Meeting Locals: Easier Said Than Done

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I’ve met young travelers from all different countries.  I think that may be one of the only things I would change about my travels.   Not meeting travelers, but I wish I had met more locals.  After a while we travelers all start to sound the same to one another.  Maybe we just get tired of answering the same questions over and over again (Where are you from, how long have you been travelling? etc.) so we downplay our adventures. Maybe we’re trying to be cool.  “Yeah, just travelling the world.  You know, whatever.”

It’s not that I didn’t meet ANY locals, I did.  Those are the few faces that stick out among the sea of grungy and tired hostel stayers, who, though they were from all different countries were in SO many ways, just like me.  What I mean by that is they were quite privileged and educated, they were usually in their twenties and had enough of a carefree attitude to perhaps leave behind “normal” responsibilities, at least for a while, to leave their home countries and stay in dirty hostels just to see and experience new places.  Not to mention that it had been way too long since they’d done laundry, too.  Of course it’s wonderful to meet like-minded and circumstanced people.  Some of those people have, I hope, become lifelong friends.

Anyway the point is:  It’s harder than I thought it would be to meet people who actually live in the city you’re visiting.  And I think it’s such an important part of travelling.  I mean, to go to a new place and see the buildings and the museums and the pubs without really interacting with the people is unfortunate. That’s the whole difference between the tourist and the traveler, right?  And anyone who is or has been a “20-something” and has ever used the internet knows that “tourist” is like a four letter word nowadays.  Nobody wants to be a fucking tourist, that’s like the whole thing!  So of course the internets tell you to really immerse yourself in local culture. But they don’t tell you how hard that is.  And by the way, it is especially difficult for us introverts.

Think about it this way.  Picture the place you live.  Now think about if you were to try to go out into your city or town or whatever on any random day of the week and meet someone you’ve never seen before and share some experience or adventure with that person.  For example, they invite you to have dinner with their family, or take you to their favorite café, or restaurant or nightclub.  WHEN HAS THAT EVER HAPPENED TO YOU? Now imagine that it’s not your city, it’s a city on the other side of the world and oh yeah, you don’t speak the predominant language of this city, AND you might have just a couple of days to make this happen.  The point I’m trying to make is it’s not as simple as just “being open” or veering away from the “beaten track”  or whatever phrases you read over and over again on those damn 20-something websites.

Of course, it’s not impossible to meet locals and there are tools you can use to help.  But it’s something you have to be proactive about.  If you just follow the guidebooks, you know, see the landmarks and stay in the hostels, and then move on, you’re not going to make any real connections to the people.  And maybe that’s okay, maybe that’s what you love about travelling and that’s fine, do that.  But, looking back on it, some of my best stories (for lack of a better word), are experiences shared with actual humans who were actually from the country I was visiting.  Those times feel the most authentic.  I remember thinking, “So, this is how people are in this country, this is what they do,” I can’t tell you how many museums I browsed, or grand public squares I walked through, but I can tell you in detail about the time I drank wine and ate cheese and bread with those French hipsters in the park in Nîmes or when I attended the Passover Seder of a family in Hukok, Israel.  Those are the experiences I treasure; those are the ones that not just any jerk with an Interrail pass will have.

I now have a goal for any future travels.  I will never again pass through a country without a story of a time I spent with some locals.