If you’ve been reading about travel this past while, you’ll see that there’s a lot of stress on getting the local experience when you travel. It seems rather impossible—of course, as travellers, we’re always going to get the traveller experience. How can spending a couple of weeks somewhere give us the insight gained by the people who have woken up there every day and will continue to do so until they die? How can our love of a country compare to the complex emotions it arouses in its citizens, who have known it through hardship and victory, who are tied to the land in ways we’ll never understand?
It can’t, and it never will. But local travel experiences still exist, and are still important.
So what is a local travel experience?
It’s the experience you get when you travel for understanding, as well as pleasure. It’s what happens when you take an interest in the people who inhabit a country, when you try to learn about their beliefs, their traditions, their culture. It’s when you look beyond the obvious, beyond what’s being marketed to tourists, and open yourself to whatever little surprises your destination has to offer.
Why does it matter?
Other than bragging rights, what difference does it actually make? Isn’t your experience just as valuable if you stay on resorts, eat at tourist-catered restaurants and talk exclusively to other travellers?
Travelling like a local spreads the wealth.
By only purchasing services that were created for tourists, you’re ensuring that all your tourist dollars land in the same hands, not to mention that these places are often foreign-owned. You don’t always need to wander far to find someone who needs it more; sometimes just straying a few blocks away will bring you to a family-owned shop or hole-in-the-wall restaurant that would appreciate your hard-earned money a lot more. Considering that these are local businesses that depend on repeat customers, the quality will probably be better as well!
It breaks down stereotypes.
We often have preconceived notions about people from other countries. Travel can change that, but only if you experience a country through its people. In interacting with locals, you’ll see what their lives are really like, what their values are, what makes them happy. Not only that, but it gives you the chance to wipe away any stereotypes and misconceptions about your own country, creating an opportunity to move towards a more accepting and open-minded world. You’ll see that at the core, we’re not all that different, after all.
It inspires a deeper connection to a place.
The people you meet will weave their way into your heart, and you won’t be able to evict them. Suddenly, books and movies about your destination will make more sense, because you’ll have seen past the image the rest of the world is given. You’ll be more affected by current events in that part of the world. The place you travelled to will become more than a setting for world-famous sights to you. You’ll see it as somewhere people live.
So how do you get local travel experiences?
It’s hard to experience a place as a local if you’re only there for a day or two. Explore less, but more deeply. Build a routine. Shop at the markets, stop at the same coffee shop every morning. Be recognised. Not only will having a more stable routine give you a better impression of what it must be like to live there, but once people grow accustomed to seeing you around, they’ll be a lot more likely to reach out.
Interact with locals.
Of course, this one goes without saying. Check out sites like CouchSurfing or MeetUp for events and to find people who are dying to meet you as well. Strike up a conversation with the lady at the market, or the receptionist at your hotel. Be friendly, and ask questions about the place if they seem interested in talking. Get recommendations. Be flexible with your plans, and learn to say yes to invitations. Most people are all too happy to show off their countries, and would love to hear about your own!
Get off the beaten path.
Wander past the main attractions to see what gems you’ll discover just a few blocks away. Ask people on the streets where they like to eat, drink, or get away from it all. If you have the time, take a couple of days to visit a less touristy town. There may not be much to do according to guide books, but that only means it’s up to you to discover the quirks and charms of your new base!
Make your travel experience worth your while. Create connections, harbour understanding, and you’ll leave with more than just souvenirs, photographs and memories. You’ll bring back friendships and cultural understanding that will be life-changing.
*Images credit: Shutterstock