Guys, gals... let's talk. We've all been that stereotypical tourist. The one that writes a list of top tourist attractions before heading to a new city, making sure to check each one off in a methodical order once arriving.
But, is that really the best way to travel? Seeing the city from the eyes of a foreigner but not seeing the city from the eyes of a local? Maybe if your interest is to get some cool photos. But quite frankly, by following the path of a typical tourist you're missing out on a lot; local food, local culture, & local lifestyle. Plus, you're missing out on some valuable friendships. There's a lot to be gained from becoming friends with a local. They'll show you hidden gems, give you insight on the local history, and probably offer you a great couch to crash on for future travels!
My Co-Founder, Derar, has spent the majority of his life traveling. He's lived in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, East Asia, and North America. After bouncing around and living in several countries, he's become quite skilled at truly diving deep into the cities he's in and getting a glimpse of the life of the locals.
To him, there are five things that we can do to get the most out of our travels and see what life as a local is really about:
1. Become friends with a local
The whole point of making friends with locals is to get a front row seat to understanding how they live and do things. I know for some this is easier said than done, particularly if you're unfamiliar with the language, the history, and the current events.
Derar believes that one of the easiest ways to befriend a local is to ask them questions about their lives to empower them and to put them in the driver's seat of the conversation. We all love talking about ourselves and we all feel like we have a story to tell. The problem is, most people end up arriving at a new town and talking to locals about how things are done "back home".
Avoiding this innate human nature to talk about yourself is key to having a conversation with a local. You'll have to put an active effort into centering the conversation about them and about their lives. If your end goal is to get a real understanding about their culture, you need to give them a chance to tell you how they live and how they do things in their day-to-day lives. Once they sense your genuine interest in learning more about them they will try their best to give you an insider view into their lives.
2. Study their history
Even before traveling to a country, it is very important to get to know the history of it's formation, growth, and development. By doing so, you'll understand more of the "why" behind certain traditions and cultural behaviors and be more prepared for otherwise shocking situations or events.
"I found that incredibly useful especially when I was in east Asia. I started to notice the effect of their historical events on their culture and the way things are done." - Derar A.
3. Keep up with local news
Knowing about current events is a great way to start conversations with locals. If you engage them in a conversation that they feel more knowledgable about, they will open up. You'll be surprised at how talkative even an introvert can be when they feel like the subject matter expert.
A great way to stay informed is to read a version of their local newspaper written in your native language. A printed version of this might be hard to find. If so, Google is your friend. Try to look up online news agencies in that area and find their versions written in different languages.
4. Don’t just eat their food, cook their food
It's probably not going to be easy. Not only are you cooking a foreign dish, but you're using ingredients that you probably don't even know how to pronounce.
However, just because it's hard doesn't mean it won't be fun! Cooking traditional meals is a sure-fire way to give you an insider look into any culture. Sure, you can go to a restaurant and buy that same meal, but it's not quite the same. First of all, you'll probably fail to notice a lot of the ingredients used in the dish if you're simply eating it- not even giving these ingredients a second thought. Plus, you won't get the chance to see the techniques used in cooking that dish.
By learning about the key spices and herbs used in dishes, you'll get an insight into the history of agriculture and job resources in that particular country. Let's take a look at cooking in most Mediterranean countries. You'll notice that most of their traditional meals end up using a lot of olive oil. Yes, Mediterraneans do love olive oil. In fact, some countries even drink it! But, there's more to it than that. Olive crops grow in these countries in abundance and help support their economy. Interestingly enough, even though the Mediterranean countries produce the most olive oil, they also consume the most. According to Purdue University, "Most olive oil is consumed within the Mediterranean countries; only 18% of production enters world trade".
Sometimes cooking even gives you a good idea of societal roles and expectations in the culture. Is a certain family member responsible for a certain dish? Is there a certain technique used to prepare a dish? Are you supposed to say a particular phrase before eating? By learning the steps and ingredients used in a dish, you'll learn the value of these steps and their significance in the culture overall. Perhaps even learning exactly why a certain dish is traditional to the area.
5. Put the camera down
I get it. I really do. That waterfall is absolutely breathtaking. Your Instagram followers deserve to see just how beautiful it is.
But, unless you're a photographer and taking photos is your job, there is no need to be viewing the world through a lens. Try keeping the camera packed away for at least the majority of your trip. If you plan to go somewhere that you know has a lot of scenic surroundings, plan accordingly. Think of the area and how to best prepare a photo. Then, once you're there, snap a few photos as soon as you arrive and then immediately put your camera away. Trust me, you'll capture the beauty of the area just fine. You don't really need to take 30 photos of the same waterfall.
You'll start noticing a lot more when your focus isn't on taking photos. You'll see how the architecture to your left is reminiscent of the Baroque era. You'll hear the music from the man playing the accordion across the street. You'll smell the freshly baked bread from the bakery a block above. All your senses will be available and you'll really get a chance to see what's going on around you and envelope yourself in the life surrounding you.
How do you immerse yourself in local cultures? Comment below with your answer!