There are many different ways to travel, however for those looking to achieve full cultural immersion; that is to discover new cultures and impact and interact with local communities along the way, it is essential to dedicate quality time to each destination, more-so than you would in an average trip. And no-one knows this better than Hanne Hellvik, a traveler who has visited over 50 countries to date and opts to stay for months instead of days.
It’s all about prioritizing quality time v counting countries when it comes to travel, she says: you learn so much more about the culture and history of a destination this way, and taking the time to speak to local people is better than any guidebook or destination guide you will find, as no-one knows a country better than the people who have lived their whole life there.
This week’s inspiring traveler interview is with Hanne Hellvik; the stories of her travels and the wonderful local relationships she has struck up along the way will inspire and encourage you to seek out full cultural immersion when you travel abroad, and perhaps consider spending quality time in new destinations instead of traveling to simply tick countries off a list.
What do you love the most about travelling?
There are many reasons why I love to travel. However, the main reason would be that I meet new people from different countries. I learn from them, and their culture, ways and stories. I enjoy to live among the locals, and observe and take part in their daily life.
Everywhere I have been, people have always been so welcoming and kind to me. They have showed so much love, and made me a better person.
What inspired you to start travelling?
I started to really travel while completing my master’s degree in Development Management. I wanted to travel to developing countries and work on development projects abroad. I wanted to do something meaningful, help, but also get experience in my field. So, that was one thing that inspired me.
I also wanted to see more of the world and experience new cultures. I have loved to travel from a very early age. You can say I was born with the wanderlust gene.
You enjoy travelling locally and sustainably. What does this mean?
That means that I love to stay longer time at each place I visit. I usually do not travel to a new place and just stay for a few days. I stay for months. This way I get to know the local culture and people better.
It is also more sustainable regarding the environment, and that I have a bigger positive impact on the local communities. Especially because I travel around doing development work, and if I just stayed for a short time, I could not make such an impact.
What are the benefits of interacting with local people while travelling abroad?
The benefits are many. But I think the main benefit is that you learn so much more about the culture, history, and about what is worth to see in a country if talking to the locals, than for example reading about it in a guide book.
I believe that no one knows a country better than the people that have lived their whole life there.
Tell us about some of the locals you have met along your journey & their stories.
During my travels, I have met so many wonderful people. In Nigeria I worked with the local armed conflict that is between Muslims and Christians there. I visited villages where people were slaughtered due to their religion, and talked to the people that survived.
I also got very close to some of the children which lost their parents in one of the attacks. One of them is Alheri, an 11 year old orphan. You have to read her story.
In India, I talked to many young women about forced marriage. Most would like to marry who their parents find right them. However, I worked with a brave lady, named Diya, who did not want to do that. She wanted to marry the guy she loved. However, he was from another cast. They had to run away for get married. Their family never wanted anything more to do with them. Read more about her story.
These are just two of many local beautiful people with incredible stories I have met on my travels. I would never have gotten to know these wonderful people and their strong stories if I would not have interacted with the locals.
Also, I would not have met my husband, a Bolivian native, whom I met while spending time in local communities in Bolivia.
You have travelled to over 50 countries – tell us about some of your more memorable experiences to date.
My trip to San Blas in Panama was very memorable. It is the most beautiful place I have been. I remember well the kind Kuna Indians that lived on the over 300 islands in the area. There are no hotels, and you sleep, eat and transport around with the locals. It is like being put hundreds of years back in time, visiting San Blas.
Another trip I remember very well was to Ganvie in Benin. This is the biggest community living on water in the world, and the local communities do everything from their wooden canoes. I had idea that these places even existed, and it is a testimonial on that we humans can adapt to everything. Even if it is living on water.
What are the benefits of travelling to destinations where people rarely travel?
Your come home with your own unique story, one completely different to the millions of other travellers before you.
I also think that the local people in more unknown destinations are more open to receive you, as they are more curious. While, if you travel where many people go, the local people are used to foreigners.
I feel like you get to see something more real while travelling where few do. It is not a big show, like in many touristic spots.
How has travelling changed you as a person?
Travelling have change me in many ways. Maybe the most important is that I appreciate more what I have now, than before I started to travel.
When I was living without water and electricity in Nigeria, for several months, I understood that I do not need material things for me happy. I can even be happy without being able to take a shower. Because what matters is that I have people I love and that loves me back around me.
How have you managed to you afford travel to 50 countries – are you rich?!
Not at all. However, it helps to be Norwegian. During my studies I worked, and saved all the money for my travels. I almost did not have any social life at all! However, you can come far with a Norwegian salary, and everywhere is cheap for a person used to Norwegian prices.
The government also pay a stipend while you study, that I travelled with. I have to pay it back now though. Argh…
I have also stayed a lot with local people, which have often given me free accommodation, food and transport. Furthermore, I have worked a bit while on travels, which have given me some income. I worked for example almost 2 years as the director of a foundation working with street kids here in Bolivia.
What advice do you have for others who want to do what you do?
If you would like to travel, just do it. No excuses, like I don’t have money or time. Just jump into it!
You can travel practically for free. I used 50 USD on 2 months in India. Who cannot afford that?
What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you started traveling?
That the world is not as dangerous as I was thinking. The first time I travelled alone was when I moved to New York. I was pretty nervous. Now I understand that the world is not a dangerous place, and I had nothing to be scared of.
One thing which you don’t like about travelling?
I do not like to travel in itself. I hate long flights, bus- or train rides. And I hate even more all the waiting on the airports and bus terminals. However, it is necessary for get from one destination to another.
Biggest cultural shock you have experienced while travelling?
That must be when I was working in Nigeria with HIV/AIDS. I was going around to schools for teach them about this topic. However, we were not allowed to mention the word condoms, due to that the schools where religious.
All we could tell then was: Do not have sex! I was shocked, because I knew the students would have sex anyway. But then most likely without condoms, and that would not help to prevent HIV at all!
Three things you can’t travel without?
My lap-top – Needed to write blog posts and work.
My make-up – It is impossible to find the same products while on travel.
Antibac – I get very fast sick if I do not have that with me.
Which destinations are at the top of your bucket list?
Everywhere I have not been yet are on my bucket list, so it is very long. But here is my top 3:
Why should people travel?
Because the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
By reading more pages of the book, you will not just see interesting places, experience new cultures, and getting to know incredible people, but you will most likely also develop and change as person – to the better – based on what you learn on your journey.