Travel vs. Cultural Exchange

Sherry OttIn 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.

Tea in Jordan

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.

Mongolia - Ger to Ger
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?

Other comments

13 Comments on "Travel vs. Cultural Exchange"

  1. RenegadePilgrim on Wed, 4th May 2011 7:56 am 

    During my five months of RTW travel last year, the volunteer experiences I had in India and Thailand were my favorite. I have actually been inspired by your experience with GeoVisions and am planning to incorporate long term volunteering for my next “escape from the US” in 2013. I got tired of feeling like I was a dollar sign to most people, especially in SE Asia and the Middle East. I also like learning about a culture and the best way to do that is with the locals.

  2. Sherry Ott on Wed, 4th May 2011 9:37 am 

    RenegadePilgrim – thanks for your input! I don’t think I realized how exhausting the normal type of travel was until I experienced this. It was a real eye opener! Good luck with your 2013 ‘escape’ plans! Please keep us up to date on their progress – we love to hear about people plotting their escapes! If you need any further info on GeoVisions, don’t hesitate to ask.

  3. islandmomma on Wed, 4th May 2011 2:10 pm 

    I suppose that there are as many ways to travel as there are people, but when I read some blogs, as people zip around the world (way overdoing their carbon footprints too) I can’t help feeling that they have missed the point to some extent. I don’t mean to generalize any more than they do, but I so appreciate and applaud what you’re saying here. You need to let a country get under your skin a bit (even if you don’t much like it), and in understanding a different way of life you gain an understanding of life itself.

  4. JoAnna on Thu, 5th May 2011 9:58 am 

    I loved this piece, Sherry. Thanks for sharing it.

    The times that I’ve had a close cultural exchange have been really fantastic, but it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. It’s strange to hear you say that you don’t like to travel the way you used to. I don’t think most people realize how exhausting it can be.

  5. Elise on Thu, 5th May 2011 12:21 pm 

    Great article. I agree that sometimes you can definitely burn out when you are in travel mode and there are always the same questions you are asking and ticking off sites.
    While I still do like doing this, slow travel is much more relaxing and the way to go, when you have time to do so. You can begin to get a real sense of place wherever you are-and like you said. the conversations you have or experiences you have, may not be exciting but they are real.

  6. Michael Hodson on Thu, 5th May 2011 1:52 pm 

    I am really odd on this topic, I think. I love moving. Perhaps my own odd RTW trip, overland so I was moving all the time to make it around, made me so, but when I sit in a place for an extended period of time, I get antsy. Ready to move again. For some reason, I love the feeling of… movement. Then again, I also occasionally like settling down. Frack… I am a confused soul 😉

  7. Will Peach on Fri, 6th May 2011 5:52 am 

    Couldn’t agree with you more Sherry. Saigon and having that ability to infiltrate with the culture was much more interesting than simply hopping from place to place.

  8. Sherry Ott on Fri, 6th May 2011 10:05 pm 

    @Will – yes – Saigon was most definitely cultural immersion and it was one of my most rewarding years. In fact I think living in Vietnam for a year changed my outlook on travel quite a lot too.
    @Michael – way to work both sides of the issue…can’t imagine that you were an attorney in a prior life!

  9. Anja Mutic on Fri, 6th May 2011 11:06 pm 

    While I tell myself and others that I like to live in a place for a while to try and get underneath the surface, it mostly happens that I parachute into a destination and then quickly move on. It’s almost as if I’ve developed travel ADD.

  10. megan on Sat, 7th May 2011 3:48 am 

    A really interesting post. I had a lot of fun on my trip when I was moving quickly and seeing new things all the time, but since I’ve been back in Sydney and preparing for my next adventures I’m starting to rethink my travel style.

    I think I would really prefer to get to know a place – some of the strongest memories I have from my trip are those times when I spent more than a week in a place getting to know it and its people. I definitely want more of that in the future.

  11. wandering educators on Sun, 8th May 2011 7:24 pm 

    i’d MUCH rather be involved with people and a community than just traveling. love this article, sherry!

  12. Here’s a Question for You: Week 20 | Kaleidoscopic Wandering on Fri, 20th May 2011 6:05 am 

    […] of traveling?I’ve been thinking about this question over the last couple of weeks because of this post I read on Sherry Ott’s blog about cultural immersion. I don’t think I’ve ever tired of traveling, and that’s probably […]

  13. joe sylvester on Sun, 5th Jun 2011 9:15 pm 

    Hi Sherry,
    Enjoyed your article very much. Had a similar reality travel check after school when I needed something more. For me , I joined the Peace Corps and lived in Fiji for 4 years. I sit back and think about those times with great affection, the inane talks on a sunday afternoon while gorging myself on mangoes watching the village rugby match. That was 30 years ago and when I return to the village my friends have grand children and we talk of other things but there is a comfort in knowing you have been accepted and you belong.

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