Does this sound like you? You’re quitting your job to travel the world and you’ve decided to start in El Salvador as the first place. Perhaps you’ll spend a month studying Spanish on the beach before heading south to see the rest of Central and South America. Using your new language skills, you’re a magnet for authentic travel experiences and meeting interesting locals. A year or more later, you return home fluent in Spanish with friends in every country.
No!? That’s not you? What about this?
You may or may not like your job. It doesn’t matter anyways because you’re not quitting. You’ve got 1-3 weeks of vacation per year, but you’re not a travel package or luxury resort kind of person. You don’t have time to spend months to learn the local language, let alone seek out “authentic experiences” and find new local friends.
You’ve been forced to scratch off a few items from your travel bucket list: driving your motorcycle across Argentina, dreading or braiding your hair, playing your ukulele around a camp fire, and bedazzling others with your incredible stories and cultural competence. You have two weeks and you need to make it count.
If that sounds more like you, then I’m here to help.
The Cube has a mantra and it’s an easy one to remember. Know the place. What does it mean? For starters, you need to toss out the idea that you can just show up and “voila!“, you’re living like a local. You don’t have the time to take things slow like those that are traveling long-term. No, it doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it definitely requires a little more work than booking your hotel and flight online.
Before You Go
Choose a place you feel drawn to and have always wanted to visit. Do you like cities, beaches, the great outdoors? Are you looking to experience culture, leisure, or a combination of both? Choose the country that best fits your needs. I always like to combine culture and history with some beach time. My trips typically start in a city visiting cultural sights and end with me sipping mojitos on the beach.
After you’ve picked where you’re going, it’s time to go shopping. No, not for a new bathing suit or a white linen shirt, but for books.
Yes, a book! Do you remember those from school? I know it’s been a long time since you read anything other than spreadsheets and emails, but you’re going to love it. I promise.
You’ll need a guidebook. What book is best for you? Check out The Cube’s Guide to Guidebooks to know what you’re looking for in a good guidebook and you may find our reviews of specific guidebooks helpful too. Of course you don’t need to read that book cover-to-cover, but it provides a great overview of where you’re going and the sights you’ll get to see.
After a guidebook, I recommend picking up one more book (or two if you love to read). You can choose from a non-fiction book to teach you about the history, culture, economics, or other topic of interest that appeals to you (art, film, anything!) that’s specific to your destination country. I would recommend choosing a subject that’s relevant to the country today, but that’s just me. For example, when I visited Southeast Asia, I read Milton Osborne’s Southeast Asia: An Introductory History and for Cambodia specifically, I read the memoir Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor (reviews for both titles coming soon). Take a moment to browse The Cube’s favorite non-fiction titles here.
If non-fiction isn’t your cup of tea or you’re the bookworm type (that’s me!), I recommend picking up a novel that was either written by an author from your destination country or at least takes place in that country. You’ll learn more about the country, but in a less academic setting. Books like Shogun or A Fine Balance are excellent examples. Check out our favorite novels; I guarantee there’s something you’ll enjoy. You could even bring one of these novels with you and watch it come to life around you.
The whole point is context. Learn to understand, as best you can, their culture and history. This will allow you see your destination in a whole new light.
While You’re There
“Get off the beaten path,” said every travel blog ever. Have you heard that before? That’s easier said than done if you’ve only got a week or two. How does one experience authenticity if you don’t have the time? What if your kids are along for the ride? Or perhaps a spouse that would love to be doing anything besides living in a hut in the middle of the jungle so you can say you had an authentic experience?
First and foremost, spend the extra money to hire a professional guide. I see so many people aimlessly wandering around ancient ruins and museums staring blankly at objects of historical significance with absolutely no clue what they’re looking at or its proper context. Sure, the books you read in advance may help, but a guide will give you a new perspective and local expertise.
Although it’s important to hire a guide when you’re there, it’s also important to know when to fire them. If you booked a three day temple tour with him or her in Angkor Wat, but they’re unprofessional or incompetent, then it’s time to say adios! This is YOUR trip and YOUR money. Make it count! You can avoid this by searching for guides online before you arrive or via recommendations from friends and fellow travelers.
If I were heading to Cambodia, I would email Sothik (pronounced Soo-teek). You can reach him at email@example.com. Sothik was incredibly knowledgeable, charming, and friendly. Plus, he was fully licensed by the government which requires a university degree and extensive testing and certification. There are many guides that do not meet these strict standards, so please check around.
And because you read a couple of books before you arrived, you’re able to chat with your guide on a more detailed level about that nation’s history. This level of conversation is only possible if you do a little homework before you arrive.
Next, try starting conversations with a local or two. A round of drinks is always a great icebreaker! Remember, they’re not coming to you (unless you’re somewhere remote), so you need to be proactive. Talk to hotel staff, get recommendations for local restaurants and bars, and then head off on adventure. Or alternatively, you can take a look in your guidebook for the touristy part of town and then head in the opposite direction.
Don’t forget it doesn’t have to be all about the locals. There may be travelers from all over the world where you’re visiting. If you learn a few travel tips about Kathmandu from a Norwegian sitting in a bar in Kuala Lumpur, who’s to tell you that’s not authentic? Travel is about expanding your horizons, so if you’re surrounded by other tourists, don’t worry about it, just smile, say hello, and learn something new about this culturally diverse planet.
Finally, take everything with a big pinch of salt. You may get frustrated with how things are done in foreign countries compared to your own. Don’t let it! People sense that negativity in your body language and the way you speak. Just relax and roll with it.
In conclusion, do your research for new insights and greater context, get a great tour guide, and be open to meeting both locals and fellow travelers.
Comments, suggestions? Would you like to share your thoughts on how you KNOW THE PLACE? Let us know in the Comments below.