Yoga and it’s relation to meditation and the power of home-made food / Travel Insights Series #3

This is part 3 of my reflection series on the travel insights I had during my 14 month trip through South-America and how I am applying them being back in ‘normal life’. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

The second place I went on to volunteer at was another farm in Brazil close to Sao Paulo. This farm, however, was focusing on using their vast space to host events rather than focus on agriculture (they had some staff for it, but kept it on a minuscule scale). The dwellings belonging to the farm were beautifully restored. Scattered all around the property, they included a swimming pool, a bar, and a chapel that hosted weddings. Our task as volunteers was to help with housekeeping and running the events – catering, ticketing, setting spaces

Due to the variety of our assignments, we had no fixed schedule, which made it difficult to be ‘off’ work, never knowing when you’d be expected to help again. We were in a rather remote area as well with nowhere to go. A fantastic plus was having a restaurant-sized kitchen at our disposal to e.g., make yogurt, etc. (see more below). I spent a good two weeks at this farm, leaving all together with some new friends I had made and others who I am still in touch with to this day.

Again, I will show you a part of my post and then write my reflection and how I am taking this into my current life.

Left farm no. 2. It’s been a place full of new experiences and challenges of adapting to an ever-changing schedule and environment. Yet I’ve shared it with great people in our small green volunteer house, which quickly became home 🙂 and which I will miss ❤️

I learnt how to make yogurt and cheese (and vegan ice cream out of bananas ❤️), indulged in popcorn over movie nights, shared many fun conversations and connected with people. It’s awesome what each of us can contribute to a community of travelers: recipes and homemade food, haircuts, embroidery, handmade bracelets, songs, guitar play, life stories,…

So many ‘product’ can be made from scratch, for example yogurt, bread, cheese…! I wish we would still learn more about this. However, being in a country such as Germany where a lot more products are available at a low price, I understand why people wouldn’t spend their time making things from scratch all the time. I remember making natural yogurt in Brazil and Peru because unsweetened yogurt was hard to come by and expensive. Here in Germany, you can buy organic yogurt for a little over one dollar for 500 grams, so no, I do not have to make it myself anymore….

It isn’t only about the price either. There is a lot of satisfaction in creating a meal or food in general. You can see the result immediately, instead of having to wait for a while, which is the case in most scenarios in life. I have met people who loved kneading bread dough, or who could spend hours on some peculiar task such as decorating a cake. Call it meditative creation 😉

I had the chance to practice my Portuguese at the farm’s festival, selling coupons as the cashier and making drinks at the bar – finally putting into practice what I’ve been working on over the past months! Shows again that the best way to learn a language is by simply speaking with whatever you have!

I experienced beautiful and experimental concerts – small artists who are given space to express themselves in beautiful surroundings.

It shows that a remote place doesn’t have to be lonely or boring – get a few people together, and the whole place will change its atmosphere.

This place also taught me that it isn’t necessarily about being in a ‘vibrant area,’ but that people can enrich your life – you don’t need a buzzing concert to create a great atmosphere. Everywhere in the world, you will be able to find people that you will connect to, as long as you stay open for new experiences. Everyone you meet can teach you something, and has a story to share as long as you create a space that is conducive to do so! I am feeling grateful to have read this old post of mine, as I started thinking in a very narrow mindset once back in Germany, thinking I would have a hard time meeting people who I would be able to connect with (and of course and thank God I was wrong in that).

I learned how yoga is not only exercise but how it can deeply connect you with yourself and be a way of meditation in itself.

Over the last months, I haven’t been practicing yoga as much as I thought I would. I have focused on some higher intensity home workouts as I felt that was more beneficial to me during the winter with me not being active outside much. However, I have found my meditation practice to increase whenever my yoga practice decreases, as if one is trying to make up for the lack of the other. I definitely see the connection that the two have. Yoga is much more than exercise and has so many more facets to it than is known to most people. I feel as if I’ve only dipped my toe into the beginning of this vast ocean an hope that I will continue to explore it!

I learned how feeling into an uncomfortable feeling instead of trying to suppress it through food/drinks/distraction will help make it ease away.

Feeling into uncomfortable feelings instead of suppressing them with food – well, this one is one that I am totally aware of and still majorly struggle with!

Food seems like a lazy way to ease a bad feeling. It’s like knowing you should make a salad or a wholesome meal, but you reach for some processed snack instead, just for the ease of it…. I have found moments in these past weeks where I found myself reaching for food because I was upset/bored etc. first questioned myself in WHY I really wanted to make that feeling go away. Sitting with it for a while, noticing it, feeling into it, is not exactly bliss but it eventually eases and that’s when you start feeling more whole again (and proud of yourself for going through the struggle). Most people I know struggle with meditation and I thoroughly think that the struggle is the moment that we can learn from as long as we’re willing to go through it.

I learned how challenging yet necessary it is for me to set boundaries (in this case, about my own time and work vs. being available all the time).

This place for me was one that taught me that disorganization could cost you so much time, even when you have quite some at hand.

I often think about how to maximize what I get out of my time. Sometimes you waste time by being disorganized, misplacing things, starting one task without finishing it, jumping over to the next. I also get reminded that when you have a job that is not 9-5 but in which you are expected to be available outside of that timeframe in case necessary, you need to make sure to set your own boundaries: replying to emails at times that you don’t think are interfering with your own private time, i.e., not during weekends or late at night. By setting your own boundaries, you are protecting yourself from being ‘always on call.’

And my stay reminded me again and again how age is just a number and how it differs from the age we actually radiate! You can learn so much from people younger and older than you, and it is great to see that the older you get, the younger your soul can seem. ☀️

Again, I knew this, and I encourage other people to try it! I have fantastic friends that are twice my age and friends that are over a decade younger than me. I have learned from both sides and seen a maturity in certain aspects well beyond the years in my younger friends and a sort of ‘playfulness’ in people you’d think of as much more serious!

One of my friends once gave me the quote’ strangers are simply friends you haven’t met yet,’ and from my own good experience, I often think back of this quote fondly!

On a practical note….
I experienced that electricity is not a given and how to adapt to a day or night without it. Internet at home can be such a luxury (every time it rained, our internet at home went off – so quite often :P).

I’m constantly on the verge of hating how connected we are thanks to the internet and at the same time deeply grateful for it. Another point I’m trying to figure out how to handle it within life. These days I think the benefits of a good internet connection are again even more highlighted than at other times.

However, I am feeling the danger of always updating the news, which is seemingly changing every couple of hours. There is, even more, a need now to use the internet responsibly.

I also experienced how nature can turn a tiny creek at the back of our house into a raging stream after just a couple of hours of rain 😛
Arriving in a city after three weeks on the farm was surprisingly disappointing. Nothing I had missed, not even the coffee shops. All I wanted to see was some green nature…
Quickly found the next remote place ….update soon. Hint: I’m finally at the beach 😉

And this is what the post will be about – volunteering in a different setting.

The last point again is one that made me most happy to have experienced. I’m even less materialistic than before my trip and am finding less and less value in the convenience and consumerism of larger cities.

The simple farm life / Travel Insights Series #2

Here comes part 2 of my blog series about reflecting on my travel insights from my 14 months in South-America. If you’re curious about part 1, jump here: Accepting myself without make-up.

This week’s reflective post talks about my first experience of working as a volunteer on a farm in Brazil. The farm was a recently created small area by a local who had traveled the world for several years before deciding to take over his ancestor’s land. He had created a space for people to practice meditation and yoga, set up a cafe with live-concerts and a mandala garden for people to handpick vegetables of their choice. I spent about 2 weeks there. The farm was located along a dirt road and we were not able to go anywhere. Food was purchased in town twice a week but we mostly ate what we were able to harvest. It was a very simple and no-frills place filled with people who put their hearts into this kind of work and worked on the mindset of living a simple lifestyle.

I’m going to comment below each of the ‘bullet points’ I had written regarding this place.

Leaving the first farm…

Some reflections on what I experienced and learnt.

Most of them are things I knew but you get new awareness about them when you’re exposed to these situations first-hand:

1. Farming is really hard work and I have lots of respect for people who choose this as a profession. It’s so easy to just grab veggies from a tray at the store. But if you have to grow them from a seed to a seedling to a fully grown plant (and harvest when you need food to cook with) you realize how much work is behind this and how much we take a large choice and beautiful veggies for granted (and how we complain when things aren’t available/look beautiful/change in price due to bad weather/harvest)

This had been my first farm-stay during this trip. I had experienced some in Japan a few years before, so it didn’t feel like a completely new territory. 

It did, however, bring a fresh wave of awareness regarding food production for me. I was reminded that our perfect-looking food often means that it is ‘modified’ or ‘adjusted’ in a way that makes us consumers buy it. The food that we are buying in the supermarket often isn’t 100% natural, even though we might look at a salad and picture it coming right from a small farm’s field, that’s being farmed by hand.

It also sparked the wish for me to have my own place at one point, where I can grow fruit and veggies. I’m still more than far from that, but looking at farmland now, makes me wish that I could just knock on the door and help out for a few hours, digging in the dirt, turning beds, planting seeds, harvesting and feeling that close connection with the land…

2. Living with little can be as rewarding as living in an overflow. You work with what you have and can be totally satisfied with it. This refers to food for example: my cravings for sweets and snacks almost completely vanished as they simply weren’t available or had to be made from scratch. And the little snacks I brought with me became a real treasure ❤️ you definitely appreciate what you have a lot more! (And someone baking a chocolate cake can make your week!)

Well…. Back in Germany, I am totally enjoying eating all the good chocolate that can be bought here (It is chocolate heaven in the supermarket!).

The living with little still applies to my life though. I moved to a new city on the train with a small suitcase and my backpack and have hardly increased my possessions – and thanks to Corona, I’m not tempted much anyway. Joke aside, I don’t think it will change my shopping habits as I have tried to reuse as much as possible, even things I bought 10 years ago for my first flat in the Netherlands and that I’ve kept since then!

3. I tackled my fear of cooking for other people (especially a group of people). I love cooking but mainly for myself (I can take my own judgment about my food :P). At the farm I had to cook for the volunteers sometimes and it was excruciatingly difficult for me in the beginning. I wasn’t familiar with some spices and the limited selection of ingredients that I would have usually used. However, something in my attitude and mindset shifted and after a while, I just didn’t think about my fear anymore but just went on with the cooking! (still don’t think I’m the greatest at cooking but at least I can feed hungry mouths ;)).

This was one aspect I had worked on during the year.  I am quite an introvert and like living by myself. I love cooking but I am not used to cooking for other people much. When I cook for myself and don’t like it, then I just have to take it the way it is. I remember growing up surrounded by people who feared other people’s judgment about their cooking very much. It was always seen as a scary thing to do, almost being sure the other people wouldn’t like it. 

I’m aware that this aspect stands for a much bigger issue – the fear of criticism and of being rejected for the way one is. Again, this is probably something most people struggle with and it might express it for me in my fear of cooking for others. As always, confronting the fear helps and realizing that if being judged, that it would be the meal that would be subject of the criticism and not your own person directly.

4. The biggest obstacle in life is yourself. You’re able to make yourself feel the worst and the best at the same time, depending on your attitude. And yes, that’s a lot easier said than done and a real skill to (continuously) work on in life 😉
Now off to the next farm and new experiences!

Hm, wise-me. I don’t think I can add much more to this other than that I’m hyper-aware of this every single day. I have to watch out, to not beat myself up too much and show compassion towards my own ‘flaws’ and I hope so do all of you. ❤

Back next week! Stay safe, healthy and sane everyone!

Accepting myself without make-up/ Travel Insights Series #1

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am taking the time to go through my old reflections that I had during my trip. They are from my private Facebook or my journal.

Part one will be my reflection on not wearing make-up anymore. I stopped with it about 1.5 weeks into my trip. I had started in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and then moved on to volunteer on a farm.

Below is my old post, followed by my reflection.

Even though I’m not really into make-up, there’s this certain ‘touch-up’ in the morning, just like brushing my hair.

Working on a farm and being covered in mud and dirt daily made it pretty unnecessary 😛

So the first morning when I walked around without make-up, I felt really self-conscious about what my face looked like. It’s so rare for me to be around other people without make-up. I didn’t really like what I saw in the mirror. I thought I looked bland and not pretty.

Almost three weeks later I looked into the mirror this morning and suddenly felt satisfied and happy with what I saw.

I got used to seeing me this way day after day. And I started feeling more confident. So here’s a rare (make-up free) selfie just because I felt like sharing! *(edit: I am going to leave out the picture for now..)

Will I stop wearing make-up? No, because I enjoy its look for certain occasions 🙂

Do I think it’s awesome to be ready so much for faster in the morning? Totally 😀

What did I learn: besides accepting myself for what I look like one other important thing:

You can learn to like your look by repeatedly ‘confronting’ yourself with it (look into the mirror). It’s like creating a new habit: at first it feels forced and uncomfortable but over time, it will start becoming natural. ❤️

Reflecting on this status, I can say that I have not worn any make-up since October 2018 and almost forgotten what it feels like applying it every day.

I noticed coming back that in our everyday life, I was coming across a lot more people wearing make-up. When backpacking, many people will eventually ditch their make-up because there is little reason to apply it when you’re at the beach, hiking or turning beds.

In ‘normal life’ I became a little more self-aware of people’s faces and their make-up. I still think that it can look really pretty on people, I definitely understand why people wear it!! And for a minute I thought about going back to my old me, who wouldn’t leave the house without my regular make-up. And then I felt that I wanted to see how I’d feel if I continued the way I had been doing it for the past year.

Every time I met a friend I thought someone would comment on it. Nobody did. Admittedly, I had never worn heavy make-up, so it might not have been that noticeable.

The most challenging time was when I went to job interviews. I actually thought it might be something of a prerequisite to apply make-up, just like the fact that you’re supposed to wear a suit to certain companies to be ‘well-groomed’.

So I was incredibly nervous when I went to job interviews, feeling self-conscious and expecting to be judged. 

Nevertheless, I didn’t feel any different reaction from other people in that setting despite not having applied any make-up except for some concealer to hide a bad night’s sleep due to nervousness 😉

The one time, I still feel self-conscious these days is when I am displayed on video-chat. In a way, I can see why people put a lot of make-up when on camera – it does highlight your facial features and make your face look more engaging. Having said that, I do believe that it is another aspect to get used to and I’m still at the beginning stage of this path of acceptance. 

And this is another reason, why I am sharing this post today: 

Just like the last sentence of my reflection as well as my Facebook post, I have a feeling many of us are (forcibly) creating new habits and routines these days. And many of us will struggle and dislike them. I am hoping though over time, these habits will settle and you will feel less resistance and more acceptance. And when the time comes, maybe the reverse effect will happen, and you’ll go through a reverse ‘habit shock’. Change takes time to get used to, but it’s worth hanging in there!

Questions you should ask before doing a cultural work-exchange

I love ‘volunteering’ or rather work exchange, meaning you work for free food and accomodation in a foreign country. I think it’s an amazing experience and it has taken me all around the globe. It’s a great way to learn more about the local culture and stay in an area that no tourist would usually set foot in as well as saving some (or a lot) of money, making it easier on your travel budget.

So far, I have used wwoofing and workaway, the latter being my preferred volunteer/work exchange website.

In case you want to know how these organizations work more specifically check out my post – workaway – more than just working for free food and accommodation.

Speaking from experience I wanted to list some questions, that I am trying to get answers to before agreeing to stay as a volunteer. These are questions that apply to most workaways and people. Some might be obvious but others might sound like a given to you but not necessarily be the case.
Many of the following should be answered on the profile but if not, you might want to double-check.

These are questions I would ask in case they were not answered on the profile of the host.

  1. How many hours do you work per day?

  2. Do you work on weekends? /When are days off?
    VERY IMPORTANT! You’re not automatically guaranteed to have Saturday and Sunday off and if you might not get food –> see Q4

  3. What kind of work do you do?
    This should definitely be on the profile, but sometimes this might be vague. There are many places with a lot of everyday tasks, e.g. cleaning and gardening but you could check beforehand. Often the host will see with you what you’re good at doing and what needs to be done at this certain time of the year

  4. Are all meals provided? Is food provided on days off?
    optional: Do you get meals cooked or do you need to cook yourself? (This is something that might not be the most important thing to know right away but it gives you an idea about the level of interaction with the host, i.e. dinners with the family or by yourself/with other workawayers

  5. What kind of diet do you eat?
    in case that is important to you – it’s really important to let your host know beforehand if you follow a specific diet. Some places have a rather limited variety of foods and you might not be able to eat according to your needs

  6. Is there the possibility to purchase things within walking distance?
    Ask whether e there things that are hard to come by in the area and need to be bought beforehand (I’m thinking of rural places that might just have minimarkets with very basic ingredients, so if you have specific products you use/eat you should think of that beforehand

  7. Are there ways to leave the place by yourself or do you need to rely on your host to take you around?
    i.e. you might be staying on a farm without any public transportation

  8. Are there other volunteers ?
    That will give you an idea about how many people you might share a room with and how ‘social/communal it will be.

  9. What kind of weather can you expect, i.e. what kind of clothes should you bring?
    I’m talking rain jackets, boots, gloves, etc. that you wouldn’t automatically pack for a trip. Do you need specific work clothes? Are there clothes left by previous volunteers? (often there are and you can use them for work)

  10. Is there a washing machine that you can use or do you have to wash by hand (a common practice in many places I’ve come across in South-America)? note: sometimes you might have to pay to use the washing machine or bring your own laundry powder, this should usually be stated on the profile of the host though

  11. Is there hot water (NOT a given)?

  12. What about the internet?
    Is the internet reliable? Is it good enough for a Skype call? Are you allowed to use it for that? (VERY IMPORTANT if you work online). extra question: is there a workspace (I’ve unfortunately been at places where this was not the case. There was no proper table and chair where we had an internet connection)

  13. In case you’re allergic to certain animals or afraid of them: What kind of animals do you have?

One final remark: Some host charge a fee to cover the costs of food. This absolutely has to be stated, but I wanted to point this out so that you are checking profiles carefully enough so that you can budget accordingly.

One final piece of advice: Sometimes things can sound as if they’re different from how you had imagined your workaway to be. I would always allow some room for flexibility as the reality is mostly still different from what you imagined it to be, no matter how many questions you asked. After arriving you might find some things that you don’t automatically like. Give it a day or two to see whether you can live with it. There might be other things that totally make up for it, especially the atmosphere or the other workawayers. Those are factors that are hard to describe beforehand and are often a crucial point whether one enjoys the volunteering or not.

Volunteering can show you sides of yourself that you didn’t know before. You will grow in character and learn useful hands-on skills you might never have thought of (such as how to cook rice properly at altitude ;))

The more open you are, the more positive aspects you can draw of such an experience. In the end, you are choosing to be at this place and it stays your choice to be there as long as you do. With this kind of volunteering, even if you agreed to a certain time to stay, no one can ultimately force you to stay. So feel that freedom and make the most of your experience!

Workaway – more than just ‘working’ for free food and accommodation

If you ask me about my favorite way to travel abroad these days, I’d definitely say ‘Workaway.’

Volunteering through this website has given me the chance to discover cultures at a whole different level.

Whether this was harvesting rice on a farm in Japan, selling home-made sweets at a local market, making my first friends and connections when moving to Montreal by volunteering at a hostel, or spending a month and a half at a hippie community hidden in Northern Patagonia. All these opportunities have given me unique insights into other peoples’ lifestyles.

Many times, my own values and habits were questioned. I lived vegan for 1 ½ month without craving anything (except for chocolate, let’s be real), I stayed with families who had dinner at 10pm (almost my bedtime) and I lived in a place without electricity, refrigerator, or gas and made food by making fire. I stayed at places where the toilet wouldn’t have a door but a bed-sheet hanging in front of it … My accommodation varied from a bunk bed in an old shed, a tent-like structure, a fancy modern room in a guesthouse to my own little ‘hut’ made of recyclable material.

My tasks have varied from stacking wood to taking care of chickens, hours or weeding gardens, turning beds, planting new seedlings, cooking, babysitting, teaching English, cleaning hostel bathrooms and many more.

So how does this whole idea work?

Quick explanation: You are ‘working’/helping’ at a place for a few hours a day and usually receive food and accommodation (hostels often only provide housing and sometimes breakfast).

Why would you want to work without getting paid?

Let me stress that it is mostly not ‘work’ in the traditional sense you’re thinking of. Yes, you are working, but it’s almost comparable to an internship or a work experience. In most places, you are not expected to have any specific skills. Instead, you will help wherever possible and acquire new skills.

And a question that I always asked myself: would I take away another person’s job with this?!
When you’re reading on the Workaway website, you’ll see that in many countries, you might actually need a work visa to work and even volunteer. This is something you have to figure out for yourself before you go.
Also, I believe that there are many places where you are also helping to foster cultural exchange. For example, when helping at an English school, you are often more of an ambassador of your country and culture than an actual working ‘teacher.’
It’s also basically the same as answering the question of: am I taking another person’s job by being an unpaid/low-paid intern?!

How do you find a host?

By using the website, you can browse different host profiles in different countries with various ‘work activities.’ You can select what kind of work you’d like to do or leave it open. Sometimes hosts are looking for people with specific skills, but often, you can jump right into whatever they are working on. Hosts are either locals or foreigners, that are trying to set up a life in the respective country. 

Once you find a host that sounds interesting to you, you can then contact them by sending them a message through the website, introducing yourself, asking for availability on the dates you’re thinking of volunteering. Some hosts have a minimum or a maximum period for a stay, others are flexible. I used to stay around 1-2 weeks but have started to prefer longer stays as you’re starting to really understand how a place ‘works’ once you feel a little more settled, which can always take some time. I also made the experience that if a place asks you to stay at least a month, they usually have a reason for that. It might take you some times to get used to some work, maybe you’re working with animals, and they have to get used to you… these periods of your stay are also often negotiable and depend on your communication with your future host. Simply make sure you communicate well.

Another option is to actually get ‘found’ by the host. When you start using the website, you will create a profile with information about yourself, something between Facebook and LinkedIn. You can then specify the dates you’re planning to travel to and which countries you’d like to visit. When you fill out this information, prospective hosts can find you when they are looking for volunteers from their side. I have been contacted and had great experiences in places I might not have looked at when browsing the hosts’ profiles (as there are often hundreds per country and they take a while to go through).

So basically, it is all about matching you and your ‘volunteer profile’ with the profile of a prospective host. All the communication will be between you and the host, workaway doesn’t play a mediator, they only provide the platform. You and your host are able to leave a review after your stay. This review will be in the form of a text which will evaluate whether it was a positive experience and whether you’d stay with this host again. I like to go to hosts that have some positive reviews, but of course, every host has to start somewhere. If you’re one of the first workawayers, you might have the chance to help them set up a ‘structure’ for future workawayers, etc.

Is it safe?

I have heard people ask me whether I think it is safe to stay with people I don’t know. Again, this is something you have to figure out with yourself. Personally, I’ve mostly had positive experiences and even the rather ‘negative’ ones were ones that I could solve by talking to the host about the issue and figure out a solution accordingly. I also learned how sometimes when a situation doesn’t feel perfect, it means that you went into it with different expectations or didn’t clarify some points accordingly prior to agreeing to stay with the host (I am going to publish a post about that soon). I believe that it is all about what you make of the situation and which attitude to have about it.

Let’s say, if you don’t like the work, you can evaluate whether that is because of your attitude towards a task that simply needs to be done (bathrooms don’t clean themselves, and even though I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite task, someone has to do it) or whether there are other points that make it worth staying, such as an awesome group of volunteers or the place you’re staying. If you don’t like the food, you can take the initiative and add to what is provided for you by buying some of your preferred food. If you are asked to work enough, then you can remind your host, that you should only work between 4-6 hours, accordingly to what was agreed upon before. I really found it a great experience to work on myself, my attitude and helped me to stay humble and not feel ‘too good to do any tasks.’

Does it cost anything?

I do want to mention that this is a paid service. You can access the profiles of the hosts for free, but you will have to pay once you’re requesting to stay with a host. The fee is yearly and you will be asked every year whether you’d like to renew it. You are also able to create a couples account when traveling with a partner, which will come at a lower rate per person and create one profile for both of you.

Simlar websites:

Lastly, I want to mention that there are other similar websites out there. Personally, I experienced WWOOFING about a decade ago when the internet wasn’t up and going. You got an actual paperback book with the hosts’ profiles and a phone number to contact. That should have changed by now, I am assuming 😉

There are also websites, called HelpX and Worldpackers, which I haven’t experienced but heard other travelers using. They work pretty much the same way, so it’s up to you to find the website that works best for you.

I hope that some of you got a new idea of how to travel. I am so grateful for the friend who introduced me to workaway some years ago and I hope to experience many more countries and cultures through it.

I’ll be back soon with another post on what to look for in a host’s description and which questions to clarify with a prospective host.

How I travel to experience local culture

So you’re ready to go and travel a new country. You rock up there, check into a popular hostel and…. figure out that you are surrounded by other travelers like you. You book a tour to see a beautiful natural sight only to be called ‘turista’ and dragged from one souvenir shop to the next. Though meant charmingly, that bothers you and all the other ‘turistas’ on the tour bus. Back at your hostel, you’re suggested to join a pub crawl to see some of the local nightlife – only to be stuck in a group of other travelers again. You hardly see locals hanging out where you are hanging out. They seem to be in different circles than you. Different worlds. Granted, locals most likely have a lot of things to do (and more substantial than hitting another famous church, I’m talking work, family, etc.) but still there should be places where you can feel more of the culture and where you can mingle more with locals than at the point you’re at. 

Having done the tours (on my first trip to Australia, a travel agency successfully sold me a bus tour through half of the country – I had no idea how to do this on my own at this point and wanted it the easy way!), I later realized that I wanted to do it differently and not feel so distanced and in a little tourist bubble with little local interaction.

Let me say one thing. I’m not saying at all that traveling like a tourist and using tours doesn’t have its perks. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed sitting in a tour bus, kicking back, earphones in, relaxing, knowing that I didn’t have to worry about a thing regarding when and where to get off and what to do. Also, when traveling by yourself, it is a great and easy way to make friends. When traveling in a group, you might enjoy this option because you want to spend time with your friends and see the highlights and aren’t necessarily out to meet the locals. Or you might have limited time on your trip and are trying to get the most out of it sight-wise. What I’m saying is, that everything has its time and place and if you are happy to spend your time traveling this way then that’s exactly what you should do 🙂

In case you’re still wondering how to do it otherwise (and save some $$$), please read on.

The following are ways to meet locals or experience the local culture that I have experienced. This list is by now ways exhaustive and should simply serve to give you some inspiration. As always it also depends on the country you’re in, so keep that in mind.

  1. workaway: I don’t even know how to express my gratitude for this website and the work-exchange programs such as wwoofing and others in general. What they offer are a place to sleep and food as well as the chance to live with a local family in exchange of a few hours of work from your side. I’ve lived with local people in their homes, eaten home-cooked food, participated in local activities, festivals and everyday life. It is my absolute favorite way to dive into a country and its culture. You will end up in places you had never heard of and see the many lifestyles different people can have. What’s more, you’ll learn how despite differences, all human beings have the same needs and similar desires, no matter which country they’re from and which culture they belong to.

2. Couchsurfing: A great way to meet locals is through couchsurfing. The website shows local hosts that offer to let a stranger stay for free. This can be a great chance to hang out with people of your kind/your interests who can introduce you to their favorite places. Even if the thought of staying with a stranger isn’t up your alley, there are many other ways to use couchsurfing to connect with locals: through events or catching up just for a coffee with a person. I’ve formed amazing, often lifelong friendships through this website, and connected friends with couchsurfers continuously.

3. hitchhiking: This might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I certainly advise seeing what the situation per country is like as it’s not a 100% safe way to travel. What I can say though is that through hitchhiking I’ve had the most extensive chats to locals about their country. After all, you have lots of time at hand, you are getting to know each other and both sides are usually eager to hear from the other. Locals can give you advice on what to see, where to stay etc. It just depends where you steer the conversation towards and how long the ride is 🙂
Of course you can also chat to your taxi or Uber driver!!! I’ve gotten travel tips, stories about indigenous cultures, life in the country in general and more in conversations.

Hitchhiking a very popular route from El Calafate to El Chalten in Patagonia, Argentina

4. In public places, such as parks/squares, often when you’re hanging around by yourself: Now, this is, of course, something that can happen in your own country and there might be times when you don’t want to be talked to by a stranger but I have had some amazing conversations with people who were simply curious about where I was from and what I thought of their country. I am always very stern in where my boundaries are in regards to where the conversation is going and it’s never wrong to walk away if you feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that people in some countries are much ‘chattier’ than in others, i.e. this would hardly happen in my small hometown in German, yet in many South-American countries, people talk to others all the time.

whilst sitting on San Blas square in Cusco, a little girl sat on the bench next to me and was simply curious in what I was doing in her country

5. local markets: Local markets are where you can learn all about food, dishes but also about the price levels of a country, food preferences and how people interact with each other. I’ve had a lovely chat with a fruit vendor at a market in Quito who, when I explained my confusion about a lot of the fruit sold, took me aside to patiently explain every single fruit and its usage to me.

The juice section of a market in Sucre, Bolivia

6. small food stalls: I love food stalls on the street. They often serve something typical of the country, which is mostly basic food but I love the intimate atmosphere between the vendor and its buyers. Sometimes a few people end up hanging around a stall, starting conversations. I’ve had a nice short chat while sipping on hot tea, or eating my snack, such as in Peru, where a businessman in his fine clothing was sitting on a plastic chair eating fried donuts talking to me about life in Peru. In many places, people don’t walk off with their street food, but they hang around the stall and interact. It’s always a bargain to eat at as well and people give you a fair price from my experience and don’t overcharge you.

street food stall in Cusco – at night the streets come alive

7. supermarkets: I love going to supermarkets as they show you all the array of products that are sold. You might realize that Argentinians are not into your beloved peanut butter (as in – not to be found on the shelf) but love dulce de leche (a milky caramel cream/spread) that you can find in dozens of variations. It can be fun to buy some new ingredients and try them or try cooking with them. Don’t limit yourself to snacks you don’t know, buy some new grain, fruit and veg and let the good old Internet tell you what to do with it (or local people if you have the chance to ask, I always ask locals about products I don’t know)

8. public transportation: Cheap and often widely available (sometimes not so much). Ride a minibus, minivan, a tuc-tuc, a local train and simply pick up the vibe of this way of traveling. It might take you a lot longer than a tourist bus but you get to have an experience on its own and save a lot of $$$

One word of advice: you’re probably going to show as a non-local. Be aware that in many countries, people might try and take advantage of that and charge you more than what they would charge the locals. You can haggle and see where that takes you or accept the higher price if you are not bothered by it. It can also work out in your favor though and I’ve encountered many lovely people, who’d give me free samples of food to try or an extra something at no extra cost.

And last but not least. Get a little lost! Go to places, walk streets that you’ve not heard of, turn corners, look around your surroundings and take in what you see, no matter how small and insignificant it might seem. Everyday life can be full of surprises, no matter in which country you are (including your own).

Hello there!

Welcome to my new blog. You might not believe it’s taken me 10 years to finally write about my experiences abroad.

I always thought there are more than enough blogs out there, who’d want to hear my opinion among the millions of opinions out there?

But then I noticed how people have started asking me the same questions over and over again and how I had some information that others maybe didn’t.

So voilà here comes my blog 🙂

I remember starting to travel, thinking I’d become a changed person just like that.

And then I nocticed that I had changed but not as much as I thought I would and not intentionally towards who I wanted to become. And eventually I realized that I actually have to work on myself and not just let time shape me (I know I wanted it the lazy way ;)). So you will find posts on mindfulness (thus my blog’s name), personal development, yoga, meditation and whatever else I can think of! Be curious and open 🙂

So as you can see this won’t just be a travel blog. I am really passionate about all the aspects of being abroad. I will share those through travel stories, travel advice posts and more.

Furthermore, as I am a super passionate language learner (you might call me a polyglot) and an English teacher I’ll also share my language learning strategies, keeping a study habit and motivation 🙂

In case you’re curious: I know English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and (Brazilian) Portuguese. All languages are at different levels but I would be able to hold conversations in all of them.

Hope you enjoy reading my blog!