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The Local Experience

posted Feb 20, 2012, 6:20 AM by Matthew Sharp
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what you consider to be "getting the most from your travels?"

I believe that the local experience is one of the most rewarding gifts of travel.  In my opinion, a local experience can come in many forms.  Being taken to a local hangout, beach, or view point that is off the beaten track, indulging in the wisdom of elders over coffee at a cafe, playing games with children, attending a small town festival, and sharing a meal, tea, or slice of watermelon in the home of a local resident are some of the local experiences I cherish most from my time in India.

Leaving home and hoping for these opportunities is optimistic, and helpful - but I suggest that travelers can cultivate and nurture deeply rich cultural experiences.  Here are a few things that you can do to pro-actively promote meaningful interactions with the local experience:  

1. Connect with your network

The quickest and easiest way to guarantee a local experience is to connect with your network.  When visiting a new region, let your friends and family know with some notice.  Ask directly if people have contacts at (or near) your destination.  I have found this to be particularly useful in larger cities where a fast paced lifestyle and high volumes of tourism are prevalent.  In these environments a local experience can be elusive.  Even with recommendations from friends it is important to clarify what you are getting an how much it will cost.  As you balance cost and value with relationships and cultural perceptions this can be a fine line to walk.

2. Smile

If you don't already know someone, you will have to meet some people once you arrive.  The easiest thing you can do is smile.  A sincere smile universally transcends language and cultural barriers (careful with this one ladies).  No one wants to deal with grouchy visitors.  

3. Make time to get rural  

Building time into your itinerary to get away from metropolitan cities, lonely planet "top picks," and other frequented tourism hubs can be a fun way actively find the local experience.  Sometimes this means you plan your activities intending to chat with locals, travelers, shop keepers, and hotel/restaurant staff to get an understanding of how exactly you are going to take the path less traveled.

4. Talk to fellow travelers

I have observed that even just 10 years ago the traveler community interacted differently.  We were connecting in hostel lounges and kitchens rather than Facebook and Twitter.  We carried thousand page guide books rather than iPad2 and Android phones.  Nevertheless, chances are good that the people sitting next to you during dinner are probably ecstatic to share with you a wonderful experience, favorite hotel, or tip to enhance your travel... all you have to do is ignite that conversation with an invitation to talk.  Their information is usually more current, accurate, and specific than that forum post or guide book you just referenced.

5. Consider a home-stay, bed and breakfast, or CouchSurfing

If you are ready for a change in pace, check out a home-stay, b&b, or surf some couches.  These accommodations derive their value by providing home cooked meals, exceptional hospitality, and local contacts. 

6. Get creative

Finding creative, productive ways to engage locals is challenging, and rewarding.  This week I have been thinking about seeing the world through the eyes of a child.  It is easy to lose sight of that curiosity that characterizes being truly "present."  Today, I enlisted an expert.  I invited a 10 year old boy in a rural town to spend the day sight-seeing with me.  Now, there were obviously circumstances that made this an acceptable query.  The day was beneficial for us both.  My new friend Ragesh proved knowledgeable of local flora and fauna by pointing out coffee trees, cardamom, various tea leaves, eagle nests, local fishing spots, favorite fruits, and scenic overlooks.  Spending time with him gave me a reason to ride elephants, have a pellet gun shooting competition, hike in a "no trespassing" area, ride a pedal boat, and taste honey directly from honeycomb.

When we got back to town, his family graciously invited me to have dinner at their house where I transferred copies of the day's photos to the computer in their living room.  I am certain it was a day that neither of us will soon forget!

7. Travel solo

Traveling with your partner is stacked with benefits; however, one simple fact is that traveling solo makes you more available.  A few days ago I was out just after dark struggling to purchase some soap, and just that very moment a gentleman approached and help with some translations.  Soap in hand, I could have headed out the door and called it a night.  Instead, I engaged in conversation with "Thapy" and seconds later I was in his house meeting his family, and sharing a watermelon smoothie in his living room.   

If you treasure the local experience as I do, I am confident that by consciously inviting the world into your heart with these seven (7) techniques, you too will have a more fulfilling local travel experience.