There is a time and a place to be a tourist.
Trust me, if you ever find yourself standing in front of The Leaning Tower of Pisa, you will know exactly what to do. Have no shame, go for it! What happens after that is up to you. I am forever seeking the story of the place I am in. The story doesn’t come from the architecture, the art, or the landscape, it comes from the people. Whether I am traveling with my kids or flying solo, I yearn to get immersed in the culture. As a tourist, it’s going to be far more difficult to get to know the locals. If you want to really experience where you are, you’ve got to become a traveler.
Start at home
Think of it this way, you are a local. Imagine the travelers visiting where you live and how they would get to know you and your area. Make connections with them. When you meet someone, reach out and give them the information and tips they need to make their experience better. Keep in touch! Drop them a line when you plan to be in their space. You may be surprised by the adventures that are put before you!
Learn the Language
The obvious first thought would be to learn the language. The more I learn a language, the deeper my experiences. However, I can’t discount the unbelievable moments I have had when I didn’t speak a word. While knowing the language is certainly not necessary for traveling, the more people you are able to talk to, the more connections you will make. You can get by in most major cities speaking English, but you are looking for more than just getting by as a traveler. It’s really worth the few hours you will spend listening to those language lessons in the car before your trip. Carry a phrase card and memorize the important stuff. The locals will appreciate you for it.
Lose the camera
As a photographer, there are few moments when I don’t have a camera in my hand. When I want to blend in or I am in a more personal situation, I put it away. These days, we all have our phones in our pocket or we have a little point and shoot. If the moment arises that you cannot imagine not immortalizing, take a quick shot and put it away. I have had some incredible experiences that I knew taking a photograph would take the spirit out of it. Use good judgement and you should be just fine.
What do we all have in common? We eat! Find out where the locals eat. The food will be better and cheaper! Don’t be afraid to try new things and look at your food as a gift. Wincing at something that may be unfamiliar to you could easily offend and turn the locals off. Mealtime in many cultures is a time when people gather together to be social. When you find a local place to eat, start conversations, laugh and connect with the people around you. Many of my adventures have started over a meal! I recently heard a story from a seasoned traveler who was in Asia. He had asked his driver about an authentic place to eat, a local’s place. The driver brought him and his companions to his family’s small restaurant, while he sat waiting at the other side of the room. The group invited the driver to join them in the meal. He had never been asked to do this. He graciously accepted. What would have been just another meal, turned into a real experience for everyone. Take advantage of moments like this and interact whenever an opportunity arises.
Don’t be afraid to get lost! I love finding random roads to turn down, whether on foot or in a car. You never know where they might lead. Don’t think the adventure is going to find you, you have to find the adventure! Don’t forget to talk to the people you pass along the way. I have found that the older folks love chatting and they have the best stories! Please keep safety in mind in regard to your location! Be smart and keep your instincts sharp at all times.
Got kids? Go play!
My kids make most of their connections on the local playgrounds or the gathering areas of the town we are in. Bring a ball, it’s an instant connection! Even without a common language, kids just figure it out. They end up turning it into a game! It’s a great way to meet local parents too.
Use your resources before you go
Use your friends! Ask around and find out if anyone you know has traveled to where you are going and if they have any connections there for you. Travelers love to share their information and resources! Get online and join travel groups. When you make a connection, drop them an email to let them know when you will be coming. One recommendation can change the whole course of your trip!
Ditch the big tours
If you are looking to have an authentic experience, don’t plan a trip on a tour bus with 40-60 other people. It just won’t happen. You will forge great relationships with people that speak your language, but you will probably not see much of the real culture of where you are. There is no fettucini alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, yet the tourist area restaurants are beginning to serve these dishes to cater to their crowds. Stick with the small tours, take daily excursions with a local, or go out on your own. Step away from the bus…
The best way to have an authentic experience is to open yourself up to it. Don’t be locked into your itinerary. If you are flexible, you will be open to whatever happens next! Don’t be shy, talk to the person you are sitting next to. The more you put yourself out there, the more connections you will make. Most importantly, be respectful of the culture you are in, relax, soak it up, and live in every moment.
This subject has been a group effort! Find out what some of my fellow travel-bloggers have to say about blending in with the locals and really getting that authentic traveling experience!