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How to Engage and Appreciate All Places When Traveling

“Shanghai is just another city that’s exactly like every other city. All there is here is shopping,” spoke a Dutch student at a hostel in Shanghai. His compatriot, who was sitting nearby, nodded and agreed. I stumbled on my rebuttal, choked on my words, and shut up: if these two guys could not find the [...]

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“Shanghai is just another city that’s exactly like every other city. All there is here is shopping,” spoke a Dutch student at a hostel in Shanghai. His compatriot, who was sitting nearby, nodded and agreed.

I stumbled on my rebuttal, choked on my words, and shut up: if these two guys could not find the character of city as unique and distinct as Shanghai they probably were immune to such observations all together. Poor suckers.

I’ve heard this over and over again before: “Oh, Bogota/ Mexico City/ Bangkok/ Belgrade is just another city, the same as every other city” from travelers hell bent on either having a crappy time or artificially trying to separate themselves from the herd. I am unsure if the people making these statements are trying to show off their intellect, making a play to appear worldly — as though they’ve seen it all before — or if they are seriously unimpressed with what they find.

Whatever is the case, I’m not sure what the disappointed traveler expected when going abroad, but it’s certainly not the reality of the world we live in. They seem spoiled to me. And like all spoiled people they don’t really know what they have in front of them.

Too many people travel this world taking it all for granted. Travel is a privilege. I don’t mean a privilege as in something that’s only for the wealthiest or luckiest people of earth — everyone from a class A passport country has the option to travel the world if they choose — but privilege as in being able to engage a succession of places that are terminally ephemeral: what you see today as you travel will never be the same again.

The gift of travel is un-graspable: what you see, feel, think, live can never be had again, but these experiences can be assembled together into a jagged and fragmented menagerie of your impressions of planet earth. The act of travel is taking mnemonic snapshots of the various places in the world in serial succession. The art of travel is knowing how to set yourself up for these shots and then knowing what to do with them afterward.

You can’t just show up.

This is a major myth of travel: you don’t have Discovery channel experiences just by hopping off a jet and saying, “I’m here, impress me.” No, do this and you will go home empty handed. You need to dig into places, ask questions, make friends, grab places by the balls and figure out what they’re made of. This takes effort, it takes preparation, and it takes guts. Nobody is going to do it for you, experience and learning doesn’t come from flipping on a switch, clicking the “buy now” button on a webpage, or ordering from a menu.

The patterns of the world are changing fast, and the travelers who understand these changes — who know what they mean, and the effect they have — are watching a show like no other in human history. The world is calibrating before our eyes, the same technology, professions, entertainment, and lifestyles are being cultivating around a planet that has never before been so whole. Cultural elements are being blended together, the globalization paradigm is being uniquely interpreted everywhere, the foreign is being absorbed into the local, as cultures, people, places, and landscapes experience mass metamorphosis.

The same battle between the modern and the traditional, between development and preservation are being fought the world over. The countries who’ve peaked early on are now leveling off, while those who were previously lagging behind have jumped to the fore. Children are growing up into worlds vastly different than their parents, and cultures are forced to readjust, adapt, and accept that fact that the landscape is in motion. To observe this phenomenon occurring from viewing stations positioned all over the globe is to be able to begin connecting the dots and seeing a small part of the Big Picture. This is the privilege of modern travel.

The diverse landscape of Shanghai

A few decades ago China was a very poor country, now it is becoming one of the world’s richest. There is a story in this if you care to read it. Shanghai is a city of towering skyscrapers that have guys peddling poached animal hides in the street right below them. Shanghai is a city of uber-modern architecture rising up right next to centuries-old communities of winding alleys and lopsided buildings. This is a city of duality, a city at the cross roads of cultures, economics, and time. It is a city in motion. To say that Shanghai is just like every other city isn’t just incorrect, it’s an admission that you haven’t really looked at it very closely. If you don’t find places like Shanghai amazing there’s probably a better place for you: home.

It is too easy to coast through places thinking that you know all about what you see in front of you. It is easy to take a small lens of perspective and use it to see everything around you. It is difficult to question your assumptions, poke through the veneer, and see what lies on the inside of the complex realities that have enveloped the globe.

I’ve been there, I’ve coasted through places thinking I’ve seen it all before. I’ve missed many shows in my travels. Then something fortunate happened to me. In my mid-twenties I heard a professor in India say these words:

“Allow yourself to be surprised.”

These words hit me like a brick: Maybe I’m not seeing this place clearly? Maybe my things are not exactly as I think they are? Maybe my perspective has made me a frog in a well: looking up through a small tunnel thinking I’m seeing the entire planet. Maybe there’s more here than what I think?

False bearings are easy to find when floating in a foreign sea. I was constructing artificial realities in India based mainly the assumption that I’d already knew all about the forces of globalization and what they do to culture. I projected this perspective onto the scene around me and I couldn’t see beyond it. I had to cut my lines of logic and meaning and realize that I didn’t know it all. I was properly humbled, realizing how much I had to learn, and became comfortable being lost at sea — floating in questions.

I looked again at the call centers, the morphing middle class, the new social dynamics, what was going on, and I realized that she was right: India was a lot more than its history and tradition, something big was happening there as I watched and observed.

A few years ago I worked in a hotel way out in the jungle of Guatemala. There were no roads that went to this place, the only way to get there was by boat. 20 years ago this area was pretty much sealed off from the outside world, but now the floodgates have been opened a little. Next to the wooden huts that the people there have been building for centuries there are now restaurants and marinas. Kids who were raised in the jungle fishing out of hand made wooden canoes with a hook and line wrapped around an empty soda bottle were now using smart phones and moving away to the capital city. Rather than learning the jungle trades of their parents, these kids received a ledgers and letters style education delivered by an American NGO. Needless to say, this place was changing fast, and a way of life that was once the omnipresent norm has now something defined as “traditional.” The traditional is always in opposition to the modern, and this dichotomy defines the transitional era we now live in.

This place in the jungle was fascinating, but the backpackers and tourists who went there truly didn’t give a shit. The Maya ladies in the flowery dresses were just the people who cooked them food, the river was just a fun place to kayak, the jungle just a place to go hiking, and the villagers were something they labeled as “poor.” It was incredibly rare for anyone to ask any questions, though there was plenty all around that none of us understood. In point, there was a show taking place there that very few travelers cared enough to tune in to — and I found this to be startling.

How to more deeply engage places when traveling?

I understand that the majority of travelers are looking for something very different than myself, and this is alright. But if you are driven to use travel as a means of self-education rather than just a recreation binge, then here is way to do so.

Gain background knowledge

This is probably the most important thing to do while traveling: learn about the places you’re going to. Just walking around a place collecting observations without any background information is a good way to draw off-base conclusions or miss the little things that would otherwise tell a story. Again, false bearings are easy to find when floating in a foreign sea.

Gaining background information about a place is easy: read the enthnologies, the news, the history, travelogues, stories etc . . . of the places you plan to visit. Use this knowledge to guide your travels and direct your questions. Know what you’re looking at. If you don’t, then figure it out. The more you know about a place the better you can connect its dots. But be prepared to compare what you read against what you observe and experience.

Learn Language

It is amazing how many people try traveling in countries long term who can’t say anything in the local language. While I know that learning the language of every place you go to is not possible, learning basics is rather easy an doesn’t take much time. While it’s certainly possible to travel as a deaf mute, I have no idea why anyone would want to. Simply being able to ask, “What is this?” or “Why are you doing that?” or “Can I come too?” is enough to have the doors opened up unto another world. If you can’t verbally communicate at all with the people who live where you travel you will always be shut out of the show.

(Find out what the 11 most important things to be able to say in a foreign language are.)

Knowing what to look for

To put it simply, look at the places you’re traveling through. I mean, really look at where you are. Try to get invited into houses, look into purses, see what people are buying in the grocery store, watch how the community interacts with itself, find out about the public meeting places and go to them, be on the lookout for your peer group and introduce yourself, find the pulse of the place your walking through and track it back to its source.

Study the place that’s in front of you no matter how banal, normal, or boring it may appear. Don’t just turn a place off because it appears “modern,” or “Western,” don’t shut down your observational faculties just because a place seems run of the mill, podunk, or run down. Rather, engage these places, observe how they come together, and how they function. Make friends and open doors. You’ve put yourself in front of the stage, so you may as well watch the show.

Be curious

Curiosity fuels travel, so keep your tank full. Treat each opportunity as a provocation to see more. Ask yourself questions about what’s around the next corner, in the next room, in the next town and go seek the answers.

Shed unrealistic expectations

Look for what is there, not what you hope is there, and revel in it. Do this no matter if you’re in an indigenous village, a big city, a tourist trap, some backwater highway town, a place that does not live up to its hype, or the most beautiful place on earth. Readjust your mindset to be happy with what you get — because it’s all a part of the same incredible planet.

Allow yourself to be surprised.

Moving forward

Travel is about appreciating the landscape, the people, and the places you’re able to observe and experience. Each locations is a one off opportunity to take a mnemonic snapshot of a certain place at a certain point in time. Each impression, observation, or experience is a small piece of the colossal global puzzle. Go after these pieces like a brat child on an ice cream and hoard them for life.

All places can be engaged, and all places can arouse intrigue. While I may not like or purely enjoy all the places I travel through, such value judgement are often rendered impertinent when weighed against how interesting each location on the map proves to be. Like or dislike are often irrelevant in travel, it’s what you learn and observe along the way that’s important. It is my impression that all places on this earth have a lesson to teach and a story to share, the trick is learning how to listen.

There is no such thing as a city exactly like every other city.


Filed under: Adventure, Articles, Perpetual Travel, Travel Philosophy, Travel Preparation, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

5 comments… add one

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  • Bob L November 30, 2012, 4:40 pm

    Wade, I think you have hit on a subject that would make a great book.

    Count me in as one of those people that see all Cities as more or less the same, at least for a short visit. I have not been to Shanghai, but I bet if I only spent a portion of a week there I would leave with the same conclusion: Too many people, too many buildings, too much noise, too many lights, etc. Now, if I was forced to spend weeks there, my views would probably change, but since I don’t like lots of people, buildings etc, I suspect I would not think highly of it. I have never met a city that I liked. Large towns? That is a different story. Certain areas of some cities? Sure. Just as I would not expect a person who was raised in, and loves, New York City to care much for my little town if spending a just few days here, I don’t think I should be expected to care much for New York City (another PIT if you ask me). Although I have to say, if I had a decent chunk of money, I would not mind spending a few months there. A few days? No thanks. For short trips, all cities are the same to me. Make that BIG cities.

    This article WILL however, make me try to engage a bit more in cities WHEN I cannot avoid them. “Allow yourself to be surprised.” That is a great motto for life. I will need to concentrate more on it as I have drifted away from that and don’t let much surprise me these days….. but I like this even more: “Readjust your mindset to be happy with what you get.” That, I think is something I have striven for in the past, but unfortunately of late I have slid into the “be OK with what you get” Gotta get back that “happy”. Maybe a bit more searching for new things to be happy about?

    Maybe you could start up a new business as a Psychological Therapist.

    “Have you forgotten how to be happy? Are you bored with even the most amazing places? Do you want to see the world with the amazement of a child again? Call Wade at ###-####. He will help you be surprised!!!!”

    Heck, I’ll sign up.

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    • Wade Shepard December 21, 2012, 1:52 am

      I should really hire you to be my publicist haha. That’s an excellent ad there.

      It’s a funny thing about cities. They are really horrible places for the human animal but they’re just so incredibly interesting and stimulating. It’s like watching people isolated in a zoo. The layers of the human experience don’t get any thicker than when in the belly of a packed metropolis. But I guess it takes a reasonable amount of background knowledge about places like this to really appreciate them. A quick in and out jaunt can’t really do it, I suppose.

      If I focused alone on my own feelings/ homeostatic responses I would probably hate cities as well. In fact, I use to. But somewhere along the line I think I realized that I prefer the pursuit of the interesting over the pursuit of comfort. It’s sort of strange. Maybe it’s a defensive psychological response to putting myself in so many uncomfortable situations over a long period of time? Or maybe it’s the feeling of having “a job to do,” that keeps the wheels turning enough to ignore thoughts like, “Man, this place sucks.” Whatever is the case I’ve become a stimulation junkie so to speak, and it’s hard to get a fix when in a nice beautiful place with nothing to do but relax and watch the waves lap against the beach.

      I’ve been to paradise, it’s a pretty boring place 🙂

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  • Jack December 1, 2012, 5:17 am

    Another great article, Wade. I wish I could get out more than I do and see more the things around. The more I see, the more I desire to see more. I wish I had your knack.

    In my travels, I often look for similarities between the good places I have been before on an abstract level. As I look for similarities, I find the differences, but I also look more and more to find the similarities. They both surprise me and amaze me as I find them.

    I’d only add one thing to this article(I think it might already said or implied in the article though) and that is to take a healthy dose of skepticism with you when you travel. Not everything that you think you see is what you really see and skepticism can lead to questions and questions can lead to new answers.

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    • Wade Shepard December 21, 2012, 1:23 am

      For sure, skepticism in essential. The value of it can be found while listening to many conversations in place where backpackers hang out — like hostels. It’s amazing what comes out when someone applies their preconceived notions of a place upon it when they’re there. It’s funny to listen to people who show up in China and thing they have the country down pact. Knowing that you don’t know anything about what you’re looking is the key to truly learning about it. This is probably why I enjoy the blogging medium so much, as it’s perfectly suited for travel because it’s meant to show learning in progress rather than ever presented a complete product.

      Right on here, self-skepticism is one of the rarest quality that I’ve found in people and probably one of the most valuable. It’s truly hard to acquire though.

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  • John Wasteneys December 2, 2012, 10:34 am

    I couldn’t help but feel like this hit a bit of a inner place. I wonder, what would I do with myself- if i knew more language. But thats just an excuse….

    If I took more chances…..

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