My family and I are used to traveling to far-off destinations and finding hidden corners of countries that aren’t in any travel guide. Now, because of COVID, our passports are basically useless. Honestly, I’m not upset about not being able to travel abroad: we are incredibly grateful to be healthy and employed. We have been exploring beautiful areas around our home but the travel bug still hits me sometimes. When it does, I use these methods to “travel” abroad without actually going anywhere.
What Isn’t on this List:
Travel is about learning a country’s culture and getting a sense of what life is like there. You won’t get this by reading travel blogs or books; those are all from the perspective of the visitor (who is probably a similar ethnicity and age demographic as yourself).
Nor will you get that sense by watching travel videos. These are secondhand accounts which focus on what Westerners think is important about the place (like the thousands of videos about Egypt which focus exclusively on pyramids but never once talk about koshari, whale bones in the desert, or sugar farmers sucking the juice from fresh-cut cane…).
If you want to truly travel, you need to see the places for yourself, interact with locals, listen to the soundscape, smell the food, see what’s for sale in the local markets… The following are ways you can do that from home.
How to Travel Abroad Without Leaving Home
To truly get a sense of “travel” abroad, choose one country and do all 10 of these things for a specific country or place. The more that you do, the better-rounded sense of the place you will have.
1. Google Street View
Google Street View is freakishly all over the world. You can even travel on some small dirt roads with Google Street View. So use it to virtually walk around a country and see what it looks like. To get a good sense of a place:
- Walk through a green market. Notice what’s for sale.
- You can even enter some stores with Street View. I love visiting supermarkets while traveling and this is one way to do it.
- Visit residential areas. What do the homes look like? Are they big concrete blocks, mud huts, straw roofed…?
- Pay attention to the traffic. Are the streets crowded? Are the vehicles old or new?
2. Cook an Authentic Dish from the Country
Food is such an important part of a culture that you can’t really say you’ve traveled somewhere without trying the local cuisine. Unfortunately, the international food available to us at home is often a toned-down version of what locals really eat (Indian food in the US is often much blander than what you’d really get in India).
Try to get a recipe from someone’s grandma. Thanks to online shopping, you should be able to get all the spices and make an authentic dish at home.
3. Read Authors from the Country
One of my favorite Ted Talks is from Ann Morgan. After realizing that almost all of the books she read were from US and UK authors, she challenged herself to read a book from every country in the world. It wasn’t easy, especially since many places didn’t have authors translated into English.
If you want to “travel”, find authors from that country and read them. Note that this isn’t the same as books about the country which are written by Westerners. You’ve really got to find the local authors if you want their perspective.
4. Watch Movies from the Country
Please don’t just Google “best movies from X country”. Instead, find someone who actually lives in that country and ask them what their favorite movies from local directors are.
Let me explain why this is important. I used to live in Bosnia and almost every single movie on Bosnian lists are war films. You won’t see gems like “It’s Hard to Be Nice” on Bosnian lists. Yes, war is a big part of Bosnian history but Bosnia is about soooo much more than the hell they went through then.
5. Join Local Online Groups
There are plenty of places you can connect with real locals online:
- Facebook groups
- Couchsurfing groups
You’ll find these groups very useful, especially when it comes to asking for recommendations for foods to try, books, movies, etc.
6. Ask for a Virtual Home Tour
One of my favorite things to do when Couchsurfing is to see what people have in their fridges. It can tell you a lot about the culture – like how my Palestinian host had vodka carefully hidden in the freezer. Or how my German hosts had a bunch of old fruits and veggies they’d dumpster dived. Or the many types of fermented dairy products you’ll find in Balkan fridges.
Once you’ve connected with some locals online, ask them to give you a tour of their home. Then do the same- it’s a good way to start a conversation and truly see how people live.
7. See a “Live” Gig
Going to a live gig at a small venue let gives you multiple insights into a culture. You can hear local musicians. You see how people are dressed for a night out. You see how people interact – are they dancing, sitting frigidly in their chairs, cramped together?
You can’t go to a gig from abroad. But you can ask locals for the best small gig venues and then search YouTube for videos of gigs from the venue. You might need some help searching in the local language.
*If you search YouTube for “Sri Lanka music” or whatever country, you’ll just end up with traditional music (the kind that no one really listens to). If you want to hear what locals really listen to, you’ll need to ask locals for lists of their favorite bands.
8. Virtual Museum Tours
Because of COVID, a lot of museums have made virtual tours. If you are a true travel nerd, do some research into the local artists/scientists/activists featured in the museums. They often have fascinating life stories which the museum wall blurb doesn’t cover.
9. Listen to Soundscape Recordings
The sound of screeching monkeys in the jungles of Guatemala.
The trash trucks blasting pop music in Peru.
The honking horns in Cairo.
Elderly Serbians loudly complaining to no one in particular on the buses…
These soundscapes are important to really getting a feel for a place. If you get lucky, you might be able to find a recording of a place’s soundscape. Or, ask a local to record some of the sounds of their hometown.
10. Learn the Alphabet
If you travel to a foreign country, you *should* learn the alphabet beforehand. Often, learning the alphabet gives you some cultural insights. Like how Georgia’s completely-unique script gives you an idea about how isolated the country was for centuries. Or, in my case, realizing how stupidly difficult the English alphabet is after learning the Serbian alphabet with its one-letter-one-sound rule.
What ways are you “traveling” when you can’t go anywhere?