Forget Bucket Lists - Make This Your Top Travel Goal

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I was asked the other day: what are your most memorable travel moments? What are those stories that you’ll be telling people for years to come? This question gave me pause. For me, was it hiking 60 miles and over 15,000 ft. elevation to Machu Picchu? Climbing from Yosemite’s valley floor to the top of Half Dome? Swimming with a couple dozen sharks in the waters of Tahiti? Without a doubt, these were all amazing moments that I will remember forever. And I can’t begin to rank these and the many other amazing travel moments I’ve been fortunate enough to experience. However, what surprised me the most in trying to answer this question were the not-so-glamorous moments that came to mind. These were moments that I wouldn’t post on social media, but meant just as much or more as that priceless photograph. Simple moments, such as being asked for directions while walking down the street in Athens, conversing with a local merchant in a small farmers market in Provence, being invited up to the bar for a few drinks with the owners of a small tapas bar in Spain, or discussing politics over a glass of wine in a small vineyard in Tuscany with the winemaker himself. As it turns out, all I was doing in these moments was immersing myself in the local culture, and it couldn’t have felt better.

When we travel, we often recoil in disgust at the sight of other tourists, even though we represent the very things we turn our nose at. However, I believe there are different types of tourists, and the various types should stick to their natural habitat. For example, if you want to travel to an exotic locale so that you can party into the early hours of the morning, perhaps you should stick to the bars, but please don’t take your party to a naturally serene place. Or, if you’re the type that wants to see the top sights, take a few pictures, but never get outside of your comfort zone otherwise you’ll complain and be altogether unpleasant, it is best if you don’t seek out that hard to find restaurant where you can’t read the menu, converse with the staff, or understand the dress code. For me, I love traveling not only for the top sights, but also for the opportunity to learn from and about another group of people. Experiencing a new culture, and all that comes with it, is what I find awe-inspiring. The best way to do that is to try to “blend in”.

The rewards of blending in doesn’t come from simply faking it, as if you are a spy behind enemy lines trying to gather intelligence while maintaining your cover so as to not be discovered as a fraud. Instead, it is a genuine interest and respect for another culture. It means you want to learn about and from everyone you meet, not force your own ideas and expectations on them. To this end, it also means not drawing attention to yourself.  When traveling, you can do this in any number of ways. Other countries typically think of Americans as loud and obnoxious, a stereotype we have no doubt earned, but nonetheless saddens me. I would love for that stereotype to change to polite and respectful. That would be the start of an appreciation for other cultures that would give everyone, tourists and their hosts, a much better experience. In order for that to happen, and to better blend in, our behaviors must change in even the smallest things.

First, the way we dress when we travel is honestly laughable. Take a look at your pictures from the first time you traveled outside of your home country and count how many times you spot the following: lightweight, quick drying sportswear; running shoes that don’t match anything else you’re wearing; selfie-sticks; backpacks that you would never wear just walking around your home town; and money-belts or necklace pouches to hold your wallet. We don’t wear these things when we’re at home, so why would we when we’re abroad? You might as well wear a flashing neon sign that says, “I’m a tourist. Don’t get too close.” Just stop it.

Second, the small things matter. For example, your mannerisms, casual behavior, and the way in which you greet people, all play a larger role than you realize in whether or not someone will open up to you or treat you as another tourist who they’ll never see again. It is said that a first impression is so powerful it is almost impossible to overcome, and those judgments are made in just the first seven seconds. That is why it is so important to do your homework before you go in order to understand the local customs, and do your best to follow them.

Finally, understand that you won’t be perfect. In fact, you’ll be far from it. So far, that you may even get some smiles or laughs. But actually, that’s what you’re going for. We’ve all heard the saying, “it’s the thought that counts.” The fact that you’re trying, that you are taking on a posture of respect, openness, and learning, will not be lost on your hosts, and you will be rewarded for it with experiences and memories that will turn into stories you will tell the rest of your life. For that reason, we encourage you to revisit your travel goals. Instead of focusing on the next big mountain to climb, we would challenge you instead to try to listen to someone else’s story, to learn from them, by breaking down the tourist/host wall and “blending in.”