After having lived in several different countries and traveled both nationally and internationally, I have learned several important lessons. Some the easy way and some the hard way. One of the most important lessons for me is to get involved with the local people and the local environment as much as possible to make your travels more memorable.
This is a lesson I learned the hard way. When I lived abroad in a different country for the first time, I was a teenager and my family moved to accommodate a job transfer for my father. The next few years broaden my horizons and opened my eyes to a new culture, new experiences and new people. However, our family associated mostly with other Americans, I attended an American high school and most of my friends were Americans. I learned only enough of the local language to get around town, take taxies, and do some shopping. Many of the locals liked to practice their English speaking skills. The local people were extremely friendly and helpful but I really was not much involved in immersing myself into the local culture.
I learned a valuable lesson just a few years later when I left home and moved to a South American country for a couple of years. There I totally immersed myself in the local culture. I learned the language, lived with locals in small, out-of-the-way cities. Often I would not see another foreigner for weeks. I ate the local foods, shopped the local vendors and dressed like the locals. Okay, I still stuck out like a foreigner do to my fair complexion and blond hair. However, the experience was totally different than my overseas high school days. I enjoyed myself much more, learned to love the local immersion and came away with some valuable insights that have provided me with perspectives that changed everything.
The lessons learned from these two experiences changed my traveling life over the decades since that time. Now, regardless of whether my travels take me to nearby cities or different states, and especially when I travel internationally, I enjoy immersing myself in the local environment and culture as much as possible. Advanced research is easy using the internet and with a focus on learning about the people and places at my destination, I depart ready to enjoy my journey rather than just arrive at a destination.
Yes, I still love to visit popular tourist sites and see the major local events. However, the most memorable parts of my journeys now happen when I depart from being the traditional tourist and get off the beaten path. Instead of going to fancy restaurants with English speaking servers, I love to wander and discover. Asking the locals where they eat and what they eat leads to new and different culinary experiences. Being the only foreigner in a small café and ordering your meal by pointing to pictures or pointing to the plates of other patrons is a voyage of discovery. I have discovered many new favorites this way. And there have been several times when I could not eat more than one bite.
Talking to locals, or trying to communicate with language barriers, leads to wonderful experiences. People all over the world are much the same. They may speak different languages, have different habits, look different, and do different things but overall they are still the same as you and me. They like to be treated respectfully, like to have fun, are kind and helpful, love their families and friends and will enjoy interacting with you.
Here are some of the insights and recommendations from the lessons I have learned. Hopefully, your travels will be a bit more memorable as you incorporate some of these in your own journeys.
- Be flexible and have an open mind. Remember it’s a journey, not just a destination. Enjoy the journey.
- Avoid the tourist look in dress, behavior, and attitude.
- Do some research before you leave. Learn about the people, the culture and the language.
- Don’t be afraid to explore, to wander and even to get lost. Do, however, talk with local experts to be aware of any danger areas to avoid.
- Try the local foods in their many varieties. You may find new favorites and you definitely will find some new revolting dishes.
- Ask the locals where they eat, where they hang out, what they do for entertainment and for fun. They often will tell you about great places that are not in the tour guide books.
- Look for opportunities to get off the tourist path. Visit smaller towns that see fewer tourists and foreign visitors. Here you will find authentic folks, experience the real culture and enjoy some of your most memorable parts of your journey.