One of the perks of studying abroad is the exposure you get to a foreign culture. By now, you’ve probably realized that there is a world of difference between the “city” culture you’re likely to encounter in the area around a university – cosmopolitan, relatively affluent, and more than a little westernized – and the more traditional way of life in the countryside and smaller cities. In many countries – Spain and Italy come to mind – cuisine can vary enormously from one region to the next, and the same dish is often prepared quite differently in neighboring towns. If you don’t take the time to explore this diversity now, you might never have the opportunity to do so again. Chances are, if you have a month or two free of classes, then you can easily spend this time traveling around the country for less than a round trip back home would cost.
Culture change may become as a shock and sometimes, homesickness kicks in, causing you to be vulnerable to look for diversions like alcohol and food addiction. When this happens, you can get self-help programs for addiction to get adjusted in your environment away from home.
Once adjusted, start exploring and enjoying your new location. Here are our tips for enjoying your new adventure:
Yes, you’re an adult and presumed to be responsible, but accidents do happen. Before departing, check that your travel insurance and any inoculations you may require are up to date. Make a photocopy of your passport and other documents, email another copy to yourself and make a paper list of important phone numbers in case you lose your belongings somehow. In this case, having a prepaid or second credit card stored somewhere other than your wallet will also be very helpful. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back – and if your schedule changes remember to tell them before they start worrying! Stick to tourist-friendly spots after dark, be wary of accepting “gifts” and don’t hand over money on the basis of promises.
Have a (Rough) Plan
Part of the charm of backpacking is that there are few schedules to keep, a dozen possible routes to choose and (ideally) all the time in the world. However, this also means that sometimes buses will surprise you by not running on Sundays, the hostel a friend stayed at once will no longer be in business and that visa rules, are not as some random website informed you they are. At times like these, it pays to be prepared with alternatives: you may not have internet access at all times, so preparing an outline list of alternative accommodation, transport and destinations may just come in handy. It’s also disappointing to arrive at someplace only to find out that all the sights and activities are priced beyond what you’re willing to pay, so a little research pays off here too.
Pack Light, then Leave Half of what You’ve Packed
Nothing spoils a trip more than exhaustion, or limited mobility for that matter. You really, really need less stuff than you think: how likely is it really that high heels will be required anywhere you’re going, or that you won’t be able to buy sunscreen when you get there? Soldiers’ backpacks are typically no more than 30kg (60lbs) in weight, so half of this will be a practical maximum for most people.
Do, however, remember to take a hat, rain poncho or similar, Immodium and ideally a lightweight, long-life meal for emergencies. Vacuum-packed tuna lies flat in your pack and can leave you feeling a lot more cheerful during a long wait. Bag everything that you don’t want to get wet, including one pair of socks.
Tipping is extremely rude in some cultures, as is pointing or yawning in others. Remember that you are a kind of ambassador for wherever you’re from, and also that there are a lot more of them than there is of you. Americans, in particular, are advised to talk to about half of their normal speaking voices, or people are likely to think that you are angry and/or mentally ill.
Backpacking in a strange land is one of the most enjoyable experiences, you can possibly have and you are likely to meet some truly interesting people along the way. In general, things turn out well or at least better than they could have, but a little forethought can save a ton of hassle when the unexpected happens.