I see far too many travelers go to foreign countries and “play it safe” when it comes to really experiencing the local customs and culture. To my way of thinking, what’s the point of going to a foreign land and not maximizing the experience by trying a few things you can’t otherwise do at home? I hate to admit that Americans are probably the worst about this, so hopefully this blog post will give them some ideas to explore on their next international trip.
I have three very simple recommendations to help maximize your international travel experience. I’m already assuming that you’ve done research on the special sites to visit, the basic history of the foreign city/country and things like that. Here what else I recommend to fully round out and maximize your experience:
Food is such an important part of any local culture that avoiding it or not experimenting with it is a real shame. Please, please don’t seek out restaurants that serve food of your native country. Instead, go where the locals go and try some new foods and food preparations. And when I say “where the locals go”, I really mean it. These usually aren’t the nicest, fanciest, most expensive restaurants. In fact, usually they are the opposite. They are on the side streets, they’re sometimes loud and they are packed with locals because the food is so native and true to the local traditions. Think about your own home city. Don’t you have your favorite local restaurants that the tourists don’t know about and that you and your friends love to go to for the best _____ in town. That’s what you need to find in your international destination.
Second, don’t play it safe with your food choices. Ask the people working behind the desk at the hotel or the waiters what the locals eat as their favorite dishes. Try those. If you are in a country where you can’t communicate due to language barriers, one thing to try is randomly selecting 2-3 appetizers per person at the table and make a meal out of that. Alternatively, ask the waiter to bring out a sampling of their most popular appetizers. This approach avoids the risk of ordering a full plate of something and then absolutely hating it. And it gives you a preview of the various foods and preparation styles so you can take the plunge with a full plate at another meal.
Something that really drives me nuts is to see a tourist walk right up to someone in a foreign country and start asking a question in their native language rather than the local language. It’s OK to do this with the personnel behind the hotel desk but not when asking for directions on the street or in a restaurant. How would you feel if someone walked up to you on the street and started asking a question in Swahili?
Take the time to learn 10 important words and phrases in the language of your destination before you travel. If traveling with a partner or a group, quiz each other before and during the travel to your destination. The absolute most important phrase to learn is “Do you speak ____? (your native language)” Why? Because it allows you to avoid being that uncourteous jerk that I described above. Simply asking someone if they speak your language shows respect and an understanding that you’re in their country. If they don’t speak your language you can either move on to someone else or try pointing and sign language. But at least you’ve shown some respect.
Here are the 10 words and phrases to learn:
- Do you speak ______? (insert your native language)
- Good morning
- Thank you
- You’re welcome
- Excuse me (ie – if you accidentally bump into someone)
- Excuse me (ie – if you’re trying to get someone’s attention)
- The bill please (for restaurant)
- Numbers 1, 2, 3 (if you can go to 10 that’s great but I find 1 thru 3 cover 90% of needs)
Using these words and phrases goes beyond the common courtesy and respect that I mentioned previously. You’ll feel a little more “native” just by using the language. And if you expand your vocabulary further to just 20-25 words and phrases you can really have some fun.
Music & Dance
I combine these since they commonly go together. You don’t need to sing a local song at a karaoke bar or do the 800 year old traditional dance on stage. Just see if you can find some places where the native music is played and enjoyed by the locals. And if there are local dances that go along with the music try to witness that as well. A perfect example is flamenco music and dance in a place like Sevilla, Spain. What a powerful combination. Many ancient stories and traditions are passed down through music and dance. Why not get a “taste” of them through this medium while you’re there? And if you happen to really like the music, buy a couple of CD’s and bring them home with you to help better remember your vacation.
Pretty simple – at least I think so. Give these things a try and if you agree, pass along the advice to others traveling internationally.
Check out the other blog posts in my Road Warrior Travel category here.