If adventures do not befall a lady in her own village, she must seek them abroad.Jane Austen
Jane is one of my very favourite authors and I couldn’t agree more with this remark. But I would go further. Even if adventures DO sometimes befall you at home, that’s no reason not to seek them abroad too!
This week for the Lens-Artists challenge guest host Dan asks us to ‘to capture moments that break the boundaries of your routine’. There could hardly be a better theme for me, with my love of travelling and desire to share my travel experiences here in my blog. But haven’t I covered this ground before? How can I best respond without repeating myself?
Well OK, I’ve used this quote before but it bears repeating:
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.Mark Twain
Stepping out of your comfort zone
Sometimes when we travel we find ourselves in places that are, if not familiar, at least not too far from the familiar. Countries where plans run smoothly, and you feel relaxed and safe. Such travels can be wonderful. I enjoy the sense of familiarity I feel on our regular visits to Paris. It’s almost like coming home even though it’s a foreign country. And a road trip in the US is a journey through the landscapes of our TV and film favourites.
But often the travels that linger longest in the mind, the ones that trigger the ‘Do you remember when …’ conversations, are the ones where we stepped out of our comfort zones.
I start however with a disclaimer. I don’t do ‘roughing it’ and thankfully we are able to afford not to have to. And as an obsessive planner, one who enjoys the planning almost as much as the adventure itself, I don’t just set off and see where the road takes me. Our trips are for the most part pre-planned and pre-booked. And outside Europe and the US we usually work with a tour company to make the arrangements for us (although rarely travel with groups).
So when I talk about stepping out of my comfort zone I’m not referring to risky adventures or even stepping into the complete unknown. But you don’t need to do that in order to experience new things and break the boundaries of your own normal life. Instead you can travel with an open mind and curious spirit, interested in the culture of the people you meet.
So I want to use this post to acknowledge all those people I’ve encountered around the world who lead very different lives from mine, and speak a different language. Yet I’ve nevertheless been able to make some sort of connection with them, if only, briefly, a smile.
Let’s explore some of the ways we can connect with each other if we’re willing to break our own boundaries, leave our preconceptions at home and engage.
Music and dance
Music and dancing bring people together arguably more than any other activity. In Pyongyang I joined locals dancing on the streets on North Korea’s National Holiday. Spot the tourist doing the same in this photo!
On the last night of our Galápagos cruise the friendly crew of the Angelito treated us to an impromptu ‘concert’. It prompted some of our group to join in and others to get up and dance. A lovely way to bond with people who had looked after us so well.
The act of taking a photo is today an almost universal one, thanks to the advent of the mobile phone. In some countries, notably India, I’ve found that I am the chosen subject for photos! And while generally I’m not that keen on posing, and we rarely take shots of each other while travelling, in these circumstances it’s fun to embrace their culture and join in with the impromptu photo shoot!
In Khiva, Uzbekistan, a group of local tourists were keen to pose with some of us on the fortifications of the Ark. Here they are with me and fellow tourist Sue.
At a roadside restaurant near Jaipur a woman spotted me taking photos of the view from the car park and motioned her whole family to climb out of their minibus to pose with me! The sole man in the group was in the middle of a phone call, as you can see, but didn’t want to be left out!
Something similar happened recently in Nepal, on a visit to the Bindabasini Temple in Pokhara.
Make sure on these occasions that you get a photo of the group too. It will always remind you of that brief moment of connection.
We all need to eat. And sharing food can, for all of us able to afford to do so, bring people together like little else. To cook for someone is a welcoming act, a sign of warmth and friendship.
We have been fortunate to share family meals in Oman and Cambodia, among other places. Here is our Bedouin hostess in her home in the Wahiba Sands, Oman
And in a restaurant in Samarkand a group of ladies at the next table to ours, clearly on a ‘girls’ night out’, took an interest in us and our friends. One, who spoke some English, came over to our table for a shy chat. Unfortunately I don’t have a photo of her. So here instead is one of the friends I made on that trip, Georgina, with our bill for six. It’s on a ridiculously small scrap of paper but requiring a large bundle of very low value Uzbek som! You can just make out the group of friendly women at the table behind her.
Another way to connect is to show a willingness to try local delicacies, even if they definitely break the boundaries of what you might choose to eat at home. In Phnom Penh we sampled crickets and other insects from the street food stall in my feature photo. I’m sure it helped cement our relationship with our guide Van in a way that refusing the treats would not have done, even though she would surely have understood our wariness.
I still remember my horror on a very early trip abroad, to Prague back in 1980. Another English couple refused to eat the food offered on a day trip out of the city and told the guide that the only things worth eating in the country were the salads, and even on them there was too much beetroot! Also the woman on our tour in China who declared she couldn’t possibly eat Chinese food, so subsisted on boiled rice for two weeks. Our guides said nothing but what must they have been thinking privately? So break those boundaries of home comforts and try the local food. Not only will it please your hosts, you will probably enjoy it!
From octopus balls in Osaka (not what they sound like!) to camel meat in Tunisia and puffin in Iceland (which I confess made me ill!), from delicious morning glory and thien ly flower in Vietnam (in the photo) to sashimi in Japan and momos in Nepal. I’ve enjoyed some wonderful, and a few not so wonderful, treats all over the world!
And drink too of course. I’ve sampled chicha in Chile, raki in Albania, sake in Japan and soju in North Korea. All fantastic, if in some cases rather strong! Sharing one of these drinks with a local guide is a great way to get to know them better.
Here we are with a local chicha producer and our guide Sergio in Chile.
Sharing some fun and a laugh
If you’re invited to join in with a task or activity, go for it. You may prove not very good at it, but your incompetence at something that comes naturally to your hosts will give you all a laugh. I’m sure our hosts in Lamanai village in Belize were amused at our efforts to grind corn and make tamales!
In inland Goa we stayed at a self-styled ‘Wilderness Camp’. It was Diwali and the camp’s owner invited a musician from a local village to visit in the evening to play some traditional music associated with that festival, which he did while prancing around our camp fire to the sound of his drum. Afterwards we were invited to contribute some traditional songs from our own countries. There was another Geordie (native of Newcastle upon Tyne, like my husband) in the group so he and Chris decided a rendering of the Blaydon Races was in order. While traditional to that area, these days it’s better known as a popular anthem for Newcastle United supporters. It was decidedly surreal to be singing it there in an Indian jungle!
Music again: in Kyoto we spent a fun evening in a karaoke bar with fellow travellers (Australian and British) and our guide. Quite a few drinks were consumed, which probably added to the fun and laughter. A great way to bond, and definitely outside my comfort zone as I’m a truly lousy singer!
However far from home you are, it’s often possible to find common ground with a local. In our case that often means talking about football (soccer). Once we get over the misconception that all English people are fans of Manchester United or Chelsea or …, we often find we can engage through a discussion of a player from that country who has played for our team. In Peru it was Nolberto Solano, in Colombia Tino Asprilla and in Senegal Papiss Cissé and Demba Ba.
In Gambia we met Habib, a super friendly local driver/guide, who took us on a couple of excellent outings. When he learned we were Newcastle fans he mentioned having been given a Newcastle shirt by a previous customer and promised to wear it on our next day out with him, which he duly did. He claimed to also be a fan although I suspected he had a small collection of such shirts from different teams!
Sometimes it’s worth joining in with your hosts’ interests even if you don’t share them. You’ll have some fun, perhaps learn a new skill and maybe even pick up a new hobby. OK, I can’t say that I took to shooting after our evening at a range in Pyongyang! But it’s a popular activity there and it was a nice way to engage with our local guides. I suspect they enjoyed the hour we spent there even more than any of us. I’m not allowed to share photos of them, even though I have a great one of our senior guide with the soft toy prize she won! So here’s our fellow traveller Michael with his prize and some of the staff.
There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.Robert Louis Stevenson
When you visit another country you are doing exactly as that implies, visiting. And you’ll find it much easier to engage with those you meet if as a visitor you respect their customs. Some may even go against what you would do at home, maybe even against your personal religious or political beliefs. But this is their home, not yours. By choosing to break your boundaries you must accept theirs. Besides, it’s the quickest way to start to understand a country, and the best way to connect with its people.
In North Korea we laid flowers and paid our respects to their Supreme Leaders. We weren’t expected to share the devotion to them that they demonstrate (and I believe in many cases genuinely feel). Simply to be there sharing the act of respect was enough. For me this was all about respecting our guides and hosts, not their leaders.
It’s important to dress respectfully if you want to avoid insulting your hosts of course. Forget what is normal wear for you at home. You are here to break those bounds, remember!
At the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi I of course removed my shoes, as I have done in countless other places of worship around the world. And I donned the long robe deemed necessary to cover my Western attire. These tourists have done likewise.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this small sample of travel experiences. Some I have mentioned in previous posts, others I hope are new to you. What they have in common is the experience of making connections; of stepping outside your own boundaries and into the lives of others, however briefly.