When visiting a country you are exactly that: a visitor, not a local – correct? But putting yourself in the mindset of a local person not only results in a more authentic, thrilling and enlightening experience for you, but allows for a more sustainable tourist economy for the destination.
One of the easiest ways to travel like a local is to travel with a local. Meeting up with inhabitants of your destination and exploring the sights and surroundings with them provides a lens on a place that you may not have been privy to otherwise. Companies such as Tours By Locals, Global Greeter or Unseen Tours, where homeless people are the guides, act as facilitators between visitors and local guides, pairing up those who will be most suited and letting them explore together.
You will get a unique perspective on a city (even hearing how the voices of my Vietnamese guides dipped when discussing communism was fascinating), visiting places off the beaten track, and drinking in local bars. None of which your guide book can enable. It’s all about getting a feel for a place, the people, the politics, the culture, food and the way of life.
Culture is not part of the past, but living and evolving. Often we think of a country’s culture as that of historic importance, and whilst a past is hugely influential on the present, the present is pretty important, too. Picking up local magazines and listings guides enables you to step away from this and engage in the activities that your contemporaries in 2013 are doing, not those from the days of yore. The latest art exhibitions, music movements and even cinema screenings can be hugely revelatory about a country and its people.
Put yourself in the local mindset and share in activities and experiences as locals do. Ticking off the guidebook must-sees can be draining, so don’t – explore what interests you in the different surroundings you find yourself in.
One of my first experiences of travelling local was back in 2008 in Romania. Chatting to an American man on a public bus, he laughed at us visiting a palace.
“Are you not?” I asked. “I saw everything the first time I came. This time I want to feel it.” Another way to see more is literally by travelling. Get that public bus, take a bike, and walk. Save yourself money and see the sights. The coins you do spend will go on local infrastructure rather than tour companies, both enhancing public and tourist facilities.
Ensuring that your money benefits the right people is one of the most important ways to ensure a sustainable travel economy and local business development. This increases the opportunities to retain local values and practices within business models rather than being mass produced.
Let’s not forget why many of us travel, and one of the best things about it: food. Trying new dishes and sampling never tasted before cuisines is a delight, and can be done more authentically, and not to mention more cheaply, in local restaurants.
New foods eaten whilst watching the world go by is a travel highlight. I would never have discovered rice paste and shrimp parcels in banyan leaves in Vietnam, timpana in Malta, or black bean sushi in São Paulo without stepping off the tourist track.
Pick somewhere a few streets away from the tourist sites. Listen to the chatter from within – do you understand it? If not, it is likely to be local, and usually by default, pretty good. In some places it is best to ensure that you can see the food being cooked, and cleanly, but more often than not you will be safe from tummy trouble.
There is an economic benefit to you, too. Tourist mark-ups on menus can be avoided; you don’t visit the tourist shows or tat; and by staying with locals you can really save money. The acclaimed Couchsurfing lets you really get into a local way of living, and even if you are not keen on staying on a sofa, they organise numerous events and meet-ups to get involved in. If you prefer a home to yourself try Airbnb, a rental service for local homes or even home swapping. With intimate and in-depth knowledge of a destination, and the passion to reveal its depth to you, a local guide is the best window to any place. “A tour guide should be more than just a guide”, said mine in Ho Chi Minh City recently. “They should be your friend.”
Charm and personality go a long way to making a trip, and are more readily available in a person than mass produced guidebook. A charming holiday – what could be better than that?