I love to travel. It’s exciting from the moment you decide to take a trip. Half the fun is doing your research on-line, making a list of attractions you would like to see and planning where you will stay. But you never truly know a place unless you step outside the tourist areas and connect with local people. It’s interesting to see how they live. In most large cities, they live the same as we do. But it is their different attitude towards life that I find interesting in other parts of the world.
My sister says I’m a chameleon. No matter where we travel, people assume I’m a local and tourists stop me for directions. I think it comes from my internal need to never look lost and always act like I know where I’m going. And most of the time, it’s true. I have an uncanny ability for direction. Even if I get spun around, I can usually guess correctly which way I should be headed. I’ve never been tested in a jungle, so I could be wrong.
This skill came in handy when we had a mere 4 days to navigate and see everything we wanted to in Paris, France. This particular time, I knew it wasn’t my style that made me look local. It must have been my “Don’t bother me, I don’t have time for you” look. I’m joking. For all that I have heard about travelling in France, I found the people extremely courteous and patient when it came to trying to understand my French.
On the day that we had to cover a lot of ground, we took the subway. It isn’t my preferred transportation but it’s fast and convenient. Commuters are not exactly the kind of local people I like to connect with. They’re rushed, they’re on their way somewhere and they are lost in their own thoughts. Good luck striking up a conversation.
On the other days we walked and took the bus. I love taking the public buses when I travel. You instantly get to connect with locals. In general, I find that the atmosphere on the bus is more relaxed. It’s a slower pace. People are more open to communication. You can interact. It must be because you aren’t locked in a can. You can also look out the windows and discover new areas to return to.
On our way to the bus stop one morning, I stopped at a little corner shop. It was filled with locals on their way to work. Some people were chatting to each other but most were quietly standing single file in front of the cash. I was a little concerned about slowing the line down when it was my turn. I had some questions and I didn’t want to annoy the people behind me that were obviously heading off to work.
“Can you help me choose a brand of cigarettes?”, I asked.
I didn’t even want to attempt asking in French. That would have made everyone late for sure.
“I’m from Canada and I’ve run out of mine.”
All of a sudden, everyone in line was talking to me. They all had an opinion and seemed almost invested in me getting the right kind. A few argued in French to their companions, others to me in broken English. It seems that they were no longer in a hurry and much more concerned with a foreigner choosing the right smoke. It took some time but eventually we all decided on the correct one. I paid and Merci’ed my way out of there.
I have wonderful memories of this trip. I have lots of pictures from all the attractions we visited. But it’s the moments when I connected with people that stick in my mind the most.
The next time you travel to another country, make sure you take the time to connect with local people. That is the real experience you are looking for.
Three Tips To Find and Connect With Locals When You Travel
1. Get Above Ground
I know sometimes that time and distance is an issue when you need to cover a lot of ground but whenever you can, you should try to travel above ground. You miss so much if you take an underground subway or drive yourself. Try to walk, take a bus or take a cab. You will be able to see the sights, see where locals hang out, and see what everyday life looks like for those that live there.
2. Visit a Pub/Cafe
There is no better place to connect with people than visiting a local bar or cafe. Choose a place that has bar type seating, not booths. Look for an environment that encourages interaction. Strike up a conversation with the waitress or bar person. They can probably introduce you to some of the regulars.
3. Visit Small Businesses
A corner shop or boutique that is owner owned and operated is more likely to be invested in their community. They have pride in their neighbourhood and are a wealth of information. If you show an interest in their area, I’m sure they can point you to some local hang outs.
Please remember to be aware of your surroundings when you travel. Connecting with locals should be secondary to your safety. Do your research on-line before you go and ask hotel staff regarding the safety of all the above tips.
If you have any tips to add, please leave them in the comments.