In my six years as a writer on HOPE’s staff, I’ve been privileged to visit HOPE-network staff and clients in regions across the globe, and my trips are typically just a few weeks long. Here are the tricks I’ve learned to help maximize short-term experiences—for both you and those you visit.
1. Aim to be the best guest ever
Imagine the number of details your host is arranging for your visit. Now remember that they’re coordinating them on top of an already busy schedule, and you’ll see that your host is going above and beyond for you. Show your appreciation by being as pleasant and flexible as humanly possible. Gift-giving is also important in many cultures and should be standard in your travel protocol, however small the gift. When visiting American expats, think care package, and with national hosts, bring something related to your home region.
2. Research the dress code
Ask someone who knows the country or research online for cultural- and climate-appropriate dress, and remember that rural areas are often more conservative. For security reasons, it’s also wise to shoot for the “nationally ambiguous” look (avoid American logos, matching group t-shirts, and extremely casual clothing).
3. Venture beyond English
Americans are woefully renowned for being monolingual, but technology has left us with no excuse. Learn basic greetings and how to say your name in the local language—I guarantee your efforts will be received enthusiastically. Consider gaining a basic understanding of common trade languages like Spanish, French, or Swahili.
4. Read a book about your destination
Every country boasts beloved authors or interesting national histories. Whether through fiction, biographies, economics, or even Lonely Planet guides, gaining deeper knowledge of your host country will pay dividends in relationship-building and your own experience. Some of my favorites for HOPE locations: Mountains Beyond Mountains (Haiti), The Poisonwood Bible (Democratic Republic of Congo), Las Hermanas Mariposas (Dominican Republic).
5. Boldly seek comfort en route
You want to be fresh on the ground, so politely search out upgrades that will help you rest while flying. Volunteer for the exit row, request an extra blanket, and be that person stretched out on three seats. In the case of cancellations or delays, inquire about food vouchers, hotel options, and compensation in the form of flight credit—it never hurts to ask. And don’t forget to say please and thank you.
Odds are you’ll be eating a lot of heavy dishes (does every culture have its own delicious version of fried dough?), so look for opportunities to move. Bypass airport sky walks and escalators, do crunches in your hotel room, and ask your host if it’s ok to go for a stroll or a jog in secure areas.
7. Take advantage of being disconnected
Rather than hunting for wi-fi constantly, think of your time overseas as a retreat or a fast from media and other distractions. Turn off electronics when possible and use free time to journal, pray, or catch up on reading.
8. Say “yes” more
Push yourself to say yes to host-approved street food, local transportation, excursions, live music, church experiences, social get-togethers, etc. Force yourself to be a morning person so you can take advantage of daylight, and use a digital camera to take as many photos as possible. You can always sleep on the flight home.
What tips have you learned to make the most out of short-term international travel?