It’s that time of the year again when we make New Year’s resolutions. Personally, I don’t believe in making one. I don’t wait for the New Year before I set goals for myself. When I accomplish a major goal, I rest a bit and start planning for my next move anytime of the year. As all of you know, I’ve been traveling for almost six months now. The act of traveling itself makes us receptive to learning, but that alone isn’t enough. Just because we’re traveling doesn’t necessarily mean we’re learning. What we experience and how we respond to these experiences are what matter. So, how do you maximize learning while traveling?
1. Learn a foreign language.
You don’t have to be fluent in it, though mastering it would be quite a cool feat. If you’re in Ecuador but Spanish is not your cup of tea, still try to learn a bit of it. I say this not because it’s easy for me to learn languages but because I know the difference between relying on English when traveling and speaking the locals’ native tongue. Sure, knowing English is convenient, but talking with a Korean in Korean gives depth to your experience.
Besides, as travelers, we are presented with the chance to learn a language where it is spoken. Many eager polyglots who can’t travel would switch places with us if it were possible, so we might as well grab the chance. In Vietnam, I was treated with so much respect just because I could say the Vietnamese terms for food with the right tones!
There’s something so delicious about speaking a language other than English. I wrote in one of my blog posts about languages why everyone should learn at least one foreign language. Leave your country with one language and return with two or three more under your belt. Now that’s tangible learning!
Want more tips on learning a foreign language? Visit the blog of my Polish-American friend, Nikki Prša. She speaks and teaches English, Croatian, Polish, German, and Arabic. Suffice it to say that she’s a language expert. Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months is full of valuable tips, too.
2. Try at least one new food a day.
It doesn’t have to be any bizarre food like fried crickets and tarantulas (though nobody’s stopping you from trying these, either). When you eat what locals eat, you earn respect from them, because it means you accept a part of their culture. You don’t have to force yourself to like it the first time you taste it, but give it a couple of chances before you close the doors.
One of the best things about travel is the opportunity to educate our sense of taste through food. From where I come spices are not a staple apart from the usual garlic, onion, black pepper, and ginger. Anything with hints of cinnamon or nutmeg would taste foreign and, often, unpalatable. That’s why I love trying new dishes. It breaks my small world so I can see a bigger world surrounding me.
Our ancestors ate more than a thousand varieties of food centuries ago. What we have on our tables these days is just a tiny fraction of that. (I’m talking about you rice, potato, and corn!) Where are the beets, pomegranates, turmeric, and persimmons? Let travel be your guide in taste education. I’ve traveled to several Asian countries, and I’ve realized that openness to different foods and cuisines translates to openness to new enriching experiences.
Perhaps it’s one of the advantages of budget travelers. We have limited funds, so we have to be resourceful so we can travel the world for months or years. Volunteering is one of the most effective ways to learn about local culture and stay in one place for an extended period of time without spending a fortune.
In the Philippines, I often added a volunteer element to my travels because I wanted to help the immediate community. The very reason why these places thrive in the first place is its people, so I consider it important to lend them a hand so they can thrive even more. I taught arts and crafts in Kalinga, conducted a leadership workshop in Sagada, and gave an inspirational talk in Samar as part of the province’s recovery plan after Typhoon Haiyan.
Before I came to Canada to visit my relatives, I spent two months in Vietnam volunteering as an English teacher for a language center that targets youth belonging to poor communities. In return, the organization fed me every day, and I was provided a room which I shared with fellow international volunteers.
Luxury travel is not my priority right now. As long as I have a place to sleep, three meals a day, and a company of amazing travelers who are game changers themselves, I can say I have the best time of my life. I’m a 26-year-old millennial. Learning and growth are my priorities.
Workaway is my go-to site when looking for volunteer jobs. Most of the hosts offer free accommodation and food in exchange for 3-4 hours of volunteer work each day, 5 days a week. Another promising platform is HippoHelp. Registration is free, and the map-based search feature makes it easy for both hosts and volunteers to locate a volunteer opportunity. I haven’t personally used it, but I’ve read a few rave reviews. I even found my next prospective volunteer work in Oaxaca, Mexico. 🙂
4. Learn to cook like a local.
This is the sister of point #2. I don’t know about you, but instant noodles and soggy sandwiches are not my thing. If you’re traveling long-term, learning to cook is mandatory. Yes, you can probably taste better dishes cooked by locals, but eating out every single time will drain your funds. Learn basic knife skills. YouTube has loads of tutorial videos on these. Take a cooking class if your budget permits.
Should you decide to volunteer just as I did, cooking for your fellow volunteers would help them experience your culture through their palates, not to mention that it would be greatly appreciated and considered as a form of intimacy.
Here in Canada, instead of going to restaurants, I cook my own Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian dishes. I even invent recipes (photo above).
To couchsurf means to stay in the house/flat of a stranger (usually a local) so you can save on accommodation fees and, at the same time, have a taste of local culture and earn a local friend. I’ve used Couchsurfing to find a place to crash in Thailand and Japan. (Don’t tell my parents.) One didn’t work out, but that’s another story. 😀
It’s a great choice for budget travelers and language learners, but pretty much anyone who’s tired of impersonal hotel experiences can benefit from it. Also, I use Couchsurfing to meet fellow travelers visiting the same city as I. It’s not only for travelers who need a place to stay for free.
One of my best Couchsurfing experiences was meeting a German expat in the Philippines. She was looking for Spanish-speaking people because her language skills were getting rusty after leaving Peru. We became so close that we went out for dinner several times. She even introduced me a Peruvian restaurant I didn’t know existed in Manila! We trekked Mt. Pinatubo (in northern Philippines) together and rode a 4×4 ATV with Israeli travelers.
Couchsurfing is a social media platform for travelers who wish to stay with locals for free and for hosts who wish to meet travelers and be part of a global community.
6. Ditch the museum. Visit marketplaces, instead.
It’s common knowledge that museums are the best source of information about a place. Well, not necessarily. If your purpose is to learn about ancient history and see artifacts, museums would be quite indispensable. However, if you really want to understand how modern people live, eat, and interact with one another, it’s safe to say that the local market is your better option.
Where else is it best to experience the richness of a culture than in a marketplace? Here, you encounter food, pottery, handicrafts, art, music, clothes, jewelry, etc. Anthropologists and sociologists argue that the marketplace is a venue where people gather to engage in what they value. If the market has a large section on clothing, one could say that the people of that culture (where the market belongs) value fashion.
Also, in the local market, you don’t have to be too self-conscious about who you are what you’re wearing. Here, there’s only one rule – we’re all humans and we all eat and we all have the right to eat however we want wearing whatever we want.
7. Read books (or whatever you can get your hands on).
But skip the newspaper. The way media tells us what’s important and what’s not is plain ridiculous. When they speak of current events, they only refer to the war in Syria, the rise in rape cases in India, the impending nuclear war to be initiated by North Korea, or the Filipino star who recently got a plastic surgery.
Yes, the magnitude of these events are often disturbing (save for plastic surgery), but when these are all we hear and see, we’ll think this world is so dangerous. Instead of giving us hope, the kinds of news we read today strip off the very hope that we wish to grow. That’s why I stopped reading the newspaper and watching the news in 2013. I rely more on bloggers, traveler accounts, and stories told by locals.
Furthermore, the media gives us a skewed interpretation of daily events. They only tell us what they deem intriguing – the very small truth that can easily captivate us. I remember my first solo trip to Thailand and Cambodia four years ago. When I told my friends about it, a few of them were amazed at such decision, while another group warned me that traveling alone to third-world Asia was suicide.
But they were wrong. I had a fantastic time. I even met two Israeli travelers who became my travel buddies in Thailand. So, read books, magazines, biographies, anything. Read about the history of the place where you are right now. Read novels. Read whatever you fancy as long as it makes you grow.
8. Walk a lot, and see things from different perspectives.
Walk and use your senses as you explore a place. I’ve always been good at directions, but I found that I became better at it by walking. Through walking, I learned to get the lie of the land, to pinpoint not only my physical location but also my place in the world.
Just because you’re in Paris doesn’t mean you’ve experienced Paris. If you can’t give a detailed description of a place, it means you haven’t experienced it enough. Walk, because you were given feet, not roots. Walk to discover a place for what it really is, not as it has been described by travel articles and blogs.
Tips: 1) Walk first thing in the morning while the weather’s still cool. Find a breakfast place or a café and notice everything on your way. 2) Is your next destination just 1-2 stops away? Walk, instead. That’s about a kilometer-worth of things to explore. 3) Look for free walking tours online. They’re a wonderful way to learn about history while gaining new friends.
9. Engage in sports.
Find out which physical activities keep the locals healthy and happy. Although I’m more of an individual sports person, being around those who practice sports gives me a glimpse into the values of people living in a certain place. Also, the movement of my pen depends on how much I’ve let myself loose in the rhythm of physical activities.
As long-term travelers, we have plenty of time to come across opportunities to participate in sports. Play basketball or volleyball, skate on ice, play bowling with friends, bicycle around town, watch the weekly hockey tournaments, or join a swimming club.
10. Spend at least an hour alone.
I was 22 when I first traveled solo. Two weeks in #Thailand and a full week in #Cambodia was all it took to convince me I would live the life of a #traveler. How old were you when you first traveled on your own? ——————— Tenía solamente 22 años cuando decidí viajar solo. Pasé dos semanas en #Tailandia y una semana entera en #Camboya y esa experiencia me convenció de que existía la posibilidad de ser #viajero. ¿Cuántos años tenías cuando experimentaste tu primer viaje en solitario?
No, not with your boyfriend or girlfriend, not with your kids, not with your Couchsurfing host, not even with your smartphone. Just you. Alone. It’s tempting to do so many things on a given day when we’re traveling, but what will we do with our experiences if we can’t even remember the important details that make them up? It’s crucial that we sit with our thoughts a few times a day to reflect, to recalibrate, to ask ourselves the questions we are too busy to ask when we are in the thick of things.
“I didn’t walk today because no one would come with me.”
“It’s so boring to go to a café alone, and the baristas might think I’m weird.”
“Writing? Reading a book? Let’s party, instead.”
I’m tired of hearing people say these things. The discomfort we feel towards ourselves is so pervasive. It’s not even a matter of being introverted or extroverted. While being comfortable with solitude is easier for introverts, even extroverts need to look inward, just as introverts need to socialize more in given circumstances. We can’t be at the mercy of our personalities.
I write this as my last point because I think the biggest barrier to learning is we ourselves. We are not alone enough. We don’t pay enough attention to discover what matters most to us. We feel scattered. We wake up in the morning and, instead of thinking our own thoughts, we consult Facebook’s feed to dictate to us what we should think.
Tomorrow, when you wake up, I hope you’ll start your day by truly traveling – learning, reflecting, focusing on the essential, and being open to new experiences. I hope you’ll be brave this year to face yourself.
2018 is the year you’ll call yourself courageous.