Five Enriching Ways to Explore the World While You #StaySafeStayHome
A culture vulture’s guide to covering new ground while maintaining the moral high ground, as well as a healthy mind, body, and wallet.
Nothing is quite as enchanting, expansive, or inspiring as immersing yourself in new surroundings. As any travel-junkie can attest to, truly engaging with a different country and culture is a surefire shortcut to discovering and developing parts of yourself that you could never have dreamed of while stuck in a space that is saturated with routine.
Unfortunately, for the majority of us, a change of place remains off the table over a year into the global C-word p-word, and it’s natural to be as nauseated with boredom at our daily domestic doldrums as we are with our own thoughts and habits within them.
Well, folks, quit trawling tearily through #takemeback posts on Instagram, and summon up the self-control to close all those ‘cheap flights’ browser tabs. It’s time to dive into one of these five online adventures that will keep you cultured from the comfort of your couch. They’re pretty much free, fun, and might just help you find yourself right where you are — or at the very least give you something interesting to say at parties when they kick back off!
1. Wander Through Winding Streets on YouTube — No Umbrella or Sunscreen Required
Allow me to introduce you to one of the greatest discoveries (and sources of sanity) I came across in the year-that-shall-not-be-named: the practically infinite and constantly growing selection of virtual walk videos on YouTube.
‘What, pray tell, is a virtual walk?’
‘I’m still trying to get over 4D printing!’
No need to panic — or to dash out and buy a clunky VR headset — because a virtual walk is just a video. Just a video in the sense that you’ve got everything you need to enjoy it, but far, far more than a video if you really know how to do so.
Basically, there are hundreds of channels out there run by folks who walk the streets (or hike the trails) of just about any place you can imagine, filming it all from a first-person perspective for your vicarious exploration. Can anyone say ‘dream job’?!
From the reinvigoratingly vibrant nightlife of Ho Chi Minh City, bustling with bars, bikes, and brilliant neon lights in equal parts, to the cobblestone streets of Coimbra, Portugal, an underrated European gem whose ornate founts and facades speak volumes on past power, to Tbilisi, Georgia, where East meets West in what Hannah Montana might aptly describe as ‘the best of both worlds’, someone has filmed hours of adventure that’ll whisk you right away in all but body. Just type in ‘virtual walk’ and your destination of choice, and prepare to be transported.
Seriously — where does one sign up to film these full-time? Asking for… myself. Well, until a certain crisis comes to an end, we’ll have to quit wondering and get (virtually) wandering!
- Watch your walk on the biggest screen you’ve got available.
- Turn up the volume and immerse yourself in sounds as much as sights.
- Be observant, keeping an eye out for intriguing architecture, the locals’ fashion sense, café culture, the quality of light, graffiti, and fauna, and more.
- Curate a collection of must-see destinations or a try weekly theme like Charming Coastal Villages, Urban Jungles, Most Cathedrals Per Capita — the options are endless, and sites like CultureTrip are full of lists that are sure to inspire.
- Create a virtual walk club with all the wander-lusty people in your life, take turns picking the place, and learn some fun facts about its culture, cuisine, and history together.
- Dream a little… or a lot — ask yourself if you’d like to visit for a few days, or if you could see a future for yourself there. Save your faves for trip-planning purposes in the after-times.
- Make virtual walks a mealtime or teatime ritual and enjoy the downright miracle of adventuring in your pyjamas, surrounded by snacks, unbothered by pick-pockets or crab-walking pedestrians, and sheltered from the local weather conditions.
- Or hop on the treadmill and burn some calories on your journey — virtual runs are abundant too!
With a little curiosity and creativity, you might even find yourself preferring the virtual version and lamenting the cash spent, carbon emitted, and callouses acquired during past expeditions: probably not, but perhaps momentarily. Nevertheless, minimal effort is required to discover just how mesmerising, refreshing, and soothing an absent-minded imaginary stroll through some novel scenes can be for the cabin-feverish.
2. You’ve Walked the Walk, Now Talk the Talk
To quote Rita Mae Brown (and ensure that you don’t think all my references are Disney Channel tween pop sensations), ‘Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.’
Words are truly a form of magic, and acquiring a couple of new ones is an excellent way to open your mind in more ways than one. Languages within a family teach us of peoples with a shared history, and learning one can provide the master key to unlocking worlds of meaning in all. Spanish, for instance, can pave your way to understanding Portuguese, Italian, French, and, surprisingly for some, Romanian. Even speakers whose native tongues seem completely unrelated find overlaps with astonishing frequency, and YouTube channels like Bahador Alast are full of fascinating dialogues that prove this.
When we’re forced to express ourselves in a whole new way, we are often also forced to be honest and direct. Isn’t that a lot like the freedom of finding yourself in a place where nobody knows your name?
At the same time, what is unique about a language can provide intriguing insights into the world of its speakers. The onomatopoeic qualities of IsiZulu, a Bantu language concentrated in South Africa, are suggestive of the Zulu people’s strong tradition of oral storytelling and histories — take a word like ‘isithuthuthu’ for motorcycle, where the repeated, aspirated ‘toots’ mimic the sputtering sounds of the exhaust. Language can provide a fresh or altered perspective too: for example, evidence suggests that speakers of Greek and Russian, whose mother tongues furnish them with special words for various shades of blue, perceive blues more accurately than Germans, who only have one name for the colour.
Beyond Brown’s acknowledgement that learning a language provides you with a tantalising view into its origins and speakers, it offers the kind of self-discovery-in-relation-to-the-new that we’re missing so sorely in this global moment. Starting a language from scratch means shrugging off so many of the euphemisms and word games we’ve proficiently devised in our mother tongue to conceal our deepest thoughts and feelings from others and ourselves. When we’re forced to express ourselves in a whole new way, we are often also forced to be honest and direct. Isn’t that a lot like the freedom of finding yourself in a place where nobody knows your name?
Have I got you feeling inspired yet? Luckily, there are hundreds, nay, thousands, millones, of apps, YouTube Channels, podcasts, and online courses dedicated to helping you to excel at this very undertaking. As a self-taught speaker of basic Spanish and German who is getting into Arabic, I can’t recommend a little linguistic cultural immersion highly enough — and, as a sneaky side benefit, your CV will be all the more handsome for it.
- Download DuoLingo as your main form of practice, repeat every phrase in a lesson out loud with attention to pronunciation, and visualise the meaning of your words while you speak.
- Create a word document where you list vocabulary, grammatical rules, and stock phrases (like ‘My name is…’ or ‘Can I have more…’) after each lesson — write down as much as you can recall without checking at first, and then look back to see if you forgot anything.
- Check out the EasyLanguages YouTube channel full of topical and oftentimes funny spontaneous street interviews with native speakers. This will help you to gain oral proficiency, improve your vocabulary, learn by immersion, and keep up to date with the living language.
- Write your journal, to-do list, or daily planner in the language you’re learning, or mentally describe your surroundings to yourself in it when you walk into a room.
- Learn with a friend and agree to only use your new language to text each other with the latest gossip (who am I kidding — nothing happens in 2021) or play-by-play updates on your boredom
- Watch films and videos in your language of interest, listen to music in it (see: my growing collection of Arabic pop songs), and follow native speakers on Instagram.
You’ll be speaking the language of love in no time — and, hopefully, speaking of your love of language to anyone who cares to listen!
3. Or Just Turn on Subtitles and Be Transported
Whether you are looking to leap into the world of storytelling in your new language or simply want to be carried a world away by a compelling narrative, now’s the time to get into foreign language cinema.
Whatever kind of film you’re feeling, prepare to be stunned by the subtle cultural differences in how, when, and whether emotions are displayed, as well as what evokes them and what they entail. Contrast Germany’s Love Steaks, focusing on a raunchy, awkward, alienated, and darkly comical working-class entanglement, with the exuberant and sentimental Bollywood classic Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham and you’ll see just how different a tale of forbidden love can be depending on who tells it.
Culture aside, you will be thrilled to discover that so much of what is worth watching — dare I say most of it — comes from outside of the Anglo-sphere. Luckily for you, all it takes is a bit of exploration and turning on those Netflix subtitles.
- Explore indie and arthouse films: sticking to big-budget productions will likely leave you with as little insight as exclusively visiting tourist-oriented attractions would.
- Always check ratings before pressing play — it’s much harder to get a feel for what will be worth your time with the cultural signifiers you’re familiar with out of the equation.
- Don’t stereotype: extrapolating observations from a film to an entire national culture is ill-advised.
- Check out reviews by locals to learn more about the film’s reception, realism, and social value in context.
4. Pick Up Good Vibrations: Surf the Waves of International Online Radio
Radio might sound old-school, but I’d prefer to think of it as a timeless classic, and, if you choose wisely, you’ll find yourself knee-deep in new tunes and falling for genres you’ve never even heard of.
In a similar way to film and language, the music of different cultures can imbue universal categories of emotion with dimensions that are entirely unique. Occasionally, these sub-feelings have names — Brazilian samba-rock is soaked in saudade, a sweet, melancholy, deep sense of longing with no direct analogues — but at times they’re unnameable and nearly indescribable, as with the haunting, knowing, and confident sadness Turkish folk music exudes. Either way, a foreign tune just might put you in a mood you’ve never experienced before, and leave you in the mood for more.
The most exciting element of radio is its spontaneity, its detachment from algorithms, and the moments of minor technical glitches, shoutouts, and stories that remind you that it’s live, and it’s coming from a world beyond your front door.
Tracking down online stations requires a bit of digging, but the right ones provide ceaseless sonic stimulation and, very often, a sense of community. Among the most prominent and prolific is WorldWide FM, a genre-bending sampling of DJs from every corner of the globe. Personally, I often find myself returning to smaller and far more intimate sites like Palestine-based Radio AlHara, which has grown out of a community of artists and activists into an internationalist safe-haven for music-lovers. Many stations have built-in chat rooms, where listeners from across the globe can connect over a shared passion for scintillating sound waves. The most exciting element of radio is its spontaneity, its detachment from algorithms, and the moments of minor technical glitches, shoutouts, and stories that remind you that it’s live, and it’s coming from a world beyond your front door.
If you prefer more control over your listening but still wish to explore a world of music, YouTube is your friend once more, and My Analog Journal, a Turkey-based channel featuring rare vinyl sets curated by geography, genre, and time period, is a definitive favourite with all who are lucky enough to discover it.
- Look out for events and parties to tune in to if you’re missing the club life — we could all use a bit of dancing alone, together.
- Tune in when you’re lonely, bored, exercising, cooking, or cleaning: online radio can make washing the dishes feel like a night out on the town.
- Or try deep listening — get comfortable on your sunlit porch or your very own bedroom floor, close your eyes, and just listen
- Use Shazam to identify and capture those mysterious tracks you love, and become your friend group’s go-to for hidden musical gems.
5. Get a World Map Tattoo… On Your Mind
I’ve never really been a geography buff, but being effectively trapped in my 45-square-metre apartment for months on end has transformed maps into things of myth and magic. If you’ve ever found yourself on an international flight marvelling at the screen as your plane’s trajectory is traced across the globe, or been struck with a sense of confusion at the destination listed above yours on the departures board, you might find it rewarding to learn your way around the planet.
What was once an arbitrary proper noun is now a concrete place in your mind, making it much easier to be an engaged global citizen.
Granted, this one is more of a once-off than the other items, but why not turn a rainy afternoon into a crash-course on countries? It’s easier than you think to memorise where each one is, and remains a great way to impress in company since most folks just never take the trouble to do so. Plus, you’ll earn yourself a permanent VIP spot on the local pub-quiz team.
I tried this out for myself few weeks ago, and started by repeating the Seterra map quiz for each continent until I could flawlessly label all the countries of Europe. I worked my way on to Africa, Asia, the Americas, and, eventually, Australasia with its myriad islands. A couple of hours later, I moved on to this Sporcle map quiz covering 197 countries. My highest score is 97% — great for a layperson but a little shameful considering all my efforts: go ahead and beat it! You just might be overcome with a childlike sense of accomplishment and the priceless thrill of mastering a new party trick.
- Challenge your family members, friends, and housemates for some wholesome fun that just might get ugly, Monopoly-style.
- Refresh your memory by redoing the every-country quiz at least once a week — you wouldn’t want said family members to catch you off guard!
- Enjoy your newfound ability to visualise global news events in a way that you never could before. What was once an arbitrary proper noun is now a concrete place in your mind, making it much easier to be an engaged global citizen.
There you have it — all that should keep you busier than banana bread and more cultured than the required yeast sachet! Your travel itch will be soothed, if not entirely scratched, at minimal cost to you, global public health, or the environment. To top it off, your ability to proudly pose the Pitbull Question (‘Why you think they call me Mr. Worldwide?’) in your interpersonal dealings will be sustained and even strengthened.
Most importantly, you might find that these virtual adventures impart a similar superpower to travel itself: the ability to see yourself and your usual surroundings through new eyes.