How to Stay Culturally Immersed While Volunteering Abroad

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“Please be a traveler, not a tourist. Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what's right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.” 

This quote from Andrew Zimmerman sums up non-tourist travel about as nicely as it can be summed-up. Even if you don't have weeks or months to devote to travel, there are things you can do anywhere you go for any amount of time that will make your experience less about simply being there and more about living out your travel.

Group of friends

Here are five tips to help you expand your experience from being less of a tourist to more of a traveler and to maximize cultural immersion while volunteering abroad!

5 tips to be less of a tourist

1. Learn the language

The first is guaranteed to make your experience abroad more personal and possibly a little less stressful: learn the language! No, you don't need to go out and buy Rosetta Stone so you can learn Portuguese for your week-long excursion to Brazil, but try to make an effort to learn some basic phrases such as greetings or directions to the nearest public transport. This tip can save you from hour-long treks around the bus station just to secure a couple of metro passes (true story), or painfully trying to get directions to the bathroom. You'll be surprised how far learning even simple greetings in your destination country will get you. 

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There is something about wanting to try to speak the native language that engages people. If you don't have the time to learn 10 different languages for the various countries you dream of visiting, learn Spanish! It won't get you by everywhere, but you'll be surprised at how many places it does.

2. Make friends with the locals

This next tip may be a little harder to do if you aren't traveling for an extended period of time. If you find yourself in an area for longer than a weekend, try to make friends with some locals! This is your golden ticket to finding out about all the hidden treasures that you don't want to miss on your journey. A good way to do this is to ask a bartender or waitress for locations of “the best of” things. Many times this will be a favorite place of theirs and you may run into local people who might just be willing to show you around their beautiful hometown. 

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It goes without saying, of course, that this also requires an element of safety! Don't go out and ask the sketchy person on the street corner for a recommendation or follow someone's suggestion into an area that doesn't look safe. If you can, ask around and see if others have heard of, or are familiar with, the recommended place. Use your instincts and be smart about it, but go out and make some friends!

A volunteer carrying a local kid

3. Research local customs

Speaking of looking for local treasures, the next tip involves immersing yourself in the culture. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to fly to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower or trek to China to see the Great Wall, but don't let those be your stopping points. Do your research ahead of time and find out what the local foods and customs are, and give yourself the opportunity to experience those things while you're there! 

Not used to bowing when you greet someone? That's common in Japan. Have a habit of pouring wine holding the neck of the bottle? That's offensive in Chile. 

The more you know about the local do's and do not's, the better you will be perceived and the happier that will make you on your adventure! Of course, dipping into the local culture doesn't stop at respecting the local customs. The best paella or marzipan are often found in the little side joints that tourists never get to see because they're off the beaten path. Do your best to leave the areas around major landmarks or famous museums and find the places that look less inhabited by camera-wielding, map-holding folks. Your memories will thank you later.

4. Spend wisely

As a result of avoiding the most tourist-populated areas, you are bound to save some precious travel money. Unfortunately, in all areas of the world, where there is tourism there is extortion (that's only half a joke). Dinner near the Plaza Mayor in most Spanish cities will run you about €20 per person. For the majority of people out there the less money spent on things the better. So, head away from the town square into the neighborhood streets and you can go on a tapas crawl for a total cost of around €10 or less per person (including sangria)! 

This doesn't just stop at the food, either. Most cities and towns have different types of markets that only locals know about and are usually a fairly good distance away from the tourist traps. Here, you can find beautiful (often homemade) scarves, jewelry, housewares, and more for significantly less than what you would pay at a shop near your hotel. If you can find where one of these markets are, chances are you'll go home with a beautiful handcrafted necklace as a souvenir rather than a mug that says “I was in Cancun.”

People in a bus

5. Get uncomfortable

The last tip is for the brave of heart, the adventurous spirits, the ones that look into the face of danger and laugh! Ok, so it's not that extreme. Ready? Get uncomfortable! The world is a huge place and exciting to discover! Your living situation is only your living situation in the place where you live. What does that even mean, you ask? It means you won't always have a queen-sized bed to sleep on and a closet full of clothes to choose from. Your favorite food won't always be available, and you may develop long-lasting blisters on your feet. If you truly want to live out your travel and not just be a temporary tourist, you will learn to treasure these uncomfortable situations. You'll fondly remember that you developed the blisters on your feet from wearing the wrong pair of flats while discovering Madrid.

You're ready for a culturally immersive volunteer experience abroad

You'll soon forget the inconvenience of being rained on in Segovia and instead cherish the memory of running downhill on ancient streets to get into your bus where it's dry (and unfortunately, also cold). Instead of recalling the thought process of wearing flip-flops to discover La Alhambra, you'll vividly remember the awe-inspiring view of Granada and intricate detailing of the ancient Muslim fortress (though it generally isn't recognized as a good idea to wear flip-flops to explore anything). 

You may just discover that your best travel memories happen when you have no choice but to step outside of your comfort zone and make the best of what you have. Also, you may learn the importance of wearing a good pair of walking shoes, an umbrella kept handy in a country known for rain showers, and a good laugh at some of life's little pearls of wisdom.

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Topic:  Travel Tips