“Too often, though, in the places where travelers or tourists stopped, I would hear men boast only of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen...for many years people were enthralled with distance covered not with country they had passed through or what they had seen.”
- Louis L'Amour
Travel the World and Hear Local Stories
One of the travel systems I use when traveling is to find off the beaten path restaurants, bars and shops. Typically, the less polished and more mom and pop-ish the place feels the better.
I've used this system many times to find “hidden gems.” But the quality of these diamonds in the rough isn't valued by just the food, drink and atmosphere. The final ingredient, and most important, is the people. These sorts of places and many other places you wouldn't expect always have someone there that knows something novel, or knows someone directly who knows, about the city you find yourself in.
This first hand knowledge is better than any guidebook because it comes from years of research and first hand experience called living. I know, in an age where it's so easy to pull up an internet browser and click around for a while until you find a wiki page or online travel resource we tend to forget there is a better way, read more fun and better, to gather information.
So how do you do this thing called mingling with locals? Warning, it is going to be tough. You will have to frequent bars, restaurants and hangouts that appear more local than touristy. If you are traveling abroad and not fluent in the local language you'll probably end up red faced and frustrated at some point. Finally, doing this will cause you to understand and appreciate culture, human differences and wherever you happen to be. If you prefer to count the miles trodden and not the life in those miles then stop reading now.
No better source of knowledge exists about a place then local knowledge. As part of my prep work for a big trip I try to read about places of interest, history of the area and general information about a place. I save the details for when I'm on the ground.
I trust a guidebook about as far as I can throw it. Which, judging by the brick-like size and weight of most guidebooks today, would be about 50 feet. Instead I go to places that you typically overlook when traveling. Travel mode and regular life mode are two different beasts entirely.
When you are at home you go to the gas station, the grocery store, maybe the library and barbershop or salon.You probably know where the best hamburger joint in town is. But, what about when you travel. Do you look for a place to get your hair cut? Do you buy groceries or fill up on gas (usually not when abroad!)?
What we have, ladies and gentleman, is a situation where tourists are using certain services and locals another. When you visit cities with well-developed tourist infrastructures both of these types of people, locals and tourists, are generally serviced at separate locations. You don't go to the pyramids in Egypt and find a laundromat nearby.
This creates a pseudo-real experience for a tourist where the experience of a place is disconnected from real life because the normal amenities of life (hospitals, schools, cemeteries, dentist offices, etc) are not present. For most this type of experience is fine. A man can go to the main square in Munich and drink at the famous Hofbräuhaus. He can get well and drunk (believe me) and have a great old time eating pretzels and listening to German drinking songs.
But, he won't meet many locals. He'll meet people from Asia and the United States. He'll see other people from the European Union, but he won't find many locals. Why? Well, the locals all know this is the touristy beer hall in Munich. If you want the real beer hall experience you might go the the Augustiner- Keller or Zum Augustiner off of the main strip, both of which have better atmospheres, locations and people. As someone who has visited most of the beer halls in Munich I know this is true.
Or a person could have a nice, romantic dinner with his/her significant other in Rome. You could sit in the square Campo de Fiore with torches at your table and the dusk settling in. Here you'd enjoy a meal similar to what you could get at Olive Garden in the States (but at twice the price) and think you just had the most amazing Italian experience ever. And if you care only about the miles covered and not the quality of your experience you'd be just fine.
But, if what you really wanted was the best possible experience then you'd be a bit disappointed. The food would taste a bit worse than you expected, the service a little too fast and efficient (if you know anything about Italy you know anything authentic is never like this) and the experience as a whole would leave you wanting more.
If you had lived with the travel system of supporting ma and pop stores you would have found yourself two blocks from Vatican City enjoying delicious vats of wine for pennies and authentic Italian food cooked from scratch, not frozen and reheated upon your arrival.
This is the two camps of travel, though, miles and experience. This is also analogous to life. Do you settle for what's easy and available, or do you strive for only the best even if it take years to achieve? Are you a settler or a striver?
If you strive to make the best of everything then I have some suggestions for a better travel experience.
Tips for Travel
- Get your hair cut.
Although barber shops are dying in the States they are still alive and well elsewhere. If male, visit a barbershop. If female, visit a salon. Both are filled with locals who interact with hundreds of different people a year, hear tons of stories and have nothing better to do then tell you all about it as your hair gets chopped up.
- Buy Groceries
Good luck finding a grocery story in a touristy part of town. They don't exist for a reason. But if you find one, chances are really good that you are A) no longer in a touristy area B) can easily strike up a conversation with a store worker or customer about what such and such means in French, what aisle the noodles are in and what foods are local. In five minutes you just learned more about the local language and food and interacted with more real people then you have the entire week before.
- Gas Stations
Ask for directions, buy maps, buy local beverages, etc. If you go mid morning or later at night you increase your chances of finding a bored gas station attendant who is more than willing to pass the time by talking your ear off.
Bookies are an interesting breed, but their love of books instantly means they all have something in common. If you love books like I do then a bookstore or library (if you can find one) is a perfect place to talk with locals.
Unless your a hobo who has been traveling for a really long time, or a local you generally don't need to do laundry...unless you make a point of doing so just to meet people.
- Residential Parks
A great place to meet dog walkers, lovers, old men feeding pigeons and more.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but can be used as a good primer to get you going. Once you start thinking about how you live life at home compared to when traveling you can use the difference in your habits to find locals.
What is the point? If you don't know by now then you probably need to reread this article or read our primer on world travel. But, as a closing point I'll just say that humans are creatures of stories. Although the median has changed from the written word to t.v. shows and movies the story line is still alive and kicking. We remember stories better than most other things because they make sense to us. We can relate and integrate.
When traveling there is no more genuine source of stories than locals, the people who have lived, worked, raised families and struggled with life in the city you are now visiting. Take advantage of the the unique stories of others to enhance your own human experience.