At one point we had thought it would be a good idea to post travel tips based on our experiences because our methods have been somewhat different from what one might employ on a weeklong holiday. I made this list in Malta but I didn’t think much of it at the time. I still don’t because I’m not really the biggest fan of these list-of-6-things posts, but I’ve decided to just post it anyhow.
1. Go out of your way to make local contacts
The difference between stumbling through a country blindly and getting a decent look into at least part of it lies in whether or not you know someone. It’s not hard to do nowadays, what with Facebook, Couchsurfing, and all of the ways in which we use the Internet to communicate and it’s so incredibly helpful. In each place where we didn’t have any contact with someone before we arrived, we definitely missed out on a lot. We knew we were only skimming the surface of everything and we knew we were getting ripped off a bit here and there as well. I’m sure you can take care of yourself but no one can give you as good a view into any place like the people who live there. This is especially true in southern Europe, where people are friendly and very proud of what they have to show off.
2. Do some research
Read about the places you want to visit. Read Wikipedia articles and travel blogs online. Read travel guides designed for tourists. There’s a massive industry built up around giving travelers a base knowledge and if you’ve got it before you arrive, you can learn a little bit more up close. Ask the local contacts you’ve made what the best approach might be and then take their advice. Get an idea of the questions you want answered and the types of directions you might need. The baristas and bus drivers that you’ll invariably approach will have a much easier time explaining the route if you can already picture some of it in your mind’s eye. And learn how to say a few things things in the local language. You just have to do this.
3. Make a habit of reading the news
This is true not only for the country you intend to visit but also for the neighboring countries. After all, the entire world is interrelated in some way or another. Ignorance is bliss but it’s also a major hindrance to that experience you’d like to have in a faraway land. We’ve found that even having a cursory knowledge of the political debates, the history, and the culture of a given location makes it much easier to be drawn further in. In our experience, the demeanor of the people you meet on the road shifts toward the familiar once it becomes clear that you appreciate the complexity of their country as a whole country, rather than just a vacation spot.
4. Expect your plans to change dramatically
It’s necessary to have a plan. Unless you want to spend all of your time sitting at a cafe trying to figure out what to do, it’s best to plot out a basic itinerary for yourself. Once you arrive, be prepared to alter it or chuck it aside altogether. Things will almost never be exactly as you had imagined or even as the official websites say. The point of drafting a plan is to have a general idea of what you’d like to do. The idea should inform the real plans which often get made on the spot. You don’t want to be uncompromising any more than you want to be totally lost.
5. Accept that you’re an outsider
No matter how hard you try to blend in you’ll always be immediately identifiable as a visitor. Too often when traveling abroad we try to separate ourselves from everyone else back home. No matter what you think of yourself, the people you meet in other countries will see you as a representative of the land and culture that birthed you. It’s best to embrace this fact and be the most humble and interested ambassador your country has ever had. Show that you wish to participate in a meaningful cultural exchange. You’ll learn more this way. You’ll also have the opportunity to share more of your own knowledge this way. Mostly, you’ll be a lot more tolerable this way. Of course the people you interact with will have their own biases and worldviews. Each neighborhood can feel like a new country and each village can feel like a new planet.
6. Go “outside of the zoom”
Of course you want to visit the historic sites that you’ve read about and seen in photos for your entire life. If you go all the way to Rome and never drop by the Coliseum you might regret it for the rest of your life. Likewise, if you only stick to the area designed to appeal to the casual tourist, you’ll certainly miss out on what real life is like in the country you’re exploring. Talk to locals. That means learning something about the language in advance. Show that you’ve bothered to learn a little about the place before you go. If you’re lucky like us, you just might meet someone who will happily assume the role of tour guide for their neighborhood and you’ll discover things that have at least as much value as anything you’ll find clearly designated on the map you (hopefully) picked up at the tourist office.
Make friends with activists. They know a lot and if you let them, they’ll bring you into places and situations that will be much more interesting than anything that you can dream up on your own that won’t also get you deported.
That’s about it. Now, go get a passport.