When traveling, we often become acutely aware of just how different our worldview is from the cultures we encounter. Hoping to dissect this notion, we asked some seasoned travelers what they’ve learned from navigating these differences while exploring various locales around the world. Here’s what they had to say.


DANIEL NAHABEDIAN (@canvasoflight)

Home countries: Lebanon and Spain

Last passport stamp: Tanzania

Occupation: Travel Photographer/Instructor

When did you start traveling?

I traveled a lot with my parents as a child, but my first real solo backpacking, “no-plans” experience was when I hit 30. I visited Ireland and Iceland and really caught the wanderlust bug.

Tell us about a time when you had to navigate a cultural difference on the road.

Back in 2014, I visited a Maasai village in Tanzania while co-leading a photography workshop. We were invited to stay in the village, and they offered for us to share one of their favorite meals: goat. Before it could be prepared, however, they took me out among the goats and asked me to pick the one we’d eat.

Afterward, they proceeded to freshly prepare it in front of us — skinning it, cutting it, and cooking it under a big baobab tree. Since they didn’t want to waste any part of the goat, they also poured some of its blood into a big mug and passed it around, urging us to drink it. Seeing the big smiles on their faces as I took a gulp was priceless. I have returned to the same village every year, and they greet me as a “trusted friend” of the Maasai people.

Different cultures fascinate me, so I always try to understand and close the gap between us. The main thing I had to remember at the time was that I was the odd one around them. They had their culture, customs, and habits, and they were opening up to me by allowing me to experience their lifestyle. So, I put aside my own beliefs and trusted them.

What did you learn from this experience?

We must always remember that we are the “strange ones” when traveling. When a local person opens up to you, so long as it’s not something dangerous or life-threatening, trust them. They’re excited to show you a part of their world and culture. If you want to live the full experience, take a deep breath and jump in. You can’t comfortably watch from the sidelines and expect to fully understand others from a distance.

Where’s your next trip taking you?

In a couple of months, I’ll be traveling to Morocco to spend some time in the mountains and the Sahara desert. That will be immediately followed by a trip to Jordan, which is a country I’ve not yet been to but am very excited to visit.


JAMES TRAN (@jamtuna)

Home country: Australia

Last passport stamp: Thailand

Occupation: Digital Creative

When did you start traveling?

My first travel experience was in Vietnam, back in 2012. I will never forget the first time I saw all the mopeds weaving in and out of traffic seamlessly, like schools of fish, in the taxi on the way to the hotel. I was in absolutely awe.

Tell us about a time when you had to navigate a cultural difference on the road.

We had just crossed into Myanmar from Thailand and were keen to try some street food. All we found available, however, were a couple of roadside restaurants. After some deliberating, we made the arbitrary decision to dine at the one with the brightest lights. We walked in and sat down, but there was no immediate service. In the corner sat a little girl who was drawing and coloring in doodles. Noticing us, she smiled and immediately rushed to the back of the restaurant. With no menu in sight, we were clueless as to how to order, so we just sat and waited. A couple of minutes later, the owner came by, holding a writing pad, and started speaking to us in Burmese.

We had no idea what she was saying, and vice versa. I rubbed my stomach and attempted to gesture eating with my hands, but she continued speaking to us, looking clueless. We even tried to communicate with a translation app but had no success. At that point, she called over one of her other patrons to help, then a passerby picking up his takeaway, then one of her neighbors, and then one of her daughter’s friends. Soon, we found ourselves with seven Burmese locals, all attempting to decipher what we were trying to say. I ended up pointing to what one of the other diners was eating, and they laughed, nodded, and went into the kitchen.

Moments later, a massive spread of food was brought out, with plenty of dishes I’d never seen before. As we ate, the little girl sat with us and continued to draw in her book, occasionally sharing her progress with us. As we were leaving, she ripped out one of the pages she’d been working on and handed it to me. It was a portrait of us. She stood by the roadside with her mother and waved goodbye as we left. It was one of the moments that really put Myanmar in my heart.

What did you learn from this experience?

When traveling, I usually have Google Translate at the ready. But what I learned here was that in places that are “off the beaten path,” illiteracy can come into play. For that reason, it’s good to have images and gestures as a backup when language barriers lead to a breakdown in communication.

Also, as boring as it sounds, it’s important to do a little research before setting off. I often read up on lists of “things not to do” because the last thing I would want is to offend somebody. Other than that, I think you have to embrace the differences between cultures and dive in deep! Oh, and bring a handful of little souvenirs from your home country to share with others. You can watch their eyes light up when they receive it — personally, I carry along a bunch of miniature koalas.

Where’s your next trip taking you?

New Zealand!


SILVIA LAWRENCE (@heartmybackpack)

Home country: Norway

Last passport stamp: Panama

Occupation: Travel Blogger

When did you start traveling?

My parents are big travelers, so I’ve been traveling since I was a little girl.

Tell us about a time when you had to navigate a cultural difference on the road.

One of the first times I’d ever hitchhiked was with two other women on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. We were picked up by what looked like an army jeep, with two young guys in the back and an old man wearing a suit in the front. The driver was a really big guy, with a scar running across his entire neck. Since my Russian isn’t that great, I couldn’t really understand what they said they were doing there, and at a couple of checkpoints, the older guy was presented with a flag — which I found so bizarre.

Anyway, we made a lot of stops during our 10-plus hour drive to Khorog. At each one, my friends and I grew more suspicious, wondering who these guys were and why they were treating us so well — to the point where we decided we’d been kidnapped by the Tajik mafia. But when we arrived at our destination, they bought us lunch and even took us to some hot springs. At the end of the day, the old man got out to walk us to our hostel and wish us luck on our travels. I almost burst into tears. Not only was I touched by his kindness, but I also felt so badly that I had doubted his motives just because he seemed mysterious to me.

What did you learn from this experience?

That trip really taught me to trust in the kindness of others on my travels, set aside my prejudices, and relax more in situations that feel totally foreign. Because while, yes, you do need to be careful while traveling, for the most part, people around the world are good and only want the best for others.

Often, you just have to go with the flow! I’ve found that when I’m in really bizarre situations and I don’t speak the language at all, if I just relax and go with it, everything works out as it should.

Where’s your next trip taking you?

Guyana!


PERRY GRONE (@perrygrone)

Home country: USA

Last passport stamp: Guatemala

Occupation: Filmmaker/Storyteller

When did you start traveling?

My first major trip was in 2016, when I traveled to Mexico to document people building homes in underdeveloped parts of the country. The area I visited was so remote, and with few roads, that to get from one location to another, we often had to take canoes on small creeks. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

Tell us about a time when you had to navigate a cultural difference on the road.

One of the first places I ever visited was Haiti, right after one of their major hurricanes. Immediately after we landed, I noticed the area around us looked destroyed, so I asked our driver if it was where the hurricane had hit. He responded, “No, it’s always like this.” Seeing poverty to that degree not only put the human experience in perspective, but it also made me so much more grateful for the place and time I come from.

What did you learn from this experience?

During my time there, I tried to laugh with the locals as much as possible. Even though our cultures can be completely different, sharing laughter is the best form of connection. From this experience, when I travel, I now expect things to be very different than what I would otherwise anticipate. It’s important to listen as much as you can and to travel with an incredibly open mind, but to also keep yourself grounded through reading, journaling, meditation, etc.

Where’s your next trip taking you?

Around the USA for a music tour, and then potentially Uganda right after that. It will be my first time there, so it’s going to be exciting!


FRED ZHANG (@fred.zzzzz)

Home country: China

Last passport stamp: USA

Occupation: Photographer

When did you start traveling?

I started traveling when I was a kid, back in primary school. That said, it has become much more meaningful since I began capturing my travel moments with my camera and sharing my experiences with others around three years ago.

Tell us about a time when you had to navigate a cultural difference on the road.

Two years ago, when “rooftopping” was really popular among Instagrammers, I would ask around about the skyscrapers or landmarks to scale before each trip. Many times, I would meet other photographers up on the rooftops, and occasionally, we’d have impromptu collaborations. At the time, I believed it was the best way to capture a city. However, on one of my more recent trips, I chose to take a walk through the local community instead. Walking around the streets and talking to locals made me realize that photography is not just about getting cool pictures. It involves all of the interactions between the people behind the camera and in front of the lens.

I do think that social media has influenced what we think of the world and how we choose to express ourselves to our the audiences — and at times, that perspective can narrow one’s creative or natural identity.

Take me as an example: I’m not a local in Hong Kong, and although the city is still connected to Asian culture, the language, writing, and interactions among the people here made me feel like a complete stranger when I arrived a few years ago. My first year here, I tried to experience all of the typical tourist activities, but that didn’t help me to understand the culture at all. So, thinking back to my realization about photography, I tried a different approach. I started to make friends via photography meetups, where we would seek out the places that other locals would go and explore how the community lives day-to-day.

What did you learn from this experience?

I think that interacting with local communities is really important. Being open-minded and exploring what’s around you helps you overcome cultural barriers. It’s important to remember to express yourself in your own way and find enjoyment in the encounters (and surprises) you have along the way.

Where’s your next trip taking you?

I’ve found my home country, China, to be a really cool place to explore — it’s just such a big nation with diverse cultures and history, as well as tremendous natural scenery. I would like to spend more time appreciating different cities here and showing others how beautiful China is through my lens.


BRIANNE MIERS (@brimiers)

Home country: USA

Last passport stamp: Denmark

Occupation: Travel Blogger

When did you start traveling?

My first significant travel experience as an adult was studying abroad for a semester in Strasbourg, France. It was during my third year in university, and I spent many weekends traveling throughout the region and to other European countries.

Tell us about a time when you had to navigate a cultural difference on the road.

A few years ago, I traveled through southern India. I was on the road for about two months while working for an adventure travel company. Needless to say, as a woman who is 5’10” (178 cm) and blonde, I really stood out among the crowds. Everywhere I went, I was swarmed by children and adults who wanted to get a closer look at me — my hair was particularly intriguing — and take photos with me. I don’t think I’ve ever held so many babies or posed for so many selfies!

At times, it was a little overwhelming being the center of attention, and it made sightseeing a challenge. However, I always tried to have a good sense of humor about it, since I knew I was definitely not a common sight. I also knew I was fortunate to be able to have such sincere interactions with people, and I appreciated being made to feel so welcomed.

What did you learn from this experience?

It’s important to be humble as a traveler — to embrace the fact that you don’t know everything — and to do more listening and observing than talking and acting. I always try to take cues from those around me on how to dress, speak, and behave when I’m in a new environment. Also, I try to do research in advance about the country and its culture, religions, and social norms, and I’m not afraid to ask questions.

Where’s your next trip taking you?

I’ll be heading to New Zealand. It’s a bucket-list trip for me, and I’m beyond excited!


Do you have any interesting stories about navigating cultural differences on the road? We want to hear them! Share yours in the comments below.

Header image by Avel Chuklanov
Share this:
Alistair Hornsby
Alistair Hornsby was born and raised in Luxembourg but currently resides in the UK. He likes to keep himself busy with practicing photography, art, and design. He’s no stranger to travel, two of his favourite journeys having taken him around-the-world, and across the U.S. He currently works on the Editorial Team at Passion Passport, helping to bring impactful stories to the world. You can follow him along his way at https://www.instagram.com/alstiar/ or check out his upcoming photo journal, Saudade, at https://www.saudademagazine.com/.