I love to travel. To set foot in different countries, see historic places, learn about the culture, meet the people who call the place home. I love how much our common humanity shines through the accumulation of differences between myself and each person I meet.
Every time I travel outside of the US, I try to balance my tourism with regular life things (it helps if you have a contact in the country you’re heading to). It is awesome to see in person world-famous sites like the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu, to learn more of their historic significance and to experience the mysteriousness and grandeur of their construction. But for travel to really become a growing experience, it is almost necessary to get to know the people who live there. And probably not just the people serving you in the tourist industry.
When you get a chance to have meals with someone, to be introduced to their friends or family, to enjoy a long conversation instead of just exchanging snippets and anecdotes, to do regular life things together that they actually do in their hometown, that’s when you really start to know someone and to learn about a culture. People are multidimensional beings, and all too often we oversimplify them and their culture when we don’t slow down to get to know them and experience their way of life.
Some of my favorite “regular” life things I’ve done in other countries are
- going to the movie theater
- shopping at the grocery stores and malls
- eating in local hole-in-the-wall restaurants
- going to the gym
- getting a haircut
- getting a dance lesson
- dancing in a local club
- attending a church service in the local language
- going to a wedding
- eating in a university dining hall and visiting the dorms
- being a passenger in a local friend’s vehicle, a taxi, or a local bus
To be transparent, I must admit that another thing I love to do in other countries is to go to their McDonalds. I know, I know, it’s a totally American thing to do–to look for something that is familiar and comfortable (although I don’t really ever eat there in the US)–and McDonalds is the antithesis of the local way of life. But some of my local friends really wanted to go themselves to McDonalds, and it is really interesting to see and taste the local variations. My mouth salivates every time I think of the aji pepper dipping sauces of Peru’s McDonalds.
I hope that when you travel you’ll get the chance to bring back memories of meaningful conversations and/or experiences of how the locals live. Of course, be careful not to put yourself in dangerous situations (you can’t trust everyone you meet, and you may want to figure out in which areas it is safe to go out at night and in which areas it is not). Trust the wisdom of your local friend.
And take pictures. Of the world-famous sites, of the less-famous sites, of the not-at-all famous sites. And, if appropriate, with the friends who call this country their home.