10/20/2014 05:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why You Should Be a Traveler in a New Land, Not a Tourist


If you were to turn back time to a little more than a year ago, you would find a 15-year old me, fully armed with an empty passport and unfulfilled travel dreams. At that point, I'd only left the country one time in my life: I slipped across America's northernmost border when I was 13, wandered about in the wilderness, and returned to the relative safety of home within the same day. Travel was but an ink print on paper, an idea so gossamer thin I couldn't tell if it lived in this reality or the next.

Ironically, travel is now one of the only sure and solid aspects of my life. I've committed to spending three years of my life bouncing around the globe, leaving a country almost as soon as I become acclimated. That's the thing though, it still takes time to adjust in every location. It's not an instantaneous integration. Culture shock is an unavoidable aspect of travel.

In all honesty, New Zealand has a culture closer to mine than any foreign country I've ever visited. Not only is it a westernized, English-speaking state, but the nature-loving vibe is incredibly reminiscent of home. Based off past experience, I know I tend to hover in the "honeymoon stage" for an extended amount of time. Sometimes I wake up in the morning as that 15 year old corn-fed American, and the sheer presence of my reality makes me fall in love with life. I can say, with the utmost certainty, that I'm still in the honeymoon stage when it comes to Auckland. I love everything about it; the weather, the city lights, the movement, the sea.

But I know that soon one day or another -- I'll fall prey to the "rejection phase." Under normal circumstances, this stage doesn't last very long for me. Usually, I'm not trying to reject my host culture, but rather the entire world. Those are the hard days. Everyone has them.

I think I speak for almost all travelers when I say my ultimate goal is to reach the "independence stage." I feel like that's how travel should be measured, really. Without integration and acceptance of a culture, travelers are just tourists. And, to be truthful, I feel like I'll get there rather quickly with NZ. I feel comfortable in my environment, and I'm constantly looking to broaden my local knowledge. Sure, my accent will continue to raise questions and I'll constantly be surprised by the price of bottled water, but this final phase is ever nearer. I find that it's impossible to tell when it happens, it just slowly commandeers your life without the slightest whisper. And suddenly, you're at home, going through reverse culture shock, and wondering when in the world you became the person you are.

It's easy to classify culture shock into five different stages, but it's so much more than that. You can be in any given stage on any given day. There's no logical progression -- the stage you're functioning in is a mindset that can shift with the wind. But everyone goes through each part, whether it be forwards, or slowly, or backwards, or quickly. It's not only unavoidable, but essential. Be a traveler, not a tourist.

--River Wittke