Lessons Learned in International Travel: Tips for Others
Learn greetings and basic local words
People love to be greeted in their own language. Especially if traveling to a remote area, making the effort at least to learn how to greet the locals can make all the difference! You can quickly go from being the stuck-up foreigner to the friendly traveler whom people are anxious to welcome. Sometimes, even showing effort to communicate in the local language can go a long way to cause the locals to want to help you, too. For example, for my dissertation research (funded in-part by Sara’s Wish), I moved to a remote part of Tanzania for several months. When I first arrived, though I knew some Kiswahili, I was by no-means fluent, and I had to travel from the airport, across a fairly decent sized city, to catch a boat that would take me to the area where I would live the next 6 months. I was fairly nervous about getting through the city with all of my things (remember, I was moving there to stay for 6 months, so I had some hefty bags). As well, having been there before, I knew that finding a taxi that charged a reasonable rate could be a challenge, particularly for the one who was obviously not from the area. Thankfully, I knew enough Kiswahili to be able to negotiate a reasonable price. By the time we got to the port the taxi driver was so excited I knew “kidogo” – a little — Kiswahili, as broken as my Kiswahili was, that he made it his mission to not only be sure I made it to the port, but also to make sure I ate a good lunch and was not traveling on an empty stomach. We went to the port, got my ticket, and he took me to a hotel where I could keep my bags behind the desk and go eat. Before he left, he showed me where I should go to get a taxi for my return to the port and made sure I was well taken care of by the waitress. I do not think he would have been so helpful if I had not made the effort to communicate with him in Kiswahili (with a smile) – even if I did have to keep my trusty dictionary handy.
Be willing to laugh at yourself
This is sometimes difficult to do, but developing the ability to laugh at yourself – particularly your struggles with the language – takes much of the stress off of being unable to clearly communicate or understand what you are being told. It also gives the locals the freedom to laugh with you, rather than laugh at you. I can provide a personal example. In Kiswahili, the word for books is “vitabu” and the word for potatoes is “viazi.” One day I had some left over viazi that I wanted to share with the 6-year old girl that lived next door. So, I brought my pot of potatoes over, set down the pot in front of her, and (in Kiswahili, of course) rather than saying, “do you want to eat some potatoes (viazi),” I said, “do you want to eat some books (vitabu)?” All the while, pointing to the pot of potatoes. She looked at me, pointed to the pot, laughed, and said, “vitabu”? Recognizing the mistake I made, we both were soon rolling with laughter. We proceeded to tell her mom, who was inside when this all happened, and also had a great laugh from it. Ever since, we jokingly have called “potatoes,” “books.”
Be flexible and patient
In Africa, Mexico, and many other places we often refer to as “developing,” time and plans are much more loose than in many westernized countries, particularly the United States. Learn to “go with the flow.” The people who live there have already learned to do so. So, don’t be overly anxious if you are late because of the bus, because you met someone on the way who wanted to talk, because you had a flat tire, etc. It is likely that the people who are expecting your arrival will not even notice your tardiness, or if they do notice, it likely will not irritate them.
Don’t get discouraged
You may have specific goals you are hoping to achieve as you head off into a new country. If you are unable to achieve them the way you had planned, do not let yourself get discouraged. I have many times traveled somewhere with a plan to teach or serve, but have completely been derailed upon my arrival. Often I find that there are other needs that the community considers to be more pressing priorities. Put their needs before your own plans. Remember they are the ones who have to live there after you have gone! I have found that many times I have needed to alter my plans to fit their needs, and the end result is that we have both gained. For example, the first time I went to Tanzania I was a first-year PhD student. My fellow-student colleagues and I had been told that we would lead a program for local teenage girls. We had been preparing activities for months beforehand. But upon our arrival, we learned that local women leaders thought that we were going to provide trainings to them on how they could/should work with their local girls. So rather than toss out all of the plans we made, we invited the women to come and watch as we worked with the girls, and learn from the methods we were using. Not only did they benefit from this, but the girls benefited, too. However, we also benefited from the presence of the women. They were able to provide wisdom and insight into some of the challenges the girls faced, providing knowledge to us that more rightly informed our activities. Rather than us guessing what some of the needs of the girls were, the women were able to offer what they knew.
People will be curious about you. You do not have to tell them where you live, why you are there, how long you are staying, if you are single, or if you are interested in romance. Be wise and do not tell them where you live unless they need to know. Do not walk by yourself at night – and even during the daytime be careful where you go alone. If your skin or your dress characterize you as being “western”, you may want to carry your bags on the front of your person and do not put important things in your pockets unless they zip or button.
In some countries, if you are a woman you especially need to be concerned about modesty. I always wore skirts or loose pants that went below mid-calf and never wore tank-tops outside of my compound. It is smart to dress similarly as the women who live in the community. You will probably already attract enough attention and do not want the local men thinking you want additional attention from them!
If I have learned anything traveling, it is that a friendly smile goes a long way.