Dinner at someone’s home in Kenya, an all-night karaoke session with Japanese students in Tokyo and playing checkers with taxi drivers in China: for me the most valuable and happiest moments during my travels were encounters with locals. Although seemingly small and insignificant, these encounters were unforgettable. I felt less of a tourist, and more part of the country. But, how do you go local while traveling? How do you get a more authentic experience? Together with three fellow travel bloggers I would like to give you a few tips. I promise you: getting out of the tourist bubble is rewarding!
Bond through sports
How-to-go-local tip by Jules from Don’t Forget To Move Jules: If there’s one thing I’ve learned along my travels, it‘s that sport can unify all difference. Forget about language barriers and cultural anomalies, if you love the same sport, especially the same team, you’ll be bonded in minutes. And if you can get involved in local sport you’ll definitely help fast track an authentic travel experience that introduces you to local life and the people that live it.
If you love the same sport, especially the same team, you’ll be bonded in minutes. – Jules
Think sport in Latin America and you’ll automatically think of football (or soccer as we call it in Australia). Everywhere I went I met people crazed about this sport. Whether it’s was a whole bar hunched over a fuzzy TV watching a game intently, a group of people arguing on a park bench about the latest results or kids running around the streets kicking a flat ball yelling out their favorite players names. As a sports fan myself I always enjoyed getting involved in the local games when I had the chance. It was a great way to bond with the locals, make friends and learn from the insiders about the town or country I was visiting.
Take part in the culture by local beverages
How-to-go-local tip by Dave from Cook Sip Go Dave: Many travelers’ favorite memories from the road are the occasions spent with locals drinking the favored beverage in the destination, whether chai tea or moonshine. Few moments compare to my times bonding with a Czech friend over sips of his family’s slivovica or drinking homemade gin from a plastic tube in a shed in eastern Ethiopia. These possibilities are not hard to encounter and enhance the travel experience.
So the formula is pretty simple: be curious, be social and always smile, no matter the taste. – Dave
Preparation through research prior to travel is the first step. Cookbooks that focus on a national or regional cuisine usually include the typical drinks. Also, a restaurant in your hometown that serves the food of the destination will likely offer these beverages. Once you are traveling, search out smaller restaurants and bars that are packed with non-tourists.
Have a look at the menu and inquire about any drinks you don’t recognize. These may just be a local specialty and your interest will spark a smile from the server. If you enjoy the drink, ask where they serve the best version in town or where large groups partake in it. As the consumption of these beverages can have deep social significance, I have found that travelers are welcomed into the situation, as locals appreciate the desire to take part in their culture. So the formula is pretty simple: be curious, be social and always smile, no matter the taste.
Countless conservations on public transport
How-to-go-local tip by Margherita of The Crowded Planet Margherita: Being budget travelers, public transport is definitely our favorite way to travel. Not only is it a good way to save money, it is also the best way to get in touch with the locals. True, public transport is not always the most comfortable or convenient way to travel; during our time in Madagascar we’ve spent days waiting for taxi-brousses (shared bush taxis) and countless hours squashed in tiny, uncomfortable seats, sometimes with little kids sleeping on our laps (as you can see in the pic). The benefit? We’ve practiced our French and had interesting conversations with the people we were sharing our seats with.
Some of our favorite travel memories involve public transport. – Margherita
Some of our favorite travel memories involve public transport. Sharing our lunch with Moroccan grandmothers on our way to Fes, being woken up by a snake charmer in Varanasi, floating down the backwaters of Kerala on a public river ferry. Not to mention the countless conversations we’ve had on European trains, many of which led to an invitation to dinner or drinks. It may be the confined space, but being on public transport is one of the best ways to strike up a conversation with locals or fellow travelers, especially when you share a language. And when you don’t, trying to make yourself understood definitely adds to the fun!
Final tips by Bunch of Backpackers
So, to sum up we already covered sports, local drinks and public transportation as great ways to go local while traveling. From personal experience, I’d like to add a few more tips to immerse yourself into a local culture and get out of the ‘tourist bubble’.
– Try to learn some of the local language. This makes it easier to connect, can come in handy and it’s often much appreciated.
– Go where locals go: the local barber, the supermarket, the cinema, that popular street stall etc. Don’t always trust the guidebooks, but just go down the street of your hostel or hotel and look for busy places. A local newspaper or other publication is also a good way to find the latest events and cool places.
– Adjust your day rhythm to the country you’re staying in. If everyone is having a siesta… have a siesta!
– Learn a local game. I learned Chinese checkers during my stay in China, and played many a game in parks and on the streets.- Stay between the locals by renting an apartment and/or experience culture by doing a homestay or try couch surfing
– An internship is a great way to immerse yourself into a local culture and make friends. When I was an intern in a Kenyan rural hospital I not only met many Kenyans, but also had the opportunity to do house visits which give me a real peak into Kenyan life. Of course you also learn a lot about customs, etiquette and culture. (Responsible) volunteering is another option, also offering you the opportunity to help out with a local project. Especially if you’re traveling for a longer period of time I’d recommend to volunteer or intern for at least a few weeks.
– There is a growing trend towards ‘local interaction and local experiences’. Therefore, quite a number of travel organizations have popped up offering these kind of local experiences. Of course it’s a bit less spontaneous, but still a good way to go local. With these experiences (varying from fishing with a fisherman in Sri Lanka to a cooking class or a farm stay) you can learn and see more of daily life. They also provide an extra income for the host. An example of a travel organization offering local experiences in their tours is Better Places (Dutch organization). Travel organizations offering only local experiences are I Like Local (100% of the money asked by the locals for their activities is directly paid to them) and With Locals.
– My final tip is an obvious one: talk to everyone, get of the beaten path and be curious!
I love to get a bit of a local feel in a place, to learn about daily life and to avoid those packed air-conditioned tour busses. However, in the end I think it is important to find your own balance. You’ll always be a traveler/tourist passing through (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but incorporating a few of the above-mentioned things will truly enhance the experience of a country.
Recommended further reading
The ultimate guide to backpacker jargon
6 Ethical travel dilemma’s I encountered as a traveler
How to Keep Your Money Safe While Traveling?
Safety tips for the adventurous solo backpacker