Don’t be a tourist. Be a local.

By Katie Stone 

Reading time: 12 minutes 

“Yes madam! Which country? Ah, NUseeland. Nice place. You like samosa? Very good. This here, best taste!” 

No matter how many monuments, natural wonders, or other ‘bucket list’ items you might tick off, you’ll never know a country until you know its street food.

Almost every city or village has one: a hub in which vendors line the streets, stirring and frying and ladling. There are samosas and masala dosa in India; fresh fruits and pad thai in Thailand; banh mi and hột vịt lộn in Vietnam; tacos and tamales in Mexico. Everything a veritable mass of smoke and pungence and sound.

Wherever I went, I ate everything. The more exotic, the better. It wasn’t just the fact that a freshly-cooked meal cost around $2. It

By Katie Stone 

Reading time: 12 minutes 

“Yes madam! Which country? Ah, NUseeland. Nice place. You like samosa? Very good. This here, best taste!” 

No matter how many monuments, natural wonders, or other ‘bucket list’ items you might tick off, you’ll never know a country until you know its street food.

Almost every city or village has one: a hub in which vendors line the streets, stirring and frying and ladling. There are samosas and masala dosa in India; fresh fruits and pad thai in Thailand; banh mi and hột vịt lộn in Vietnam; tacos and tamales in Mexico. Everything a veritable mass of smoke and pungence and sound.

Wherever I went, I ate everything. The more exotic, the better. It wasn’t just the fact that a freshly-cooked meal cost around $2. It wasn’t even just about exploring new tastes and textures. It was about the people.

Dining with locals in ‘local restaurants’ lends itself to organic interaction. There’d be questions about where I was going, why I was in their country, what had I seen, whether I was married, how many children I had. Locals were both perplexed and curious as to why this fair-haired farang (Thai for Caucasian)/gringo (non-Hispanic or Latino in Spanish speaking countries and contexts – mainly used in the Americas)/alien was lining up with them to eat food they usually served only to other locals. In many cases, it opened up some wonderful conversations.

Not so the case for the American guy I met in Chiang Mai. This guy – we’ll call him John – was travelling and working online, like I was. He was planning to explore Southeast Asia one country at a time, also like I was. But when I suggested we grab a snack at a small roadside barbecue, he fairly recoiled in horror: “Oh no, we couldn’t eat there. At least, I couldn’t. Aren’t you afraid of getting sick?”

In almost every country, you’ll find a few of these ‘Johns’: people who want to see the world, but are terrified of what dangers await them in the unknown. These people like to stay in nice, clean, isolated hotels. They dine at nice, clean, Western restaurants that are listed on TripAdvisor or in Lonely Planet. Some of them eat only at McDonald’s. They shop in air-conditioned malls, use taxis to get around, and buy only packaged food from large supermarkets or Western retailers. And they most certainly avoid all things ‘from the street’. That is: anything that has been sold, cooked, or prepared by locals, outdoors.

One of the Johns I met in India proudly told me he was eating nothing but bananas “because they have a skin on them, so they’re safe”. (I later found out that this John got sick anyway.)

I don’t deny that there are some dangers in immersing oneself in certain environs, particularly those that don’t quite uphold the level of sanitisation that you may have been brought up on. Indeed some cautions must be taken when transplanting a desensitised immune system to a new country. (Note: the immune system does adapt eventually.)

But to avoid these experiences entirely is to cut yourself off from truly experiencing a country’s culture: its very way of life. The people you meet in your travels are the heart and soul of their nation. Without the people, what do you have?

Sadly, the ‘authenticity’ that many tourist packages claim to offer is often superficial. Tour companies invariably carry slogans based around “See the real Thailand!” “See the real India!”, yet offer only a sterilised glimpse into these other worlds; a view from the window of a luxury coach or within the safety of a guided tour group. Meals are carefully selected for you, translation is provided, destinations include only the sights that are already on billions of other travellers’ bucket lists – which means every stop is thronged with the people you see back home anyway.

This kind of travel is steeped in the ideology of ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is limited opportunity for interaction with the country’s inhabitants, which – in my opinion – means you haven’t really experienced it at all. Of course, this might be just fine for some people. But others might seek something deeper than a shot of the Eiffel Tower or a luxury safari.

Now that we can tentatively think about planning overseas travel again, why not make the most of the experience?

How to experience another country

Use Airbnb 

Unlike staying in a hotel, Airbnb means you’re staying in someone else’s home. Yes, you can choose between renting the entire place to yourself, or staying in a room and sharing some facilities – but it’s usually still a private dwelling.

This can be a great way to tap into another culture and meet the locals. In some countries, it’s not uncommon for a host to rent out their current living quarters and simply move out for the duration of the guests’ stay. In Turkey, Mexico, and Krakow, I stayed in homes that were cluttered with the host’s personal effects: clothes, books, photographs, and even their food in the fridge. Obviously, this wouldn’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I found it provided a fascinating insight into another person’s life. Sometimes, the hosts invited me to join them for dinner with their families. These kinds of interactions would never happen when staying in hotels.

Try Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing has been in operation since 2004, and it’s still one of the best ways to meet people while travelling. Described as a “global hospitality exchange service”, Couchsurfing is a platform for people all over the world to offer free lodging to travellers passing through their location. Options range from a couch (literally) to a spare room. And, because hosts are not in it for the money (it’s against the rules to charge for accommodation), you’ll be meeting people who are genuinely interested in showing you around their local area and offering travel tips. It’s one of the best ways to get up close with another culture and experience a country through a resident’s eyes.

Learn the local language

No, you don’t need to become fluent, but learning a few words and basic phrases can make an enormous difference to your travel experience. A little preparation can help with the basics of getting around, adhering to local customs, and ordering food. But more than that, speaking your host country’s language shows that you’ve made an effort to learn about their culture, which will strike a chord. Even if your pronunciation is way off (and it probably will be), you’ll be opening up an opportunity to interact on a much more personal level. It can even lead to an impromptu language lesson!

Duolingo is one of the easiest ways to learn a new language. It now offers 106 different language courses in 38 languages, taught through listening exercises, flashcards, and quizzes.

Join Facebook travel groups

Love it or hate it, Facebook has its uses – and it can be invaluable when travelling. And with 2.85 billion users around the world, it’s a sure-fire way to interact with people in almost any country.

Simply search for groups related to travelling within that country and join up. The great thing about these groups is most are open to both locals and tourists, so there’s a constant stream of first-hand information for travellers. After all, information direct from the source is often far more accurate and up-to-date than any guidebook. It’s also great for connecting with people who live in the areas you’re planning to visit and potentially arranging meetups.

Eat locally

When in Rome – or when you roam – do as the locals do, and eat as the locals eat. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in another culture than by tasting it. After all, why would you travel halfway across the world only to eat what you would at home?

Eating traditional food is closely connected with the cultural experience of travel. The foods prepared and eaten by locals are part of a country’s heritage and your willingness to try them will help bring you closer to the people of that country. And, by choosing to eat them over McDonald’s (or other such ‘familiar’ foods) you’ll also be supporting local business. Many of the locally-own restaurants you’ll encounter in your travels are owned by families who depend on the tourist economy for their survival, and often struggle to compete with large Western chains. Again, you’ll be opening up new opportunities for interacting with the people, as well as experiencing new cuisines.

Observe – but be cool. 

The simplest way to meet locals is to just take a walk. Forget the guidebook and the hackneyed ‘must-do’ checklists. Grab a map (or at least a GPS) and simply walk around the neighbourhood. Try the street foods that you encounter. Chat to the people you see. Ask questions.

One word of advice: please refrain from treating the locals like they are exhibits in a show. When travelling in Asia, I always cringed to see Western tourists stopping in front of local people and snapping photos without any interaction whatsoever. While many people in tourist hotspots are used to this behaviour, it’s still impolite. It also intensifies the division between ‘you’ and ‘them’, as if these people going about their daily business are merely there for your entertainment. Ask permission before taking photos. Better yet, don’t take photos at all. Start a conversation instead: that’s the real measure of cultural interaction.

Photos: Katie Stone

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