I’ve been known to do some traveling now and then… I have one British and one Canadian parent, both fond of experiencing the world, so as a kid I managed to make it to Europe and various parts of the United States and Canada, and for a summer I even lived (and worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And believe it or not, after high school I traveled with Up With People, together with other kids from 23 different countries, and toured the United States, Europe, and Australia.
This is not to say that I’m the most seasoned traveler there is – I’ve still not been to South America, Africa or Antarctica (though these are certainly on my list – yes, even the latter), and there are a great many people who have traveled much farther and wider than I have. But after the traveling that I’ve experienced, there are a few tenets that I have found that I like to follow to maximize my experiences abroad. I’m going to share three of them here, and more will follow!
Tip 1: Rent (or buy!) a car
I enjoy visiting big cities as much as the next person, but in my opinion, you’ll never get a true vision of a country unless you get out into the surrounding countryside. Paris and Rome have some great museums, great food, and incredible tourist attractions, but if your entire vacation consists of visiting Paris and Rome you’re going to miss out on the culture, cuisine and authenticity of what the smaller towns and villages in France and Italy have to offer. Think about how many non-Americans equate New York City with the rest of the United States of America; New York City is fantastic, but if the only place you visit in the United States is Manhattan, you’re going to leave with a skewed vision of what the country is all about.
It is true that you could always catch a train to visit some of the smaller towns in the countries you choose to visit; however, while the cities and towns along the rail lines of a country have a lot to offer, in those places I find you’re very often one tourist among many. Rent yourself a car (or buy one, as we did while I was a graduate student at a university in France) and you’ll be opening yourself up to a world of hidden treasures that most foreign travelers never get to see.
While taking a drive in southern France, we stumbled upon the chapel pictured here, the Chapelle St. Michel d’Aiguilhe in Le Puy-en-Velay in the department of Haute-Loire. It was such an amazing site to see – an ancient chapel (from the year 962 AD!) set atop a steep hill – and the truth of the matter was, we hadn’t even planned to visit it; we just happened to be driving through the city when we came upon it! We experienced many other tremendous sites in our car that we never would have seen had we been traveling by train or airplane – Montpeyroux in central France, the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, and Snowdonia in Wales, for example.
We also took a trip through the Eurotunnel beneath the English Channel by car… and did you know you don’t actually drive your car through the tunnel; instead, you park your car on a train car, and then travel through the tunnel by train? We didn’t, until we made the trip ourselves!
Tip 2: Get a taste of the food, even if you think it’s gross!
It kills me a little bit inside whenever I see tourists in a foreign country eating at an American fast food joint while traveling in another country (one caveat – if you’re a foreigner traveling in America, that’s probably okay, though make sure that it’s not the only American food you try). There are so many interesting foods and drinks to try in the various countries of the world that, in my opinion, there’s no real excuse not to sample as many of them as you can.
While in France I once tried pigs’ feet, cooked by a friend’s mom… in Taiwan I ate a… well, I don’t know what it was, but I ate it (and it made me a bit stomach sick, but all in the spirit of adventure)! In Australia I even tried eating some edible green bugs once favored by the Aborigines of that land. This is not to say that I snacked on bugs the entire time I was in Australia, but when I had the opportunity to try something traditional, unique, and interesting, I tried it!
While living in Saudi Arabia I took a trip with my father to Jeddah, on the coast of the Red Sea. In the desert we had a feast with some Saudi Arabian colleagues of my father’s, which consisted of a cooked lamb with rice. We ate with our hands while sitting in the sand, pulling meat from the cooked lamb which sat in the center of the feast. It was an amazing experience to take part in such a traditional meal with the Saudis, to which we were treated as welcomed guests. To me it served as an important lesson about understanding and respecting other peoples and their cultures, and it’s something I’ve taken with me wherever I’ve gone.
Tip 3: Experience the culture
This point goes hand in hand with the point above. There are plenty of things to see and do wherever you choose to travel… try to take advantage of the opportunity to get involved and really understand the places that you are visiting, its peoples, and their cultures.
While traveling in Europe during the mid-90s I stayed for a spell in Perpignan, near the French border with Spain. In Perpignan residents share the Catalan language and culture, originating from the Pyrenees mountain range that forms a natural border between France and Spain. While vacationing in Perpignan I experienced a festival where the residents danced the Sardana, a traditional Catalan dance, and I got to join in! This is not to say that I was fantastically good at the dance (fortunately it wasn’t terribly difficult), but I did take advantage of the opportunity to join the Catalan people in dancing it, and it was a lot of fun.
I’ve also met with Navajo Code Talkers in New Mexico, played a didgeridoo (poorly!) with Aborigines in Australia, and eaten Truffade in the Auvergne countryside while the chef himself played the accordion during our meal. Like I said, all in the name of adventure!
The traveling tips continue in this post: Four more tips for world travelers. Meanwhile, while you’re here, please feel free to tell me via comment… what’s the most interesting cultural or gastronomical experience you’ve had while visiting a foreign country?