Erin Smith was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1981, so she’s been eating gluten-free almost her entire life, and all of Erin’s travels have always been gluten-free. She’s been writing her gluten-free lifestyle website Gluten-Free Fun since 2007. In 2011, she launched Gluten-Free Globetrotter® during a trip in the Czech Republic. Gluten-Free Globetrotter is a website that encourages those with celiac disease to travel the world and not be scared about eating gluten-free domestically and abroad.
On her website she shares personal travel stories, gluten-free travel tips, international celiac resources, itinerary planning assistance, and positive reinforcement to those who are gluten-free and want to travel the globe. When she is not gluten-free globetrotting, Erin is the lead organizer of the NYC Celiac Disease Meetup group.
Growing up, I always traveled with my family but it wasn’t until 2005 that I really fell in love with travel. It was that year that I took my first solo trip to Sedona, Arizona and the Grand Canyon. I was so busy at my office in New York City that I knew I needed a break. I wanted nature and the opposite of the hustle and bustle of NYC and Arizona was the perfect place. I loved being immersed in nature and it was the exact kind of trip I needed. I also felt so liberated traveling for the first time in my life. Since that first solo trip, I have taken at least 10 more solo trips and have completely fallen in love with travel.
What was your most intense culture shock experience? What did you learn from it?
My most intense culture shock experience was when I stepped outside of Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand for the first time. I had been traveling for many hours and the combination of exhaustion, heat, and the craziness of thousands of travelers all around me really hit me hard. It was one of the first times I thought “What am I doing here? Did I make a mistake?” I knew I was exhausted and disoriented so instead of turning around and flying home, I looked for my driver and headed to my hotel.
Thailand was definitely a learning experience. I was in complete awe of the old temples next to the new high-rise buildings. I thought the streets of Bangkok were utter chaos but then realized there was order in the chaos. I just stopped and watched people living in such a faraway land and realize they are functioning in their everyday lives just like I do back in New York City. Once I realized this, I let myself settle into the frenetic energy in Bangkok and really enjoy my environment.
Any tips for someone going through culture shock for the first time? What helped you?
My best tip is to wait it out. Your immediate reaction might be to leave a place that is uncomfortable and scary, but give it time. Jet lag, travel exhaustion, and being in a new place can all be overwhelming so let yourself acclimate and get used to your new environment. Even when traveling from one village or city to the next, allow yourself to become familiar with your new environment. I always feel sad or homesick the first day in a new place because I don’t know the area yet. Once I start to recognize streets and landmarks, I start to feel more comfortable and generally start to like my location better.
What has reverse culture shock been like for you?
Surprisingly to me, my biggest reverse culture shock is when I travel within the United States and then return to New York City. As a native New Yorker, it is difficult to admit the stereotype is true but we are a tough group. Everyone in NYC works hard, plays hard, and seems to be busy 24/7. In other parts of the US and the world, people stop to say hello, chat with you at a store or restaurant, and don’t seem nearly as rushed as they do at home in New York. I remember coming back from friendly Portland (Oregon) one time and saying hello to a fellow commuter on the way to the NYC subway. This person looked at me like I had ten heads and then moved away. I had just spent ten days talking to everyone in Portland and couldn’t understand why a local didn’t respond to me like the people in Portland did. It was a difficult realization that maybe (some, not all) New Yorkers are standoffish. After this realization, I make an effort to always to say hello and help tourists in the subway if they look lost or confused.
What is your favorite travel learning experience? Anything that triggered a profound shift?
My favorite travel learning experience is learning about people in different cultures… what they eat, how they dress, how they interact with children. I love observing and talking to locals to learn everything I can. Observing people in their local cultures makes me appreciate all of our worldly differences and human similarities. I love it all.