Travel has changed in many ways over the course of human history, but one of the most fundamental changes in recent decades has been redefining why we travel in the first place. Today’s travelers are eschewing beach resorts for tribal villages, exchanging photographs of well-known landmarks for portraits of everyday life, and generally searching for a transformative moment. In my experience, however, what you can learn about a culture in a few weeks is frustratingly little. It takes time to gain any real insight into another country, and in some cases even years is only enough to scratch the surface. But unless you’re a digital nomad, a couple of weeks maybe all you’ve got. Luckily, if you are really intent on learning while you travel, there are a few tricks that can help enhance your experience. And they all begin before you even leave your home.
By far reading is the most important thing you can do prior to traveling to another country, and I’m not talking about guidebooks. Before packing your bags, pick up a general history of your intended destination. And no, Wikipedia does not count. History books are more than just an accumulation of events; they provide themes that manifest themselves throughout a country’s history. Having a firm grasp of these themes will help place historical structures into context. I also like to delve into a country’s literature as well. Almost every nation has at least one celebrated author or national novel, and they often capture a bit of the nation’s zeitgeist in their writing.
This is one everyone should have time for before a trip. Usually, there at least a few films that deal with a specific destination or have been produced by the country you intend to travel to. Movies provide an insight into the social issues of the day. Unlike history books, which generally deal with long-term trends, films offer a snapshot of a given moment. It’s an easy way to begin to get acquainted with a country’s culture and learn what topics are considered important.
Most countries have their own unique music. But it is the universality of music that makes it important, and music is often one of the first topics to usually come up in conversation with a stranger. Learning a few popular bands is a good way to build connections with locals. It also gives insight into the popular culture of the location.
Finally, learning the local language is a great way to connect with people and their culture. Ideally, being conversational in a local language can really open the country up to a traveler, but this can often be time prohibitive. Nevertheless learning even just a few words of the local language can go a long way. Not only does it show respect, but it helps break the ice.
If you follow these four tips, I guarantee you will enhance your travel experience. They may seem like common sense, but there are painfully few travelers that actually do make an effort to learn about the country they are visiting despite their lofty expectations of connecting with the local culture.