So you like to travel? Have you learned the lesson of adapting to the conventions of the area in which you are visiting? Living the old proverb “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” will change your entire travel experience.
Have you experienced real Chinese food in a small town eatery where you’re the only foreigner in the neighborhood and have to order by pointing at pictures or nearby patron plates? Is the Thai Massage you received last week at your local spa anything like the one you experienced in a small Bangkok suburb on your Asian trip last year? Have you ever in your life tasted a kiwi as juicy and succulent as the one picked fresh from the vine on a country farm in New Zealand? Experiencing more of the local culture in your travels will change your life.
It’s a lesson I learned the hard way. As a young traveler, I spent some teenage years living in the Middle East. Due to my inexperience and my family situation I spent these precious years mostly living in an American bubble. My school was an American school. My friends were Americans, we spoke English for the most part and only learned enough of the local language to navigate in taxis and do some limited shopping at local businesses. I took no local language classes. Despite this, the experience provided me exposure to a different culture and many unique opportunities. Eventually, this formed the base of my love for travel.
The life lesson reality that hit me hard came only a year after returning from the Middle East. By then, as a young single adult out on my own, I spent over a year living in Brazil. Only this time, I learned the language, lived with the locals, adopted the culture, the food and avoided speaking English as much as possible. What a difference!
Only then did I regret my teen Middle East experience for not having learned the language and immersed myself more in the rich local environment. Although I learned a lot, I also missed out a lot.
Ever since then my travels have taken on a different perspective. I love to “do as the Romans do” as much as possible. With a bit of research before traveling and a focus on finding and experiencing the local life, travel has taken on a different and memorable meaning.
Sure, I still like to see the popular tourist sites and events. However, most of my travel memories now come from departing from traditional tourist itineraries and exploring the local scenes. Now I know what actual Chinese food really tastes like after wandering the streets and discovering local eateries where I am the only foreigner and have to order by pointing to pictures or plates of nearby patrons. Italian pizza from a small Italian village pizzeria is absolutely nothing like pizza “back home.” Riding in a cab in Athens, Greece—whoa, now there’s an eye-opening, mind-blowing voyage. And that Thai Massage in a small Bangkok suburb is one I crave often.
So here a few tips on experiencing more of the local culture and getting more out of your travels. These are some of the few things I have learned that have made all the difference.
- Ask some of the locals for suggestions on food, entertainment, sites to see and places they hang out. Even your hotel employees have their favorite personal places that they often frequent but hardly ever reveal to guests.
- Look for opportunities to visit smaller towns or locations different than the popular cities. It’s in the small towns that see fewer foreign visitors where the local culture is unique and people tend to be more friendly and open.
- Don’t be afraid to wander and get lost. You might check with a good source first to know what areas to stay away from. With those guidelines, just wander and enjoy the people, the sites, the food, and the experience. I have met some of the most friendly and authentic folks this way.
- Try a different variety of foods. You may never be back so why not try all kinds of dishes. You just may discover some new favorites. And unless you discover some revolting options, you probably have been a bit limited in your culinary expeditions.
- Research before you travel. Learn a little about the culture, people and language.
- Dress conservatively, as much like the locals as possible to avoid that “I’m a tourist” image.
- Have an open mind. Go with the flow. Talk to people. Spend less time at the tourist traps and get out into the local areas.
Basically, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Your travel experiences will forever be different.