The Great O.E has been a Kiwi rite of passage since forever – we’re just a wee country at the bottom of the world, and when young, we’ve just gotta get out there and smell the roses.

Travelling the world isn’t all crumbling castles and exotic cocktails food however. It’s really the people that will leave the biggest impression. Here’s a few tips to get you thinking about interaction with other cultures, from a wizened old roamer who’s been there and done that.

1: Leave your normal at home!

Here’s a clue, and it’s going to blow your tiny mind: not everyone in the world speaks English, or knows what Vegemite is. Isn’t that why you’re boarding that big bird? To experience other cultures, to get a taste for how others live? To see something that’s REALLY old, not just, like, New Zealand old?

I don’t know how many times over the course of my travels I’ve found myself quietly slinking away from a train boarding queue or hotel reception desk, for fear that I might be associated with the massive plonker who thinks that if he speaks slowly and loudly enough, the poor non-English speaking person behind said desk will finally click, and take him immediately to the nearest fish and chip shop. In Kazakhstan.

If you’re going to non-English speaking countries – and come on, really? You absolutely NEED TO DO THAT – take some time to learn a few common phrases, especially greetings, and learn HOW to say them. There’s no better way straight to the hearts of the locals, especially when you consider that you sound to them just as hilarious as does a Swedish tourist in NZ saying ‘chur bro’.

The locals will really appreciate the effort that you’ve gone to, particularly because it’s not uncommon, due to the surprising number of d-bags like our friend in Kazakhstan, for said locals to take a pretty dim view of westerners. And there are lots who deserve the stereotype: they seem to think that if one doesn’t speak the Queen’s English, one must be suffering from some kind of serious mental illness. Fortunately that sad reality means that when you break out your best ‘Сәлем!’ in an Almaty pub, you’ll have friends for life. Possibly also free drinks, although I think their drinks may contain rotting horse milk, or something.

2: Get confident, stupid.

Speaking of languages: if you’re going to be spending a long time diving into a non-English culture – and I cannot recommend highly enough that you do – you’ll want to actually learn the language properly. Learning another language in semi-adulthood is not easy – I lived in Rio de Janeiro for three years, I know.

I thought that learning Portuguese (yep that’s right, NOT Spanish) would be easy, for a man of words such as myself. I was wrong. In three years, I cannot honestly say that I ever got beyond what I like to call ‘Supermercado (supermarket) Portuguese’. Meaning I could ask for a loaf of pao no worries, but actually getting a joke remained cruelly out of reach. Which of course meant that I’m pretty sure I became the non-comprehending butt of several.

I’m really ashamed of this actually, but my problem (mostly) wasn’t application to learning vocab. What they don’t tell you about learning languages and actually speaking them is this: you need to be ok with getting laughed at. A lot. Because to a Carioca, you sound really funny. You need to suck it up and develop a thicker skin real quick, because the only way to get better is to get it wrong, over and over again.


During the same period that I was in Rio, an Aussie friend of mine – not renowned for their retiring, softly spoken natures to begin with – was speaking fluent Portuguese by the time I left (my definition of fluent is when you get local humour). That’s because he didn’t care about getting sniggered at, for about two years. He knew he sounded like a particularly dense two year old, and he just didn’t care.

3: Making the most of your travels means meeting the locals.

It’s a fact that many non-English speaking countries still have a nice safe expatriate community to nestle into. That’s a great thing when you first get to where you’re going – there’s nothing like insider knowledge so as to avoid getting mugged or – the horror – accidentally ordering wine when you wanted beer. Expats can help you with all kinds of shortcuts, and let’s face it, washing up in a foreign country where the language sounds like the ravings of madmen is really scary.

It’s all too easy though to let yourself be completely submerged in the warm bosom of  of a group of English-speaking mates who know how to order at a restaurant, or how much to ‘tip’ the local cops. And it kind of becomes a bit of a feedback loop: the more you’ve got someone on hand to deal with the little daily things that are a nightmare in a foreign language, the more you’ll come to rely on them escorting you everywhere. You don’t want that. Be bold! Be brave! See tip 2 above, and resign yourself to the fact that you sound like a dense two year old! It’s really good for one’s humility too.

4: Get Lonely Planet books before you board your flight.

They will play three very important roles in your life:

  1. They’re a really good way to get super excited about where you’re going, and of course a significant chunk of the joy of travelling is poring over travel books and planning which castles and burial mounds you have to see.
  2. They’re obviously incredibly useful when you get where you’re going – so long as they’re current. And
  3. They will occupy a treasured place on your bookshelf for the rest of your life. Every time you glance at them, all battered and dog-eared, the subsequent flood of some of the best memories you’ll ever make is guaranteed to put a big ole’ smile on your dial.  

Happy trails, go forth into the great big world, and you too can become an insufferably smug world wanderer when you get back!


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