In recent years, the big catchphrase in travel has been about being “local”.
In most cases this has meant getting outside the cities, invading smaller villages in the countryside, and asking local people to act like they normally would if you weren’t standing there watching. The big tour companies have jumped on this bandwagon. You can go on a pre-wrapped experience where they will quickly bus you out to a town then deliver you back to a hotel in the city that night. Don’t get me wrong; there are incredible authentic experiences people can have in the towns, villages, and countryside. However, I am suggesting there is more to experiencing local then just watching “locals” for a few hours.
To me, a truly local experience can happen anywhere you are visiting. From the largest of cities to the smallest of thatched huts. The location is not important. It is more a combination of the following features:
Must Be An Accurate Representation, Not A Perfect Disney Re-Creation
You want to see all the flaws, imperfections, and quirkiness the local site or activity has to offer. Some things may make you feel uncomfortable, sometimes even shocked. You can’t say you’ve seen or done it unless you have really seen or done it. I can recall one group trip to a country with a very different culture than our own in Canada. The guide was so proud to show us their culture and how open they were to other societies and beliefs. At the same time as he was using examples to demonstrate their openness, he ended up showing how very different they still viewed gender roles. A more staged tour would never let these types of learnings to come out. To me this allowed us to understand their beliefs and how they were struggling to apply them in this modern world.
Local People Are Passionate About Their Businesses, Restaurants, and Towns
It doesn’t matter if you are in the centre of Paris or a town market in Provence, if the people you are doing business with are passionate about their products/services and are willing to genuinely spend time talking with you, you will feel like you are part of their community. I have been in the crowded centre of Athens having dinner where owners and their staff have sat with us during dinner, shared drinks, and even danced with us on the streets outside their restaurant (See the video below!). At the same time, I have had an owner in small villages throw on his bathing suit, grab a spear gun, and catch our fish right in front of us because he wanted us to have the freshest seafood. Both these experiences made us feel as if we were part of the community.
Quality Time In A Community With No Rush To The Next
People can have such a fear of missing out that they force themselves through demanding travel schedules just to cross all the “must see” items off the list. They end up never experiencing any location or understanding its real value. The first day in any location should always be a time to relax and take in where you are. Wander a bit, explore, and be surprised. Day two can be your time to see the key items. By day three you know your way around and have picked out favorite cafes and stores, plus you’ve met local folks to chat with. Now you start feeling local and immersing yourself in where you are at. Using a hub and spoke approach to your travel lets you spend more time in one place as a base while still getting out to see the sights. Plus it saves on dragging your luggage everywhere!
Form Bonds With Your Travel Community
If you’re spending each day squeezing onto a bus with a bunch of people you barely know with little chance to get to know them, you’re not developing that travel community. It’s just a race to get the best seat on the bus, get your luggage off first, get your order in first at the restaurant, and get the best position for that selfie. A group trip works best if there are activities and time where people have a chance to hang out, get to know each other, and share their experiences of the day. When you have a community among the travelers, it is far easier and more comfortable to immerse yourself in the local community. Nothing makes you feel more local than when you wander the streets of a foreign town where you shouldn’t know anyone, and you run into people you know. You sit down in a cafe for a coffee, share lunch, and talk about what each other have been doing that day – just like a local would.
When it comes to getting a real local experience, a lot of it has to do with what you are doing, who you are doing it with, and how long you are doing it. Don’t just stop and take time to smell the roses (or beer or wine), share that glass with someone on the trip you don’t know and, failing that, make friends with the owner and maybe he’ll buy you a drink and chat.