Language & Culture
5 Tips for Traveling Like a Pro
By Ladye Jane Vickers, Broadreach HQ
I travel a lot. Exploring the world is my passion, and if I’m not actually traveling somewhere at the moment, I’m plotting my next adventure. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tips for getting the most out of going abroad. Some have been learned through comical folly, others by very uncomfortable social encounters. I thought I would share a few things that are high on my ‘to do’ list so you can learn from both my good times and misadventures.
LEARN THE LOCAL CUSTOMS AND TABOOS
Japan can be one of the trickiest places to visit when it comes to communication and etiquette. It’s a rich culture steeped in tradition and ritual, and as a foreigner, there are endless opportunities for you to be offensive without even knowing it. Most people know that you should take your shoes off before entering a home or temple in Japan, but did you know that in some cases handing money directly to a cashier by hand can be considered rude? Several years ago, I watched as a confused friend was passed a small tray by the woman behind the counter, but I was able to explain to her that it was for her to place her money in so the money didn’t physically change hands. Since my dad has spent a lot of time in Japan, I was lucky to have received that little tip before heading over, and was able to pass along why the cashier looked confused.
By being unaware of local customs and niceties, you run the risk of offending people without even knowing it. On a recent trip to Nepal, one of my travel companions didn’t know that pointing the soles of your feet towards a person is a great sign of disrespect, and wondered why locals kept looking at him funny every time we were gathered around the fire. In Thailand, I unintentionally ruined several of my brother’s wedding pictures because I was seated in a few of them with my legs crossed, and didn’t know sitting that way was considered disrespectful.
Taking just a few minutes to read up on any cultural faux pas can help prevent all kinds of uncomfortable social situations. Here’s a good resource for checking the local customs and etiquette for a country you plan to visit.
DON’T OVER PLAN YOUR TRIP
While having a list of top spots to check out and fun things to do is essential for any trip, by having every minute of your itinerary accounted for, you risk missing out on the serendipity of a moment. Not to mention you are exhausted by day five. Be flexible with your activities and go with the flow. See the historical landmarks and cultural attractions, but make sure to take the time to experience the daily life of a culture. As they say, when in Rome…
A few years ago when visiting Ireland, my friend and I pulled into Galway and were way too tired after the long drive of dodging sheep on the winding roads to hit all the landmarks we had planned on, so we decided to go relax in the local pub instead. While there, we chatted for hours with some amazingly nice locals, with whom we ended up having the most fun of our entire time in Ireland, and are still good friends with to this day.
READ UP ON THE COUNTRY’S HISTORY
Knowing a little about where a country is coming from goes a long way when you’re there. When exploring a city, the landmarks and cultural treasures carry more meaning if you know the context of when and why they were built and what role they’ve played in society.
When I was in Florence, I noticed the strangest thing on several of the buildings. There was a visible line going around many of the buildings several feet above the ground, and in some places, as high as about 20 feet. It became so noticeable in the Piazza Santa Croce, that I began to take pictures of the interesting patterns and textures the line created. It wasn’t until later in the day, when I met up with my Italian friend and asked him if he knew what it was, did I learn they were flood marks from the devastating flood of 1966 that destroyed countless works of art, frescoes and buildings.
PACK THE ESSENTIALS EARLY
On this same aforementioned trip to Nepal, one of my travel companions forgot her hiking boots… on a trekking adventure across the Himalayas, no less. Anyone who has broken in a new pair of hiking boots before knows the pain and tragedy that could mean for your feet. Fortunately for her, the small blisters she got were not that bad, but it was something that had the potential to ruin/end her entire trip.
Start a list at least a week in advance and break it into categories. Make one of the categories ‘essential items’ and list all the things that you could not do without or would be very difficult to replace while there (passport, travel documents, any medications, hiking boots if you’re going on a hiking trip, etc.) and make sure all of those things get packed first. From there, you at least know that anything else is replaceable!
LEARN A FEW WORDS OF THE LANGUAGE
Learning at least the basic ‘please, thank you, hello, goodbye, no and yes’ in the native language where you visit shows you are making an effort to communicate with people in a way they understand. In Nepal, the traditional bow and a ‘namaste’ every time you said hello, thank you and goodbye became such habit, that I found myself still doing it the day after I got back. The gesture of respect was pleasing to perform, and really gave a sense of immersion in the culture.
Americans have a bad rap for thinking, and almost expecting, that everyone across the world speaks English. They don’t. So, if you have important things that you’ll need to communicate when traveling, make sure you can say it in the native tongue. If you have an allergy, for example, learn the word for it so you can say (in my case) “No onions” when in a restaurant. A little bit of effort goes a long way!