So here's a loaded question - What is culture? A person can spend their entire life trying to find an answer to that query. I'm not planning on going into that level of detail, but for those of us intent on exploration of new and possibly strange lands, it's an important part of the traveling experience. As I have noted before, the moment one steps off of the airplane, one is immediately immersed in the culture of that land.
When some of us think of culture, we end up thinking of the arts - ballet, classical music, opera. Ifone has an appreciation of these, we tend to think of these people as 'cultured'. However, not only is this a misappropriation of the term, it leaves out aspects of our society that have far more impact upon the day-to-day lives of every day folks like you and I. We are all cultured.
Culture is the language of life. It is how we communicate our interpretation of the world to others. Yes, art is the most obvious example of this, but so is our collective morality, which ends up informing where we put our faith. Sometime we put our faith in religion, other times with government, other times with our community or immediate environment, sometimes we even put our faith in individuals. Our expression of these faiths results in the cultural.
"All right," you may be saying. "How does this affect the poor, lonely traveler?"
"How does it not?" I would respond. Your first decision on how to get to your destination is steeped in culture. Stepping into a car in order to get to the airport is an exercise in the cultural. The car is an invention created to a quick method of transportation between extended distances because the natural environment, as well as our natural bodies, are ill-equipped to get from point A to point B in a timely manner. The car you drive reflects either your values and class status. The roads your drive upon inform your interaction with that environment, and may even dictate where you can live.
"Okay," you say, a little exasperated. "But this doesn't tell me about the place I was going to visit."
Fine, fine. If you head to Tucson, and try out Sonoran Hot Dogs? You'll be eating a food that found its way from Sonora University, where it fed the local students cheaply, to the streets of Tucson by those who had come from that region. It is a dish created from the local resources that reflect the region.
Every time you cross a border, or go through customs, you are embarking on a bureaucratic process implemented by a local government designed to control the influx of visitors. Governments are but an legislative extensionof the culture of the local citizenry.
If you go to London, and visit St. Paul's Cathedral? You're visiting the manifestation of the local citizen's interpretation of the unknown communicated through architecture.
If you go to Tokyo, and take your beer along with you as you walk the streets, you're indulging in the city's (and by extension, its citizens) lack of concern over public consumption of alcohol. My examples here are admittedly high-level. I can go on, but hopefully these communicate how culture informs the traveling experience.
Don't take my word for it. L. Robert Kohls, in his primer Survival Kit For Overseas Living, defines culture in the following way:
The food you eat while visiting New York City? That's an artifact of the culture. The bus you use to get from the airport to the hotel? That's a tool used for transportation. Have you visited Oktoberfest in Munich? That's both a ritual and a ceremony.
My point here is that everything we do when we travel is related to the cultural. And if you're someone who seeks out these things, the experience you have is exponentially greater if you understand the hows and whys of these things and how the end up impacting the place your visiting.