By Erick Widman
As part of a social experiment, Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest musicians, played his $3.5 million violin for 45 minutes in the Washington, D.C. metro. He collected a decent $32 in cash but no one stopped to listen or seemed to recognize the greatness of the music. Unfortunately, it’s possible just as with day-to-day life to travel across the globe and fail to experience the essence of a place and appreciate what it has to offer.
Here are four ways people can find themselves on travel to a country, town, cafe, museum, or house—and not really seeing it.
1: You’re Looking for Something But You Don’t Know What
Although it would be ideal to set foot in a new country and immediately have a number of deep, interesting insights about the place, the fact is only a bit of background information can go a long way. Just as it’s important to know a little about classical music to appreciate Joshua Bell’s handiwork, you can’t expect to show up in Barcelona and love the unique architecture as deeply as someone with more information.
This doesn’t mean that it’s absolutely necessary to have a deep understanding of something to enjoy it. Kids and adults both could love the strange sights and sounds of a place for the experience alone. However, if you’ve been able to read an article or book—or are able to hire a guide for a few hours—the depth of your appreciation for what you’re seeing will grow immensely.
2: You’re Going for Trophy Photographs
When rich people used to travel on safaris, the enlightened ones knew that the process of traveling through the African bush should be the real point. Others didn’t care about the sights and sounds of anything except the animals they wanted to kill and mount on their walls at home. Nowadays, most travelers have some kind of camera to take with them—and shooting pictures is vastly better than shooting endangered species.
We have to watch out for focusing too much on getting photos that we can mount on our Facebook or cubicle walls. By being preoccupied with scoring the “perfect shot,” we could spend all our time looking at a place through the tiny viewfinder lens.
Instead, take the time to put the camera away and gaze in wonder at what’s there in front of you. Even better, try sketching one scene and you’ll be in awe at all the details that come alive.
3: You’re Only Hanging with People from Your Country
After you’ve traveled across the globe, it can be an easy and welcome experience to run into some people from your own country. You speak the same language with the same accent, they immediately get your jokes, and you can bond by making fun of something you both think strange in the new country.
By failing to spend some of your time with the locals in addition to your fellow countrymen, you will miss out on one of the most valuable parts of overseas travel. Sure, there may be some awkward or downright uncomfortable moments sometimes as you have to struggle through a meal without a common language, but the fascinating insights and new friendship make your trip come alive.
And on a practical level, by getting recommendations about where to visit and what to eat, you’ll enhance your trip way beyond the level you’d get simply following the advice of a guidebook.
4: You’re Getting Frustrated by What is Different
It’s true that travel even in our own countries can be annoying and challenging—and almost everything at home is familiar to us. What we have to watch out for overseas is mistaking what is “different” for what is “worse.”
This can be especially challenging when you travel in a country that’s not as wealthy as your own. What’s important to recognize is that the impersonal efficiency that can make a business highly profitable in the West can actually be inferior to the less efficient—but oftentimes more personal—service in a developing country. A shop might be closed by 4:00pm on a Friday afternoon, but instead of grumbling about it, go join the locals at the beach or the local pub.
So wherever you go, make sure that you really savor, appreciate, and understand a place. Build a basic foundation of knowledge about the location, don’t overdo the photography, spend time with the locals, and remember that what is “different” can often be better than in your home country!