When I was 25 years old, I had a BIG dream. I wanted to backpack Africa. So I took a big leap of faith and arrived in Cape Town on a one way ticket, not really sure what to do next.
Luckily, before my trip I met a kind, old Nigerian man. He gave me the best travel tips I ever received.
“Be like a student.”
It sounds simple, but it really altered my perspective. He helped me realize that travel is about learning and observing cultures. It’s far too easy to go into a new country and assume your ways are better. “But if you study, ask questions, and try to learn from the locals, you’ll have a far richer experience,” he promised me.
If I wanted to take his wise words seriously, I had to travel differently.
On other vacations, when I was on a cruise or kicking back an all-inclusive resort in Cancun, I was really just a tourist. I was just there for a week to see the sights and leave. The culture didn’t change me. I left without really knowing anyone or anything that existed outside the immediate bubble around me.
This time, I swore to myself, I would be a real traveler.
After seven successful months backpacking Africa from Cape Town to Cairo, I realized that having a student-like mindset helped extend and expand my trip, as well as satisfied me more than any watered down Mexican margarita ever did.
Try these seven travel tips on your next trip so you too, can travel longer – and better.
1) Get rid of stereotypes.
Like any good student, you have to clear out your preconceived ideas to make room for new information. Okay, yes, sometimes stereotypes are true. Like once, when I passed a monkey eating a banana, I thought, “Yep that’s about right.” But most of the time, stereotypes about people and places are off-based.
For example, originally my route was going to end in Ethiopia. The next country north was Sudan. Let’s be honest. When’s the last time you heard anything good about that country? But I met a lot of travelers doing my route in reverse who swore that Sudanese people were the friendliest. So I headed towards Khartoum.
I spent two weeks backpacking Sudan wishing it was two months. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy my time, but I felt safer there than any other country on my trip. Want smart travel tips? As a traveler, you need to be open to learn new things – and maybe even change your beliefs.
2) Don’t judge.
One of the hardest cultural differences for me to get used to in Ethiopia was the long greetings. Ethiopians kiss each other three times on the cheek, and then ask synonymous questions over and over. “How is work? How is the family? How are you? How is your health?” and so on and so on. Even if they just saw each other yesterday.
The American in me judged it as a pretty big waste of time. But the longer I spent there, the more I appreciated their deep sense of community and care for one another. It’s something we miss in the West. What seems like a negative trait, might actually be the lesson you need to learn the most.
3) Enjoy the little things.
I loved my BIG experiences. Gorilla trekking, rafting the Nile, climbing the pyramids, and shark diving were amazing. But it’s embarrassing to admit that sometimes I was more concerned with taking a cool picture to post on Facebook than I was with enjoying the moment.
On a daily basis, it was the little stuff that warmed my heart the most though. The tiny village child with ragged clothes excitedly chasing after me just to say hello. A local woman effortlessly balancing a water bucket on her head. Or sitting next to a squawking chicken on an 8-hour bus ride. It’s like a good student who knows the class is more than just passing the final exam.
The everyday, just showing up, kind of stuff is what actually changes you.
One day I ventured to Malawi’s Mount Mulanje with a Dutch backpacker I met along the way. I’m not really the hiking type, so I was secretly relieved when the guide told us the weather was too bad to make the trek. Instead, we spent the time listening to him lament that the world doesn’t understand his country. “They only see us as poor,” he said. “They don’t know about our beauty, our culture.”
For a guy who didn’t even have electricity, I was surprised this was his biggest concern. But by the end of the night I got it. I was also humbled by how often I just assume I know, without taking the time to really listen and discover the actual truth.
5) Smile…a LOT.
Want one of the best travel tips of all? If there is anything that will help you be happier, make more friends, or get you a free place to stay while travelling – it’s being friendly.
Like when I was stranded in a small Tanzanian fishing town with nowhere to stay, and a village woman took me in for the night. Or when I didn’t understand how to catch a cargo boat out of Zanzibar, and a local took me across the island to show me. Or when I was shivering cold on a bus to Zambia, and the woman next to me shared her blanket.
Just smiling and acting like a decent human being will help you a lot.
6) Be okay with NOT knowing.
I remember the first time I crossed the border from South Africa to Mozambique. There’s this place called, “No Man’s Land” that no one really talks about. It’s the space between two countries that you walk across to get to immigration on the other side. My bus let me out then took off. It was that instant moment of can’t-breathe-panic that washed over me.
I went from person to person, only to be told, “keep walking.” I didn’t know it was part of the process. After a 5-minute walk, I did indeed reunite with my bus and pass Mozambican customs. My point? It’s okay that you don’t know how it’s all going to work out.
You don’t have to always know where you’re going to stay, or how you’ll get there, or even how much it will cost. At times, maybe you’ll be the frantic idiot. But you just have to trust that you’ll figure it out along the way. Yes, it puts you completely outside your comfort zone. But isn’t that where they say life truly begins?
7) Question everything.
A good student asks lots of question. My quest began when I asked, “Why can’t I travel to Africa?” Everybody said it was too dangerous. But they didn’t know. Turns out, African countries for the most part, can be traveled safely.
By getting to know the dozens of travelers I met along the way, my world expanded. I learned about Islam from a Turkish traveler, art from a Danish girl, cooking from an Israeli, green solutions from a Dutch guy, and so much more. My curiosity and openness for truth came alive during my travels simply because I was willing to ask.
Maybe it’s not Africa luring you in. Maybe it’s Latvia. Or Columbia. Or somewhere in between. The point is that you can see a country OR you can experience it. The child-like curiosity and thirst for knowledge will make the difference. Like any good student, you need to apply the travel tips you’ve just learned.
So get out a map, plan a trip, and begin the art of living outside your comfort zone.