Travel can be an escape – a chance to get away from the stress of our daily lives – but it can also be much more. Travel is about exploring a destination (new or familiar), understanding and connecting with the local culture, and seeing how people in a different place live.
Movies can take us to other worlds – real or imagined, of this Earth or not. Next time you are suffering from serious wanderlust, pick up a movie set in a foreign land. Explore the sweeping grasslands of Kenya with Out of Africa, ride the back roads of South America with Che in The Motorcycle Diaries, wander the chaotic streets of Tokyo through Lost in Translation, or explore India by train on The Darjeeling Limited.
Travel is all about exploring a foreign place. For most of us, that doesn’t mean we need to venture far to discover a place that is new to us. I’ve lived in Chicago for three years, but there are still pockets of the city I’ve yet to step foot on. It’s easy to fall into a routine and only visit the same reliable places in your hometown, but this can lead to a feeling of boredom. Spice up your daily life by seeking out new places in your own city.
If you live somewhere with a good train or bus system, pick a weekend to play what I like to call “public transportation roulette.” In Chicago, I hop on one of the El lines and get off at a stop I’ve never visited before. Then I spend the afternoon checking out the area’s restaurants and shops. If your city has an ethnic enclave, like a Chinatown or Greektown, spending an evening wandering the streets there can also feel like a mini cultural journey.
Just like movies, books can take us places (see, that poster in the Library didn’t lie!). Whether you prefer to read creative nonfiction set in a specific place or places – explore the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese with J. Maarten Troust in Lost on Planet China, ride the rails through Asia with Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar, or return to the Paris of the 1920′s in Earnest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast – or to read more about the idea of wandering (try The Little Price by Antoine de Saint Exupery), books can help keep us in a traveling state of mind.
For a whirlwind tour of the world, try an anthology like the Best American Travel Writing series. Or for a mini shot of travel inspiration, I keep a copy of Make the Most of Your Time on Earth: A Rough Guide to the World on my coffee table and flip through it often.
When I start to get itchy feet but know that I don’t have a trip scheduled for a few weeks, I start renting all my favorite travel shows. I explore the world through food with Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations, or laugh along with Ian Wright and the Globe Trekker crew as I learn about destinations I plan on visiting in the future.
Food and drink
Traveling through my taste buds is one of my favorite ways to “virtually” experience a destination. In most countries I visit, I try to schedule a cooking class to learn to make at least one local dish. When I get home, I can then make that meal any time I am feeling nostalgic for the country. I can’t make fresh pasta without being transported to my honeymoon in Tuscany. Empanadas and some Malbec wine take me back to Buenos Aires, and fresh paella recalls my days in Barcelona.
Remember that episode of the Gilmore Girls when, after Rory’s big trip to Asia was cancelled, Lorelei turned the living room into a tour of the continent with food and decorations from various Asian countries? Just like that, you can host a theme night to celebrate a destination you’ve been to or are planning a trip to. Heading to Japan? Host a Japanese night, complete with sake, anime movies, sushi and geisha costumes. If you have friends of various ethnicities, take turns hosting and ask each person to tell a story about their culture’s traditions.
A large part of traveling is learning about another culture, and while nothing can really substitute for the experience of being there, a trip to a local cultural center can help you explore the history and traditions of a culture in your local area. Fore example, in Chicago, the Irish American Heritage Center hosts traditional Irish music at the onsite pub. When I sit there and drink a Guinness, I know I’m still in the US, but if I close my eyes and listen to the the proliferation of Irish accents around me, I almost feel like I’m back in Dublin.
Cultural festivals, which often feature food, music, and art from the home country, are another festive way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture.