Many of us know that travelling abroad can be adventurous, exciting and exhilarating. It also should not come as a surprise that travel is good for your physical wellbeing, and depending on your type of trip, it can in fact be very challenging. But travel also reduces stress. We even know that experiences bring people more happiness than material possessions do. Indeed, simply waiting for an experience often comes with a grand feeling of anticipation and excitement. Yet, most people still tend to travel as an observer, more so than a participant. What does this mean?
In order for you to get that much more out of your experience, it’s meaningful to travel as an active participant. When we really open ourselves up and try to learn from our experiences, more so than simply having a good time, we come out so much more enriched. The ripples of this will then feed into all aspects of life, from our own community, to nature and the environment around us.
A recent study by a team of social scientists at Rice University, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina, revealed that people who live abroad for long periods of time have increased “self-concept clarity.” When travelers give themselves a chance to fully experience the culture of the place they visit, they are more likely to experience a clearer self-concept, or the extent to which they understand themselves.
Of course new, unknown places are full of interesting new people, which in turn bring you into contact with new cultures. And while it may sound straightforward on the surface, how do we actually engage with locals, learn about these cultures and immerse ourselves in nature different to our own?
First and foremost, you obviously have to open your eyes (and your mouth). Ask questions to truly understand the reasons for what you observe as different. Simply by talking to people who live in a different location and learning about their daily life, traditions and experiences can really open your perspective to their way of living. Ask questions for what works and what doesn’t.
In Amsterdam, for example, pedestrians (tourists and locals), cyclists, public transport and regular drivers all share the road. Ever put thought into how this works? What is the history, how was this all put into place and what can we learn from such an example in terms of urban design and sharing space?
You could also ask yourself (and locals!) how tourism impacts a certain place. Destination management has become increasingly important, with some world’s most popular destinations putting initiatives in place while others are investing heavily in order to ensure a more sustainable form of tourism.
Another point to keep in mind here is to really try to understand the answers given and put aside any prejudices or previous assumptions you may have had. People in a different country will probably think differently than you, and maybe not everyone wants what you want. These new, diverse ideas, thoughts and ways of life might provoke some thought and show you that the way things are is not necessarily how they have to be, once you go back home.
Ask not only others, but also put questions to yourself. Notice if -and how- the journey is affecting you. How do certain values align with or contradict your own? Do any specific memories come to mind? Have your political or religious views and opinions been challenged when confronted with new insights? Keeping a travel diary, for example, will not only form a recollection of your adventure, but also allow you to reflect upon your observations, insights and memories at a later stage.
By not staying in your proverbial bubble, you also give yourself the chance to experience the unexpected. Meticulously planning our adventures, for example, do not allow for a much needed distance from our regular lives, which can open us to these new perspectives. Using someone else’s things, for example, allows you to see a (limited) part of their everyday life. Depending on your accommodation, you may meet a host and share their living space with them. If you’re planning on going out for dinner, consider a meal with a local family.
Having mentioned Amsterdam above, author Ben Coates’ book Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands brings together many of the above-mentioned elements. This travelogue was written after his first-hand experience exploring and living in the Netherlands, with its unique history, politics and culture.
Ultimately, after you’ve opened up your mind to new experiences, new places and new people, your own world enriches too. Embracing curiosity and exposing yourself to something different will give you a deeper understanding -and appreciation- of not only other cultures and places, but probably also your own.