Most travellers spend months trailing other tourists and ticking off every restaurant, bar, and trek mentioned in the guidebook. There’s nothing wrong with this method of travel. But there is another way.
Leave the tourist trail, set down some roots for a few weeks in a city of your choice and learn how to live like a local on your gap year. Doing so will lead you to unforgettable memories of that country, and the time to do more than just scratch its surface.
Find the best eateries
We often select meals based upon guidebook recommendations; an assured approach to finding a stomach-able lunch. But actually just disappearing down a side street and following the bellies of the locals can produce greater results.
From stumbling upon delicious tempura in a four-seater restaurant near Kyoto, Japan, to devouring wildly spicy, 20p noodles from a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Chonquing, China, I’ve discovered that taking a chance on your lunch leads to delectable discoveries.
And while many advise against street food for its potential effects on your insides, watching your food being prepared before taking a seat alongside rows of dining locals is often worth the risk. Generally, it’s down to the luck of the draw whether you suffer travellers’ belly or not. Live a little.
Learn the lingo – or communicate in other ways
How much you interact with local people in any country relies on one thing: you. Proactive, fearless travellers who ignore their linguistic failings (and, in my case, accidentally introduce their name as ‘parrot’) will always meet a vast number of interesting people.
Although few travellers have the luxury of spending enough time in one place to become fluent in the local language, even basic classes can get you up to speed. The result? Chatting with new people whose perspectives on the world are infinitely more interesting than those twenty other travellers you met, all hailing from your home country.
What’s more, as your mum probably told you, politeness and friendliness are invaluable, and a smile can substitute for a thousand foreign words. A friend also swears by the socially-cohesive power of sharing snacks from your home country: I can attest that a gifted packet of pickled-onion Monster Munch to tour guides can build strong friendships.
If languages aren’t your forte, find a social activity that transcends linguistic boundaries: take tango classes in Buenos Aires, play wallyball (a cross between squash and volleyball) in Bolivia, or learn to make ceviche (a delicious, marinated fish dish) in Peru.
Experience public transport
If you’ve never taken a sleeper train through Eastern Europe, well, you’ve never lived. Overwhelmingly romantic, it offers a scenic, comfortable form of transport for locals and travellers alike.
For risk-takers, Chinese buses are an experience not quickly forgotten: a combination of appreciating the driver’s terrifying capacity to avoid a full-frontal collision, while being unable to tear your eyes away from the undecipherable Chinese adverts playing incessantly on the internal TV.
Try the tipple of choice
Sampling (in moderation) the local tipple in its native habitat will offer you a new outlook on a country and teach you about the subtleties of a culture.
For example, Japanese sake – best sampled in a Tokyo speciality bar – is a pungent, fiery alcohol seemingly at odds with the refined nature of Japanese people. Tasting various flavours of vodka in a cosy Krakow hangout will show you Poland’s warmth and welcoming nature. Chicha – a maize drink originally made by children chewing the grain to initiate fermentation – demonstrates friendly Bolivian culture at its most hospitable, and most sozzled.
Stumble upon cultural – and often downright weird – events
One of my strangest travel experiences to date was the Kanamara Matsuri or “Festival of the Steel Penis” in Tokyo. Penises on wheels, forged from metal or wood, were pushed through the assembled crowds, while onlookers nibbled on phallus-shaped lollipops. ‘Bizarre’ doesn’t quite do this memory justice.
Sound interesting? Signing up to Facebook groups for cities will alert you to celebrations like these. Keeping your eyes peeled for events also bears fruit: when in Slovenia, I stumbled upon a film screening in Ljubljana Castle. I have no memory of the film, instead what lingers is the image of the castle at night seeped in soft lighting, with the crowd seated beneath the stars. Magical.
Embrace every offer, talk to every person – and maybe even date one
If you’ve attended events, chances are you’ll have met people keen to show you their city’s highlights. This does come with a caveat – obviously due caution must be exercised whenever you meet new people. However, these invitations often lead to the most memorable travelling experiences. A friend of mine who lived in China told me about randomly meeting a communist painter at the local university. What followed was a bizarre evening in the company of famous artists, with wine, card games and dressing up to pose for communist-inspired portraits.
Not only this, but by deviating from the tourist hubs to find more interesting local joints and being prepared to chat to anyone is a great way of practising languages, or offering your English for a bit of inter-cambio (language exchange). Dating a local can also help you to discover the country, although you may find – as many have before you – that you never actually leave…
Make a fool of yourself
Recognising that you’ll spend half your time looking/speaking like an idiot as you work out how life works in your new country – but also accepting this as part of the transition into travelling virtuoso – will save you a lot of embarrassment in the long run. Plus, remembering that people in every country go out of their way to help foreign travellers will make you realise that others will do the same for you.
Living like a local requires more effort and proactivity than travelling. However, discovering countries this way will not only radically alter your perspective, but may even change the way you travel.