But, you may ask, how can we truly utilize our senses to fully experience a place, meal, concert, culture? By cultivating awareness — and practicing at home.
First, I’d like to expand the concept of the 5 senses to 7. What? Yes. Listen:
Not only do we have our 5 senses (hearing, seeing, listening, tasting, feeling) to enrich our lives, but I suggest adding two more to truly capture the human experience — intuition and umami. I’ll be exploring all 7 senses in articles here on Transitions Abroad, but let’s start today with hearing.
There are many ways and things to hear, aren’t there? We are surrounded by sounds. All the time. From the alarm clock that wakes us up in the morning (or for a few, that pesky rooster) to the sounds of food cooking to music, traffic, laughter, talking, city sounds or country sounds, animals — the list is endless.
The sounds of the country from a rooster. Photo by Jessie Voigts.
And when we travel, sometimes sounds bombard us — the enormous noise of cities; the magnitude of a shout in a canyon; incessant honking; people sharing their music when you least desire it; languages that sound like shouting to our untrained ears.
The endless noise of city traffic.
Other sounds entice — the sounds of food cooking in street markets; the whisper of the waves lapping the beach; the rush of a waterfall or the gurgle of a small brook; the joyful giggles of kids, the powerful singing of women.
The sounds of the river.
Some sounds herald changes in behavior—the sound of raindrops, slowly increasing until they become a downpour (you know you’ll be stuck wherever you are until it ends, be it a coffee shop, restroom, or under a tree); a rising wind (head inside); crowds of laughing people (stick around! Might be a parade!).
The sound of raindrops.
Yes, yes, I hear you saying. Let’s get to the cultivate awareness and practice at home tips.
How can you best utilize your sense of hearing to enrich your life and enhance your travels? It seems obvious—by listening. Here’s how.
This is one of the most important things you can do to improve your life, wherever you are in the world. Cultivate awareness of the sounds in your life—at home, or on your travels.
Le Coquillage (The Shell), 1871, by William Bouguereau.
How do you cultivate listening awareness?
By Turning Off Electronic Devices, Being Present, and Listening
Don’t get distracted by things you need to do or pay attention to (smartphones, I’m talking to you). Put those away. Whether you’re walking, sitting, or driving, listen to the sounds around you. Listen to the muezzin’s call. Listen to the banter of neighbors, to the sounds of nature, to the subtle noises of life that usually escape notice.
Turn off devices and tune into sounds around you to hear something new.
By Listening and Participating in Language
Try as hard as you can to learn some basic phrases, and if possible, study the language before or during your travels. Talk with locals in their language. You’ll have genuine interactions and create some memorable experiences. Be present in these discussions — you’ll learn more than you ever thought you could (and not only language).
Learn and listen to the local language where possible.
By Listening to Music!
Explore listening to local music, wherever you are. Music is an intimate look inside a culture, as well as a universal language. In Europe, there are often classical music concerts in churches, cathedrals, and public buildings — imagine the acoustics and ambience! Read this lovely description of listening to a concert in a cathedral in Paris:
“…when on the street, seek out the sounds. Wander in and stand on the side. The rapturous vibrations of an organ or the harmonies of a parish choir can touch something primal in us, an emotion that transcends time and bridges the centuries. Even for a moment, the strains of music can unpack our sorrows or free our joys…or just transport us through the force of its simple beauty.” — Marcia De Sanctis, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go.
Imagine listening to the organ play in Notre Dame, Paris.
In Nigeria, listen to local artists that have global appeal. Take music classes when you travel, if you like; make your travel plans around attending music festivals. Find musicians or musical instrument makers and talk with them, listen to them, go to their concerts. When my brother went to Colombia for intensive language classes, his favorite thing was to go to concerts by local musicians, almost every evening. He said it was the best introduction to Colombian culture he could have imagined. Read interviews of musicians before you go, watch their videos, get familiar with the music. That way, when you arrive, you’ll be ready to listen and learn. And you might be surprised—cultures are crossing, musicians are globally collaborating, and new sounds are being made.
By Choosing Travel that Exposes you to Local Sounds and Culture
Practice these at home — so that you’re tuned in to how to listen, as well as ways to listen. It will change your travels — and your life.
Imagine, if when you traveled, you heard things like this:
To See the Sounds of Magic
Our guide’s name is Magic.
Or, I thought it was until I asked
him to write it for me—Majid.
Between the legends he tells
of djinns and double doors,
Majid listens to our questions
and leads us through his streets.
He turns a whitewashed corner
and stops, looking over a cliff.
We gather near, waiting for the next
marvel-fact of this ageless place.
He says nothing, just stares out.
We follow his steady eyes and gasp—
there, across a valley we didn’t know
we’d ascended from,
glows the domed hill of the city
in fading sunlight, flanked by
green fields, green mountains.
“The soul is rich here,” Majid says,
in his thick accent.
Only he didn’t say that. He said soil,
but it took me a moment of context—
olive orchards, vineyards—
to hear what he meant.
We just visited a bakery—saw
and heard how bakers transform grains.
Tomorrow, we visit a vineyard—will see
and hear how vintners transform grapes.
But right now, we stand before the
last light of day, our selves transforming.
“We watched the sun set,” we say later.
But we didn’t.
We heard it—donkey bray,
call to prayer, swallow song.
We heard it— the sound of our
own souls growing,
even if we couldn’t see them.
Jessie Voigts is the publisher of Wandering
Educators, a travel library for people curious
about the world. She’s published
six books about travel and intercultural learning,
with more on the way. You can usually find her family
by water—anywhere in the world.