I don’t know about you, but when I take a vacation to another country, I am torn between having an immersive “authentic” experience and simply retreating and relaxing.
As a design researcher, I am often traveling to faraway lands to conduct research for work. These experiences are intensive cultural immersions that involve long days and produce thick research reports. You’d think that after those experiences, I’d want nothing more than to crawl up at home and read a book. But I love to travel, especially when it’s on my own terms. Over the years I’ve learned there’s a way to both relax and learn about another culture. Here are my tips for immersing and enjoying your destination.
Live in a home, not a hotel
Hotels create a bubble for travelers. Don’t choose the bubble. Live in a residential neighborhood and get to know the adjacent blocks by shopping for groceries or going to the local bar. While traveling in Kyoto, we found a bar near the traditional Japanese house we stayed in and made friends with the bar tender who shared with us his favorite temples to visit. His recommendations could not be beat by a tour book. And while going to the grocery store back at home is a chore, doing it a foreign country can be a culinary adventure filled with discovery, so don’t hesitate to cook a meal for yourself with local ingredients in your home away from home. By living in a residential neighborhood, you can build relationships within the neighborhood and get better local tips , while pulling yourself out of environments that are saturated with tourists.
Never pass up the chance to be introduced to a local
How many times has a friend told you about a friend they know in another city that you might enjoy? While it may seem challenging to think about scheduling before your trip, don’t miss the opportunity to meet that person. Get their number, reach out to them, and set up some time to meet – let the local choose the location. Locals are not only excellent resources but they can help you understand cultural traditions and taboos to help you get the most out of your experience. They sometimes might even take a shine to you and invite you to insider events.
While visiting my chiropractor before a trip to Turkey, I learned that he had a clinic in Istanbul and he offered to introduce me to the Turkish man who ran their clinic. When I reached out to the clinic director upon arrival in Turkey, I was invited to a dinner and then a whirling dervish ceremony. As was the culture, I ate with the Turkish women in an upstairs room and then was brought down to the front row with the men as a special guest of the ceremony. I could have never had this experience without my contact. If you don’t have connections, there are great services that can connect you to locals for little or no money – I’ve used nagomivisits in Japan where I enjoyed a typical meal with a local Physics professor and his family and traveling spoon or eatwith.com also comes recommended across a broader range of countries.
Take photos of the details and the mundane
It’s hard to pass up taking a photo of the great sights we encounter on our travels –let’s face it, we are wired to photograph spectacle. But my favorite photos are often photos of the mundane details that reveal cultural differences and tell a specific story about your trip. Those things that you pass each day — street signs, taxis, tea pots, toilets, mailboxes, snacks, magazine racks – usually are rich with the texture of your experience even if they aren’t postcard-worthy. When I was in Rwanda, I was amazed at how the moto-drivers huddled in little knots on the edge of the street to figure out collectively how to get people places. It happened so much (especially with me) that it became the norm and I never thought to photograph it. I regret that I didn’t snap a photo of those street conferences because they represented the collaborative nature of the culture and were also very hard to explain to people in words. So, ask yourself what you found unique when you first arrived and be sure to capture it.
Eat local breakfasts
Understanding what people eat to start their day provides you with a textured experience that will separate you from tourists and give you a window into the history of the place. I’ll never forget sitting on overturned boxes on the street in Myanmar eating mohinga – a fried fish soup full of fresh cilantro and a rich broth. While other tourists ate croissants in their hotels, I dug into one of the best soups I have ever eaten slurping besides locals on their way to work!
Also, eating breakfast out is typically cheaper than dining out in the evening so it’s a great way to get exposure to local cuisine on a budget. I’ll never forget the day I ordered an omelet in rural India and after looking at me confused about my request, they brought me puri – a fried bread with curry to dip it in. And while it was hard to stomach for breakfast my first morning, after 3 months there, I missed those colorful spicy foods for breakfast the most.
Let your personal passions be your lens
It can be overwhelming to get through the recommended list of sites in a new city. It’s also rare that this list takes you off the beaten path. So rather than starting from your guidebooks list of “must sees”, identify a personal mission for your trip based on your own passions– maybe that is finding the best pierogi in Krakau or buying local fabric in Tanzania to bring home and make a quilt. By having a mission, you always have a specific question to ask the locals that will illicit stories and sharing. On my first trip to Mexico City, I had a deep interest in Diego Rivera’s murals and set out to see as many of them as I could throughout the city – this mission brought me all over the city where I saw many of his most famous large scale murals. Once I’d made my way through the famous murals, my art historian father helped me identify some of the lesser known murals, and suddenly, I found myself at a barnlike structure behind a school. Given my interest (and my father’s perfect Spanish) they opened up the unused building just for us. Another less academic passion of mine, is bathing in foreign countries – whether for a swim or a wash. I always bring a swimsuit and read up about where to go for a swim or soak. I dove off the diving platform in the Olympic pool in Berlin with a line of impatient teenagers behind me chattering away in German, watched a Turkish mother battle over combing her toddler’s hair in a local bath in Istanbul, swam laps with older women in the middle of Paris, and sat naked for hours with local women in an outdoor spring in the mountains of Japan. My love of a good swim and a hot bath is the farthest thing from an intellectual pursuit but it always yields unique insights and a pleasurable experience. There’s no better way to contemplate cultures than sitting naked with the locals.
And since we do not always travel alone, it’s important to balance the needs and desires of your traveling companions. Let each person have a mission and support one another’s missions. For my daughter, it was finding the best hot chocolate in Paris, for my husband, it’s often about finding the most interesting hole in the wall record store that carries experimental music. Make time for those pursuits whether alone or apart. Usually you’ll benefit from those experiences.
Read local writers
You need some vacation reading, right? So choose books that are written by natives of the country you are visiting or that explore the history and culture of the country. It doesn’t have to be a dense history text – you deserve a break on vacation, but choose something that appeals and might give you another angle at understanding where you are. While traveling in Japan this summer, I read mostly Japanese writers and had so many a-ha moments where the story and my experience came together in some way. I also found that being in Japan elucidated some of my questions about tone in Japanese novels I’d read in the past that had eluded me. It was nothing that I could explain but I could FEEL that tone in my interactions and recognize how cultural differences played out in language.
Reflect on your discomfort
Usually discomfort while traveling in countries different than home stems from cultural difference or material differences in the environment or culture. And while I would never want to suggest that discomfort should be a core component of your vacation, I would suggest that it’s an opportunity to better understand cultural difference at a personal level. Rather than avoid these experiences, dive deeper to understand what is causing the friction and reflect on it. Use the experience as way to build empathy across the cultural boundaries. By taking time to reflect more deeply on those experiences, you can carry back stories and perspectives on the place you went to share with friends and family that give it life beyond the scope of images they may have encountered in the media. These differences also provide a rich point of discussion with local friends that you make. For years, I always felt a little hurt that my Swedish friends never inquired about my work – until I realized that work is less of a point of identification in Sweden. It had nothing to do with their interest in my life, it’s just not the focus of conversations with friends the way it often is for me in the US. Since realizing that, we’ve had many interesting conversations about work culture in our respective countries.
Honestly, I am not sure whether I travel the way I do because I am a Design Researcher at heart or whether Design Research has helped me have richer experiences by informing how I move through new places. Regardless, I appreciate having grown personally from every vacation I have taken.
Guest contributor Bonnie Reese was a design researcher at frog for 9 years and now has her own consulting business helping organizations leverage insights and design thinking to better connect to the people they serve.
frog is a global design and strategy firm. We transform businesses at scale by creating systems of brand, product and service that deliver a distinctly better experience. We strive to touch hearts and move markets. Our passion is to transform ideas into realities. We partner with clients to anticipate the future, evolve organizations and advance the human experience.