About Growth: 37 Signs You Became a Cultural Traveler

The Gandhi Ashram, in Ahmedabad, in the Summer of 2014
The Gandhi Ashram, in Ahmedabad, in the Summer of 2014

I turned 37 last Monday. Thirty-seven. The idea of being forty in three years could have made me rush to my notebook and start to scribble my bucket list of things to do before I reach that proverbial age, but it didn’t. I have no idea what’s so proverbial about forty, actually, but people seem to worry about it frequently. I seem to be closer and closer to finding inner peace, and for me, that is a major accomplishment.

Right now I’m killing time before hopping on the plane to London later in the evening. The past couple of years has been, mostly, about one-way tickets (or, more accurately, about not feeling the need of buying the return ticket immediately). But contrary to what people think, it’s not because I don’t want to come back; it’s because I don’t know when I want to come back (although I don’t see myself as a nomad either). My grandmother used to say that nothing is permanent and it used to freak me out. I somehow interpreted it as never having stability in my life, and not having balance made me anxious. I know now, twenty years past the time she said it, that stability is what you make of it. I reached that level when I decided I wanted to call my own shots.

“Nothing is permanent.” My best friend told me the same thing when I told her I was moving again. I look back at 37 years of traveling (Yep. I’ve been traveling since I was born.) and there are, at least, five different versions of me: the kid excited to be on a plane; the grumpy teenager who hoped she’d be traveling the world without her parents soon; the twenty-something/sort-of-backpacker who may or may not have made a fool of herself in a couple of trips; the all-inclusive-resort-too-tired-to-plan-anything-else; the wannabe independent traveler (who really had no idea what she was doing). Today I enjoy slow cultural travel, and I don’t even know if I’m doing it the right way. But that’s my thing now: slowly paced cultural travel. If you have any (or all) of the following signs, we have so much to talk about when we meet in person! Or maybe these 37 signs are all me, and you got to know me a little bit better.

#1 You’ve always felt like there’s more to travel than just booking a ticket, pack your bags and go (and I’m not talking about visas and stuff like that)

#2 You read non-travel books about your dream destination before anything else

#3 Your dream destination is anywhere in the world, as long as you have something awesome to discover (who cares if it’s not on the “hot list” for the year, have you heard about their food festival?)

#4 There’s a chance tourist resorts are not part of your dream destination list (anymore)

#5 You’re sad you won’t be able to see and explore every single culture, but you’re OK with that because you know they keep evolving and you wouldn’t be able to keep track anyway

#6 You believe that even the most remote of places has a story to tell, even if there’s no one around to talk to you

#7 Your experience starts long before you travel, with your research (and daydreaming)

#8 You research because you want to know what to look for (and maybe who to talk to and what not to do), not to pretend you’re “one of them.”

#9 You know damn well that full cultural immersion is utter BS (and a myth perpetuated by tour companies and gullible bloggers)

#10 You’re OK with being a visitor because in a foreign land that’s what you are whatever others call it (traveler, tourist, foreigner…)

#11 You know that the locals are fine with visitors not “immersing” themselves in their culture (they will probably want to swap life stories with you and compare social habits more than anything else)

#12 … but you know that doesn’t mean you have permission to disrespect their habits and beliefs

#13 You stopped believing anything sold as “very typical” for a long time, and you’ve developed a sixth sense for the so-called “tourist traps” (because you’ve stepped into a few over the years)

#14 You know by now there’s no such thing as “tourist-y” and “not tourist-y” sights (would you really go to Egypt for the first time and NOT visit the pyramids? Really?)

#15 You travel for yourself in the sense that the experience will forever shape you (not in the sense of saving up a dollar by choosing the cheapest destination out there)

#16 Probably the only thing you budget for is accommodation and maybe how to get there…

#17 … because you have this crazy idea that the price tag on some experiences is irrelevant (it’s all about the value)

#18 You find it’s awkward that some people discuss attending a funeral as part of their list of “things they did on” (was it part of a package?)

#19 … However, you’d be fascinated and forever humbled if someone invited you to such an intimate ceremony (there is something very revealing about the way people traditionally treat their deceased)

#20 You don’t want to read about the things you should see in one destination; you want to read about why you should see them

#21 You probably have a strong set of beliefs and values, but you always try to understand the other’s point of view…

#22 … unless it involves a basic human rights or animal rights violation, cruelty or violence (there’s no way you’ll look at another human being or an animal suffering and excuse it under the notion of “cultural”)

#23 You would often like to warn a fellow tourist that “that’s not typical, you’re being ripped off”…

#24 … but you know that if you did, there would be a chance you’d be called a “travel snob”, because who do you think you are and what do you really know (and, in the end, doesn’t everybody deserve the travel experience they paid for…?)

#25 You are fascinated by the fact that some customs know no borders, and you find more similarities than differences between different cultures

#26 You believe art is a strong and universal form of communication…

#27 … but you are also aware that your preconceived notions can take over, and it can lead to misinterpretation (even by the most enlightened, knowledgeable, educated people)

#28 You’re a bona fide geek, the kind that likes to know the underlying story of local sayings (and find equivalents in your native tongue)

#29 You understand that cultures influence one another (for the better and the worst) and you now accept that (but every fiber of your being still wishes it wasn’t so)

#30 You have mixed feelings about a world that is constantly connected (you want to know more about remote places, but you want to keep them a secret too)

#31 Yes, having lots of stamps on your passport is cool, but you know what’s even cooler than that? That day you went to the cinema, and the movie was dubbed, not subtitled. How cool is that story? (Are people around you rolling their eyes right now? Let them be.)

#32 It bothers you when tourism companies sell a destination for their “affordability” as opposed to their cultural History and diversity

#33 You will never desecrate a heritage site

#34 You will never think your cultural values are above everyone else’s (although if you’re white and European, like me, it will involve demystifying one thing or two about yourself and it usually means proving you are different from your ancestors… Surprisingly, this can happen anywhere in the world, even within Europe; Southern Europeans are often seen as lazy, corrupt, and always looking for the easiest way out.)

#35 You used to think that cultural travel was a thing for old people or stuck-ups, because really who else travels to places and goes head over heels about local festivals (and here you are now, sharing photos of your time at that local Independent Film Festival)

#36 “One-size-fits-all” tour packages are not really your thing, but you don’t dismiss the idea of going on a tour entirely (not anymore)

#37 You know what others think of you and your travel style and you really stopped trying to explain: if you’re a millennial, then you must be a hipster; if you’re a Generation X gal/guy, then you’re a wannabe snob; if you’re kind of stuck in the middle (like me), hell you’re a wannabe, period!

Does any of these 37 signs resonate with you? What would you add or what would you strike out?


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