3 Rules for Observant Travelers

April 24, 2019

1. Get lost.

Yes, you read that right. Don’t be afraid of the word “lost.” First things first: choose a destination… or don’t. That’s up to you. Wander various streets down the city, pop into exquisite-looking shops, stroll in the parks. Bring along a camera or a notepad if you’re sentimental about moments, like me. Love food? Try something new to eat. If you love writing (geek-alert), my personal objective is to absorb my surroundings fully before I put them into words on paper. If you prefer photography, bring along a camera to capture the rare moments and unique angles. Be creative. Don’t forget that your focus is to immerse yourself in the environment. Nothing beats the raw intake of one’s surroundings.

Remember the funny street names. Ask around for directions, join community events and perhaps, make new friends (if the circumstance caters to your safety). It may be daunting. My experience in Florence, Italy would not have been the same if all of the roads I took only led to Rome. These days, we’ve the GPS and everything needed to survive. Use these tools wisely. Of course, prioritize safety in this matter. Then, bring yourself to zip up that bag pack and… to put it nicely, get lost.

2. “I spy…”

Did you ever play “I spy with my little eye…” as a child? I admit that it was the last game that my teenage cousins and I resorted to on a recent car ride to kill time. Yet, it occurred to me that the game has its significance. By looking at everything from a child’s perspective, you attain a sense of wonder and awe especially in new surroundings. Kudos to you if you have read up on the country prior to your travels, but always remember that your prior knowledge of a place will be minuscule compared to your upcoming experience when you are there. Take food as a metaphor and it is easy to understand that you can only read about it and guess its taste but that is nothing compared to the experience of eating it.

Be a “spy” by observing and researching. Have an open mindset and a curiosity to learn more about the population, the states, the accent. Find out more about the history and norms of the locals. Look up host family experiences who are open to taking you in even if it’s just for a day. Listen to the local news, podcasts or music. Research famous people or popular places to visit in the country. For instance, I became a fan of the K-pop group BTS before I volunteered for an educational program in South Korea. That way, you can relate and feel as excited as a child in awe of a different country.

3. Step into their Shoes.

A common phrase that still rings true as a traveler’s tip today: live like a local. If it inspires you, I recommend watching interviews of famous people from your host country. I myself have become healthily obsessed with Hugh Jackman, Rebel Wilson and Margot Robbie just before my current study abroad program at University of Technology Sydney in Australia.

Try people-watching (only if you are skillful in remaining unnoticed, of course, and do not intrude anyone’s privacy, please). Try to observe, understand and think like a local. Even the simple act of sitting on the most commonly used train system would garner a lot of input for you. I did it for a day and it sharpened my observational skills ever since. Here’s a simple example of my raw, unedited observation as a writer:

Step into… the shoes of the Korean lady behind the counter at the Asian market. Her wrinkled smile matched well with her brisk working hands. These gestures spoke about the personality of a woman who works with a high dedication for her job. I try to reflect her toothless smile with an equal amount of amiability. Satisfied, I turned and nearly bumped into a young boy, who apologized as he sped past on his skateboard. Some may quickly label him as reckless in his act but I prefer to admire and understand the youthful mind of this teenager. Bold and maybe a little careless, but no doubt, living his life and passions. He thoroughly lives his life to the fullest by getting himself out of his comfort zone and catching the evening breeze in his hair while he can. As he turned a corner, I settled on a swing in the park nearby… A little boy sweetly walked up to me, with dark brown eyes and a green leaf offered up in his palms. “Do you know what this is?” The innocence in his interactions with a stranger like me caught me off guard. His mother scooped him up laughingly and he waved me goodbye.

And there you go. If you were careful enough to read thoroughly, you’d notice that these rules pertained to observational skills. I wanted to keep it focused and simple enough. They work easily for an introvert like myself and should not be an issue for an extrovert. Three simple rules to observe (ha) to get the most out of your experience. Remember that cultures are not right or wrong, just different.

There will be more tips from me coming your way soon enough. I sincerely hope that you’d pack this mindset along and can identify yourself to be a purposeful, observant traveler. Back to scrolling through Instagram and stumbling on more random blogs in the world wide web, for now.

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