If you’re traveling to the Middle East or North Africa, your trip is bound to be memorable. It’s a region home to breathtaking sites: the pyramids, Petra, and amazing Roman ruins. Beautiful coastlines, sweeping desert landscapes, and rugged mountain scenes. Ancient history, fascinating traditions, bustling souqs, and delicious food. You will remember it, no doubt. 

Pyramids of Cairo in the distance

But there’s a personal side of travel in the Middle East and North Africa that can give you a sense of meaning and connection in ways that might surprise you. I call it the human element of travel. It’s one of the most simple and yet profound aspects of the travel experience: meaningful interaction with the people of the country hosting our travel experience. Yet we often miss it as we move from site to site and check off items on our “must-see” list.

Many of our travelers have described these simple experiences as the highlight of their tours: 

  • drinking tea at a popular cafe 
  • touring an olive grove with a local farmer and learning about olive production
  • talking about local culture while cooking a meal in a local home
  • sitting around an open fire with Bedouins in the desert and talking about their lives and traditions

A Bedouin sits next a brightly burning fire in the Sahara desert

Read on to learn about the human element of travel, and how to incorporate it into your trip to the Middle East and North Africa. 

The Human Element of Travel: Why It’s Crucial Today

The human element of travel is all about slowing down enough to connect with others. But is it worth the time when you’ve traveled so far and are among some of the most amazing sites in the world? 

At Engaging Cultures, we’d argue that it’s absolutely worth it. After all, relational connection is what’s truly Travelers enjoying hanging out with a local hostmeaningful to us as humans. Finding opportunities to relate with locals can connect you with a country more than any amount of site-seeing. Taking the time to interact with locals gives us insight into what people are really like, helping us overcome stereotypes and giving us a more nuanced understanding of local culture. It allows us to appreciate the differences between our culture and the local culture, while also revealing unexpected similarities.

As we get to know those of another culture and hear their stories, we begin to realize that many of our basic needs, aspirations, and concerns are similar: providing for ourselves and our family, finding a job that gives dignity, leaving a better world for the next generation, etc.

The Human Element of Travel: Simple, Not Complicated

This “human element of travel” and “meaningful connection” can sound vague and perhaps even intimidating. 

But two simple tools any traveler can use are asking good questions and practicing thoughtful observation.

1) Asking good questions: Most people in the Middle East and North Africa enjoy conversation and don’t shy away from talking about life, even with strangers. Take an interest in the people you meet along your journey, whether it’s a shopkeeper, a waiter at a Orjan host talking with guest on a Jordan tourrestaurant, your tour guide, or a friendly stranger who wants to practice their English. Ask them about their families, where they’re from (many residents in the bigger cities are from a different part of the country), and what their hopes and concerns are for the future. As you chat with people, you can get a fascinating insight into their lives and the way they view the world. 

2) Practicing thoughtful observation: Often we’re so eager to see the amazing sites that we miss slowing down enough to observe and reflect on local life. Observing and reflecting on what we see with the intention to understand is a simple habit that can lead to great insight. At Engaging Cultures, we call this traveling with “lights on” — seeking deeper understanding and helping others come to new realizations and perspectives along with us.

Of course, thoughtful observation will help you develop good questions you can ask a local. 

Travelers learn about life in the Sousse Medina at a local souq

Travelers learning about life in the Sousse Medina during a visit to the souq

The good thing about these two tools is you don’t need to adopt a new style of travel to use them. No matter what kind of tour you’re doing, you’ll be interacting with local people along the way.

The Human Element of Travel: What It Can Look Like For You

Planning your travels in intentional ways can increase the likelihood of meaningful interaction.

Here are four suggestions to help you get started: 

  • Build empty space into your itinerary: If your tendency is to fill your itinerary with site-seeing and rush through each day, consider planning in blocks of 2-4 hours of “empty space” throughout your itinerary. You might use this time to do people watching at a sidewalk cafe, trying out interesting street food, exploring a new part of the city, or shopping in a local neighborhood. Building in empty space helps you slow down, explore and appreciate aspects of the host culture you might not have time for otherwise. 
  • Stay at bed and breakfasts, guest houses, or other unique accommodations that encourage connection with the local culture. The Feynan Eco-Lodge in Jordan or the Kenza Hotel in southern Tunisia are great examples of this. Smaller accomodations are often run by locals who have a desire for their guests to experience and appreciate the culture. They’re usually located “closer to the action” in local villages or neighborhoods rather than large tourist areas far from the community’s daily life. 
  • Learn some of the local language. This can open up doors for interaction and conversation. It can help you feel more connected with those around you as you travel, and open up doors for conversation. While you might not learn enough of the local language to have an extensive conversation, learning a few key words or phrases demonstrates to people that you’re interested in them and their culture.
  • Schedule a meal with a host family. Food is a universal way to connect with others and a great setting for conversation. Eating a meal in a local home (or even better, cooking the meal with the hosts) creates a natural space to interact with a family, learn about their traditions, and enjoy delicious food.

Travelers enjoy a meal with a local family in Orjan, Jordan

The Human Element of Travel: Making It Yours

As you plan your trip to the Middle East or North Africa, consider how to include the human element. Whether you make it a small or large part of your tour, you’ll depart with amazing memories and a deeper sense of meaning. 

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