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Posted by Jessica on Aug 25, 2009
Experiencing Life in Another Country

When we first started thinking about our trip around-the-world, we enjoyed daydreaming about all of the countries we would visit. Aside from what now seems like an impossible number of countries on our original itinerary (the initial plan was to visit 22 countries in a mere 3 months; the end result was that we visited only 12 countries in 18 months!) we also had quite a number of major tourist attractions we wanted to see. Whether it was Iguazu Falls in Argentina, or the Acropolis in Greece, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia, all of these places and many more danced in our dreams.

But it wasn't until we hit the road that we discovered major tourist sites – be they made by man or made by nature – are just the beginning of travel. In fact, I'll dare to say they're just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to experiencing life in another country.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying major tourist sites aren't important. Of course they're important. They help a traveler understand the history of a country and often where that country's culture stems from. And given so many people visit them – both locals and travelers alike – it's pretty likely they're fairly fabulous to boot.

But remember, not everyone in Mexico City visits Teotihuacan each day. Not everyone in Ecuador has sailed to the Galapagos Islands in their lifetime. Just like not everyone in the US saw the Grand Canyon during their last summer vacation.

So once you've exhausted all the tourists sites or (gasp!) even before you've set foot in one, what are the other things you can do to experience life in another country?

There'll often be some universal things you can do in many countries (or at least in the major cities), and we'll get to those in a moment. But first, think about the country you're in right now. What are some of the quintessential parts of that country's culture? If you're in Spain, consider taking in a bullfight. If you're in Argentina, take some tango lessons and then head to a discoteque. If you're in the States, go to a baseball game or an American football game. If you're in England, stop by a local pub and grab some fish n' chips.

Now you might point out that folks in these countries aren't taking part in these activities every day. (Perhaps with the exception of England's fish n' chips.) And of course you'd be right. But I'm willing to bet the fans of these activities would like to do these things every day! So go ahead, join in the fun and see what it's all about.

But after the tourist sites and the bullfights and the fish n' chips, what else is there to do? It's simple. Just do the things you'd normally do at home. (This works particularly well, of course, if you're in a city.) See all those folks milling about? They're on their way to the grocery store or the mall, just like you did most days when you were back home. So why not join them?

Did you like going to the movies at home? If so, check out the local newspaper and see if there are any movies showing that you'd like to see. Even if there are none in English or with English subtitles, it could still be a neat experience. (Remind us one day to tell you about movie theaters in Bangkok.) If you enjoy bowling, find out where there are some nearby lanes, rent some shoes, and knock down some pins. (I know at least in Mexico the lanes are oddly similar to the ones in the States: right down to the orange nacho cheese served with chips.) If you enjoy shopping, don't forget to check out the malls where you're at or (even better) the outdoor markets that are probably scattered around the city. Are you into a good session of karaoke? You'd be surprised how many bars around the world encourage strangers to enthusiastically sing out of tune with each other. (And most of the time, they're singing American songs so you'll have a leg up already!)

If you have a kitchen in the hostel you're staying, take advantage of it and head to the grocery store or local market for some grub. Check out the different fruits and vegetables available. Wander up and down a few aisles in search of the oddest thing you can buy. Sneak a peek at other shoppers' carts to see what's popular. And go ahead, buy the candy bar with the seaweed in it. Who knows, maybe you'll even like it. And remember, even if you don't have a kitchen you can still grab a few pieces of fruit, a baguette, and some cheese for an impromptu picnic in a park.

Speaking of the park, don't underestimate the joy of sitting on a bench for an hour or two. Take notice of the people around you: check out what the teenagers are wearing, listen to the music you hear, try to figure out what games little kids are playing with their parents. If you make sure not to bury your nose too much in your guidebook, you'll probably even have a few locals join you on the bench. (And if you're in Cambodia, you'll undoubtedly be asked for help with English lessons!) Of course, sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe is another way to people watch, live every day life, and get some tasty food too!

If you have several errands you have to run, don't see it as time away from traveling. Look at it as an opportunity to experience every day things in another country. When you get a refill on your prescription, take a look at the other pills and gadgets the farmacia has for sale. (I've often been amused by the display of band aids next to the neck ties next to the pirated DVDS next to the rubbing alcohol!) When you go to the post office to mail some post cards, see how it's different from your post office at home. And when you give your friends back home a call, take note of the different options for doing so: phone cards and pay phones, phone stations in internet cafes, or even people on the street offering their cell phone for use (for a small fee, of course). Many things you'll see during a day running errands will be different than in your own country. So take a moment to notice the differences and enjoy them too. (Who knew errands could be so much fun?)

Above all, while experiencing life in another country, don't forget about leaving yourself open for those moments of random happiness. Whether it's watching couples dance the tango in a park or stopping to listen to a street musician, these moments can be quite telling about the culture you're exploring. So don't be shy: take a stroll through the city (or take the local bus or metro somewhere), window shop, grab little bites to eat from street vendors. Soak in as many sights, sounds, and smells that you can. And take joy in those every day moments of life that we all experience no matter where we are in the world.

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