Vacation travel – tourism – is a wonderful way to explore the world. But experiencing new places as a transient drastically narrows your view. It’s better than nothing, sure, but if you’re anything like me short stays do more to provoke your wanderlust than sate it. The world is too damn big and busy for anyone to make every city and village their home. Tourism is a compromise between total ignorance and deep knowledge.
But you can’t always compromise. Every human being needs to experience the feeling of making some strange, formerly “dark” chunk of the globe their home. It satisfies a deep yearning in the nomadic part of our souls. One day your inner vagabond will call out for a new city. It may happen the second you land at the airport, after half a dozen short visits or while you’re browsing Wikipedia. All I can say is, it will happen.
Here’s how to indulge that still, small voice with itchy feet.
#1: Take A Month
If you’ve never spent more than a few days in a foreign city, this is the best advice I can give you. Get on Couchsurfing.org, find a Workaway, rent a cheap hostel bed … do something that commits you to staying in the same city for at least a full month. It isn’t so much time that you have to pack your things away into storage or find new owners for the pets, but it is enough to get a feel for the rhythm of a city.
It might be more accurate to say, a month is long enough for you to develop a rhythm in a new city. In every new country you spend time in you’ll come to accumulate different habits. New things will enter your life as part of the routine. Developing and experiencing that routine is the first step towards better understanding what life is like for the people who live there.
#2: See It Like A Local
When I first arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia I was shocked to see gigantic passenger liners (aquatic skyscrapers, really) parked in the harbor. They loomed over everything on that side of town, and the effect to me, a son of land-locked Dallas, was startling. But as days turned to weeks I stopped noticing the ships at all. They faded into the background and as soon as they did, I saw Halifax more like a local.
This is doubly important when you’re visiting poorer parts of the world, where poverty looms large on every street corner. As horrid as it sounds, you can’t really come to grips with the scope of ghettos until they cease to stand out for you. It’s crucial for more people to understand what raw Need looks like. And it’s equally crucial for people to understand how easily awful things are to push aside when you live with them every day.
#3: Leave Judgment Behind
If you want to explore the developing world – South America, Africa, much of Southeast Asia – be prepared to put your sense of outrage on ‘hibernate’. You will encounter things that seem terrible to you. Five year old shoe shine boys will offer you weed and coke. Police will solicit you for bribes. You’ll watch sick animals (and sometimes sick people) literally dying in the streets and alleys.
The outrage from such experiences can be valuable. In fact, such outrage has been the impetus behind countless charities and movements for social justice. I’m not suggesting that you can or should somehow stop yourself from being horrified by horrible things. But if you’re seeking some sense of understanding, a true window into the lives of the people for whom this place is a full-time reality, you have to try to see it as they do. That doesn’t mean shutting off your conscience, but it does mean readjusting what you see as “normal”.
#4: See the City as an Obstacle
You may love the city you live in right now, but I guarantee there have been times when that city itself has been an obstacle to you. Maybe your car gets stuck in traffic on the same days every week, or some weird local ordinance makes getting something done a pain in the ass. If you’re going to live in a city, you’ll have to spend some time fighting with it.
Working from the road is a great way to do this. Scurrying around to find wireless internet hotspots, seeing traffic jams as traffic jams and not opportunities to people watch, having a job to do flips some switch in your head. Personally, it brings me a little closer to understanding life in that city. But working for the Internet isn’t the only way to feel that. There are tons of volunteer organizations out there, workaways in need of wanderers, hostels looking for short-term staff … it may not be as relaxing as pure tourism, but it’s certainly more enlightening.
#5: Make Connections
Of course, the surest way to make a new town special is to make friends there. Couchsurfing is wonderful for this, but any time you spend more than a week or two somewhere new you are bound to start forging relationships. And I’m not just talking about people you befriend or have some vagabond-fling with.
The lady you buy your tortillas from each morning, she’s a potential connection. The maid who cleans your hostel, she’s another. Then there are bartenders and baristas, expats and bus drivers … if you spend enough time passing through someone’s life, you can’t help but impact (and be impacted by) them. That’s why establishing a daily routine is so important. Tourists experience one side of a town, while people who stay long enough to start seeing the patterns experience another.
My most vivid memories of travel are rarely of the landmarks seen in brochures. They’re mostly sense memories. The way the bald man in the coffee shop on Aungier street worked his espresso machine, the way the empanada lady smiled as she trundled down my street, the laughs I shared with bartenders in far-flung dives. It takes moments like those – a lot of them – to make a foreign town feel just like home.