For many of us, part of the allure of being in another country is enjoying the differences– experiencing a culture unlike our own in terms of smells, sounds, taste, and overall feeling. Easier said than done.
While countless companies that promise an “authentic local experience” are all too happy to take your dinero, too many of these experiences have a distinctly turístico taint. But there are a number of steps you can take to make that cultural connection, whether you are in a city for a limited time or a more extended stint.
In terms of where to stay, if you haven’t discovered Airbnb yet, it’s time to join the 100 million users of its site.
Airbnb hosts are local people who are renting out their room, apartment, or house to strangers, just like you and me. But it’s not just an income generator for them.
What I’ve found in my Airbnb stays–from Colombia to Japan– is that, unlike anonymous hotels, most hosts relish giving you an insider’s view of the city they love.
That person will politely let you try out your pitiable Spanish and might even be your first new friend in a city you are moving to while you sort out where you want to rent for a longer stay.
While it’s easy to read the reviews and find the best places to eat and shop on sites like Trip Advisor, it’s the locals that know where the real food is being sold and cooked–at the real prices. The mercados, those big markets teeming with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and just about anything else you can think of, are among the best places to see what locals consume in their day-to-day lives.
Meander through the aisles and you will definitely find some local treat that you don’t yet have a name for. Unless you’re anxious to pay the gringo price, look for vendors that have posted prices. Take time to talk to some of these merchants; for the most part, they are extremely friendly and proud of their products.
Many of these markets have eating areas as well; just make sure it’s a place with a lot of business and– I speak from personal experience– you don’t want to have the bottom- of -the -barrel encebollado de pescado (fish soup) at the end of the day.
It’s those epic moments, when you’re in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico during the Día de Los Muertos festival, surrounded by boys and girls with haunting skeletal makeup, and the person sharing the concrete bench with you turns to you and starts speaking in rapid-fire Spanish.
Or maybe you thought you were buying tickets to a major cultural festival in Cusco, Peru and, as you look around, it dawns on you that you are the only one in the audience not related to one of the school-aged dancers–and it doesn’t matter.
Attend local festivals and events–sometimes the smaller the better. Sure, it may feel strange at first, but there’s no better way to get to know your new neighbors.
Volunteering for a local organization whose cause you believe in is another way to get to know local people, learn more about their culture, and establish friendships.
Sometimes you may be limited by your level of Spanish, but often they are looking for people with specific skills, such as photography or website building. And there seem to be endless numbers of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) looking for someone who can teach English.
Finally, consider taking public transportation to get around. Of course, some cities are safer than others, and you always have to be smart and alert wherever you are.
But there’s nothing like seeing what people are reading on the metro or sitting next to someone on the bus eager to practice their English to feel that magical, sometimes elusive sense of belonging.
Where are you looking to immerse yourself? We would enjoy hearing from you about your experiences.
by: Eileen Brill-Wagner