I decided to walk the walk that I’m asking from my students and pack light. So, this year as I lead the study abroad course I’m only packing my backpack and I’m bringing a packable day backpack to use while we are touring. Usually, I don’t pack as light as I encourage my students to do because I’m away from home longer than them. They are in South Africa for right at two weeks and I usually am in SA for about a month. However, this time I decided to dive headfirst into the backpack traveler world.
Honestly, when I got my first backpack, claiming to be a backpack traveler was purely aspirational! I bought the Tortuga pack but still “needed” to bring along my backpack I use for school. I had the Tortuga backpack for two years and it served me well traveling to conferences and home to see the family. Then in the summer of 2018 I passed that pack onto one of my former students who was traveling to Kenya for a month-long medical internship.
I moved onto the Eagle Creek Gear Hauler [click here] and fell in love with this rugged all-purpose pack. I first used it when I traveled to Botswana in July 2018 and you can check out this post on everything that I stuffed into this pack in a post from right before the trip [click here]. I the reason I fell hard for this pack was mainly because of how much I could stuff into it and still easily carry both by hand and on my back. Additionally, I felt confident using this pack as I traveled around Southern and Central Africa because of the high quality construction and the water/dirt resistant bottom.
I know one of the reason that I have resisted only using a backpack for “secruity” purposes. I don’t mean safety and security, but rather having extra clothes “just in case” kinf of security. I can always hear my grandmother’s voice in my head telling me to pack a little extra “just in case something happens”, but something always happens and that’s why we wash our clothes! It’ll be interesting to see how this trip goes and if I am one of those newly converted people who will then sing the praises of backpack travel.
If you search for travel tips you can find all sorts.
- How to book a flight to save the most cash
- What you pack depending on where you’re traveling
- How to eat like a local
- Where to find the off-beat curioities of a particular area
- Or safety tips depending on when and where you’re traveling
However, there are apects of travel that most people don’t talk about opening. Parts of travel and experiencing a new place can be difficult or a challenge. A lack of preparation for these challenges can make the traveler feel like they are doing something wrong or that something is wrong with them. Intercultural differences can definetly be a form of culture shock and if you aren’t prepared you could start becoming judgemental and closed off to your new location.
So, I wanted to write a post about some of these unspoken travel challenges.
- Space: Interpersonal space is not a universal concept. People from the US are used to having large amounts of personal space, even in a crowd. Our understanding of space and interpersonal space is a cultural concept.
- Here’s a few articles that get into this concept a bit more:
- “What personal space looks like around the world” [click here]
- “How personal space boundaries vary in different countries” [click here]
- “Which countries have the smallest personal space” [click here]
- Silence: Not just silence, but also when is it culturally approprate to speak and when are you expected to be quiet. Silience is a luxury that people living in most cities do not have. When you relocate to a new country or study abroad country you may find people talking when you would normally expect quiet, but noone else around you seems to be bothered by the noise. No, you aren’t alone or the first one to experience a struggle with this issue. Places that I’ve experienced this includes: movie theaters, conference presentations, airplanes, government offices…The funny thing is that when you do a search for “Why are [insert nationallity here] so loud?” You can find an article for almost every single country. Which just proves that its what we’re used to and then someone from another country or culture comes along and violates this norm. How we regulate noise levels or modulate our own voices is a cultural construct. So…here’s a few articles I found that speak to this issue.
- “My cultural noise threshold is being violated” [click here]
- “Cultural differences in percieving sounds generated by others” [click here]
- “Why are Americans abroad so loud and obnoxious” [click here]
- Smiling: Okay y’all. I’m just going to be totally real on this one. Americans are a little obsessed with happiness and a bit too cheerful for the rest of the world (see the article above about us being loud and obnoxious). I mean, we really do smile, a lot. Is everything really awesome?! In your new country strangers probably won’t exhange smiles with you on the street (I still can’t help myself most of the time and that’s okay). But this doesn’t mean that they are being rude to you, its just not part of their cultural practice.
- Table manners: How we eat varies widely from country to country. We use different utenciles and the types of food that we consider to be staples varies. So, it makes sense that the idea of what is rude or not at the table would vary from culture to culture, as well.
- Here are a few articles to help you understand how table manners are constructed around the world:
- “A guide to table manners around the world” [click here]
- “What proper etiquette looks like around the world” [click here]
- “Dining etiquette around the world” [click here]
- “Renaissance table etiqutte and the origins of manners” [click here]
- Public transportation: Now that you are in the other country, how are you going to get around? What looks like public transportation varies from country to country and you may be missing out on a budget friendly transportation option.
- What are the some of the varieties of transportation options?
- “Around the world in 30 unique modes of transport” [click here]
- “Top 12 world’s super authentic means of public transport” [click here]
- “8 unspoken rules of public transportation around the world” [click here]
- Alcohol: Buying alcohol around the world or even just from state-to-state within the US, can vary widely.
- Are you old enough to drink? A guide to the min. drinking ages in 190 countries around the world [click here]
- Is drinking even legal where you’re traveling? Here’s 14 countries where drinking alcohol isn’t legal [click here]
- Okay, you can buy it here, but how expensive is it? Here’s a guide to how much alcohol costs around the world [click here]
- Now, you know if its legal, if you’re legal, and how much its going to set you back, but what should you drink? Here’s a guide to the best booze to drink in 43 countries [click here]
- If you’re going to have ‘one drink’ how does the alcohol content vary around the world? Good question [click here]
- Food labels: If you have dietary requirements that make reading food lables a normal part of your shopping experience, you may not be ready for how other countries label their packaged food. (Also, you may want to get a metric converter app for your phone to help make sense of international food lables)
- “Differences between EU and US nutrition lables go far beyond ounces and grams” [click here]
- “Food health labels around the world” [click here]
- “Global plan to streamline ‘use by’ labels” [click here]
- Operating hours: When are businesses open? In the US we are acustomed to businesses being open early and staying open late with many stores not changing their hours of operation for the weekend. However, this is something that varies widely from country to country and even within a country, if you move from a large city to a small town or village. For example: in the US if a store is open on Sundays it will most likely open later in the day (noon is quite common) and it will likely close early (6 p.m. is still common). However, in South Africa a lot of stores will open at the standard time, but close early.
- Work/life balance: If you are living abroad for an extended period of time you are probably working in a new culture. But working and living in a new country can be very different from working in the US. I’m not fully going down that rabbit hole here, but in general understanding how your new country places work into their overall cultural understanding of life will help you undertand your new neighbors and friends even if you aren’t working directly in the new country (I’m looking at you digital nomads).
- “Working hours around the world” [click here]
- “The 13 countries with the best work-life balance for expats” [click here]
- Women in the workforce worldwide (Pew Center) [click here]
Traveling can be fantastic! And anyone who knows me knows that I’m always trying to find yet another way to go abroad. However, its best if you’re aware of the many variances between countries that could catch you off-gaurd. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you encounter a difficulty that you weren’t expecting when you travel or relocate to a new culture. Culture shock is real and sometimes you don’t know when its going to show up!
The items I included in this post were things that I’ve encountered and caused me some stress as I acclimated to my new environment. What did I miss? Please comment with things that were an unexpected culture shock for you when you studied or moved abroad.
On WordPress some blogs do “Wordless Wednesday” and I’ve made a few of those posts. I’ve posted up videos or pictures that could stand on their own.
However, today I’m overwhelmed by words and a myriad of thoughts, but I find my heart skipping a beat and my breath catching. I’m in the edge of my next adventure, headed into the great wide-open of life.
This next academic year is (hopefully) my last. I’m headed to South Africa for fall semester to write my dissertation, I’ve imaged it as a semester’s Long writing retreat. Then spring semester I defend and graduate. Each next step has an outline of a plan, but no definite next steps because I want to remain open to all of the possibilities available to me. It’s exhilarating and a bit scary.
But it also feels right. Time to see what the universe has in store!
That’s the pace leading up to a departure date. So many things to do and many of them cannot be done in advance. As my travel date approaches the list grows and the pace quickens. Until the day of departure, when everything slows, clarifies, and simplifies. Today, the big push is packing.
But I’m not just packing. I’m also re-sorting my closet and culling my clothes for another donation run. Then I’ll sort through the clothes that are left and decide what to store and which ones to take back to South Africa in August.
Once the sorting, culling, and packing, is complete I feel a sense of calm. I know that feeling is coming. However, this time the trip that is coming on Monday will be the eye of the storm because when I come back the big move is happening. I’ll have to finish packing up my apartment and put everything into storage until a future, unknown date when I have an address again.
Its funny because I feel so hectic before I leave, but once I’m headed to the airport everything calms down for me and I’m in my happy space. For a lot of people travel is the hectic piece. In the airport they are scattered and a bit harried. Travel can be confusing and disorienting, but I think that’s some of what I really enjoy about it. I enjoy the fun of discovering new places. My favorites are bookstores, coffee shops, and the perfect vantage point to watch sunsets and sunrises. I don’t buy into the “life is a journey” cliche because the point of a journey is a destination. Is death really the destination of my life? I prefer the cliche that life is music (mostly jazz). We have ideas and pursue those ideas, but so much improve happens along the way. Songs do end. However, the music is the point. The beauty of the piece lies in it being played.
Okay…back to actually packing!
If the devil is in the details, then I have many little devils to attend to in the next fourteen days.
- Put my mail on hold
- Suspend my cell phone while I’m gone
- Add all the notes to my various accounts
- Prep my presentation
- Take both animals to the vet
- Make sure the old man has his meds for while I’m gone
- Schedule bills to be paid
- Finish collecting data for my dissertation
- and the list goes on…
This list is exacerbated by the list that I’ll need to complete before I leave again in August. Last night was the first time that these little devils danced around in my head and didn’t let me sleep. I sincerely hope that this does not continue for the next two weeks.