Why you should study abroad (if you're ready)

Okay so I'm back! I thought for a second there I was going to shut down Girl in Love with the World, but I just could not resist writing and blogging while I study abroad in Morocco. 

Yes, that's right, Morocco! A new country and a new continent for me. Already I'm enjoying the crazy smells and sights of the souks and old medinas. I'll share plenty of that on here with time, but right now I want to speak a little about study abroad. 

bluetiful Rabat

bluetiful Rabat

Everyone knows there are benefits of study abroad--a more conscious world viewpoint; experiences in different cultures; an expanded palette in food, music, dance, etc.; maybe even proficiency or practice in a foreign language. All of which are amazing. But I think probably more than half of the students who go abroad list these things on their applications, but do not fully experience them. There really should only be one pre-requisite for study abroad: open-mindedness. Without the willingness to be outside of your comfort zone, you can hear, see, and experience new and different lifestyles without changing yourself. To learn is to take in new information and be able to use it; to allow your mindset to change and alter. And from what I've seen on social media and heard in conversation (by no means take this as a definitive study of American students abroad), study abroad does not always change students. 

my first real Moroccan couscous

my first real Moroccan couscous

I know that a good student, someone with the acceptance and openness I speak of, can benefit and grow from an experience abroad no matter where they are. However, sometimes I have a sneaking suspicion that they chose to study abroad in a place purely for the nightlife and the instagram photos. I'm not against having some fun or taking lots of pictures, but this can all be done at home. Better to be motivated by an interest in another culture and the possibility of meeting new people there.

While everyone travels differently, I wonder if students abroad are challenging themselves. England or Australia are amazing places, worth studying and living in, but I think it's important to travel beyond cultures and languages that are so close to your own. I will admit, part of studying abroad in North Africa for me is the thrill of the challenge, of the amount of cultural difference between the United States and here. What it boils down to is pushing your boundaries; which, of course, are different for everyone. So maybe its difficult for someone to travel alone, even to a place which speaks English, and interact with locals and other travelers. Or maybe a student is enrolled in a program with other Americans, but looks for chances to learn the local language. This simple willingness is how I meet new and different people. 

Study abroad is a privilege. There are many people inside and outside the U.S. that don't have the means to travel longterm or are unable to get a visa and work out the legal details. This is one more reason to take full advantage of the opportunities that come with study abroad. 

Maybe I'm crazy, but I think the best kind of travel changes you. Sometimes you feel stretched thin, uncomfortable, surrounded by foreignness, but then there is more room for you to take in knowledge and become more understanding. 

stables at the palace in Meknes, the former capital

stables at the palace in Meknes, the former capital

Exploiting Local Cultures

My last introspective post spoke about my love of meeting locals and travelers abroad. Like me, many people travel to ‘see the people,’ and yet this is not always as well-meaning as it seems. In some scenarios, it can bring back the old scars of colonialism and exploit those who live in the countries to which we travel.

A very thoughtful cow in Cambodia...

A very thoughtful cow in Cambodia...

Specifically I’m thinking about the day tours that appear on the tourism bulletin boards in less developed countries. In France, no one ever decides to trek into the mountains to go watch the Alsatians dip bread in cheese and ski and go about their lives (at least not that I’ve ever heard of). But if you are in Thailand, there are tons of advertised outings that include a visit to a hilltribe’s village.

While I’ve never been on a tour or experience quite like I’m describing, I have met many travelers who have. And usually this comes from a genuine curiosity about the culture and people of the country. These travelers have similar travel styles to me--they want to go deeper than just the food and architecture to understand a country. So it is with good intentions that they can unknowingly hurt the local populations. But I believe that if they were aware of cultural exploitation, many travelers would try to travel more responsibly.

Looking into organized cultural trips, there are a few factors that stand out as enforcing power hierarchies. Tour guides, entrance fees, and souvenir shops among a small village are the obvious mark of the sale of a culture. There are less obvious signs: moments when tourists are offered amenities above what the actual residents have access to or restrictions on their lives. This may include restrictions on use of modern technology or maintaining of certain cultural traditions, even if they are partially fabricated (i.e. the people cannot use their cellphones in view of visitors). These cultural tours stem from a history of colonialism and imperialism to make profit off of the ‘quaint,’ romanticized culture of a people.

A craftsmen from Austria who he can sell his goods directly to travelers, decide when to book art shows, and whose lifestyle is not overly eroticized or trivialized. 

A craftsmen from Austria who he can sell his goods directly to travelers, decide when to book art shows, and whose lifestyle is not overly eroticized or trivialized. 

Although I did not go on a tour of the floating villages in Cambodia, I heard of a particular agency that exploited local communities. They offered rides in a motorboat between local houses on stilts. Firstly, they charge an ‘entrance fee’ in addition to the cost of the boat and guide, thereby making profit off of tourists actually watching the people of the village. This company was run by Cambodians, but not by villagers and this agency had no problem eroticizing their own culture. Because the money does not go to the people of the village, the local children are motivated to stay out of school to beg for money from the tourists. Even more sketchy are the  surprisingly expensive bags of uncooked rice one can purchase ‘for a local family.’ This type of tour does not benefit the actual people you are visiting, nor are you really visiting them as the tourists do not speak or interact with the locals. It in essence is a photo op that does not benefit those featured in the pictures.

Those from developed countries come from different backgrounds than the people they are trying to learn about. Thus they may have never lived without a refrigerator or access to modern technology and commodities, and they do not necessarily understand the difficulties that these populations face.  These developing populations do not often have a choice in their lifestyles. If someone offered a woman in Cambodia an electric stove and showed her how to use it, would she still cook over an open flame? Whereas, the traveler who bends over her, snapping pictures of her bare hands flipping food, does have a choice. They have the comforts provided by an advanced social security net and a developed economy. But there is still nostalgia for a more ‘simple’ time. Here is the deep scar left behind from colonialism trivializing some cultures and creating a hierarchy. This hierarchy still exists today, so when a tourist is viewing life in a developing nation they should be aware and considerate of history. While appreciating and learning about the culture is important, one should not romanticize the culture or forget the times of genocide, invasion, and other injustices.

Similarly, imagine visiting a Native American reservation. As you buy their goods and watch them go about their lives, are you thinking of the movies you watched growing up, where they went to battle on horses and Pocahontas sang about the colors of the wind? Or are you thinking about the genocide they experienced or the stolen land that you live and walk on everyday?

A typical household near Siem Reap, where there is no trash disposal service. It's not often you see pictures like this amid the temples, monks, and smiling children. 

A typical household near Siem Reap, where there is no trash disposal service. It's not often you see pictures like this amid the temples, monks, and smiling children. 

It’s hard to define exploitation of cultures or to create hard and fast guidelines for what is exploitative and what is not. I have not always been ethical in my travels, and still make plenty of mistakes. The key is to become aware of the choices we have abroad. When we learn about a culture and people, it should not be a manufactured experience. Here are my best tips for learning about cultures and people while minimizing their exploitation:

  • Research tourism companies, check where the profits are going, and who is in charge--with the goal of supporting companies where the profits go back into the community.
  • Try venturing outside city and tourist centers without a guide or organized tour.
  • Consider whether you are simply taking token photos and buying souvenirs to show off at home or if your actions motivated by a curiosity of the culture.
  • Have you asked for permission before taking photos? Are you actually experiencing the lifestyle or viewing it through the lens of a camera?
  • Have you considered staying in the area for an extended time?This could be through a workaway, homestay, or another way to get to know the people.

As I continue to travel, I try to consider the guidelines above and be aware of how I treat the residents of the country. As a traveler, I have the good fortune and ability to visit places unlike where I was raised. So it is important to me to try not to intrude or disrespect my hosts. Others should do the same, to create a truer understanding of our world and show appreciation for hosts who share their culture and country with us when we travel.

Keep your eyes wide, your mind open, and your suitcase packed. 

Are you traveling for the people or the places?

I realized recently that while I have been to many pretty places and seen amazing things, my life was unchanged by those sights. However, I have been affected by the people that I have met traveling. I started to wonder why this was, if others felt the same way, and how this changed the way I traveled.

Personally, I love meeting new people. I will approach a stranger if I find them interesting or need to ask for directions. To really make a friend or have an engaging conversation can be difficult and takes courage. In all honesty, not all travelers make the effort to get to know the people of a place. Especially shorter trips or vacations can mean trying to see many of the sites, without meeting the people. I believe there is no wrong way to travel, but for my own growth I often enjoy the people rather than the place. So I have changed the way I travel to fit this value. I now know that I prefer small guesthouses or cosy hostels that invite conversation rather than hotels or huge hostels. Planning less 'to do' and leaving time to simply explore and possibly speak to the strangers around me allows for a better exploration of a place. Also, I prefer slower travel for this reason, to stop and really integrate into the society and culture (although I know that this is not always possible).

Keep an eye open for Dragan's story from Montenegro as an installment in my  Putting Faces to Places  series!

Keep an eye open for Dragan's story from Montenegro as an installment in my Putting Faces to Places series!

Over this last summer I made more of an effort to meet more locals, often starting up conversations with strangers. I always have had the intention to meet people abroad, but putting myself in an unknown situation with a stranger can be uncomfortable. I understand this, but I don't think that the discomfort should be an excuse not to meet locals as well as other travelers. Personal growth happens through newness and the natural discomfort that comes with it. Thus, there can be benefits to accepting and confronting this challenge when abroad. In the same way that traveling takes us to places we have never been, interpersonal interactions with new people change us as they open our minds to unchartered territory.

Because now, when I think of my best memories from traveling or my favorite places, they are inevitably linked to my ability in those places to make a true connection with others.

I was curious to see if others traveled with an emphasis on the people in the same way that I do. So I reached out and gained some intrigued thoughts on the subject:

"I believe we are the collection of everyone we meet, and pieces of us are in pieces of others. Meeting people that we feel instantly in sync with is just us connecting to a previously unknown piece of us. Meeting more people increases our ability of knowing our 'self' more completely.” -Melody Smith of Every Country Couple

I found this idea from Melody to be beautiful and true. The people we surround ourselves with has an impact on what our values and personality is. But I also think that a large part of meeting people is that we are gaining insights that we did not previously have, thus adding to our cognizance and not just 'uncovering' it. However, the idea that we can know ourselves better through others is an interesting observation. I do think that other people can serve as a lens by which we can take a step back and examine our actions and selves from a perspective different than our own. What Melody seems to be conveying is larger than this--that meeting someone new could awaken and make aware a part of ourselves that lays dormant. This makes me think of my time in the south of France, with good people that helped me to understand how I could use my skill set and my passions to the greatest benefit. Over the dinners that we would cook together, we often discussed our futures, and my friends would probe me to examine what I really wanted and how to accomplish it. Their perspective, that of people who did not feel tied to the rat race, gave me a new and intriguing way of looking at them.

"One of the main reasons I travel is definitely to meet people. I'm always trying to see the world through a lens that isn't my own so I absolutely love meeting new people. I believe that there is always going to be something that is or someone who is new to me that I can learn from. Connecting with people during my travels allows me not only to discover new spots in a city but also to discover new life stories. We as humans are naturally social beings so I think we tend to gravitate towards being around other people. Seeing the sights, eating amazing food, visiting museums, etc. is always much more fun and engaging when you are with others! And someone is always going to want to play the role of tour guide (that's usually me!) Also, the conversations I've had with the people I've met during my travels have really shown me that there are no barriers (culture, language, beliefs, etc.) to making human connections if you stay open minded. We already all have at least one thing in common: we all live on this Earth! PS. I met an Austrian guy in Paris this past June and we've been talking everyday since! " -Genie Patra of Gallivanting Bean

Genie touches perfectly on why I decided to explore this topic in depth. With travel comes the realization the world is very big and very much unknown to us. Thus, traveling is very much a tool of learning. Also she points out that humans are drawn to other humans, and often having another person to experience a place with brings new value to what you are seeing. When I first read this, I thought that maybe it contrasted with my love of traveling alone which sometimes means that I experience a new place on my own. But I observe and meet new people when abroad, and more so if I'm traveling solo. And there are times when I go to a museum or cafe alone and enjoy my time greatly. So I think it is important to acknowledge that a balance of time between being with others or by yourself is healthy; just as it is in life at home.

"While I was traveling around Norway, I didn't visit even one of the museums in the country. I figured out that it will be lost time for me. I simply prefer to observe the life of the people and learn from them. Even not that much of communicating with the locals but just observing the life and making the connections - why they are how they are and so on... Like this, I gain enormous knowledge about the world and the people in it and become much more tolerant...Sites are beautiful and interesting to visit but they don't evoke emotions. Other people do. :) " -Gerie Vladeva of When Woman Travels

I love museums, but what Gerie is getting at is a way of traveling I often find myself falling into. I do often engage in conversations, but there will always be moments where I people watch in a park or observe locals at a hole in the wall restaurant. You can learn a lot when you stop to look, breaking down stereotypes and expectations with simple truth.

Personally, an intriguing, unusual, or beautiful site can evoke my emotions and cause me to feel differently. But, landscapes and glass museum cases have never caused me to change my course of action--the inspiring and intelligent people I have met abroad have.

Not everyone travels in the same way, but if you don’t travel for the people, I suggest you try it. It can be refreshing to hear something other than what’s in the guidebooks. My experiences abroad have been truly amazing, mainly due to the people I have met. So I challenge you next time you are in a foreign country to find a spot in a cafe or park and observe the locals and maybe even strike up a conversation.

A woman who grew up loving glass. She will be featured in the near future, so check back! 

A woman who grew up loving glass. She will be featured in the near future, so check back!