When you travel alone, it is important to slip into the scene rather than stand out as a foreigner. Doing so increases your safety and typically means that you are more respectful and, therefore, more accepted by the local culture.
In the film Cairo Time, Patricia Clarkson plays the wife of an NGO worker. She travels alone to Egypt to meet him but he's delayed so she must spend time in Cairo alone. Her first days are very uncomfortable. Men are always looking at her. But, look at the scene in this photo: in a country where women cover their bodies, she wanders about in a sleeveless top and then goes into a coffee shop that is for men only. This film drove me crazy because one would expect a woman of her background to know better. Her cultural clumsiness was a painful storytelling convenience in the film but, for my purpose here, it points nicely to the fact that everyone is happier when you respect local customs and culture.
10 Tips to Survive Culture Shock when You Travel Alone
- Do your research before you go. Travel guides offer good information. You may also want to check out Kwintessential. It's a global guide to customs, culture, and etiquette.
- Ask friends and family to see if you can get a local contact. It's especially wonderful to receive a personal introduction to a new culture when you travel alone.
- Pack carefully to ensure that you have the appropriate clothes for your destination. You will feel more comfortable if you are properly dressed.
- Check the calendar for local festivals, celebrations, and national days that may be taking place while you are there and get a bit of information on them before you go. Knowledge can help you adapt and enjoy a new culture more easily.
- Watch carefully how people greet each other, whether they line up for a bus, how they buy fruit, etc. There are nuances in every aspect of a society. Look for them.
- Observe how people interact in groups large and small including where they stand, how they speak, and where their eyes land.
- Start with an overview of the city by taking a local tour. A walking tour will give you a close-up look at the culture. Bus tours can be helpful too.
- Befriend your hotel desk clerk or coffee shop owner – anyone who you can see on a regular basis and can become your go-to person for local questions.
- Be patient with yourself. If you are feeling culture shock, find a quiet place to relax and regroup.
- No matter how hard you try, it is likely that you will still stand out as a tourist. Guard your passport and other documents carefully. Don't flash expensive jewelry or technology. Act conservatively so as not to attract the wrong sort of attention.
Typically, you'll earn more respect and make more friends by focusing on the people you meet, their traditions, culture, and customs. But, at a certain point and based on questions or cues, it may be acceptable to share a bit about your culture. I usually travel with some small Canadian gifts for these opportunities.
For more on respecting and enjoying local culture as you travel, read: Travel and Culture: Good Manners and Political Perspectives and Solo Travel Safety: Tips for Respecting Local Cultures