Break The Comfort Zone: How To Be A Better Traveller

Life lessons on travel from one filmmaker's journey to Ghana.

Words by Erin Van Der Meer
Photography by Stefan Hunt

By Erin Van Der Meer, 7/4/2016
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Some people are born to be unstoppable. When he was 18, Stefan Hunt and a friend flew to America, bought an ice cream truck, and over seven months travelled across the country, meeting as many people as they could and documenting their adventures along the way.

A decade later and the Sydney local is still pushing the boundaries as an intrepid adventurer. An award-winning short filmmaker, the globetrotter has travelled extensively for his projects, most recently heading to the small West African nation of Ghana, tasked with the mission to put all the things he’s learnt about how to have an amazing travel experience into practice – and record it on camera, naturally.

“I’d never been to West Africa, and I wanted to go to a part of the world that was completely new to me – and about as far away from home as I could get,” Stefan explains over the phone from his Manly Beach home. “I think young travellers are always looking for somewhere a little off the tourist trail, because that’s when you get a real sense of a place, more of a genuine experience or insight into a culture.”

It’s Stefan’s insuppressible drive to experience whatever destination he’s visiting at a deeper level every time he travels that has seen him form his own philosophy of sorts – lessons or mantras learnt from others that he applies every time he hits the road. And when he put them into practice on his visit to Ghana, they didn’t let him down.

Outside your comfort zone = where the magic happens

Stefan found the travel thrill he’d been seeking within 24 hours of touching down for his two-week trip to Ghana. He headed straight to Jamestown, a historic district of the capital, Accra, to meet “a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend”, a young man named Jonah, who had agreed to show him around his town for a few days.

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“I met up with Jonah in the middle of a bustling market, and we didn’t know each other from a bar of soap,” he remembers. “He began leading me to his home through a labyrinth of these little laneways, probably only a metre wide, filled with people. It was like navigating a maze, but having lived there all his life Jonah knew the way off by heart.”

“It was one of the most exciting landscapes I’d been to for a while.”

The 28-year-old said he felt electric with excitement as his new companion led him through the chaotic network of tiny streets, knowing it would be impossible to visit such a place as a normal tourist. It was the challenge and rush he’d been craving.

The natural-born storyteller paints a vivid image of the hectic, crowded scene that was unfolding around him.

“There were people cooking in the streets, and a boxing match was being promoted at the local park; the boxers were getting revved up for this fight and yelling and stirring each other up as everyone watched on, which was pretty intense. Everywhere kids were playing soccer and riding bikes, some with a missing seat or handlebars. It’s quite a poor area so people only have very small one or two room houses, and they’re all crammed together.

“It was one of the most exciting landscapes I’d been to for a while. As a filmmaker it was the kind of place I hope to stumble upon when I go travelling.”

Listening to Stefan speak with uncontainable enthusiasm about discovering a pocket of the world for the first time, the wisdom is suddenly so blatantly obvious: the more effort you put into delving deeper into a place, the bigger the goosebump-inducing, heart-racingly exciting, this-is-really-living reward.

Eat with the locals

Stefan spent a few days with Jonah exploring the area and spending time with Jonah’s family. Jonah’s mum even showed him how to cook some local cuisine, and he joined the family when they sat down for a meal in their modest home. Stefan says he tries to eat with locals as often as possible when he’s in a new country.

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“When I was making the documentary in the US, a Jewish man by the name of Papa Greenburg invited my friend and I to dinner and we had Hanukah with his family,” he recalls of his 2006 trip the States.

“At the end of the night he said to us ‘The best way to experience a country is to eat a meal with the locals.’ I’ve always found it to be a great way to get to know, and get to the heart of a people and a culture.”

But you don’t necessarily need an invitation to dinner at someone’s house to have that experience. Just sit at a communal table when eating at a café, restaurant or food hall, or hang by the cart when you tuck into street food. Food is one of those things people are always more than happy to talk about.

Now’s not the time to be shy

While Ghana is a relatively stable country and has much lower crime rates than other West African nations, it’s still in a part of the world that had been plagued with violence. Stefan says he did have some slight hesitation before going to Ghana, but had heard about the warm hospitality there – and thankfully, the reality lived up to the reputation.

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“To go from having some initial hesitation about visiting Ghana, to feeling like I’ve got friends there now is an incredible feeling… The hospitality is really special.”

“People welcomed me into their homes, and were just happy to tell me about their lives. If you want to know something, you just have to ask. There’s a real sense of pride for their country and their culture, and they want to share that with everyone.”

He says it’s important to keep your body language open and a smile on your face when traveling. If you make eye contact with someone, don’t look away – engage. You could end up talking for hours with a person who was a stranger moments before.

“To go from having some initial hesitation about visiting Ghana, to feeling like I’ve got friends there now is an incredible feeling. I could turn up tomorrow and send them a text and they’d probably come and pick me up from the airport!” he laughs. “The hospitality is really special.”

Do as the locals do

One of the anecdotes Stefan delivers with the most excitement is about the day he went surfing on Ghana’s coastline with a local surf club.

“Some of the local kids from the village just had a plank of wood they were using; they were taking turns with it to body board. I got to have a go of riding this plank of wood with 20 kids around me screaming,” he laughs. “It was pretty surreal.”

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For Stefan it was surfing that served as a way to do as the locals do. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t stand up on a board. It’s about finding whatever way you can to break down the barrier between local and tourist.

It can be as simple as asking a fisherman if he has a spare rod or the person on the metro about the book they’re reading. It’s the kind of thing we might not feel inclined to do in our home cities, but when no one knows you in a place, it’s easier to push past the self-consciousness.

Even if it’s awkward, it’s worth it. “More than any tourist attraction you can see, those are things that stay with you long after you get home,” Stefan says.

Spread those good vibes

Stefan’s day surfing with the locals is undoubtedly one of the most joyous moments in the video he made of his trip to Ghana. Smiling an exuberant grin, wide-eyed as he lets the aqua water and whitewash carry him forward, he looks almost as elated as the children playing excitedly around him. It’s obvious that his cheerful, infectious demeanour encourages locals to open up and feel comfortable with him.

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The clip is typical of Stefan’s aesthetic; light, happy, bright, feel-good. The director regularly puts his behind-the-camera talent to use making short films that aim to create social change around important issues, often in partnership with charities and not-for-profits. The natural born storyteller explains he prefers the power of positivity over what he describes as “the whole doom and gloom thing”.

“Rather than trying to guilt-trip people into action, I try to inspire them.” It’s this attitude that has seen him present heartbreaking stories with a sense of hope, like the tale of Nicaraguan man Moacir Zeledon in Stefan’s short film I Lost My Dream, who found himself in a Mexican orphanage as a boy when his mother left him behind to move to the United States (it screened at numerous film festivals and won Best Short Doco at Sydney Indie Film Festival). Stefan has the ability to find the bright side in everything, to insert optimism into everything he does, whether it’s travelling, making a film, or as is often the case for him, both at the same time.

Reflecting on his journey to Ghana, Stefan says it’s sparked a desire to keep challenging himself travel-wise, and to explore more of Ghana and West Africa.

He says by sharing his video, he hopes to motivate others to do the same.

“I’m really honoured to have had the opportunity to discover a new place and put my travel lessons into practice, and I just hope to inspire other young travellers.”

And there’s no doubt he’s done just that.

 

Watch the video of Stefan’s trip to Ghana; one of three stories as part of Westpac’s Unstoppable Squad. You can also follow him on Instagram or Tumblr. Make your experience as unstoppable as Stefan’s by arming yourself with easy access to your cash and no ATM fees at over 50,000 ATM’s in the Global ATM Alliance. Find more information here.


Erin is a freelance writer currently living in NYC. Right now, she’s drinking too many free refills of Dr Pepper. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.