I am often involved in discussions with people eager to share stories about their latest adventure of a lifetime. One question that I tend to ask is “Did you meet any locals?” Many people quickly throw out an excuse:
“I was with a guided tour and didn’t get a chance to meet anyone” or “I don’t speak their language” or “I was on the beach the whole time“.
But how does one expect to learn about a new culture if one doesn’t mingle with the locals? In order to really get a sense of a foreign culture, it’s essential.
True, meeting locals can be intimidating and difficult, since you are in the country for a very limited time; however, that should not stop you from getting out and exploring everyday life. Museums and historic sites will teach you about history, but present-day culture can only be understood by observing the daily routines of the local inhabitants.
Traveling should be about immersing yourself in the unexpected – it’s about meeting new friends, speaking new tongues, leaving your comfort zone behind and opening up to a new world.
It’s the local people who will give you true insight into their culture, accompany you to authentic entertainment venues and point out the best restaurants (local restaurants that is – not overpriced places that cater to tourists).
Here are a few useful pointers that will help you interact with locals and open up to a foreign country.
Learn Language Basics Before You Leave
It’s a wise idea to learn a few basic phrases in the language of your destination. Pick up a self study guide at least two weeks prior to your departure and practice some essential conversation phrases. You will boost your confidence, and the knowledge will help you better interact with the locals.
The “Teach Yourself” series offers beginner to advanced books in various languages. They taught me the basics of Italian and Spanish, and I found them to be very simple, clear and straight to the point.
Pursue Your Hobbies Abroad
What hobbies do you have? Get involved in activities that you enjoy while you’re in a foreign country. Find out if they are offered at your destination.
For example, if you like photography, get in touch with a photo club in the place you plan to visit. If you regularly hit the gym, research where the fitness centers are located. This way you will still be involved in an activity you enjoy and have a chance to meet some like-minded locals.
Take Some Lessons
Each country specializes in something they call their own. They offer lessons to locals and tourists to introduce a specific art or sport.
For example, you could attend an origami class in Tokyo, or, if in Spain, take a flamenco lesson. If you’re in France (and have deep pockets) go skiing with a personal teacher. In Argentina find a tango school, because when the night falls, you need to put your passion on display.
Find out what the hot new trend is, and study along with the locals.
Avoid Tourist Traps
Once you are at your destination, do as the locals do. Avoid restaurants with menus translated into three different languages. In fact, avoid anything that is presented in English, unless you are in an Anglophone country.
Eat where the locals eat. Find an unfamiliar place, leave your comfort zone behind, and dive into the local bar and restaurant scene. This is where your basic language skills will shine. Extra Tip: Stop a local pedestrian and ask where you can find a great meal.
Skip The Guided Bus Tours
Take public transportation to get to your destination – this will help you mingle with locals or sit back and observe their everyday life and interactions.
Relying on public transport gives you more time and freedom to explore the city at your own pace. It will save you money and force you to strike up conversations, since you will have to buy your own train/bus ticket, find your way to the station and figure out where to get off.
It’s not always easy to step out of your comfort zone and hop on a public bus in a foreign country, but if you make the effort to interact with locals, you open the door to a truly memorable experience.