For many travellers, “experiencing another culture,” means visiting museums, archaeological ruins, and national monuments. It’s a great idea to visit the Pyramids and Coliseums of the world but you should also experience the ordinary beauty of day to day life wherever you visit because it’s the best way to enjoy new cultures.
However, how does one go about doing so? Here are a few tips on how to feel immersed in different worlds.
1) Move Slowly
Spend more time in one place rather than checking as many off the proverbial list as possible. Having nothing in particular to do often reveals much more about a place and culture than following an all-encompassing itinerary. Imagine summing up your hometown with a dozen landmarks over two or three days. While it might offer some sense of history, it does little in the way of explaining everyday life. Life comes while sitting idly over breakfast at a regular café, going to the neighbourhood supermarket for some sugar, and having a favourite bench to read a book on. Sometimes the big attractions are part of people’s life, but they don’t encapsulate it. Be cautious about treating a place like a highlight reel. There is a lot of culture lurking between the most known locations.
2) Rent an Apartment
Nothing says “from out of town” like staying in a hotel or hostel, and nothing says “my town” like twirling around a set of keys to your own apartment. Luckily, it’s easy enough to rent short-term just about anywhere in the world. If you are a ‘backpack’ traveller, you’d love to put up in a hostel, hanging out with other travellers. You can even enjoy free services or offers from caring neighbours like a free bag of rice, cakes, a new washing machine, or just some conversation to better understand your new environment.
3) The Food Market
What people eat explains a great deal about a society, the landscape, the environment of a country, the aesthetics, the rituals, as well as the general outlook on life. A traditional dish at a restaurant sometimes hardly begins to explain how a grandma goes about compiling the ingredients to make it (unless grandma is the cook).
Find a regular stall and the nearest fruit and vegetable market to your apartment. Get familiar with traders – this can lead to a deeper exposure of the general culture. For example, in Moscow, pickles feature heavily in the local cuisine, you can enjoy a variety of pickle-featured meals like pickled cabbage or pickled pepper. Now, this is a local staple in Moscow.
4) Public Transportation
It’s in the very name, “public transportation.” Travelling like the local public will without doubt provide more exposure than renting a car, travelling with tour agencies, or always taking a taxi.
“In Istanbul, using the ferry to cross the Bosporus, I always took advantage of the chai service aboard. Once, just after my row of seats were served our tea, a little old lady sitting next to me smiled and offered me her paper-wrapped sugar cube. I thanked her politely but motioned that I didn’t need it. She offered it again. Feeling uncomfortable, I refused once more. Then, someone from across the aisle came over and opened the cube for her. I joined everyone in a good round of laughter at my social blunder and made some friends for the ride. Sometimes missing the point completely can give you a memorable exchange.” Says Julie Steffner – a vast traveller.
In Moscow, Arbat St. is the place to meander in downtown Moscow, and in the summer, the place is filled with street performers. you’d find teenagers entertaining the audience around.
5) Walk and Wander
Motorized transportation doesn’t always allow for the curious nip into an odd alleyway, the quick browse through a store with a quirky window display; these peeks are often where there is a whole different life to discover. Think about taking the subway in New York. First of all, getting out of the subway in each borough or even sections of boroughs offer up a different cuisine, style of architecture, and crowd wondering the streets. Three stops down the line, a distance walked in a half-hour, could mean missing an entire neighbourhood that could possibly be the perfect blend of bohemia, panache, and pizza. Like New York City, much of the world is pedestrian-friendly. In between subway stops, life bustles. You’d discover amazing markets, parks, ruins, beaches, and people simply due to being willing to get lost walking.
6) Volunteer Somewhere
Travelling responsibly is one of the great travelling trends of the day. Now, it’s possible to take an organized group-tourism trip just about anywhere, or better yet, reach out to an NGO and lend a hand for a couple of weeks.
I was an NGO volunteer coordinator in the mountains of rural Guatemala, and our organization, Las Manos de Christine, worked with the local public school, offering several options for volunteering short-term. We had people who stayed around from a few days to a few months. Some of them came up with their own undertakings—building a clubhouse or after-school sports—and others lent a hand with art classes or ongoing construction projects. There are opportunities to get involved all over the world, and that generally leads to being part of a good project and often being part of a community. The abundant interaction between the kids and guests was quality exposure for both. – Miranda Vikings – Local traveller.
7) Listen to Locals
Here, emphasis is placed on listening because people often say they want to “talk to locals,” and for a cultural immersion experience, it’s more relevant to listen, and to learn more about where you are. Speaking about your life “back in” wherever you come from may create a distance from the people who are hosting you.
My first couple of months in Korea, I provided my Korean colleagues with Saturday writing lessons in exchange for lunch. Each week they’d take me to a new eatery around town, which they’d choose. I got to sample restaurants throughout Ansan City, places I would have never discovered, tried foods that hadn’t made Lonely Planet’s rundown, and learned the nooks of where I was living. Over our meals, they taught me about Korean culture: the age/respect system, religion, unwritten gender policies, table etiquette, and on and on. It was the deepest insight into Korea I received during my two-and-a-half years in the country. – Lola Anderson, vast traveller.
These even seem outright cultural. Usually, festivals are founded upon local religion, rituals, history, and/or agricultural cycles. People are out to enjoy themselves and embrace all that most defines the sacred “je ne sais quoi” of a place.
Like in Antigua, Guatemala, home of the world’s biggest Semana Santa celebration, the festival is notorious for packing the streets with tourists and beloved for providing a large percentage of profits for the year. You can’t avoid participating in the event and it will have you out until the wee hours of the morning, wondering the streets to view new scenes, eating traditional foods, and watching Roman soldiers careen through town with plastic swords drawn.
9) Street Stalls and Hole-in-the-Walls
This seems to go without saying, but the best representation of local culture will not be found at chains like McDonald’s or Starbucks. Yes, some people (especially the young) do frequent these places, but “global culture” is generally not what we seek out when we travel.
I first tried Thai food at a little joint in a strip mall in the U.S. The spice options were mild, medium, hot, and very hot. I went modestly, chose the hot, and spent the entire meal wiping my nose, sucking down pink lemonade. As a result, I couldn’t wait to eat when I finally visited Thailand some ten years later. The street food rocked my world, pushcarts peddling fifty-cent samplers. I was standing in line every other block, and everything was so good. It’s an easy enough concept: Look for crowded places and long lines because, where people are willing to wait, something good and unique is sure to be available. Everywhere has its classic spots, usually a little well worn but rarely franchised. – Julie Steffner.
10) Get Rural
Cities are often where the museums are, but rural areas, just about everywhere, are generally known for hospitality, richer traditions, and natural beauty. Visit villages when possible: there are sometimes lesser sights to behold but often a very different reality.
Juayua, a little town along the Ruta de Las Flores (Route of Flowers) in El Salvador, is one of my favorite villages. Founded in 1577, with the centerpiece cathedral and hand-carved statue of Christ to prove it, Juayua (pronounced who-ah-you-ah) has the typical charm of Latin America’s colonial towns, complete with cobblestones and all that. In addition, the village hosts a food festival every weekend, surrounded by coffee fincas and waterfalls, while offering an amazing collection of mural-like graffiti. I went there as an afterthought, and it has become my number one recommendation for Salvadoran-bound travelers. – Miranda Vikings.