Enjoying the Park in Luang Prabang, Laos

5 Ways to Connect More Deeply on Your Travels

The early days of my long-term travels were scattered. I approached my trip with enthusiasm, but little finesse. And I loved my experiences, but as I look back at some of the first countries I visited on my round the world trip in 2008, I realize there were moments I missed, opportunities to go deeper into the culture that I glossed over in my rush to see everything on offer.

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In the intervening years, as I slowed down and took more time in each country, I discovered a handful of things I could do in a new place to connect more deeply.

Enjoying the Park in Luang Prabang, Laos
Enjoying the Park in Luang Prabang, Laos © Shannon O’Donnell

These little tweaks to my travels have afforded me many of my happiest moments on the road and often yielded the most profound perspective shifts. There are many ways to sink deeper into a new place, and here are five that have always worked for me:

#1: Research the Culture Ahead of Time

Your first step in planning a trip to a new country or region of the world is to begin assimilating information, history, and culture. Sure, you’ll have those on-the-ground experiences that some argue impact you most strongly, but when you understand the political and economic nuances that have shaped a people and country, you are primed for a deeper travel experience.

Words on paper are half the story””an important half. These words form the foundation of your travels so you can then layer on the first-hand conversations and observations that will give you a much fuller perspective than either one can alone. Sure you could show up and see what happens, but you may miss out on important social cues, blunder cultural norms, experience more serious culture shock, or only touch the surface of how and why a culture evolved into the place you plan to experience.

A good place to start is with non-fiction accounts of the country, memoirs from citizens, and literature from the country’s most notable writers (these country-specific books are a good place to start). And if you’re “not a reader,” at least spend some time reading the condensed history of a place on Wikipedia, or in the history section of your guidebook of choice.

Washing an Elephant at the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand
Washing an Elephant at the Elephant Nature Park, Thailand © Shannon O’Donnell

#2: Consider Volunteering If You Have Time to Give to a Cause

Volunteering internationally is one of the deepest ways I connect with a new country. As a long-term traveler (on the road for nearly five years now), I arrange my experiences independently and show up in a community for months at a time willing to offer any skills they may need””or willing to walk away if volunteering is not a good fit for that community or their needs.

But when it works out, and it often does, you can integrate into the pace of life in a new country at a local level. Rent an apartment, shop for food at the markets, and work side-by-side with members of the local community. From this lens, you are often able to gain perspective on local culture and customs that are harder to penetrate in mere days and weeks if you’re passing through a new place quickly.

There are ethical concerns with several types of volunteering, and some travelers read these issues and feel daunted by the overwhelming amount of information to the point of inaction. While there are certainly considerations (and I cover a lot of them in my book, The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook), there are ways you can easily and affordably make international volunteering an integrated part of your travels with just a bit of research beforehand.

#3: Support Social Enterprises and Locally Run Businesses

Volunteering is sometimes not a good fit on a particular trip, but one easy way to integrate a service mindset into travels is through your actions on the ground. Find locally run shops and social enterprises (for-profit businesses operating with a strong social mission) and give them your business. Truly, it’s as easy as that. The deeper connection comes from the interactions you gain from frequenting these smaller businesses.

Many of my best travel memories come from conversations I randomly started with shop owners, conversations that often morphed into hours spent chatting over chai tea about their life and their motivations for supporting their cause or social mission. Giving a specific lens to your travel in this way gives you a reason to ask questions, a reason to perhaps break out of any initial reservations about interacting with the locals and frees you to follow your curiosity as you chat and discover more nuances.

Street Food in Yangsho, China
Street Food in Yangsho, China © Shannon O’Donnell

#4: Observe the Pace of Life, Bonus Points If Food’s Involved

If you’re in a frenzy to pack your days with every potential “must-see” sight, you may miss out on discovering the pace of life and little quirks about the new culture. I am all for sight-seeing as these locations are popular for a reason and are often steeped in historical or religious significance, but those places are only a part of the travel experience. Once you’ve dived into the more touristy side of travel, find a public park or a local market to observe the people and interactions.

Markets are pretty much my favorite places on earth because they positively hum with activity. People bustle, they talk, they eat, and they generally go about life as if you didn’t exist. And there is magic in that, pure magic if you take the time to watch the interactions and social cues that form a delicate dance unique to that culture, that city, and that market.

#5: Journal About Your Travels

Keep a journal and log thoughts and moments right as they happen. And I mean an actual hand-written journal in addition to any blog or online spaces. In connecting your hand to paper you actively process your experiences from the day, including personal moments you’d never put online, while also transferring those moments into your long-term memory.

Journaling your initial observations connects disparate parts of travel in new and often profound ways. And months and years later, the process of re-reading your personal experiences will lend entirely new insights into past trips, making even past travels a deeper part of your life.

There are countless lenses you can use in your travels to strengthen your connection and understanding to a new place. But if you’re a new traveler, or a veteran traveler looking to add a bit more flavor, consider integrating one or two of them into your next trip.

  1. Shannon, I hope our paths cross one day because you are fabulous! Thanks for the tips and suggestions.

  2. Pete: I love the idea of a local barbershop! I have gotten a few haircuts abroad but I think the older traditions on the mens side of it would be so interesting to experience. :)

    Andrew: I do too! If we’re ever in the same place shoot me an email and we can grab coffee!

  3. I always check to see when/where and if there are local festivals or fairs in the areas that I intend to travel through. One of the most stirring events we went to involved a Highland Games Fair outside of Aberdeen, Scotland. It was a wonderful time listening to bag piper marching bands, eating local fair food, watching the highland dancing competition and highland games for the men. I also like to see what is produced or manufactured in a given area. If there are tours to see how those things are made we take them and invariably end up buying something precious for a memory. If we have the option of renting apartments in neighborhoods instead of hotels, we like to do that as well. One of the highlights of our Paris trip was renting an apartment one block from the Eiffel Tower. For our large group, it was cheaper to rent an apartment than to get a hotel for us. We got a taste of what the neighborhood was like, shopped in local food marches, ate like kings and queens and were just a hop skip and a jump from any kind of transportation to take us everywhere in Paris. And we ATE! In China we loved trying the cuisine. No, it’s nothing like American Chinese. Years later I’m still scouring the cities I travel to find those wonderful noodles we had in Beijing and Shanghai here in the states. Most of all understand the shopping areas and transport systems. Try to purchase things that will not only give you wonderful memories but try to find things that you know are unavailable where you live. Understand how to ship things home from any given destination. Finally, LEARN some of their language and customs. We are all ambassadors.

  4. Hi Shannon, I think I’m a decade behind you :) I’ve been independently travelling through SE Asia on and off over the last few years and next year…. travelling indefinitely and volunteering with no plans to return to the 9 to 5 or any fixed abode. I’ve always tried to connect with the communities I’ve visited but had yearned to spend longer in order to get a better understanding of the people behind all the smiling faces. I’m starting with 3 months volunteering with CCF (Phnom Pehn) which I was excited to see is recommended on Grassroots Volunteering! I hope to not only volunteer but also find a way to connect the tourist dollar with these communities. I like the Grassroots Volunteering lists of small businesses to support and plan to start up ‘something’ which also connects tourists with socially conscious enterprises but as you recommend, slowly does it. Cheers for the inspiration and I continue to watch Grassroots Volunteering and A Little Adrift for inspirational and socially conscious travel advice. Thanx!!!!

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