Culture shock

This is really an explanation of why I love travel, but perhaps also an explanation of why other people are nothing like as keen.  I was having a chat with a friend recently, someone who is coming round to the idea of holidays alone, but (a) doesn’t like the hassle of organising all the flights, accommodation, car hire etc., and (b) is reticent about going out, meeting strangers and talking to them, regardless of language spoken.

Granted that it can be stressful to travel in a strange country with an alien language, but as a change from your usual working environment that can be both highly refreshing and stimulating.  Somehow, whatever the journey is like, being in a new place is for me always exciting and invigorating – and those moments are never to be forgotten. As my mother often says, “they can’t take that away from you”!

The one that always sticks in my mind is arriving in India at the dead of night to find a surging mass of people outside the airport, and then the subsequent taxi ride to the hotel (see here), though every journey by air has the same dynamic: collect your baggage, go through customs then without warning you’re in a new climate, surrounded by new people, living totally in the here and now as you sort the next steps towards your destination; the further away, the bigger the culture shock, no matter how well you prepared.  But this – and here is where my friend may disagree – is good!  I think it’s fantastic to be immersed in a new culture and surrounded by new people, so long as you don’t just ignore your surroundings and instead go explore, safely.

If it’s a package deal you might just be looking for someone waving a card bearing your name, but most usually I’m queuing for car hire, finding the right bus or taxi, organising something.  Somehow that feels more satisfyingly authentic for a traveller though it may be in remembrance of the days when every trip was bespoke – travelling around the States and Europe, working abroad, being able to choose what suits me, but I can appreciate that those on holiday typically want everything to be as stress-free as humanly possible – which means to have as much done for you so you have few decisions to make and things to do for yourself.

By definition a package holiday embraces an armful of compromises. Not that I haven’t done them on occasions as a means of procuring a ready-made family holiday, beach and pool, drinks and food thrown in, that sort of thing. But then the compromise was with my family and what they wanted. Let off the leash, I’ll always tend to be more adventurous and cover more ground – and while you’re there it seems a darned shame not to find out more.

So for example I’ve taken my kids on two major expeditions in recent years: Prague, Vienna & Budapest by train; and a fly-drive starting at LA and extending as far as Vancouver. The adventure lies in exploring the terrain and scenery, the sights and the smells, meeting the people, sampling the food, seeing the shows. If in any given resort there are a hundred possible eateries vying for your custom, each with their own range of mouth-watering local delicacies, why would you choose to eat the same old stuff in your hotel night after night and do you really want to go to some other country to chat with a bore from Bolton or a flirt from Falmouth?

Let me say up front that I agree there is much hassle when things go wrong, though the days of people just going and travelling light seem long gone, though in a sense I remember them fondly – as when I hitch-hiked across the States armed only with my back pack and Union Jack t-shirt.  Nowadays we take stacks of luggage and demand to know precisely where we are staying and how we will getting there, but even when we are fully insured there is the risk we might lose our cash, our bags or end up injured.  Like a boy scout you can be prepared for most things but there is always the unforeseen outcomes for which nobody can ever plan.

For the intrepid traveller, it is a tad frightening to see how many people seem to get killed in foreign climes these days by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, though that is no reason not to seek out the most wonderful places – but choose destinations with care too, following Foreign Office advice being the most sensible course of action to avoid hot spots (package holidays to Afghanistan and Syria are currently in short supply, for some reason.)

But even so, air travel to almost anywhere is possible and affordable, so there is no reason whatever to stick to the most common destinations.  You may love bits of the Balearics and the Greek islands, but there is so much more to the world.  Some may prefer to be closer to home but it’s worth enduring long haul flights to experience the sights, delights and the people of, say, India, South Africa and many more locations – and thanks to movies like The Great Exotic Marigold Hotel, it’s quite possible a lot more people are taking the plunge and trying out India, not to mention countries that but a few years ago would be no-go war zones.  Vietnam, Cambodia…. see what I mean?

Obviously you need to keep your wits about you when you travel, and to take precautions wherever possible – one of which is to avoid looking/sounding too much like a naive and gullible rich tourist, though you will still stand out a mile with your pale skin, straw hat, cheap sunglasses, shorts and sandals!

The knack is to be open and to get to know people, listen to them, treat them as equals.  Taking India as an example, it was obvious people there were as curious about us as we were about them, so we did spend time with them, donated a few ballpoint pens (which were apparently in short supply), shared their drinks, sampled their movies and their markets, signed their autograph albums etc.  It’s the cultural gulf and finding out what makes people tick that makes travel even more fascinating and enriching – wonderful though it is to see amazing sights like the Taj Mahal, or the Pacific Ocean.

Just going there without meeting people and discovering their culture, how they live, what they do, seems to me utterly counterproductive.  It is ultimately people that matter – talking to them is not hard, unless you keep yourself very much to yourself.  We all share a common humanity, a love of places, good food and drink, many other things.  The only trick is to be curious and to go find out what is interesting.  Speaking a few words of their language might also help, as will being respectful and not patronising people and their quaint customs (something for which rich American tourists are particularly renowned.)

The argument that you could enjoy a holiday just as much in the UK is in some cases quite reasonable, except that you never bridge any cultural divide so to do (unless it involves entering into the Independent Republic of Yorkshire, for example.)  But even Ireland and the USA, while nominally speaking a similar language, are in many ways a cultural light year away.  Actually, I’d argue the intonation and interpretation of language, not to mention accents and dialects, are utterly different in both countries from those found in the UK – you might just as well be speaking in Urdu for all Americans will understand of our version of English, which is why they find many of our movies and TV shows so baffling while we are expected to appreciate theirs!

So there you have it – go have fun and meet the world while you can.  It seems madness not to do so when it can be so easy.  Go live life to the full!

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