I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time overseas. I’ve taken advantage of student travel opportunities that have come my way, and studying abroad has become an integral part of what now defines me as a person. I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for my travels. I would not be minoring in history were it not for my summer living in Dublin, studying Irish history. I would not feel as comfortable with public transport were it not for the bus system in Melbourne. And I would not have the respect for nature nor the self-confidence I gained when I spent a semester in the south island of New Zealand.
Here are some things I’ve learned from living and studying abroad.
1. Take interest in the local culture. I became interested in indigenous history when I started studying abroad, especially during my exploration of the indigenous people of Australia (namely, the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders). It brought light to many things within my own culture that don’t get nearly enough focus, especially within education: the treatment of Native Americans, for instance. You can take interest also by simply supporting local business in the area, or going on travels
2. Don’t be afraid to take some risks. Whether it’s tasting haggis in Scotland or reverse bungee jumping in New Zealand, test your limits. Embrace the feeling of the unknown. It can really take you to places you never knew were possible. Sometimes literally. An unexpected road trip, put together at the last second, can show you sites and give you experiences you’d have otherwise never had. Sing unapologetically at karaoke night. No one will remember if you were horrible the next day. Book a day trip to take by yourself. You’ll meet new friends on the bus. Eat the kangaroo. You might actually like it. (Yes, those all apply to me– but I preferred the camel sausage to the kangaroo).
3. You can’t trust your technology. I say this not to frighten anyone addicted to their iPhone, but rather to alert you that your products aren’t always going to work in whatever country you’re visiting. They’re going to have different plugs, for one. The may not even sell whatever product you’re looking for. WiFi is unreliable in many places, not to mention costly. But above all of this, trust yourself. You don’t need technology you rely on in your everyday life to enjoy your experience. Forgo taking pictures for a minute and just lie on the ground and stare at the stars. I promise it will be worth it. There will be another time for photos. Don’t cheat yourself of the moment.
4. You’re going to be scared at some point. There’s no avoiding it. Even if you’re an experienced traveler, there are going to be moments where you really have no idea what to do. Maybe you’ll be lost without a way home, walking alone at night, or feeling pressured to join new friends in an activity you feel unsure about. While you should take risks, trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, do something about it. Hitchhiking is usually safe in certain countries (like Iceland, Ireland and New Zealand). Take any precautions you need to before wandering off on your own, especially at night. Tell your friends where you are, and when you expect to be home. Tell them when you are home, and if necessary to calm you, keep a pocket knife at the ready. (That may not be the best advice in certain circumstances, but if you feel especially unsafe in a place, don’t walk in the dark alone. Travel in packs. And as anti-feminist as it might sound, if you’re a woman in an area not particularly female-friendly, go around with a male friend). And if your friends want to go drinking or cliff diving, but you’re not feeling it? Enjoy your time with your friends, but don’t compromise your own happiness and comfort to make others think highly of you. It’s harder said than done, but in the long run, anyone who really cares about you will respect your choices.
5. Respect traditions and customs, even if you don’t understand them. You don’t have to participate in every single traditional ritual you encounter, nor should you. But understand when it is and when it is not polite to laugh, partake, take photos, etc. Laughter isn’t acceptable if a tribe is welcoming you into their land, even if it’s a tourist destination. Such traditions are very alive and respected to this day. Just because you don’t understand it or it seems silly, that doesn’t mean it is to others. And when you do participate in tradition, enjoy it. The people you’re with are sharing their lives with you. Drinking kava one night isn’t going to be the end of the world. But blowing your nose in Singapore is still a big no-no. Cover your shoulders and knees if you’re visiting the Vatican. Even as a non-religious person, being slightly more modest than I would be in excruciating Roman summers for a couple hours didn’t kill me. And don’t you dare take a picture on the base walk of Uluru if they tell you not to. You are not the sole exception to the rules.
6. Play the tourist. As someone who grew up loathing tourists (I don’t think it’s possible not to hate them growing up in DC), I have to admit, being a tourist yourself is a completely different ballgame. Ignorance about a location you’ve never been to is not unexpected. Some of the tourist sites are such for a reason. They’ll also have bumped-up prices on everything, but that can sometimes be worth it. (Note: the price of the water at the top of the Eiffel Tower is not worth it. Nope. Not at all.) Just pay attention to your surroundings, and do your research if there are places other than the typical spots that may even be better. Uluru may be gorgeous, but Kata Tjuta (both in the Australian Outback) is free and less overridden… and just as beautiful.
7. Expect yourself to change. Every time I’ve traveled, I’ve changed a bit as a person. Though each place has affected me differently, and some more strongly than others (have I mentioned I spent a semester in New Zealand?), you’re not going to be the same person when you head home. Sometimes wanderlust just finds you when you’re abroad, and you may never want to return home. Even if it’s the tiniest thing, like a new love of bubble tea, or something as big as falling in love with someone you met in Rio, you’re going be different.
8. If you have the opportunity for travel, take it. That is, above all, the best advice I can give. Don’t let go of an opportunity to discover yourself and to explore more of the world. It could just be the best thing you ever do. You might meet the best friends you’ll ever meet, or see the Dalai Lama. You just never know.
I hope you all can enjoy going abroad at least once in your life. Be safe, explore, have fun, and bon voyage.