“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Written 140 years ago, these words from the great American author Mark Twain still ring true today. Unfortunately, according to the U.S. State Department, only 27% of Americans owned passports as of 2007, with even fewer repeatedly using them. Regardless of the common perception that the world is getting smaller and smaller, it’s still a VERY big place, full of mystery and wonder. Isn’t it about time you get out there and explore it?
Before this goes any farther, clarification must be made. This is not an article advocating that you jet off to Cancun for a week and check into the local Marriott where you can enjoy margaritas and McDonalds. Not hardly. What we are talking about here is real travel, the kind where you have to acquaint yourself with a local language and culture completely different from your own, where you are not always guaranteed a continental breakfast and a heated pool. Travelling halfway around the world just to stay at somewhere with all the comforts of home just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. That’s a vacation. Vacations are great. They are a chance to get away from work and do some much needed relaxation, and we all need one once in a while. What vacations do not offer, however, is the critical element provided by real travelling, an authentic experience. You may brag at work for a couple weeks about how many mojitos you drank last spring break, but you’ll be talking about your experience meeting a real Maasai warrior in Kenya or the time you rode on the back of an elephant through the jungles of India for the rest of your life.
I can recount from personal experience the impact of my travels. During my undergraduate years I spent parts of several summers working at an orphanage in rural Brazil, hanging out with local children and living just as they did. Right now I live in northern Scotland, where I am finishing up a Master’s degree in the land of castles, kilts, and fine Scotch whisky. Since moving to the U.K. I’ve had several opportunities to visit various European countries as well. Later this year I will be traveling to eastern Africa, where I will be climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, as well as spending a couple days in the back of a Land Rover on photo safari. Now I know what you’re thinking…I could never afford to do all that, or find the time. The bottom line is, yes you could and yes you can, you just have to get a little more creative. Stand-up comics could use my bank statements for material, and a graduate student’s workload is significantly bigger than a breadbox, but I’ve still managed to see a good chunk of the world before I hit the quarter century mark.
Seeking Out Real Experiences
“I had just one more chance to be a boy, and I took it!”
-Theodore Roosevelt, in answer to a friend who asked why he had literally risked his life on an expedition into an explored river in Brazil.
As nice as cruises and vacation packages are, they fall short when it comes to providing authentic experiences. Instead of hitting the usual vacation spots, look in a different direction. For the cost of a week long cruise to the Bahamas you could fly to Brazil and do a riverboat cruise down the Amazon, or volunteer at an archaeological dig outside of Cairo. Try to break away from the stereotypical cookie-cutter holiday that we so often use those precious few vacation days on and instead seek out a real adventure, creating a story you will be retelling for the rest of your life.
Here’s a few unique travel ideas guaranteed to provide authentic experiences off the beaten path:
Train – While this is a common means of transportation in many parts of the world, train travel is nowhere near as common as flying or driving for Americans. Consider utilizing rail networks in counties you visit, as train travel can often be a comfortable way to see a great amount of countryside while still getting where you need to go quickly.
Container Ship – Feeling really adventurous? Why not book a room on board a cargo ship for your voyage overseas instead of a flight. You’ll get a chance to experience life at sea, and you’ll be crossing the pond the way they did in the old days.
Couchsurfing – Ideal for the college age traveler, this phenomenon has experienced unequaled growth since its conception in 2000. Basically, you register on www.couchsurfing.com, where you can find thousands of people around the world willing to let you come and sleep on their couch for free. The goal is to meet people of different cultures and live as they do, and it is guaranteed to be an interesting experience.
Hostels – Another option open to all ages but ideal for the college-aged among us, staying at a hostel allows you to meet and share experiences with other travelers from around the world. Hostels usually have barrack style rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms but are often much cheaper than hotels. You are always sure to meet quite a few interesting people in hostels, which only adds to the experience.
Bed and Breakfast – Good for travelers of all ages, a bed and breakfast is usually a large home that has been converted into a hotel of sorts. Breakfast is always included with a night’s stay, hence the name. B&B’s are good if you are not willing to forgo the comforts of a hotel, while still allowing for more intimate exposure to the culture of whatever area you are staying in.
The Local Hot Spots – You can find a Big Mac pretty much anywhere in the world these days, but what’s the fun in that? Instead try asking a local where they go on Friday nights. Food is often one of the most notable differences in cultures, so you need to try out all the local delicacies. Privately owned restaurants always win out in the cultural experience category compared to the local TGI Fridays or other chain restaurant.
Street Vendors – For the real cultural experience, check out the street vendors serving local delights. Fried scorpions are on the menu on China’s Snack Street, for example, as well as many other unique indulgences. In the U.K., street vendors serve up traditional English breakfast in the mornings and offer kebabs in the evening (Indian food is all the rage in the U.K.). While you will have to give up the luxury of being waited on, you’ll save money eating from street vendors, and the picture of you working your way through a skewer of fried seahorses in Beijing will make a great conversation piece around the office.
Doing Things There
Avoid the Tourist Crowd – Shopping malls, theme parks, and other tourist traps can quickly deplete money and precious time that could be put to much better use. Try to avoid following the hordes of fanny pack toting tourists and instead seek out a unique experience. Visiting Italy for the first time? Why not rent a moped and explore at your own pace? In Cairo and you want a taste of desert life? Why not go on a guided camel-back tour? In the activities category, possibilities are endless, be creative!
Volunteer – Opportunities to volunteer abroad and create a unique experience are endless. Consider volunteering as an assistant at an archaeological dig, or as a helper at a national park. This allows for a more intimate experience with a given area, and is often very educational as well. Fills space on a resume too!
Ways to Pay For It
Let’s face it, times are tough and traveling isn’t cheap. That being said, if financial reasons are your only excuse for not getting out there, you’ll be kicking yourself later. Here are some ideas for funding a trip:
Get Philanthropic – Many charities offer fundraising packages as an optional way to volunteer. Essentially what you do is sign up for a certain event and then raise sponsorship money which covers the cost of the trip as well as a specified amount which goes directly to the charity. This is a great way to help make a difference in the world and do some traveling in the process. For example, my Mount Kilimanjaro climb this summer is a charity event which will benefit Childreach International, a London-based children’s charity that provides sustainable aid to children in East Africa, Southern Asia and Latin America.
Work Abroad – Have a lot of time to work with? Consider working abroad. There are many opportunities to work abroad, sometimes in exchange for room and board and sometimes for a paycheck.
School Abroad – I chose to leave the U.S. for my graduate studies, instead choosing a graduate program in the United Kingdom. The time spent in another culture and around other international students has been priceless. Many undergraduate programs offer semester abroad programs or shorter trips for credit. Graduate programs abroad often have no application fee, so apply to lots of them. College loans, grants, scholarships, and Mom and Dad’s trust fund are all great ways to handle this financially.
Just do it. Carpe diem. No time like the present. The future is not guaranteed. You get the point. You will never be as young as you are right now, so you need to stop wasting away in that cubicle or in front of that Xbox and get out there and see some of the world.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
-Attributed to Mark Twain