It’s been a while since I’ve been to a new country with which I’m very unfamiliar. If you’ve been to Slovenia, it’s not a huge cultural or linguistic adjustment going to neighboring Croatia. But when I went to Tunisia, I hadn’t been to North Africa since my trip to the Middle East and Egypt in 2007.
There is a fine line between researching ahead of time and over-preparing. I like to get a good base of information about a new place but still leave things to learn after I arrive. This pushes me to open up to strangers and explore in more detail.
—-> Find a comfortable balance between pre-trip research and exploration in-country.
If you’re flying into Berlin, for example, you can count on there being reliable public transport from the airport to the city and you can even expect there to be a friendly person behind a desk to tell you where to find that transport as well as where to buy a ticket.
For a place like Tunisia, I don’t count on those services being available. So I did my research: both online and in my guidebook. When I got off the plane and through customs and immigration, I would need to know my options for getting into Tunis and how much those options would cost. I would need to know where I could withdraw or exchange to get local currency, and what the exchange rate would be. (I go into an exchange booth or ATM with a very close approximation in my head of how much I’m withdrawing or how much I expect to receive in local currency. This way I prevent myself from getting shortchanged.)
—-> Before arriving, have up-to-date information on how to get from the airport to your accommodation and how and where you’re going to get local currency. Know the current exchange rate.
At this point I’ve already got a good foundation of knowledge from my guidebook as well as online sources like wikitravel and travel blogs. Now I ask questions. It could be the front desk at my guesthouse, hostel, or hotel. Or, in my case, my insightful AirBnB and Couchsurfing hosts. They have good recommendations on what to see, where to eat, and where to go for a long walk. Depending on the place, they can direct you where to get beyond the tourists (not a problem in Tunis) and what areas of the city to avoid if they are unsafe.
—-> Open up to locals. Ask about best places to eat, what to see, where to go / or not go.
Walking is the best way for me to explore a new place. I love the pace of discovery at walking speed. I can cut down narrow back alleys, cruise the main boulevards, stop for a street snack, and follow my instincts. I can focus on photography or just observe and take in all the differences and similarities. I can continue asking lots of questions to anyone I meet, whether that’s the guy who’s just made my shawarma or a random person in the park who speaks English well enough. I want to be curious and open but be aware of sketchy neighborhoods or unsavory individuals. I also don’t want to put any pressure on myself to do any sightseeing. This is just about cultural discovery, geographic orientation, and local familiarization.
—-> Wander around the city making observations, being open but cautious of scammers and unsafe areas.
This is a good idea for any country you visit, even if people speak English as a second language well. Tunisia’s main languages are Arabic and French. Make sure you at least learn one formal greeting, as well as “thank you”. You build rapport with locals and they’ll respect visitors more. Depending on the language, it may be challenging just to master those two words, but your effort will go a long way. My couchsurfing host warned me, “Tunisian is different [than standard Arabic],” he said, “It’s a cocktail of Arabic, French, Maltese, Italian.” Get out there and try your best.
—->Learning “Hello” and “Thank you” in the local language go a long way.
Riding the metro or city bus is a great way to learn about a place and its people. Often it’s these types of activities that aren’t expensive or even a tourist attraction that are most memorable. You interact more with people, even if it’s simply seeing them commute to and from work. Plus you get the challenge of figuring out how to buy tickets and read a schedule or just practice the patience of unreliable transport.
—->Get on a bus or train for insight into local life.
When I first arrive in a country, I stop into a few stores or read menus just to see what things cost. If you familiarize yourself with the local economy, you’re less likely to get taken advantage of, especially in countries where prices aren’t written down. And if it’s just a cheap street snack, I don’t usually worry too much about getting ripped off the first day. I just take a mental note of the price.
—->Know prices in the local economy before buying anything.
While I am generally trusting and open-minded when I arrive in a new place, I always hold a little suspicion if people are unnaturally too friendly. This can be difficult to ascertain in the Arab world where hospitality is highly regarded. On my first night in Tunis I met a man “on his way home from work” just outside the old city. He offered to show me through the winding maze of streets and point out a few highlights along the way. I approached him cautiously, decided he was safe, but may have had an ulterior motive. After about 20 minutes I realized he wasn’t my “friend” and wanted only to take me to his cousin’s jewelry shop. As soon as I knew this was the case, I politely excused myself from his company.
—->Trusting people until they give you reason to be suspicious.