I’ve always felt very strongly that vacationing and traveling are two distinct things. While I love both, I think it does a disservice to travelers to call what we do “vacation” because it somehow implies that it’s easy or that we’re running away from life, when in fact, it can be a richer, more substantive way of living.
As any traveler would attest, immersing yourself into a culture certainly isn’t always relaxing or easy. Embracing a new place means not only seeing the good, but also acknowledging the bad and the ugly and respecting the country and it’s people just the same (which, I will fully acknowledge, is sometimes more of a process than a final result).
However, it admittedly can be daunting task to “infiltrate” the local culture, particularly when it means veering off the gringo trail and away from all of the comfort and conveniences that come with it. As someone who finds great value in immersive travel- but who can be shy about diving in with the locals- I’ve found ways to ease myself into the experience.
Grocery stores: when I travel overseas, it’s become a ritual for me to find the nearest grocery store and wander up and down the aisles, looking at the local foods and tsotchkes. Not only will you save money by buying snacks and meals from grocery stores, but you’ll also learn a lot about the daily lives and palates of the locals. And you may even find out how the locals perceive you:
Fashion and beauty magazines: I generally try to pick up a couple of magazines to leaf through during downtime or on the flight home. Even if you can’t read the articles, the photos and advertisements can provide interesting insights into local aesthetics, trends, social norms, and beauty definitions and rituals. For example, I’ve noticed that in many Asian countries, magazines seem to contain ads for skin lighteners while magazines in Western countries have ads for self-tanners.
Newspapers: awesome if you can read the local language, but if not, most countries publish English-language newspapers as well. You’ll not only learn about pressing issues impacting the country, but you’ll also find listings for events where you can rub elbows with the locals (and knowing the major news stories will garner respect and come in handy as conversation starters!).
Classes: taking classes is a great way to interact with locals while also cultivating knowledge and skills in an area of local importance. Even if the classes are targeted towards tourists, you’ll still learn something new and most instructors will be very open to sharing information about themselves and their culture.
In Thailand, I took a 3-hour silversmithing course for $12 and came away with a custom-made ring that I still wear 9 years later.
Urban Adventures day tours: guided tours are great for learning a lot of interesting facts about a place, but I know for some, they can seem exhausting and a bit inauthentic. Urban Adventures, whose parent company is Intrepid Travel (an equally awesome company that organizes longer trips), specializes in off-the-beaten-path day tours.
When I was in Turkey, I went on their Home Cooked Istanbul tour during which the very laid back guide took our group of four to a local home to join the Kurdish family for dinner and conversation. We ate together, seated on the floor while the children in the family ran around us. The guide translated as the family spoke about their family history and daily rituals and we, in turn, shared details of our own lives and countries.
Volunteers for Peace: there’s no better way to learn about another culture than by working alongside locals to contribute to their culture. Volunteers for Peace lists thousands of volunteers workcamps in over 100 countries. And the best part is that the registration fee for most 2-week workcamps is only $300, which includes food and accommodations. If you’ve been looking for a volunteer opportunity overseas, you’ll know that most organizations charge thousands for dollars to volunteer, which can be cost prohibitive for most people.
I participated in a workcamp in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine in 2000, restoring an after-school club for orphans. Our group volunteered for 4-5 hours a day and then spent evenings with our workcamp leaders and other locals, exploring the city and getting to know one another.
TravBuddy: this is a great website to connect with either other travels or locals in a given country. Many people utilize this website to look for a travel partner or swap tips.
Before my solo trip to Turkey in late 2010, I updated my profile with the when and where’s of my upcoming trip and within minutes several locals sent me messages offering to show me around. I perused their profiles and ended up meeting up with a nice guy in Istanbul who took me on an extensive tour of his favorite haunts throughout the city.
CouchSurfing: this has pretty much become the website to connect travelers with the locals who are interested in hosting them. CouchSurfing has taken great strides to implement extensive profile and reference features to ensure the compatibility and safety of all involved. They also track detailed location statistics, demographic data, and success/failure rates, to stay abreast of trends and ensure member accountability.
For additional ideas, I would highly recommend that you get a subscription to Afar magazine (www.afar.com). Afar focuses on experiential travel and provides a lot of inspiration and ideas. Although it’s relatively new, it has quickly garnered enormous praise and attention from the travel community and is helping shift perceptions of travel.