You might be wondering what business I have recommending any kind of travel when a recession is looming. With fuel costs rising daily, even a weekend road trip is starting to look like a relic of summers past. Not to mention the fact that many airlines are beginning to tack checked baggage fees onto already daunting ticket prices. And let's not get started on how few euros a dollar can buy these days. Who among us, then, can afford to even think about international travel?
Indeed, all signs seem to point to staying put and getting to know the old hometown a little better this summer. Some pollsters predict that we will see a rise in the so-called home vacation, which promises loads of fun to anyone willing to adopt a tourist's mindset.
Discovering the beauty of your local turf is never a bad idea, especially since it could mean splurging at restaurants, spas and nightclubs in ways that would be harder to justify on an actual vacation.
For those who want a change of scenery without too much sticker shock, promotions abound for short jaunts to a host of U.S. cities and resort communities. Some hotels are even offering gas rebates if you stay two or more nights.
This is all promising news, to be sure. It puts a bit of shine on inexorably gloomy financial forecasts, helps funnel money into struggling businesses and reminds us all that a vacation is just as much about attitude as assets.
But I'm not ready to take international travel completely off the table. In fact, I'm starting to believe that the curse of our current economic climate is also a kind of gift—if only we shift our thinking somewhat.
I've written before about how much I sometimes miss the life of a nomadic and low-maintenance student traveler. Yet every time I reach for my bag of cheap-travel tricks, a bout of soul-searching invariably takes over: Will those fresh-faced college kids snicker behind my 30-year-old back as I gracelessly climb into my hostel bunk? And who wants to risk a case of scabies just to save a few bucks anyway? Also, be honest—isn't it better to be alone than in loud and drunk company?
But now, in the face of an economy that will make penny-pinchers of us all, perhaps it's time, without fear or shame, to reopen the Student Travel Playbook. I think it holds some ideas that could take us a bit farther than we might have thought possible.
Study Abroad—Not Just for the Young and Unencumbered
Few of us have the time or resources to pretend we're parent-subsidized post-adolescents who can jet off to remote corners of the world for months at a time. But numerous companies offer affordable short-term immersion programs, putting study abroad within reasonable reach. Since Spanish is increasingly becoming an employment requirement in our country, many of us would do well to take the opportunity to learn the language. In the process, we'll not only stand to improve our resumes and build cross-cultural skills, but also open our ears to the rich sounds of the world around us.
The International Association for Language Centres is a good place to start planning. The site's search engine allows you to browse courses by language or location. As of this writing, a beginners' Spanish class in Cuernavaca, Mexico, starts at $235/week for six hours of instruction per day. Classes are limited to five students at a time to maximize personalized instruction, and there are also specialized courses for health-care professionals, teachers, lawyers and flight attendants. You can start anytime, and add on additional culture or grammar classes, local excursions, airport transfers and even housing.
How About a Homestay?
One of the constants throughout many of my high school, college and graduate-level international experiences was living with local families. In France, I stumbled through awkward conversations with my awkward host-siblings until one night we were able to bond over an MC Solaar video. And that was only because my eyes lit up when I made out one of the few French words I knew aside from numbers and colors: préservatif (condom). I had recognized it from subway advertisements, but of course I lacked the linguistic ability to explain that. I still wonder what they thought of my excitement in that moment.
During my semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, it was my host-mother who helped me survive seemingly endless days of getting stared at by people who acted like they had never seen a black person before. She reminded me that many of them had not, unless it was on television, but that they were probably mostly staring because I was cute. I remained unconvinced (no one is that cute), but appreciated having a local perspective to give insight into my often-frustrating daily interactions.
I also remember the first time I met my host-mother in Salvador, Brazil. She looked and even sounded so much like my Alabama-born grandmother that when she hugged me I started to cry. She told me she always requested that the language program send her young black women, since she thought we could learn so much from each other. I learned that she grew up one of six children in a small, impoverished town, and that her oldest brother moved to Salvador and bought a house so that all of his siblings could attend college and pursue their dreams together. She became a teacher.
My point, aside from the obvious fact of how much my host families enlivened my travels, is that none of those experiences is off limits to grown-ups. Transitions Abroad, a Web portal for work, study and cultural immersion opportunities, has numerous links to information on international homestays with families that welcome adult travelers. Homestays offer rich opportunities for genuine cultural exchange, since both sides get the chance to interact with one another. As African Americans, we are also uniquely positioned to offer a different view of U.S. culture.
And with rooms in private homes starting at about $35/night including one or two meals, a homestay is also an ideal alternative to costly hotels. At those prices, you might even be able to extend your vacation! At the very least, you'll be able to explore your host city with a little more room in your budget.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the task of sorting through the Web's innumerable travel sites and portals for reliable information, check with your local university's Study Abroad office for guidance on everything including program selection, budgeting, packing suggestions, as well as health and safety issues.
The World at Your Doorstep
So, with the right attitude and deal-hunting skills, you might find that an international journey is within reach this summer after all. If not, I have one final suggestion: Just because you can't make it out into the world doesn't mean you can't bring the world into your home. Through the Center for Cultural Interchange, for example, you can volunteer to host an international student for anywhere from a few weeks to a year. Some programs, like the Worldwide International Student Exchange pay families modest stipends in exchange for providing students with room, board and sometimes even transport to local learning centers.
Serving as a host family offers the same advantages as staying with one, of course. And, who knows—maybe this time next year you'll have new friends you can stay with for free.
Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American History.