“Please be a traveller, not a tourist.” said Andrew Zimmern. “Try new things, meet new people, and look beyond what’s right in front of you. Those are the keys to understanding this amazing world we live in.” I love to meet local people when I travel. In fact Zimmern’s mantra is something I’d lived by even before I had read his quote.
There are numerous reasons why we travel to far flung places. The world is full of enthralling sights and enchanting people. And when you explore the world for real experiences beyond the average package holiday, travel is elevated to a new high.
I’d say that my best travel experiences have centred around discovering the real lives and cultures of people of the world and the landscape they inhabit. There’s little better than when I meet local people who can inform my view of a place.
From Vietnam to Zambia, India to Gambia the world reveals itself in all its diversity, complexity and cultural fascination. And nothing beats seeing, tasting and understanding, the way of life of a person in a completely new culture.
I recall a taxi driver in Petra, Jordan who after taking us to various tourist sites, offered us the chance to visit his home and meet his family.
A truly wonderful and enlightening evening was spent with him, his wife and children. At their fairly humble home, we enjoyed their generosity as we dined with them, talked to them and discovered what life was really like from their perspective.
Eye-opening, inspiring and delightful
At the end of a houseboat trip in Kerala, India, we visited another home – this time that of Donovan, one of our crew. The town’s children raced in behind us, wide-eyed and giggling excitedly, keen to catch glimpse of the strangers who had come to visit. We spent time with Donovan’s family, held his nappy-less one-year-old daughter, who took the opportunity to pee on me. As the wet patch spread down my leg, and her parents rushed to excuse her indiscretions, all I could do was laugh.
When in Gambia, we met a local woman who offered to be our guide and arrange a driver to take us to places tourists rarely see. The next day we met her, got into a beaten up old taxi for a whole day of real experiences we would not otherwise have had.
We ventured to vibrant Serrakunda market where I spotted only two other foreigners . We gained a true impression of the Gambian way of life – the kind the average tourist rarely sees and we got a chance to meet local people. From the fisherman to the dressmaker and even a local witch doctor.
This was no anaesthetised tourist offering.
How to meet local people for a real experience
Becoming acquainted with locals and finding real experiences though is not always straightforward, has potential safety concerns and requires some know-how. Here’s our tips for getting to know the locals wherever you go:
- The most important thing when planning interactions with local people is ensuring your safety. Don’t let your guard down just because you’re on holiday. Just like at home you will find good and bad people everywhere. Sort scammers and those with questionable intentions from the genuine and you’ll have a great time.
- There’s safety in numbers. Never go alone to someone’s home, or on a tour with a local person on your own.
- If a situation doesn’t feel right for some reason, go with your gut instinct and give it a miss.
- For those that like a little more surety there is a useful new service worth checking out. Withlocals puts you in touch with reputable local guides for tours and meals in local homes. It allows you to sample the hidden delights of a destination most tourists never get to see, coupled with assurances on safety and quality experiences. So for example if you’re interested in exploring real Thailand, they have a tour allowing you to meet local people. We’re keen to try them on our next trip.
- If you’re visiting someone’s home, try to learn a little of the local culture before your visit. Enquire about local customs and social mores so you don’t cause any upset.
- Consider if taking gifts or leaving western items behind is appropriate. There may be times when your gift could be in bad taste or upset the economic balance in a place. In some places it would it be appropriate to take a gift, in others it leaves the hosts feeling they need to return your generosity with an even bigger gift (and they may not be able to afford that). In extreme examples, travellers who have met with remote tribes and left them gifts have even caused outbreaks of infections like the common cold – something some tribes people have not built defences against.
- Give generously – not necessarily in things, but give of your time. Take an interest in the people you’re meeting. They say a smile goes a long way, and this is never truer than when you don’t speak the same language.
- Don’t objectify the people you meet – they’re people just like you. Be polite and treat everyone with the same respect you’d expect and you’ll have a wonderful experience.
- Ask before taking photos, some people may not appreciate it.
- Realise that underneath our clothes, beyond our customs, varying languages, foods, and beliefs, people are largely the same wherever you go.
However you travel and wherever you go, try to get beyond the normal tourist traps and enjoy a real local experience. It just might make your holiday.
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Kiran Samra says
I really enjoyed reading your article. Thanks for sharing your stories and advice. I’ve had many great experiences of meeting regular local people while travelling, some of them I have managed to keep in touch with years after having met them. When I think back to the places I’ve been, often I’ve forgotten everything we saw there but I never forget the people I’ve met and the conversations we’ve shared. We are so fortunate to be able to see the world from different perspectives and get a better understanding of it. As you point out, there are some barriers for travellers, language is one of the biggest but there’s also trust and safety, and cultural differences that may make it harder to connect with people.
I wanted to make it more accessible for travellers to get to know locals. I started Lokafy (lokafy.com), a startup that connects locals with travellers, last year. Currently we’re in Paris and Toronto. Using Lokafy, travellers can connect with locals who share their interests (for example, photography) and get to see the city from a local perspective, like having a friend show you around. You can see a video we shot in Paris that explains how it works here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gVVHM5JGyjo