Despite what many think, it is fairly easy to step off of a plane and land in a new country. If you’re lucky enough to have the finances and a couple of vacation days, you can try and soak up as much of a new place as you can in a couple jet-lagged days and staying long-term in a hostel or hotel like other tourists. You can visit the main attractions, eat the famous meals, and marvel at how different the world can look far from home. With a new stamp in your passport, you can feel proud that you went and explored another part of the world. You can check that country off your list—you’ve been to a new place. But have you really understood it?
Every country has its own history and culture, distinct attitudes and mannerisms, and unique way of seeing the world. Often called slow travel or meaningful travel, it’s when you choose to stay long-term—maybe long enough to learn the language, taste the local cuisine, and understand important holidays and occasion. Meaningful travel can help you grow as a person, gain a new worldview, understand global issues on a deeper level, and learn new life skills. This is why working or teaching English abroad, for any extended amount of time, can benefit a traveler better than almost any vacation.
Here are four things that will undoubtedly change as a result of meaningful travel:
1. How you travel
When taking a vacation most people see as many sights as they can during the day, then relax back at a hostel, hotel, or Airbnb after a long day of taking photos. To get from one place to another safely, quickly, and efficiently they take taxis, or tour buses, or even short plane rides to get from city to city. However, if you plan on staying a while and stretching out your budget, your everyday habits are sure to change.
When I first got to Phnom Penh, Cambodia I was haggling for tuk-tuk rides and staying in hostels with other Westerners who were all doing the same thing. It wasn’t until I got a job in town that I bought my own bike and moved in with a local family. Living with a family that had two teenagers, I was able to experience pop culture from a Southeast Asian perspective, appreciate all the effort that went into each meal (in a part of the world where nothing is conveniently prepackaged), and get to know a neighborhood I would never have seen as a mere tourist. Biking in busy motorcycle and bicycle traffic was just as scary as it sounds at first, but before long I was wearing a surgical mask (to protect from smog), avoiding potholes, and swerving eight lanes over to turn just like everyone else. Taking the time to stay in one place and live like the locals opened a whole other world for me that many people never get to see.
2. How you eat
When I first got to Italy, you better believe that I ate every pizza, baguette, espresso and pasta I could find. Limoncello’s are famous here, you say? I’ll have eight. It wasn’t long before my partner and I were bloated and confused–this world renowned cuisine had quickly turned into bread, cheese and tomato in different orders.
It wasn’t until we moved to the small island of Panarea that our taste buds realized what it truly meant to follow a mediterranean lifestyle. While living with our hosts, we learned to cherish fresh fruit and eggs, and to flavor local vegetables with only a bit of oil and salt. Fisherman by the docks sold us their catches of the day–octopus, fish and shellfish tasting fresh from the sea.
Even our drinking habits changed—instead of wild nights out we learned to have a couple glasses of wine with dinner, enjoying long conversations with a rotating roster of neighbors. We never mentioned Limoncellos again. Living with locals is a form of meaningful travel that changed our entire day-to-day lifestyle, from coffee in the morning to long after dinner, in a way we wouldn’t have been able to do on our own.
3. How you work changes
All over the world, the balance of work and family is perceived in different ways. The balance between work and religion changes as well. Your habits and views on these things could be something you take for granted, but countries all over the world have different perspectives on what a balanced life means.
I am, for instance, currently working and living in Australia. Their holidays are so important to them that employers provide “Penalty Rates” for their employees if they have to work on those days, which means doubling the pay when the base rate is already $27 AUD ($21 USD) an hour or higher! Even with these crazy high rates, most of my Australian coworkers still want those days off in order to BBQ, go to the beach, and fish with friends and family.
On the other hand, many Asian cultures view work as a very serious commitment and taking sick days as a weakness. In South Korea (for only men, usually) a new hire is tested when his boss takes him out for a wild night of drinking. He is then expected to show up and work the next day, which is supposed to show strength of character. Many of my male expat friends in South Korea were incredibly confused by this and had to think of work and their relationship with their boss in a whole new way.
While some may prefer the western ideals of work and work relationships, being exposed to large and small differences from around the world can help when dealing with all kinds of people and backgrounds throughout your career. It can in turn help you help you grow as a leader.
4. You change
Not included above are the phrases you learn in new a language that have no English equivalent, new information about how countries around the world think about healthcare and higher education, and new thoughts about what is considered a standard of beauty. You see how money is allocated in a culture that values its spa days, or gambling, or delicacies. You’ll experience different paces of life that you’d never even considered before and you’ll maybe even like it.
As a tourist you can take souvenirs, photos, and memories home. As a slow traveler, you can take the lessons you’ve learned and things you’ve experienced back with you to cherish, ponder, and integrate into your own life. In that way, through meaningful travel, you become a true citizen of the world.
Words and images from Brianna Stimpson.