In prepping for my latest trip to Kenya, I read through several “travel tips” blogs and articles. I rather enjoy international flights and travel, but, as I approach my 40th lap around the sun, making things a little more comfortable is becoming significantly more important.
I found much of this advice tremendously helpful. I considered myself an old pro at travel, but the younger generations have identified some pretty helpful shortcuts.
But, what I realized after this last trip was this: something even more beneficial for international travelers was to be aware of cultural and community differences of the region you’ll be visiting. Admittedly, I was once a reckless and oblivious tourist myself. However, over the many years and many continents, I have learned some meaningful lessons about being a guest on someone else’s turf. And, I would like to pass that along to you.
1. It’s not what you’re accustomed to, and that’s a good thing.
We use the expression, “that seems so foreign,” for a reason. Much of what other cultures do won’t make much sense to you – in the same way that much of what we do seems absurd to citizens of other countries.
Things won’t look the same, smell the same, feel the same, or taste the same. More importantly, your new friends won’t act the same.
For example, communication happens on various levels in various ways, and many cultures rely on and use nonverbal communication in ways you won’t understand – at least not at first. In Kenya, most interactions happen at a much slower pace than we’re accustomed to in the States. What may seem like a blow-off might just be a delayed response – done intentionally to allow for an exchange of meaning that can’t be spoken.
As you spend more time in any given region, these nuances become more natural, and communication dramatically improves. The important thing to remember is that this is an incredible learning opportunity. Knowing only one way to live our lives (our way), limits our minds and our hearts. Embracing new customs and ideas creates new windows for our thoughts and feelings. It’s a good thing for you, and for them, and for the world.
2. Respect the new rules.
It may seem odd that you shouldn’t wear shorts, or shouldn’t pass out candy, or shouldn’t sit where someone else is supposed to sit. You may even disagree with it on principle, but that’s irrelevant. Unless your safety is threatened, go with the flow.
Our respect for their structure and preferences isn’t just the polite thing to do. Your adherence to different cultural norms communicates to others that you don’t view your own rules and structure to be superior. Ignoring these unwritten rules screams the opposite.
3. Harness the camera.
Of course, you will want to capture the glorious moments you witness, and typically that’s just fine. But, it can also be brutally offensive to walk around taking photos of people without permission. This is an easy Golden Rule application. If a tourist took a photo of you while minding your own business in a coffee shop in Dallas, that would be offensive and unsettling, right? It’s the same thing there. If you want a photo, at least introduce yourself and ask if it’s okay to immortalize them on Instagram. Ideally, you can engage in a conversation first – then, your photo will have more meaning to you, anyway.
4. Eat the goat.
In many places in the world, there are foods that signify honor and gratitude. And, if it is offered to you, your acceptance of this gift is paramount for your mutual trust and respect. Unless you have a legitimate food allergy or it would be otherwise harmful to your health, consuming this offering is highly recommended. Most communities have gone to great lengths (and often great expense, for them) to provide you with their honorary meal.
In Kenya, it’s the boiled goat. Sometimes it’s pretty tasty, and sometimes … it’s been boiled in dirty water in its entrails and is still covered in hair when you bite into it. Either way, it’s gotta go down. This ceremony creates a bond you will forever hold with that special place and the people who welcomed you into their community.
5. Ask questions.
If you’re feeling lost about how to act appropriately, there’s a good chance there is someone there who can advise you. In Kenya, the vast majority of locals I meet are happy and even eager to offer guidance – albeit with occasional light-hearted ribbing.
Mark Twain said it best.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain
Do you have any international travel tips or have any comments on the ones above? If so, leave them in the comment section below.