What makes traveling so exciting? For me, one of the big reasons is the exposure to new ideas and ways of life. Living in a new place and exposing myself to the local culture often makes me question things I’ve always done without a second thought.
It’s a great way to get a new perspective on every day situations.
While some describe those moments as culture shock, it doesn’t have to be shocking if you take the perspective that everyone is just living their life how they think is best. I liked to use it as an opportunity to think more deeply about my own culture.
I kept a little notebook with me on my 3 month trip and jotted down things I learned along the way. There were many different moments between France, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand that made me step back and question something I had never thought twice about.
These are the highlights.
I Own Way Too Many Clothes
Before I moved out of my old apartment to become a nomad, I did a big purge of old clothing I had collected over the years. But after living out of a single carry on bag for 3 months, I did an even bigger purge when I got back of the clothing I had kept in storage.
Clothing was one of the biggest areas where I learned the value of minimalism. I had grown a large collection of t-shirts and hoodies over the years that I thought were cool or sentimental. I also kept a lot of old clothes around so I wouldn’t be forced to do laundry too frequently.
But I realized on the trip that clothes really don’t need to be sentimental and can often be – gasp! – worn more than once before washing. I also realized that there’s really nothing magical about a washing machine – you can always hand wash stuff in a sink with a bit of soap and let it hang dry in the shower. It’ll often come out smelling fresher than it does from the machine.
The other reason I had grown a large collection of clothing was that I held on to many items in case of a “special occasion”. In reality, I would go years without wearing them.
I got invited to a wedding in New Zealand a few weeks into the trip. After a brief moment of panic over not having a suit, tie, nice pair of shoes, I went to the local Uniqlo in Thailand and bought a $15 button down. I wore that to the wedding with a pair of khakis and was totally fine. 👕
Learn to Ride a Motorcycle
Scooter and bikes are the most common form of transportation in many parts of the world. If you don’t know how to comfortably and safely get around on two wheels, then you’re stuck relying on the mercy (and schedule) of other drivers.
They also offer an incredible travel experience – there’s really nothing like being on the open road with the breeze on your face as you explore somewhere new.
Whether you’re on the side of a mountain in the jungle or weaving your way right through a clump of nightmarish traffic in the heart of the city, there are all sorts of wonderful experiences you just can’t have in a car. 🏍
While I grew up considering motorcycles to be reckless and dangerous, I’ve already started the process of getting a motorcycle license in Massachusetts, so that I can apply for an International License and ride one anywhere in the world.
Eat More Spicy Foods
For people who “don’t like spicy food”, there’s a whole world of culinary experiences you’re missing out on. There are lots of great dishes and customary local foods you won’t be able to experience by limiting your palate.
Before modern refrigeration, regional spices were used all over the world to cover up the scent and flavor of food that had started to go bad. Many places with warm climates developed a strong cultural preference for food that was heavily spiced.
I grew up in a family that didn’t use much spice in their cooking. In college, I decided to overcome my handicap, and I made a specific effort to increase my tolerance for spicier food. A few times a week, I’d head to the salad bar and grab a bowl full of jalapenos and force myself to finish them. Over time, I got over my fear of spicy foods and learned to appreciate the nuance in the flavor.
If you’re really hoping to immerse yourself in local culture, you’ll have to get over your fear of “spicy” food and learn to appreciate the experience. 🌶
Learn New Ways of Communicating
Even if you’re just passing through a country on a layover, knowing how to say “please”, “thank you” and “excuse me” in the local language can get you pretty far. It’s also a fun way to interact with locals when they inevitably try to correct your pronunciation.
Trying to speak with a foreign stranger also makes you appreciate how terrifying it is to try and communicate with someone in their language for the first time. I’ll be sure to have a lot more patience and understanding with non-native English speakers in the future.
I also realized that charades is much more than a fun party game – it can be an important, life-saving skill when you need to communicate with someone urgently across language barriers.
One afternoon in Thailand, I came across a crowd that had gathered around an older white man that was laying unconscious on the sidewalk. I did a quick assessment but wasn’t able to come up with any clues as to why he had passed out – until the EMTs arrived and started to load him onto the gurney. At that point, a medallion around his neck fell out of his shirt with a small metal tag that said “diabetic.”
None of the police or EMTs spoke any English or could read the tag, but I tried to communicate to them that he needed sugars with gestures and by pointing at onlookers who were holding Coca Cola cans.
Even in non-emergency situations, being able to communicate visually and by pantomiming things was pretty cool. I picked up the habit of demonstrating or gesturing every time I was asking for something, which took me a week or two to shake when I was back in English speaking countries.
At a tiny bodega in Paris, I had to ask the store clerk if they carried any sports drinks. He didn’t seem to understand “gatorade” or “powerade”, so then I pantomimed doing some jumping jacks, wiped my brow and pretended to pick up a drink.
“Aha!” he said and excitedly took me to the back of the store, leading me directly to… the Red Bull and Monster Energy drinks. Perhaps our concepts of what constituted a workout beverage was doomed to be lost in translation due to differences in culture and advertising. 🏃
Hobbies Transcend Barriers
I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for almost 2 years here in Boston. When I was in Paris, I made sure to stop into a local Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy for a lesson.
The instructor spoke very little English, but I was still able to follow along and learn a few new techniques. Some of the other students helped to translate more nuanced concepts, and seemed excited to practice their English with me.
I was able to to follow the lesson and learn a few moves, and communicate with the professor through the shared language of our hobby. When we got into real rounds and I was grappling live with other students, there was no need for verbal communication since we understood each other with things like tapping out or “oof!”
Practicing a hobby while you’re traveling also allows you to break out of the hospitality bubble. If you go to a new place and only interact with the people who work at shops, hotels and restaurants, you’re never really having authentic conversations or interactions with the locals.
Employees in those situations are focused on making you feel good and enjoying yourself, they’re not necessarily giving you their honest selves.
Enjoying your hobby is a great way to interact with real people in a really cool, authentic way – regardless of your culture or language. You can share your own experiences and practices from back home if you’re on their turf, or pick up some local variances from them to bring back with you.
It’s a great tip for traveling, and it also gives ample opportunity to relate to fellow human beings who look and talk nothing like you.
Don't Get Stressed Out by Everyday Inconveniences
Americans have a strong sense of “justice” and we often use it to justify our own outrage at seemingly minor slights.
In France, I got “cut” in line several times and felt an embarrassingly overwhelming need to shove my way back up front. The reality was we were all going to get where we were going anyways.
It’s just a part of their culture that no one really gets upset over that stuff, and having fewer things to be upset over seems like a great goal to strive for to me.
Americans also love to get outraged over things that we perceive as minor injustices, especially while driving:
- He cut into my lane without leaving enough of a buffer zone!
- That driver almost drifted slightly into my lane!
- Look at how fast/slow that person is driving – what an idiot!
We’d all feel a lot better if we didn’t get so heated over such petty matters with strangers that don’t affect our lot in life at all. Definitely going to work on being more zen with those sorts of things. 😑💭👌
We Care Too Much About Protecting Our Children From the Realities of the World
Another distinctly American value that I noticed because of its glaring absence in the rest of the world is the extent to which we worry about “protecting the children” from things that are taboo.
But Hartley, children are out future! How can we not protect them?
There are so many things we try to hide from our children for seemingly no reason:
- full nudity
- child birth
The average Grown Up™ is intimately familiar with most of those things, but for some reason we’re terrified at the idea of children knowing about or understanding how the real world works.
But what if they repeat a swear word in front of the teacher!
My answer is that maybe that teacher should take the stick out of their ass, have a good chuckle and move on with their life (see above).
I sat in cafes around the world that would play plenty of uncensored music talking about all sorts of things that we consider highly offensive in the US, but none of the people around me seemed to bat an eye over it.
Children are going to grow up and learn about these “vulgar” topics anyways – they’re a major part of how the world works. Why not give them exposure when they’re young and they’re still comfortable asking their parents all of the questions that pop into their heads?
The United States Needs More Public Bathrooms
I saw them in many countries I visited – a small building or outpost strategically located in a public area that you can pop into when the need arises.
This is so much better than the American system of trying to sneak into an establishment to make a beeline for the back, and saves the awkward “Can I use your bathroom?” negotiation at smaller restaurants or shops.
Much to my surprise, most of these bathrooms were actually pretty well cared for and clean. Many of them had futuristic auto-cleaning systems and magic sinks that would spray water then soap, then water then hot air from some sort of crazy faucet so you don’t even have to move your hands.
I’d even go so far as to say that it’s a worthwhile experience and you should try one if you come across a public toilet in your travels.
Boston Public Transit is a Joke
In every single city that I went to, the public transportation infrastructure was clean, efficient and comfortable – it was mind blowing.
I actually popped off the train quickly in Paris at one point to snap a picture of a stop I was passing through because it was so beautiful.
While previous experience has taught me to bristle at the thought of taking the MBTA bus pretty much anywhere, taking a 45 minute bus ride to Bondi Beach in Sydney was excellent, even when it got pretty crowded. The bus was clean, driven well and people were cool and respectful to one another.
No trash laying around or obviously worn-down seats. No one had picked at, scribbled over or otherwise mutilated any of the advertisements, and no one was blaring music from their phone. It felt so… civilized.
Nobody Jaywalks Like We Do
Even while traveling in the US, I’ve noticed that the average pedestrian tends to be much more obedient than the ones in Boston. If I can see that no cars are coming and I’m crossing from a reasonably visible spot on the curb, why stand there like a dope for 45 seconds unnecessarily?
Many places were openly hostile to pedestrians walking where ever they pleased. There were fences between the edge of the sidewalk and the street that herded you into narrow spots.
Even in bustling downtown areas that seemed to be designed to be walkable, I saw lots of anti-pedestrians signs, especially in Australia and New Zealand.
One Australian friend we met up with refused to cross the street against a red light for several minutes, even when there was a 500 yard straight shot down the road in both directions and it was obvious no cars would be coming through.
It seems that in many cultures, the onus is on the pedestrian to not get themselves killed, while in the US, we tend to put the onus on the licensed operator of the 1000lb+ vehicle not to kill others.
I think that’s a lesson the rest of the world could learn from us.