Facing language barriers, foreign traditions, holidays, and routines as a traveler can help you open your mind to a new space and culture of people. Finding ways to get around, chatting with locals, and expanding your palate with new foods are all part of the transformative beauty of travel. Even so, it is necessary that we are cognizant of our travel privilege - the understanding that not all places we visit have the same opportunities to see outside their current reality in the ways that we often take for granted. There are small ways to shift our mentality as travelers and open ourselves to new experiences while being respectful of traditions and culture.
Follow the Local Customs
I have traveled all over Southeast Asia, and although I can only utter a few phrases - it was enough to get me around and find common ground in the cities I visited. In Thailand, before you initiate a conversation, there is a formal greeting where you place your palms together and lift them to your chest, with a small bow towards the person you are approaching. You can then proceed with your greeting and request. When you do not initiate a conversation with this gesture, you will start on a bad note and you will not get the attention you seek. This is one example of how following the local customs can help you show your respect for your host country and people.
Knowing simple traditions such as the Thai greeting can help you navigate your surroundings better and allow you to blend in. Before traveling, ensure to freshen up your skills and learn about where you plan to go. Learn local greetings in the native language, find out if there are any social taboos, and be prepared to adopt these new traditions when it applies.
You should even take this tip on a domestic trip! As a Boston native, traveling to Georgia caught me off-guard when I was unprepared to meet the gracious Southern hospitality the state is well-known for; our traditions in the East of the U.S are much more relaxed and -ahem- a little less friendly.
Find a way to follow the local customs authentically and you will be able to gain the respect of the people you encounter. You may find that you learn something new while you are reaching outside of your comfort zone.
Eat Where the Locals Eat
With an overflow of information flooding our timelines on what to see, eat, and do while traveling, it is hard to forget that often times the best places to eat are where the locals eat. Leave space in your travel itinerary to go off-the-beaten-path, and try local food traditions. While exploring in Mexico City, I was so happy to see the numerous street food on display and I made sure to eat at a new street food stand each morning.
Typically, people who live and work in the area stop at these various food stands to grab breakfast and coffee on their way to work or school. I was pleasantly surprised to find the street offerings were full of flavor! I sat down each morning to enjoy the food, city views, and make new friends! The street food offerings varied from local fruits and traditional Mexican meals such as tortas, flautas and elotes!
Eating where the locals eat offers you a new way to interact with new people and learn through their experiences. Another plus: it is often so much cheaper than the places you picked for your perfect travel itinerary! Don’t be afraid to tuck away your list, manage your expectations (let’s face it- not all places can do what Mexico City does!), and try a new food experience while engaging with locals.
Explore on Foot
When traveling to a new city, find a way to get out and explore on foot. While visiting Paris, I managed to walk almost everywhere as the European capital had great walkable neighborhoods. When it seemed less feasible to walk, we took the local bus and metro to get around. Although Uber and the traditional yellow taxis were available, walking and/or taking local transit options felt more authentic and gave us a new perspective in understanding the city. Exploring on foot can also mean being ok with getting lost! Finding your way through a new city can have some challenges but when you keep an open mind, a light spirit, and flexibility in your plans, getting lost in a new city can be fun! Explore on foot and free up some time to enjoy your new surroundings, ask locals for directions (or at least to the nearest bar!) and be pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
Find the Art Scene
Art can be tucked away anywhere in a new city. Finding the art scene during your travels to a new place can help you feed into what the mood is for your new surroundings. An art scene can be telling of the political and social times of a place. While visiting Cartagena, Colombia, I was fortunate enough to visit the Getsemani neighborhood. During my visit to the historic neighborhood, I found street art that paid homage to the Afro-Colombian culture, music, and traditions that the people remained very proud of. Learning how to understand the meanings behind many of the public murals granted us access to the lives of the local residents. Find the art scene in the new city you are in and you will often find eager residents waiting to share more about their world. Art can be a great form of expression, and as travelers, we can use a local art scene to learn more about our new encounters whether in public spaces, murals or the museums in the area.