Visiting vs. Experiencing a Country

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I have a friend who always uses a travel agent to book her vacations. She wants to make sure she is staying at well-respected, well-known, usually all-inclusive hotels. She wants her excursions or tours prepaid and planned for her, and she doesn’t want the hassle of hailing a cab, riding a bus, or buying tickets for the metro or train in a foreign country.

Playa del Carmen Mexico travel
One perspective of Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Her type of travel is comfortable. Our type of travel is not.

Playa del Carmen Mexico travel
Another perspective of Playa del Carmen, Mexico

I’m not opposed to all-inclusive resorts or to travel agents, in fact for a long time I considered becoming a travel agent because I love researching and planning trips.

If you don’t travel often, visiting another country can be intimidating and the idea of going somewhere “foreign” might be stepping out of your comfort zone in and of itself. If that’s the case, a travel agent might be your best bet. But we have never used one and probably never will.

experiencing a country Playa del Carmen Mexico
Walking the streets in Playa del Carmen

I like to plan each adventure and sometimes not having a plan is just as adventurous. You see, travel isn’t just about visiting tourist sites and seeing the beautiful places of the world.

I believe travel is about seeing the world as it truly is.

That means stepping off the resort, taking a back road, getting lost in a new city, or staying at a family-owned bed and breakfast instead of the widely popular American hotel chain.

Interested in planning your own travel itinerary? Check out this step-by-step guide.

Get off the beaten path

Some of my favorite traveling experiences and the best meals were found off the beaten path.

Damon Lane traveling
My husband, Damon, lost in Florence.

A few years ago (pre-baby) my husband and I got lost in Florence, Italy, and after a couple of hours walking around, we were starving and decided to stop somewhere and eat. We sat down at this little restaurant to grab some lunch. Our waitress didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Italian, but we managed to order and even taught each other a few words in the others’ language. The food was wonderful, and the atmosphere was perfect. It was a quiet outdoor cafe on a dead end street.

Melissa Newton Smuzynski travel writer
A friendly neighborhood dog outside the restaurant in Florence, Italy

A friendly neighborhood dog sat nearby, presumably wanting scraps or scratches behind the ears. A few minutes after we got there, another couple stopped in and sat down at a table near us. We instantly knew they were American and not the kind of travelers who were looking for an off-the-beaten path experience.

After their food came out, in the most southern accent I’ve ever heard, the woman asked the waitress for some Tabasco sauce. She hadn’t even taken a bite before she was trying to doctor up the local cuisine with an American-made condiment. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a southern accent (have you heard me talk?), or Tabasco sauce (I love it) or American-made products (love those, too). But we were not in America! I just don’t think anyone should travel to another country and expect things to feel, taste or be like they are in the states. Instead, appreciate it for what it is… different. After all, isn’t that why you decided to go to another country in the first place?

Sample the food

At least sample the food the locals eat. But maybe, don’t ask what’s in it until after you try it. Especially if you ever find yourself in Scotland, and you’re tempted to order a large helping of haggis, neeps and tatties. What is that, you ask? It’s a traditional Scottish meal made from a bunch of stuff I would never dream of eating…Neeps and tatties are harmless; it’s basically Scottish-speak for turnips and potatoes… Haggis, on the other hand, might make some people immediately cringe… that is unless you routinely eat the heart, liver, lungs and stomach of a sheep. YUMMY, right?!

haggis neeps and tatties
Haggis, neeps and tatties

Actually, it wasn’t bad. It kind of tastes like meatloaf. Even after our waitress had explained what haggis were, I ordered it anyway. Maybe it was her charming Scottish accent that made everything sound better than it really is, or maybe I was feeling extra adventurous, but when in Scotland, I decided to do as the Scottish do, and ordered the weird meatloaf.

My overly wordy point is that you can visit a foreign land without ever truly experiencing a country, or you can step out of your comfort zone, immerse yourself in the culture, converse with the locals, eat the native foods, and see what life is truly like for those who live there.

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3 comments on “Visiting vs. Experiencing a Country”

Traveling to me is opening up the world so that i can experience it. My husband and I spent two weeks in Guatemala a few years ago..we got lost, we didn’t speak any spanish, we had only one reservation at a hotel the night before we left. It was wonderful!

I love that! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lost on vacation. It’s become a joke between my husband and I now. Glad you enjoyed your time in Guatemala… Language barriers and all. πŸ™‚

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