Be a cultural Chameleon
This is a lot tougher than it sounds at first because the idea here is to do as the locals do. And sometimes that’s – well – scary.
Chopsticks for example. The Intrepid Traveller isn’t that great with chopsticks – she’s a lot better today than 10 years ago – no question – but still – they are a challenge. So doing as the locals do when it comes to eating with chopsticks – a challenge. And I’m rarely comfortable eating with my fingers out of a common pot – color me food cautious. But I do try.
Using public transit. I actually love taking public transit – that’s what people do you know – normal people – the kind without tour guides and money for taxis and private drivers. But the idea of getting on a bus when you don’t understand where the money is supposed to go, exactly what the bus route is, and who is going to be sitting next to you – scary – just plain scary. Metro seems easier somehow. The routes are easier to read, and if you get confused – just get on a train heading the opposite way. But Metro isn’t nearly as much fun, or as good a way to see a place – as an old fashioned bus. And in many countries – buses are cheap. Dirt Cheap. So – take a risk the next time you travel – try the bus. Go to the end of the line and stay on. The bus will turn around and take you back home (you hope) – and you’ll get a very different view of the city you are visiting.
Eat in restaurants where locals go to dine. Oh – this is another easy to say, hard to accomplish task! The restaurants that I look for when I’m traveling have locals inside – but often that means no English menus – and maybe even no typed menus. I’ve gotten by with a combination of smiling hard – and pointing at what looks good on someone else’s table. Restaurants to avoid – ones with no customers, ones with people standing outside to usher you in (nothing says tourist trap like that move), ones with English/German/French – but no local language on the menu listings outside, ones with pictures displayed prominately out front, and buffets. Definitely avoid buffets – that’s food posioning heaven! Restaurants to savor – ones with lots of customers who look and sound local, ones with meals that look interesting on other customer’s plates, and ones with table-clothes. I’m a sucker for table-clothes. (Ok – those probably aren’t for locals – but they always look so appealing!) I am also found of restaurants that have grills visible – so you can see your food cooking while you wait.
One cavet on food – I’m always a bit iffy on food sold from stands on street corners. I know that those are often the most local of places – but I want to see them cooking my food before I’m going to eat it. Pre-cooked food that is just sitting there is a buffet – and I always avoid buffets!
Have an open door policy. If a door is open to a church, a museum, a public space – I tend to walk in. Why? Because I’m not sure what I’ll find – but sometimes it’s amazing. I’ve walked into weddings, funerals, baby events, kids choir practice, organ rehersals, and yes church services. And I’ve never ever been sorry. Locals do churches – and so should you. Best local church event – ever? In Florence we happened on the 200th birthday part celebration for the founder of one of the main churches. All the local kids were dressed fit to kill – they had a full high mass (insense burners etc.), the priests were all wearing their full dress outfits – and the kids were performing. It was so so beautiful. The other guests – family and friends of course. A truly local happening – right in the center of one of the worlds most touristy cities.
Be curious when you see a crowd – be really really curious if they seem happy. I’ve seen coq fights in Bali because I couldn’t figure out why a bunch of men were gathered so tightly around an open space (give the birds room, eh?) – I’ve watched people creating art on the street while people gawked – and I’ve enjoyed showy events like bands, singing groups and the like. If people are gathering – there’s a reason. Don’t be crazy – but don’t turn around and go back to your hotel either. There’s always someone around to ask. Case in point – we were in Korea and noticed that people were getting cushions and sitting on seats surrounding an open stage. Hmmm – they looked local – so worth checking out. It was a Korean version of a Gong Show – a school was show casing the work of their students – and the crowd were mostly parents and friends. It was great fun! And more importantly – real. Naturally, we attracted interest – only foreigners in the crowd – so after the show, two young students approached us to ask if they could interview us for their teacher – in English.
The moral here – be comfortable about joining in – particularly if you see groups of locals as compared to groups of foreigners. You’ll might be surprised at how much fun unplanned to you, but highly planned to the locals – happenings can be!
Signing off to check out that group of youngsters all dressed in white in front of that church…. The Soup Lady