Opinion piece.

Travelling isn’t all about admiring beautiful sights and collecting photos of them to impress your friends when you return home. It isn’t about the tan you get while on vacation, though that certainly helps the post holiday blues a little. Traveling is about experiences, memories, and trying different things. The problem with that is, if you’re not well informed about the place you’re going, i.e its culture, language, religion, and other important facts about your destination, then it can all be basically lost on you, and it becomes just another generic place.

It’s for this reason it’s important to be aware of the place you’re visiting, and by aware, I mean culturally aware.

Too many people become lost in the tourist side of a destination that they never truly experience anything of what it would be like to be a local living there. If possible try and stay longer at fewer places on your trip so you can partake a little in the daily lives of the local people and get a sense of their their world. Meeting and making friends with the local people has always turned out to be the most rewarding experience I get from my travels. Travellers who don’t prepare and explore the cultural side of where they are visiting miss out on the best part of the travel experience, and can cause cultural or social faux-pas, simply out of unintentional ignorance.

When you’re looking to visit a particular place, Google is your friend. I’m not suggesting you swat up on it to the point where you could easily sit in the Mastermind chair, but a few interesting facts and reading up on the history of the place could be enough.

My friend and I recently visited Turkey and we went to Istanbul for a few days. Now, for anyone who has never been to Istanbul, this is like culture-centre, especially in the old town of Sultanahmet, and if you don’t understand anything about the culture and dos and don’ts of life here, then you miss out and probably attract a few stares in your direction.

We visited the Blue Mosque, and my friend had no idea about mosque etiquette, e.g. women covering their head, everyone removing their shoes, and being adequately covered up, especially legs etc. Now, she genuinely didn’t know, and it wasn’t out of any flippant attitude or anything like that, so I had to explain this to her. She said that she wished she had read up a little about the places we were going to see, so she could understand them better, and that it would obviously enhance her enjoyment.

This is what I’m trying to get at – be culturally aware of where you’re travelling (e.g covering your head if you need to in a Muslim country) and do a little prior research preparation so you understand what you’re seeing. You’ll get so much more out of it you cultural experience if you do.

Obviously we also have the side of it we’ve just touched upon. These places are also people’s homes, and tourists wandering around however they see fit, sometimes unintentionally offending people simply out of being unaware, is what causes stereotypes and bad feelings. It’s common sense to a degree – if you’re going somewhere rural, don’t walk around in a bikini, if you’re going somewhere in the Middle East, cover up appropriately. Wherever you travel make the effort to learn a few words of the local language, even if it’s just hello, goodbye, please and thank you, because this shows not only a willingness to learn, but also respect for people who live there.

Being culturally aware isn’t about being a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge on the place you’re visiting, it’s about being subtly aware of the major dos and don’ts of where you’re going, to help you as a visitor, and to not leave an unpleasant footstep when you depart.

Photo Credit: Brian Snelson under Creative Commons licence. Market stall in Istanbul.