Travel is a very personal and exhilarating experience. I believe the key to experiencing a journey of optimum exploration and adventure is to connect with local cultures. Depending on your personality, it may seem intimidating or maybe it comes naturally to you. Either way, I have tried and tested these tips to help all of us solo female travelers navigate and connect with a diverse array of cultures anywhere in the world.
Take some time to ask yourself why you have chosen the place you would like to explore. Answer the following questions honestly; they can serve as a guide throughout your trip. Get yourself a cute little notebook even. Write them down and keep them with you to remind yourself when you need it.
1. What is going on in your life right now that is inspiring you to travel?
2. What are you expecting to find or achieve through this trip?
3. What are three things you would like to learn about on this trip?
Traveling to a new place is exciting, but with travel comes responsibility. While it is important to figure out where you are going, how to get there, and necessary safety precautions, it is also important to learn about cultural customs, etiquette, and basic phrases in the local language.
Each and every destination is filled with fascinating complexities. Certain Muslim countries are very strict with how they operate during the holy month of Ramadan. For example, Dubai does not allow people to eat or drink in public during this month, while Istanbul is a little more lenient with how they operate.
It is generally a good idea to learn about the basic politics of the country before departing for your trip. Find out whether it is appropriate to talk about politics; some countries are not comfortable talking about local politics, and these discussions may leave you in a precarious position with respect to safety.
Many countries in Asia, Middle East, and Africa use their left hand to clean themselves after using the toilet. Because of this custom, it is considered rude to use your left hand to eat, shake hands, paying for something, and when shopping in these countries.
Some countries like Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, and Egypt nod their head ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes.’ This can be confusing for cultures used to a different way of agreeing or disagreeing.
From my experience, locals have been willing to help me out when I have learned basic phrases to get around.
They have appreciated the time I spent learning about their mother tongue, and are more willing to help with directions, food selections, and deals for local goods.
Language is clearly a great form of communication, but it can also be confusing across cultures. Here are some examples – the word ‘hammer’ means ‘awesome’ in German, and ‘chips’ can mean ‘French fries’ in parts of Europe. Google search language misnomers for the country you are traveling to in order to avoid any embarrassing mishaps.
Useful phrases to learn include:
If you have dietary restrictions, learn how to communicate this in advance.
I cannot emphasize the importance of practicing proper etiquette when going overseas. Respecting the nuances of the local culture will affect the quality of your trip. Research how people dress on different occasions and in the different areas you will be traveling to. Temples in Asia require visitors to cover their shoulders and knees. Villages adopt more conservative clothing etiquette than big cities. Being mindful of these cultural practices will help you feel comfortable and will provide you with the ability to connect with local cultures in a deeper way.
Culinary experiences have always been a medium to connect with culture. What I recommend researching in advance are dietary restrictions you may have with the local cuisines, where to find alternative food options and whether or not the local culture uses silverware or their hands to eat food. You don’t want to seem disgusted or surprised by your choice of food options or utensils/non utensils. Body language can transcend languages. If you are uncomfortable using your hands, bring your own set of plasticware (bringing a knife is not advisable).
All of the tips that I have provided above lead to this section. Connecting with local culture when you travel is what sustains the entire experience and also aids in the making of new friendships. I highly suggest thinking about the purpose of your trip as mentioned in Part 1. Empathy is the best tool to use when trying to connect with people you want to learn about. Self-reflect on your intentions and where you are in your life and think about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Craft open-ended questions that connect you to that person and draft some questions ahead of time as a guide to expand your learning. Some examples from my trips are below:
Example 1: I have always marveled about how other cultures find happiness in their daily life because I like to remind myself about how to be happy on a daily basis. I tend to ask, “What is your daily life like?” and “What do you look forward to doing after work or on the weekend?”
Example 2: As a new mother I have been curious about how other cultures raise their children. On a recent trip to Jamaica, my son got sick. I asked some Moms, “What do you do when your children are sick?”
Example 3: I enjoy trying local delicacies. To learn about a local food or fruit, I like to ask, “What is a favorite food/fruit that you think I should try here?”
Traveling solo is a transformative experience if you take the time to self-reflect and do your homework to better understand basic customs and cultural nuances of the location. I have always cherished and learned from my travels when I take my trip to a deeper level by finding ways to connect with the local culture.
Your travel experiences are what you make of them. What do you expect to learn from the culture you are visiting? What are you curious about?