Does travel always equal going outside your comfort zone?
Particularly among those of us who travel extensively, there’s a temptation to draw the equivalence. While travel can present opportunities to escape the familiar, to experiment with new behaviors, and to subject yourself to vulnerability and emotional risk, it does not mean that once the backpack is strapped on, you have automatically departed your comfort zone.
We are not referring to Amazing Race-like stunts, or bungee jumping, skydiving or other extreme thrill-seeking travel feats. Instead, we are referring to the comfort zone of the cultural and interpersonal variety and the sorts of uncelebrated travel achievements of human interaction that push mental boundaries. This comfort zone is about overcoming fears of people and cultures different than our own – by doing more than just visiting ruins, churches and temples, mixing it up with the front desk staff of the hostel, and staring out the window of a spiffy tour bus while making grand philosophical projections about the life streaming by outside.
It’s about getting lost – sometimes physically, often times emotionally – and placing yourself in situations whose challenges spit you out on the other side – altered, slightly different, and just possibly a better person.
We’ve met travelers who would like to push themselves beyond the limits of what they know and understand, but they don’t know how to get started. We offer a few ideas on how to begin.
After this, you’re on your own. That’s when the real fun happens.
1. Strike out on your own.
When traveling, do you always find yourself with your partner, your travel buddies, or your tour group?
If so, then it’s time to go off by yourself.
Groups and mobs are not very approachable. They are also subject to insularity. If you are one or two, you appear more approachable. Not to mention, if you would like interaction, you need to make the effort of initial contact. In other words, you can’t always rely on life coming to you.
We are reminded of: Dan takes off into the market of Santa Ana, El Salvador for some of his most engaging human experiences in Central America.
2. Ask questions like a kid.
We love to celebrate children and their wonderfully refreshing, honest behavior. Then we become adults and we somehow shut down. Travel can deliver an endless stream of unfamiliar things that strike the chord of curiosity. Unfortunately, we adults are often too inhibited to ask questions for fear of exposing what we don’t know.
Kids tend not to have this problem. They are always asking, “Why? What? How?”
So next time you come across something you’d like to know more about, resist the urge to bury it or Google it on your iPhone. Instead, ask someone on the street about it. Sure, it helps if you have some foreign language skills, but you may find that either the person you’re asking speaks some of your language or that they are able to decipher some of your charades regarding whether that pepper at the market will send your mouth to the emergency room or whether it’s mild enough for a newborn.
We are reminded of: A simple question about a Georgian dish in the market in Zugdidi ends with an touching experience in Georgian hospitality.
3. Walk, even if it involves long distances.
Walking will invariably bring you closer to the environment; activities, people – and even smells – will draw you in. Stuff is physically closer and more difficult to ignore. Each walk becomes a journey of its own.
Distances too far to walk? Take public transport. The opportunity for interactions with locals is high, as is the possibility of discovering a new neighborhood. Figuring out the system and how to buy a ticket can be a feat in itself that many visitors avoid because it’s “too difficult.”
Taking cabs all the time, while convenient and time-efficient, is not the path to discovery.
4. Stay open to getting lost.
If your journey is all about getting from A to B — all else be damned –- you are missing out and denying yourself the pleasure of discovery and the unforeseen.
Isn’t this what travel is supposed to be all about?
Now we’re not talking about getting lost when you are drunk at 3AM, but rather about exploring side streets and taking a few unexpected or wrong turns. You may find that you never get reach your once desired destination, but maybe you’ll find something even more eye-opening along the way.
We’re reminded of: Getting lost on the streets of Tbilisi, Georgia and meeting this group of gregarious kids in the mood for a serenade.
5. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
While we do not advocate walking through areas known to be unsafe, we have found that neighborhoods that appear sketchy or dirty on the surface are often those with the friendliest and warmest people around.
There’s value in appreciating and respecting those whose living conditions are different than our own. And you may just learn a thing or two from how people in such conditions engage in — and often embrace – life.
We’re reminded of: Stumbling into a grungy back alley courtyard in Fort Cochin, India serves up a cricket lesson and a friendly introduction to the city’s Muslim population.
6. Be courageous in foreign language environments.
It’s easy to allow others who speak the language to do the heavy communication lifting for you. The more you place yourself in the foreign language frying pan, the more surprised you will be by your ability to deal with the heat. When you do this, one of two things will happen: either you will improve your language skills or you will force your creativity to the fore.
At the very least, you will have a story – and probably a funny one at that.
Next time you go out to eat, try a restaurant with a foreign language menu. Maybe you won’t get exactly what you expected and you just might have to work for it, but the experience of trying to communicate in a different language and dining with locals will more than make up for it. Vegetarians, you may just want to make sure you know how to say (or have written down) “I’m a vegetarian.”
7. Visit the fresh market.
Even if you are not fanatical about food like us, fresh markets are a great way to engage with ordinary people in environments full of different smells, produce, people and pace. They also get you away from people who have an economic interest in your well-being.
On one hand, people like this are more difficult to interact with — after all, what will you have to say to them? On the other hand, you might just be amazed by how much you have in common.
Of course you’ll want to protect yourself amidst your newfound courage. So when you take these new risks, you’ll want to do so with your awareness tuned in. When you do, you’ll realize that awareness does not equal fear. And the more emotional risks you take, the better you’ll become at figuring out the real rewards.
What about you? How do you travel outside your comfort zone? What advice can you share with others?