You have the list — maybe in your head, maybe written down — of all the places you’ve traveled to. Maybe you even have a map marked off somewhere, with little pushpins or computerized dots peppering the globe. You fly frequently and far, your passport has more stamps than the post office, and your international snow globe collection is reaching insurable proportions. But what some globetrotters and island-hoppers don’t realize is that there are miles between the distances you traverse and the experiences that shape you as a global citizen. The following are five signs you may be traveling more like a pedometer than a cultural sponge.
You visit a new place just to check it off a list.
I am guilty of this, though to be fair, the itinerary was not my own. My trip of a lifetime onboard a world cruise with Semester at Sea was fantastically jam-packed with datelines and diversity, but overwhelming in the sheer number of countries and cultures I had to digest over a limited period of time. While I don’t regret the experience, I still feel like I would need to go back to many of the places we docked to say I truly know what it’s like to visit there. Traveling to new places is an opportunity to immerse. This isn’t the Travel Channel; don’t get to know a place for an hour and then reach for the remote. Once you step foot on the soil of a new frontier, many would say it’s fair game to cross it off the omnipresent list. What would be better is to have a story to tell about that time you stopped in a local Tuscan market to buy groceries for a picnic lunch, but didn’t speak a lick of Italian, so you asked for Saltines, got sardines, but struck up a conversation with someone else in line and now they visit you every summer. Okay, sort of a romanticized version of experiential travel, but better than just getting back on the tour bus.
You never stray from familiar destinations.
You vacation two, three times a year, but it’s always to that resort you like in Mexico, where, like a Telemundo version of “Cheers,” everyone knows your name in a Spanish accent. While favorite locales are a good standby for getaways in a pinch, you can’t rack up too much travel cred if your only world view extends just south of the border … or along the same chain of islands. Travel should stretch the coordinates of comfort, and leave you exposed and vulnerable — but in that “It’s Christmas morning and I don’t know what is under the tree yet” sort of way. Venturing into the relative unknown is a spectacular way to accumulate those once-in-a-lifetime moments that can only be seized when you’re not seeking them. I would never have seen the sunrise on the beaches of India or ridden on the back of a moped in Vietnam if I didn’t throw a little caution to the wind and let curiosity outweigh fear.
You expect the comforts of home … abroad.
While the “Americanization” of many cultures has led to expectations of Coca-Cola, Big Macs and a side of English in any corner of the world (and many times you will find them, believe me), creature comforts and familiarity should come as a surprise in a foreign land, not as an assumption. I can always forgive first-time travelers for some misgivings about varying international standards in sanitation, service and local cuisine. But if you’re asking for an exotic adventure to the Far East, don’t act blindsided when — gasp — people actually do eat all the things you’ve heard rumors about and, well, it’s not weird to them. Apart from culinary delicacies, many cultures don’t even partake in meals until what most Americans could consider bedtime. Harsh though it may seem, my best advice for anyone looking for all the conveniences or hair gels of home while traveling abroad is: Stay home.
You view your adventure from a bubble.
Most of your panoramas include a snoozing elderly man — not because he’s asleep on a stoop in a charming old Mediterranean village, but because most of your sightseeing has been through a tour bus window and he is sitting two rows in front. Don’t get me wrong — organized tours can be a great way to gain access to sites and information that would be difficult to arrange on your own. However, if the only people you speak to during your trip are your guide and your buddies on the bus, you’re missing out on a key aspect of the travel experience: the locals. More and more tour companies are infusing local interactions into their activities, including village visits and even meals in local homes. Or you can go off wandering on your own — befriend a shop owner or a student who speaks English if you’re a bit lost in translation. My best experiences abroad continue to be those made possible by the people indigenous to that area.
You refuse to change.
If you drink to have a good time, try a traditional caipirinha in Brazil, but don’t get so drunk that you forget what beach the bartender recommended. If you like to stay connected, create an Instagram or Vine of the Angkor Wat temple, but don’t stay so locked to a screen that you forget to look around and miss that awesome Cambodian monkey stealing a camera. Researchers say that the best time to quit smoking is while you’re on vacation because your habits and routine change so drastically that you’re essentially distracted. Embrace a change of pace during travel. Some are forced upon you — jet lag and time zone changes are unavoidable — but the “When in Rome” mentality is not for naught when traveling. New places are the ultimate atmosphere for trying new things and for imagining yourself apart from the items that typically comprise our every day. If you can’t let loose on the other side of the world, then what are you traveling for?
— written by Brittany Chrusciel