Renting a flat for a week, shopping in local markets and learning a few words of the language are all great ways to immerse yourself in a foreign culture while traveling — but there’s only so much you can do on a week-long vacation. For a deeper look at a new place, there’s no substitute for actually spending some time living there.
We interviewed 12staffers and readers to find out about their adventures in working, volunteering or studying abroad. They shared where they went and how they did it, and revealed the lessons they learned from their once-in-a-lifetime experiences (such as how to use a squat toilet in Thailand or why you should always check your tires before driving in Australia). Read on to get inspired!
Olongapo City, Philippines
Where and How: I lived in the Philippines for six months in 1990. I was in the Navy and I was deployed to Cubi Point military base in Olongapo City. I was insulated in some ways because the base was considered U.S. soil, but as soon as you walked out the gate, you were immersed in the culture.
Best Advice: Be open to a new culture. Don’t expect it to be like the United States. Food is different. Entertainment is different. Electricity is different! Go with it.
— Cecilia Freeman, Assistant Community Manager
Where and How: I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, for six months via BUNAC, an organization that arranges temporary work permits in the U.K. for young Americans. I worked mainly as a temp at the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Best Advice: Learn to drink beer before you go — otherwise, learn while you’re there. Socialization in Scotland seems to revolve around pubs. Don’t get caught up in daily life and forget to see the sights — you can take the bus, hop a train, or rent a car and drive to many places without needing to fly. Don’t be surprised if you can’t understand anything people say, especially from the Highlands, even if they’re speaking English.
— Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor, Cruise Critic
Egypt and Syria
Where and How: I went to Cairo, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria, for a year with the United Nations Peace Keepers.
Best Advice: Boil your water or drink from bottles in Egypt; the water is fine in Damascus, but some street vendors’ fare is questionable. As in any developing nation, use caution.
— Leslie, IndependentTraveler.com reader
Where and How: My husband is Finnish, and we have a home outside of Helsinki.
Best Advice: I’ve definitely been on a learning curve; the language is seriously difficult unless you’ve got the time to study. Even a trip to Prisma, one of Finland’s supermarket chains, can be a huge challenge. On one expedition, there were so many kinds of milk (and yogurt and other stuff that all looks like milk) that I came back with buttermilk. I’ve learned a couple of things: 1) If you need help, you’re more likely to find that younger (under 50) Finns can speak some English. 2) They’re incredibly kind, gentle and understanding to foreign visitors.
— Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief, Cruise Critic
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (and More!)
Where and How: I’ve studied and interned abroad in many places, including Ireland, Canada, Germany, Macedonia, England, Ukraine and Singapore. Now in Spain, I am waiting for my documents to enable me to start working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, so I will have more stories to tell soon.
Best Advice: Don’t be shy because everyone has been “alone” at least once in life. It could be scary in the beginning, but in the end you understand we are humans with common features, and not only physical ones … we can understand each other even without the language. And do not be shy to ask for help. If we help each other, the world will be better.
— Monica, IndependentTraveler.com reader
Where and How: I lived in Budapest, Hungary, for eight years. I was a missionary working at a Christian school there as their librarian.
Best Advice: One piece of advice I would give someone moving to Hungary is to learn basic Hungarian before you go; the language is a tough one. Learn to say hello and goodbye, and learn how to ask where something is, especially the restroom. I found this one very important.
— Christine, IndependentTraveler.com reader
Where and How: I lived in Chennai, India, for six months, working with a nonprofit that runs a few village schools and after-school programs in the state of Tamil Nadu. I did that for the first three months, then had enough time and local connections to start doing some freelance editing while traveling around a bit more of India and Nepal for my last three months.
Best Advice: India is overwhelming. Don’t be afraid, but keep your eyes open. The more you feel like an outsider, the more you look like one and are likely to be taken advantage of. Don’t allow anyone (e.g., auto drivers!) to push you around, and don’t let yourself hold a few negative experiences against everyone else. I actually often ended up avoiding other non-Indians there because they only ever wanted to complain. I worked, lived and celebrated with only Indians, ate and dressed like a local, picked up as much of the language as I could, etc. Be prepared to have your heart pulled in a thousand directions at once, because that’s what India does. It’s terrifying and unbelievably fantastic all at the same time.
— Kate Musgrave, IndependentTraveler.com reader
Oviedo and Madrid, Spain
Where and How: I spent two years in Oviedo and Madrid, Spain, teaching English as a foreign language.
Best Advice: Learn the language — not only will it help you communicate, but it gives you invaluable insight into every aspect of the country.
— Adam Coulter, Senior Editor, Cruise Critic U.K.
Where and How: I lived in Costa Rica for three and a half years. I was there working for a hotel company. It is an amazing country! It is great for ecotourism, has beautiful beaches, etc.
Best Advice: Try finding a group of expat friends; the Costa Rican people are very friendly, but it’s extremely difficult to become part of a social group. Don’t get frustrated if people invite you to go out and never show up, especially at the beginning … that is the way “Ticos” are.
— Andres, IndependentTraveler.com reader
Where and How: I lived in Suphanburi, Thailand, for one year, teaching English as a second language through CIEE’s Teach in Thailand program.
Best Advice: Use Tiger Balm to relieve itchy mosquito bites, turn around when you approach a squat toilet to prevent splashing (face the opposite direction you would think — usually the back of the bathroom), and learn as much Thai as you can — it will get you local prices instead of foreigner prices, plus lots of new friends.
— Christie O’Laughlin, Production Assistant
Where and How: I left my job, sold my car, gave my landlord notice and spent nine months in Australia. I worked three jobs a week during the first five months — two were at market research companies, the third at a teddy bear factory. It’s easy to get a visa for an extended stay in Australia if you live in the U.K. and are under 30 years old.
Best Advice: If you drive around Australia, make sure you have your car checked first. The “new” tires on the car I bought were retreads and all four blew out at various points while crossing the desert. There was no tire iron in the car, so we felt pretty silly sitting on the side of the road waiting for someone to stop and help. Who drives into the desert without a tire iron and without getting their car checked? Us.
— Carrie Gonzalez, Public Relations
Where and How: I moved to Brasov, Romania, in 2003 for a three-month stint as an archaeology volunteer through a British gap year program (though I am American). During that time I lived with a local family and worked at various sites to catalog historic Saxon churches. While I was living in Brasov I met someone, and therefore returned six months later. For the next two years I lived in Brasov, working as a freelance writer for U.S. publications and leaving the country every three months to renew my visitor visa.
Best Advice: Living in Romania requires some grasp of the language because even though most younger people speak English, some do not and many older people don’t. If you’re moving there and you don’t really know anybody, look for volunteer opportunities as a way to get to know some locals. I helped out as a native English speaker at an English class during my time in Romania.
— Dori Saltzman, Editor at Large
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