/cities have different systems of paying and riding. Don’t worry if it takes you a few tries before you get the hang of it!
2) Find the local spots
Scope out the spots where you can’t hear English – so maybe the places where you’re the only gringo (or gringa) in the building. Ask around where the people who live there go. Do a bit of your own investigation and exploring to find the local hikes, swimming holes, eateries, bars, community hang-out spots, etc. Get to know the place by getting to know the people.
Sometimes these discoveries can come quite easily. I’ve asked locals the question “where would you go” in several different places, and more often than not they share with me. Other times, those spots are better happened upon, as no one wants to spoil the secret. Typically the further away you are from the central “tourist spots,” the closer you are to the secret local ones.
3) Get a little lost
While you’re out searching for authentic local hideouts, wander a bit. Take turns you’re not 100% sure of, follow the winding nature paths or gravel trails, and see what you happen upon. Learn from your surroundings, and grow from your discoveries, however small. The trick to this is knowing where your home base is (your hostel or where you’re staying), and a couple of key landmarks. Use these points as boundaries for your wandering. Keep in mind your surroundings, always, and if you begin to feel unsafe, turn around and make your way back to home base. While you are initially getting to know a city, keep a map on you. That way, worst case scenario, you can hop into a local shop and have someone point you in the right direction…or, at least, a familiar one.
I have started purposefully getting lost in new (or new-ish) cities that I visit. I like to test myself, to see if I can figure my way back without consulting a map or a helpful local direction-giver. I’ve found some great street art by doing so, especially in my most current location, Playa del Carmen
4) Go by bike
Walking is fantastic too, but it limits you on how far and how fast you can go. If you are extra adventurous and want to go further into the abyss, rent a bike and become part of the city traffic flow. Going by bike allows you to take in more of the scenery. For me, it has also helped with orientation. I love renting (or owning) a bike when I’m exploring a new place to really learn the layout of the city. It’s also a great way to factor some activity into your day, and to stay in shape during your travels!
One caveat: if you’re in a bigger city where traffic laws are more like suggestions, be very mindful about riding on busy streets. Always exercise caution when riding, as you would anywhere. Remember, the faster you go, the more likely it is for you to get injured. If you have coordination or health issues, definitely stick to walking/public transport. Nothing spoils a nice travel adventure like a trip to the hospital!
5) Pay attention
Be aware of your surroundings, and relax. Pay attention to yourself, and to what’s going on around you. Ram Das wrote a book “Be Here Now”
and you don’t have to read it to know the gist: wherever you are, be there. Forget about work or school, about the many details that may not be precisely aligning. Take the time to appreciate your experience and to hear the lessons it may be offering in the moment. Try tracing your self-development through journal writing
. If you really don’t feel like doing “The Adventure Tour” today, don’t. It won’t be fun if you force it. There’s a difference between giving up on your adventure and your agenda, and giving yourself a much needed rest, or space to process a difficult feeling (or illness).
Make the most of your journey, yes, but also understand this may at times look like just taking a nice, calm walk around the block and doing some meditative breathing. Be aware of your experience, every part of it. Let it teach you. Are you always stressed? Are you feeling like you need to be running down a checklist? Are you missing the finer details of the world around you because you’re inside of your own mind all the time? Put yourself into the experience a little. Test your observational skills. Absorb what is going on around you.
6) Be brave and curious
Approach your new surroundings ready to learn. In general, I think the more chances you take the more likely you are to have richer discoveries. Don’t be afraid to branch out, try new things, and embrace adventure. Understand, too, that when you take risks there are potential consequences, and some are harder to recover from than others. Use this awareness to balance your courageousness with a healthy dose of realism. You will probably end up making a few mistakes, but that’s ok. Learn from them!
To me, there is nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of exploring a new place, path, trail, forest, city, jungle…etc. It is the most enjoyable part of traveling, and keeps my life vibrant and interesting. Developing a mindset of curiosity, and acting it out during my travels, has offered me with many experiential learning opportunities
. It has inspired me to create my own curriculum…as life.
Next time you go abroad, feel inspired to create your own method of learning, and of travel. You can use these points as a beginning, and then continue to write your own!
Feel ready to start making a difference? Find out more about GVI’s international, award-winning volunteering programs and internships, and choose from community development, animal care, teaching, women’s empowerment, and conservation projects worldwide.