Travelling as a Local, Not a Tourist

Samantha stands in the organ at the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Written by  September 14, 2012

For blogger Samantha, interacting with locals is the key to true cultural immersion.

People travel for various different reasons including business, study abroad exchanges, volunteer programs and vacations. It would not be far-fetched to say that many enjoy travelling because they like to immerse themselves in a new culture. But what oftentimes ends up happening instead is that they go to this new location and immerse themselves in the tourist culture—rather than the reality of what it actually is like to be living there.

I like to think that to fully experience a new culture we cannot view travelling as a vacation, but rather an experience worth learning something from. In order to best do so, it is important to gain a local’s perspective on the city that you are travelling to.

It is easy to get lost in a tourism trap or a foreign frenzy when travelling with your friends and family, but seeing a city from a local’s perspective brings unlimited benefits to the table. Locals know all of the main attractions from the city, but they also know far beyond what is written in a guide book. My advice is to ditch the guidebook once you get in the country, go to a hostel, coffee shop or bar and open yourself up to the idea of making friends with a local. Obviously there are safety precautions to take when meeting people in a foreign country, but use your common sense and you should be provided with an experience far more unique and real than what any other tourist could come out of that city with.

My travels thus far have been a prime example to demonstrate the endless benefits of such socializing. In Belfast, I stayed with a friend’s family who had a car and was generous enough to bring us to the places that we would have found incredibly difficult to get to otherwise, such as the Giant’s Causeway. If not for the friendly hospitality of these Belfast lads, we would have likely had to go through an overpriced tour bus provider if we were even able to get there at all.

In Madrid, I met an individual who had spent significantly more time in the area than us and as an added bonus he knew Spanish. While he was not a local, he was able to steer us in the direction of incredible shopping markets, popular local bars and historical monuments far better than we would have done on our own.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, I interacted with outstanding local youth who took a group of us into their own schools and started an open discussion about what their courses were like compared to ours; what exchange programs were available to them; the competition for admittance at their schools; and overall comparison of living costs. They also hosted an “amazing race” for us, which meant we were directed to the places they felt were worthwhile for us to see—not a guidebook’s version.

Looking forward, I am leaving for Brazil in four days and the word “excited” would be an understatement for how I feel about getting back out there and experiencing a new culture from a local perspective. I will be living with a host family for 10 weeks while I intern in Brazil. I hope to come back with a unique and fresh outlook on the challenges and opportunities that face the country at the present, not the biased opinions of the mainstream media that we are most commonly exposed to. I know that living with a family will mean I learn about the local food, traditions, political opinions, language and forms of entertainment much more in-depth than I ever could by myself. I’m ready to be a local.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Samantha Phelan

Samantha Phelan is a recent commerce graduate from Memorial University of Newfoundland. A restless adventurer, she has lived and travelled throughout Asia, Europe and North America. As an AIESEC intern she will be volunteering in Brazil to teach English through a local university. To read more about her nomadic lifestyle you can visit her personal blog, Modern Day Marco.

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