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April 11, 2012

Embracing and settling into new places

Before I left for my first trip, I often would imagine that moment when I arrived in my first destination, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. What would I actually do? How, exactly, do I do this traveling thing I’ve been reading so much about?

I just imagined myself standing there, feeling lost.

Taking a free or low-cost walking tour can be a great way to get acquainted with a new city.

I’d read this post, Surving your first 24 hours abroad, and planned to keep these suggestions – such as going for a walk, meeting people through Couchsurfing and exercising – in mind.

It turned out I didn’t really need these tips at my first destination because I quickly met people and was off exploring, but they have come in handy as I’ve traveled to about a half dozen more places in the past two months. I’ve found that sometimes when I arrive somewhere new, I am excited and ready to explore, but other times, I go through an odd transition phase of culture shock and simply not quite liking the place. Plus, I’m often tired from traveling and not in the mood to explore.

I imagine these are common concerns and feelings for first-time travelers like me, so I will share the few additional tactics I’ve come up with as I learn to embrace and settle into new places:

Go for a walk. This sounds so obvious, but it’s true. I don’t think there’s a better way to get comfortable with a place than to simply walk and look around, sans agenda.

You can also check if there are any free or low-cost walking tours offered. I typically wouldn’t recommend such a “touristy” thing, but I actually just went on a free walking tour in Santiago, Chile, and was surprised at how much it inspired me to keep exploring. I gained so many insights from the tour guide – a local – about places to go and things to eat and drink that I never would have found in a guide book. Hearing the historical background on the city’s main sites from the perspective of a local also brought them to life and gave me a much deeper appreciation and interest in them. Plus, the tour gave me a general sense of direction in the city so I now can comfortably find my way around.

Talk to a local. Getting the perspectives and tips from a local can’t be beat. You can start by talking to the people who work at your hostel – they are typically interested in helping and in sharing their love for their city – or, if you know the language and feel comfortable, simply ask someone you see in the park what they would recommend you do.

Couchsurfing now provides an option to meet locals or other travelers for coffee or exploring, as well. I have not yet done this but plan to in the coming weeks and will report back. Thus far in my travels, I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews about Couchsurfing. Sounds like the perfect way to get a local perspective on a place.

Sit in the park and people watch. It’s amazing how much central parks in foreign countries can tell you about the place. You can often find people playing music, making art, protesting or spreading their beliefs, eating local food or simply playing with their kids. It’s a great way to see a variety of aspects of the city all in one place.

Allow yourself to rest. When I first arrived in Santiago after a full day of flying and sitting in airports, I was booked to stay at a busy backpacker hostel. I knew there would be no way I’d be ready to socialize and go out and explore, so I cancelled that reservation and booked at a more quiet hostel – allowing myself a day of rest before getting caught up in traveling.

As a new traveler, it took me several weeks to accept this as part of traveling. We need to rest in order to keep our mind open and ready to explore. After all, an open mind is all you really need to get yourself going in a new place.

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5 Responses to “Embracing and settling into new places”

  1. Rolf Potts Says:

    I’m a big fan of the “go for a walk” strategy — and I find that (literally) getting lost for awhile in a new place is the best way to get a sense for it at an instinctive level.

    @DEK: I’ve felt arrival-remorse before! I’ve also felt a kind of arrival-euphoria, which is more fun, but at times just as unrealistic. A good walk usually gets me past those initial feelings and into the reality of the place.

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