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Things to Remember When Traveling Abroad (That Nobody Tells You)
Tourists and expats alike
When we think of travel tips we think "safety first." For good reason, tourists are just as likely as the locals to get in all sorts of trouble.
At the same time there are a few things we don't think about because it seems like second nature back home or because we just want to have fun.
I didn't care much for traveling until I joined the Army. As a soldier I had no problems with getting as far away from post as I could whenever I had leave.
I haven't seen as many places as I would have liked but I definitely saw much more than I would have if I was a civilian. All this changed when I was diagnosed with epilepsy. Before I knew it I was disabled. To this day, I'm on medication and under the careful eye of a neurologist.
I'm not in the Army anymore but I won't let epilepsy stop me from seeing the world. Not only would I travel overseas, I was determined to live overseas. My first stop was Japan and I've been here ever since. As an expat safety becomes second nature. The expat will never be a native but will get used to his new community and make new friends.
Over time, new rules emerge. They become front and center. The expat is no longer a tourist, so there is no excuse for him to embarrass himself. Whether you decide to live abroad or just to visit, there's no reason to learn any of this the hard way like I did.
You represent your country
This is the most important thing that tourists seem to forget but it is absolutely vital to remember. You represent your country wherever you go.
Even in your own country, you represent your city/state. If you don't tell the locals where you are from, they will guess (fairly accurately) and they will remember how you handle yourself.
This shouldn't be much pressure on you as long as you don't act like a jerk. Yes, you are on vacation. Yes, it cost you a lot of money to be here. Yes, you could have gone anywhere else in the world.
But you are still a guest. The local service sector appreciates tourists and are happy to help you but this doesn't mean everyone owes you something.
Even I forget this sometimes. My Japanese is very bad for someone who has lived here as long as I have. When it seems like communication is a lost cause, I'll ask if they speak English. That's right. I sometimes ask Japanese people living in Japan whether they speak my native language.
Often times they do, to my relief. But, knowing I'm an expat, this makes me look like a lazy idiot. Shouldn't I make more of an effort to pick up the local language?
It would be helpful to know a few words or phrases of the language of the place you're going but this isn't about that. Don't forget where you are from. You represent your country.
Leave the politics at home
It keeps happening and it's easy to see why. Today people and information move at unprecedented speed. The world is getting smaller. The policies of a country can easily affect others.
What does this have to do with travel? This depends on where you are going. I live in Japan. It's a great place to live with great people. However I'm not a particular fan of this... or this. But I'm not here to judge anyone. I'm a guest so I have to leave the politics at home.
Now as much as the Japanese loved former President Obama they have expressed concern about American policy. The biggest issues are probably the US military bases in Japan and the V-22 Osprey. These are things I do not talk about. Ever.
Another example? Take a look at the video below. The Tore-Tore Ichiba Market is not a time to wail loudly about animal rights. If you don't like what you see anywhere, vote with your feet.
Make friends: It's easy if you try
This is not vital but you will have a lot more fun. Of course when you meet someone in a new country you have to keep your guard up, especially if they approach you. After all, it's safety first.
When I was stationed in Fort Sam Houston (by San Antonio) I went to Austin for the weekend. I met this guy from Germany who was backpacking in the Southwest. Within minutes (minutes!) we met a couple girls who were in town for some live jazz.
But none of us knew that the Aggies (Texas A&M football team) were in town. The huge rivalry between the Aggies and the Longhorns (University of Texas, Austin football team) had the whole city going wild. It was a blast.
About a year later I was in Chicago on Memorial Day leave when I met a girl on a bus. She was an au pair from Sweden and had a few days off too. By coincidence we got off at the same stop. I asked her to take a picture of me and we ended up spending the weekend together.
First it was the famous Magnificent Mile and then Navy Pier. We kept in touch for years. By the way, it gets cold in Chicago, especially by Lake Michigan. So dress warm!
This happens almost everywhere I go: Boston, Knoxville, Louisville, San Antonio, San Francisco... If you want a secret, here are two: travel alone and stay at (or near) a hostel. Most people staying at a hostel are in town only for a few days so they will hit the biggest sites and attractions.
My experience is that they are usually friendly, they are travelers just like you but hesitant to talk to someone who in a group.
Try the local tours - They're fun!
What you see is the main building of the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. The shrine of shrines, it is the most sacred building of the Shinto religion. This is about the closest a person can get to take a picture.
Just inside the massive gate is as close as anyone can get unless they are staff. Mie is a bit far from Osaka but taking a tour I saved me a lot of time and money.
I don't know why so many people insist on "roughing it" when traveling. Had I decided to come here on my own, I would have had to take a train then take a bus. It would have taken much longer. A car is faster but then I'd have to worry about tolls and parking--which would have cost more than the tour itself.
But before all that, I'd have to do my own research to find out how amazing this place is and how lucky I was to be there. Taking a tour, I was there and back in a day. The tour guide was amazing (but only spoke Japanese). I'd recommend it to anyone.
If you have no idea where to start or if you run out of ideas, consider taking a tour. Ask the hotel you're staying at to recommend one. They may even be able to arrange a discount.
Yes, the locals will know immediately that you are a tourist but who cares? You'll still have fun and you'll also meet other tourists from all over the world. It beats watching TV in your hotel room because there's nothing else to do.
Don't forget to have fun!
While traveling, you will see some amazing things. In the image above, you see the Meoto Iwa. This sacred site is right off the shore of the Okitama Shrine in Futami--a small town in the Mie Prefecture.
In the front of that is a stone frog. The frog is the sacred animal of the Okitama Shrine and there are countless frog statues of all sizes throughout the grounds.
I took this picture (along with many others) of Meoto Iwa but walked away feeling like I missed something. To this day I don't feel like I really saw it.
I didn't go to Meoto Iwa just to get a nice picture of it. I went there to see it in person. This has happened before. I spent too much time taking pictures or something that I forgot to relax and enjoy myself.
People travel for different reasons. When you're on vacation, don't forget to have fun.
For more information - Check out these sites
- Miyako Odori: My First Time at the Japanese Theater
The "Dances of the Old Capital" blew my mind. It was easily one of the greatest experiences of my life. Check it out here
- Your Experience in a Japanese Hot Spring
My first time in a Japanese hot spring was amazing!
- Gyeongbokgung Palace with my Nikon D5200 Digital Camera
Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership!
- Are you a woman traveling alone? Click here
I'm guessing traveling alone is different for women