The Most Surprising (and Fun) Ways to Go Local on the Road
Recent research has confirmed what a lot of us had long begun to suspect: More and more, we’re traveling for the likes. And much as we love a good #travelgram, “I came, I saw, I posted” leaves something to be desired at the end of a trip: specifically, a sense of real connection to the places we’ve just been—and to the people who call them home. No wonder everyone’s hungry for authentic experiences (especially the Instagrammers who confess to tossing their gorgeous gelato as soon as it’s been styled, shot and posted).
So while we’d never suggest giving up the ‘gram, we would say that there are several ways you can counter its surface-skimming effects on the road. Read on for four of the best ways to go deeper when you travel. And don’t be surprised to come home from your next trip with a few new friends (and, okay, followers).
Feed your curiosity
It’s been said that the history of every country—from foreign rulers (or conquests) to religious traditions—is written across the local tables. Food, of course, also brings people together. Thus the popularity of offerings like Be My Guest: In Cambodia, for example, you can try Khmer cuisine with a family of dragon fruit farmers at their traditional old wooden house in the countryside near Siem Reap. Back in town, you’ll also hit the Old Market (known here as Psar Chas) where the locals go for fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and freshly-baked baguettes (some French colonial habits die hard).
Or in St. John's, Newfoundland—the oldest and most easterly city in North America—chat over lunch with cod and snow-crab fishermen whose families have lived off the sea for generations. And when in Rome, well, learn to make fresh pasta—who better to teach you than an Italian nonna or mamma? Point being, breaking bread with locals is one of the best ways to get to the heart of a place and the people who live there, and if someone else (who's well versed in the destination) has done the scouting and made the arrangements for you, you can cut straight to the communal feasting.
Bond over sports
Ever since 76 BCE, when spectators and athletes traveled from across the ancient Greek Empire to Olympia for the first Olympic Games, sports have been bringing people together. Barring Olympic qualification (you’re probably a bit late for the 2020 games anyway), one of the best ways to get a taste of that experience for yourself is to leave the hotel gym behind and go for a game of pickup basketball or soccer at a community center.
Of course, certain guided trips come with built-in opportunities to get a local workout, so the recon is taken care of by the time you arrive. You could, for instance, try your hand at hurling (Ireland's national sport, which even makes appearances in the legends of Irish warriors). Or live out your hockey star fantasies in the Canadian Rockies, minus any opponents who are likely to relieve you of a tooth or two. But honestly, even if you just sign up for a spin class at a local gym, the playlist will almost certainly include local pop music that will give you a glimpse into the local scene.
If your favorite sport is of the spectator variety, try cheering on the town (or national) team. Beyond the naturally-occurring camaraderie that tends to go with stadium sports, there’s an amazing bonus: local delicacies for sale, many particular to the stadium. A tour of European stadiums, for example, would yield everything from from köfte ekmek (a spiced meatball sandwich) accompanied by ayran (a salted yogurt drink) in Turkey to piadina (a thin flatbread stuffed with cheese and meat) in San Marino to “stadion platte,” or “stadium dish,” otherwise known as two sausages stuffed in a roll and doused with mustard and ketchup) in Denmark. There’s also Brazil’s feijão tropeiro (pinto beans simmered with bacon, garlic, onion, collard greens and eggs) and in Japan, takoyaki (spherical deep-fried snacks made from batter, chopped octopus, onions and pickled ginger).
Of course, there are plenty of countries where any given pub will have a game on. And while neighborhood watering holes are some of the easiest places to strike up conversations under any circumstances, adding sports to the mix guarantees you lively banter. You could say it’s a win-win—no matter what the score.
Learn the right phrases
Getting down the local terms for “please,” “thank you” and “where’s the bathroom” is just good manners. For a richer experience, however, you'll want to master a few more phrases: What do you recommend, what’s your favorite and where do locals go on weekends? Whether you’re chatting up your waiter, a taxi driver or the person next to you at the bar, you’re asking people to consider some of their favorite topics (a no-fail ice breaker)—and getting some self-serving info in the bargain (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Finally, earn yourself more smiles—and maybe even a bonus insider tip or two—with a word or phrase that shows you know a little about the culture. Even a well-timed opa—which, yes, everyone knows—will win you some brownie points if you’re headed to Greece. But we’re thinking more along the lines of ma pen rai, the Thai way of saying, essentially, “no worries, it’s all good”— a very in-the-know way to handle, say, someone bumping into you or getting your order wrong. How can you find a key cultural phrase when you don’t have something specific to pop into Google translate? Traveling with a guide who's deeply entrenched in local life is one of the best options. A good backup? Look online for the expat newspaper wherever you’re headed, which almost always has a column about the joys and frustrations of learning to speak the local language.
Get some screen/life balance
It’s hard to fully enjoy the fjords of Scandinavia or the heaven that is Hawaii when you’re scanning for the perfect shot (then checking every minute and a half on the progress of your likes). It’s probably even harder to recharge and gain some perspective, a reason a lot of us travel in the first place. And there’s no question that connecting—whether with locals or whoever’s in your travel party—becomes extremely difficult when you’re constantly monitoring your screen.
And though no one’s suggesting you quit cold turkey, a few tips might help restore some screen/life balance—especially on the road. First, rearrange your home screen so that your most time-sucking apps (hi, all of social media) aren’t easy to access. Then consider downloading one of these free Phone Breakup images and set it as your lock screen so you’ll think twice every time you pick up your phone. Finally, consider packing a travel alarm clock—they’ve gotten a lot better since last you probably looked—so your phone isn’t the first thing you touch in the AM. We can almost guarantee that the more disconnected you feel from your phone, the more connected you’ll feel to your new surroundings—and the people who live there. But please still post pictures—we want to see how you do at hurling and pasta-making!