How I became a better traveller
[Above: From 16 and awkward at a Sydney subway stop to 24 and, well, still awkward on a Havana balcony]
I've never thought the world was tidy enough to be divided into two types of people. Maybe it's a love of humanity, but I think we're too messy and multifaceted to be lobbed into piles based on one big, defining trait.
The more I travel, though, the more I think there might be two types of travellers.
There's the sweaty, map-weilding tourist who doesn't observe local customs, checking destinations off a to-do list. They march in, take a selfie and march out to the next place that must be "done."
Then there's the traveller who holds a starry-eyed reverence for the world, who comes to learn and see and experience. Sure, they take selfies, but they also try to slip into the stride of local life, experiencing a place rather than just documenting it.
If I'm going to be totally honest, I've been both. My first international trip, a youth group trip to Australia when I was 16, mortifies me to remember: I took thousands of photos and managed to have almost zero authentic experiences.
After that trip, where I spent 10 days in Sydney without stepping foot in the opera house (that one still kills me), I vowed to become a better traveller.
Fast-forward seven years, and I spent the summer in a remote wildlife facility in Belize, rehabilitating manatees and drinking in local life (and local beer).
Now, I'm not going to say I'm the perfect traveller. There's always things to learn. And, sometimes, a bad day can make anyone go a little gringo while they're exploring.
But, in my quest to become a better explorer, I've learned a lot of tips that will elevate a trip and get more from the experience.
Try them for yourself and you might just have your own traveller transformation!
Buy food at the local market
[Above: Buying coconut from a local farmer in Havana's suburbs]
If we are what we eat, is there any quicker way to study a people than to see their plates? Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way, you'll learn a lot about where you are from a shopping expedition at the local market.
In Xi'an, China, for example, I caught glimpses of everyday life in the Muslim market. Intense stall owners pulled me back towards tables of wares while I haggled, offering discount after discount. Candy makers acted almost as street performers, pounding almonds and beans with over-sized sledgehammers and pulling the dough for bean-filled pastries into meter-long, glutenous ribbons.
I ate new (flaming hot) spices, fried potatoes on sticks, and cookies filled with red bean paste.
In Santa Clara, Cuba, meanwhile, street corners with narrow sidewalks became even more crowded mid-morning: Horse-drawn carriages would clip-clap into town, laded with fruits so fresh and bright they almost hurt to look at.
I learned the western idea that all Cubans live on white bread and plastic-y cheese slices was the myth I imagined it to be as a farmer showed me how to hack and slice hard coconuts to get their soft, sweet flesh.
Stay in Alternate Accommodations.
[Above: the patio of the cement hut we stayed in while visiting southern Mexico]
Hotels are great. Hotels are fun. And sometimes you need a home base for safety, practicality or to insulate you from culture shock.
But I'm willing to bet you don't need that concierge security blanket nearly as much as you think. When possible, staying in alternative lodgings (think AirBnB, hostels or home stays) promises the traveller to be thrown headfirst into the thick of local life. And that equals a more authentic experience.
Boyfriend and I have stayed in ricky cabanas rented through AirBnB while in Caye Caulker, Belize. We stayed in cement huts on the edge of a Mexican lagoon in the province of Quintana Roo (and had a possum for a roommate—more on that another day). In Cuba, we rented rooms from locals through a network of home-stays called Casa Particulares.
All these weird, wacky places meant we stayed in local neighbourhoods, not the sterile tourist strips of town. It meant we had conversations with regular people from all these fantastic areas. It meant that we got to understand a new space on the globe a little bit better.
[Note: If you're travelling solo or heading to a particularly unstable country, think carefully about this tip. You may feel safer in a hotel or a more familiar-feeling neighbourhood. Only you can decide, no judgement here.]
In the end, all trips are a chance to collect experiences, to make memories that will become part of the stories of who we are. And I don't know about you, but I hate telling stories where I'm all sweaty or fraying into gringo-territory!
Together let's change the self-narrative.
Here's to becoming the travellers we are meant to be.