Travel vs. Cultural Exchange
In the Volunteer Chronicles, we followed Sherry Ott as she spent the winter of 2011 volunteering in the Middle East with GeoVisions. Reflecting back on that experience, she realizes that it was one of the best opportunities to really learn and understand another culture – a style she now prefers over constantly being on the move.
I walked into yet another dirty, hot guest house in Sri Lanka last month and threw down my bag flopping onto the bed exhausted. I had just negotiated with yet another local to get this lovely (imagine the sarcasm dripping on that last word) room. I relaxed for a moment and then started digging around my bag (which had caught some sort of disorganization virus in the last week) for a clean shirt to change into so I could go to the dining area and get some food. My generic version of Oreos, container of Pringles, and diet coke had long ago disappeared into a junk food vacuum in my stomach; I was starving.
As I sat waiting for my food to arrive sipping on my beer I opened up my guide book and started the next day’s planning with a big sigh. It felt as if I was on this never ending cycle of travel planning in which there was no possible way to get more than two days ahead. Making phone calls, researching Trip Advisor reviews, looking at maps, figuring out transportation, and soon it was time to go to bed to start my cycle all over again.
This is how I traveled for 16 months around the world on my career break in 2006-2007, so you think I would be used to it. It didn’t bother me then, it was all new to me; most importantly it was far away from my corporate cube life. However I’ve been at this a long time now and this winter’s recent travels made me come to a big conclusion.
I don’t like to travel any more.
I spent my winter in Jordan and Lebanon experiencing GeoVisions Conversation Corps and Partners programs. This was the ultimate cultural exchange and in a weird way I have a hard time assigning it the term ‘travel’. I felt as if I lived there. I was part of a family. I ate dinner with them, I met their friends and families, I sat around and watched TV with them, I watched them argue and yell, and I slept in the same bed about every night. Sure, I went off and did site-seeing in these gloriously historic countries, but when I finished my site-seeing I came ‘home’…to my local family, to my bed, to my regular dinner. I ate dinner with them talking about what I saw, asking questions about the history/culture of the sites, and asked them how their days were.
My day to day interactions with my host families weren’t always exciting, but they were real. I didn’t have to pay an entrance fee, or negotiate a room, or hand my laundry over to strangers. My time in the Middle East this winter was probably some of the most intense cultural exchange I’ve done in my travels – and it wasn’t always easy and fun, but it was rewarding. One month was about perfect with each family. I was able to really dig into their lives and surroundings, but was also ready to move on.
I don’t think I fully realized this until I arrived in Sri Lanka in ‘travel’ mode again. A new location every two days, flipping through guidebooks trying to tick off sites, and negotiating absolutely every move I made. After 2 weeks of this I was sitting on the train going to yet another new city full of anticipation, but at the same time full of exhaustion. I looked around the train car and realized; I had hardly learned anything about the real culture of Sri Lanka. I hadn’t met any locals besides the guesthouse owners or tuk tuk drivers – and I was a dollar bill to them.
The conversations were predictable and centered around commerce at all times. I hadn’t made any friends in Sri Lanka besides a few fleeting short-term friendships with other travelers passing through. I didn’t really have a good idea of what Sri Lankans day-to-day life was like. How they treated their families, what they really ate each day, what their beliefs were, and how they looked at relationships. I wasn’t able to sit back and observe daily life because I was a blur in their life…just passing through.
This made me think back to my other favorite travel moments since 2006; volunteering/living in Delhi for a month, experiencing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia with Ger to Ger for 3 weeks, living in Saigon for a year, and living in a remote village in Nepal teaching English. It’s no wonder why these countries always top my list of favorites when people ask. All of these places in addition to Jordan and Lebanon have something in common – cultural exchange. These were the places I slowed down and infiltrated the ranks of the locals not as a tourist, but as one of them. This is what I truly love about exploring this globe.
I have to thank my experiences with GeoVisions for this clarity. It was these cultural immersion programs with their host families that actually taught me about myself in addition to the culture and people around me. More than ever I know now what I want out of this crazy nomadic life I live. I want cultural experiences and exchange. This doesn’t mean I’m giving up the type of travel I did in Sri Lanka; it simply means that I know the types of experiences I will try to seek out. As time goes by our travel styles change and evolve, and that’s what I learned this winter.
As you plan out your career break travels, consider this type of slow travel and exchange. I know you all have a lot of sites to cross off your list, but before you get burned out on travel, infuse some cultural exchange into your itinerary. I think it will be the moments you really remember in your career break travels.
Do you prefer to travel or integrate and exchange?