Meeting the locals and having a cultural experience with your kids when traveling throughout the U.S.A. or overseas can be the difference between a good trip and a great one. Those type of specials moments do not need to be left up to serendipity. So, we have prepared a “How to Guide” for opening up the doors of friendship, adventure and cultural understanding. Part of the fun and enjoyment of traveling in a foreign country is making new friends with the locals and learning firsthand about their culture and customs.
There are a few things you can do in advance of your trip to get the ball rolling:
*Ask everyone you know if they have a contact at your vacation destination. Have your kids do the same. Then pursue that lead by asking for local travel advice or offering to take your local contact out to dinner.
* Use your business, personal and academic contacts. E-mail or call your regional office at your destination, check out your college alumni directory, or call on church, Rotary Club or gardening club members. Don’t be shy about this. In most cases, people are delighted to act as a guide or host or give you sightseeing suggestions.
* Consider joining an organization just for the contact benefits. One such organization is Women Welcome Women, an international organization designed to promote cultural understanding and friendship. I recently joined and already have an e-mail pal from the UK who is planning to come to my area to visit her daughter. The Web site is: www.WomenWelcomeWomen.org.uk. There is a membership fee.
* Contact tourist boards for information or cultural exchanges. In some cities, such as Amsterdam you can pre-book afternoon tea with a local family.
* If you or your child has a special interest, capitalize on that and contact the appropriate organization in advance. Enlist the aid of your child’s teacher. Perhaps your child did a paper on the Battle of Little Big Horn and you are planning to visit the battlefield. Try locating the local historian via a Web search. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a personalized tour when you get there? Do you have a budding journalist in the family? Contact the editor of the local newspaper at your destination. Sports are always a gateway to a new friendship. Perhaps your child’s coach can help you get in touch with a local soccer, lacrosse or football team at your vacation destination.
Once you arrive at your destination there are some other things you can do to enrich your cultural experience and have a little fun. But you have to be willing to step out of your normal “overseas comfort box.” On my Web site, under the “Articles” section, is a newly created page called “Latching Onto Locals.” Just click on the Web page below and read some field-tested ways to make new friends and enrich your next travel experience.
These tips offer field-tested suggestions for what you, the traveler, can do to create opportunities for meaningful interaction with the local populace. Some suggestions may require you to step out of your usual “foreign travel comfort zone” but the results will be worth it!
SUGGESTION #1 – GO TO THE MOVIES
Objection #1 – Crazy idea! I don’t speak the local language. Most movies are produced in Hollywood, the movie capital of the world, and usually are in English with subtitles in the local language. It’s a fun way to learn a few foreign colloquialisms. However if you see a movie in Belgium, be prepared to read fast – movies there are subtitled both in French and Flemish.
Objection #2 – What’s so different about seeing a movie in a foreign country? Lots of things! In many foreign countries the feature film is preceded by elaborate and entertaining commercials, rather than movie trailers, offering a chance to gain cultural insight. In La Paz, Bolivia, you are assigned reserved seats, just like a live theatre presentation. Overseas movies often have an intermission, which offers patrons a chance to have a smoke and buy food. While waiting in line to buy the local version of popcorn, the locals are more likely to start up a conversation with you, since you obviously are not a typical tourist.
Objection #3 – Isn’t there a concern for safety? You are probably safer in a local movie theatre than strolling along the usual tourist routes at night, which are pickpocket heaven. In a few rare cases, it may not be safe to attend a movie at night, because of the neighborhood or local customs. Your hotel front desk or tourism office can help you select a sub-titled English-speaking movie and advise you on the safety of the neighborhood. Enjoy!
SUGGESTION #2 – TAKE THE LOCAL BUS OR SUBWAY TO GET THERE
Another great way to interact with the locals and save money to boot! Once again check with your hotel or local tourism office for routes and safety advisories.
SUGGESTION #3 – AFTER THE MOVIE CELEBRATE WITH A BEER AT THE LOCAL PUB.
Movie theatres are often located in neighborhoods not frequented by tourists. While waiting in line to buy your movie tickets, ask the person next to you to recommend a nearby place for snacks or a beer. Who knows? Maybe he (or she) and his friends may join you afterwards for a lively discussion about the movie you just saw.
SUGGESTION # 4 – STEPPING BACK TO STUDENT DAYS
One way to interact with the locals, which is both fun and educational, is to visit a school. During our vacations, when my kids were little, we often visited grade schools and middle schools and as they grew older we expanded our repertoire to include high schools and universities. Having grown up in a large suburban environment, where high school graduating classes can number as high as 1,000 students, my children have had some lively schoolyard discussions with kids their age from small towns in remote areas of the world, including the U.S., where one room schoolhouses are still in existence.
During one summer trip to central Alaska, the custodian of a local school was kind enough to give us a tour of the facilities. The school, which serviced grades K through 12, had a stunning colorful mural in the central hallway depicting Alaska’s indigenous peoples. The custodian explained that the student population usually totaled about 200, never enough for a sports team or debating team, so schools were “bundled up” regionally to form teams and provide competition. I was surprised to see that the student lockers were quite narrow, thinner even than those found in our home state of New Jersey. “Where did the students find room for their heavy coats and boots?” I queried the custodian. He chuckled as he responded, “Oh the kids here usually just wear a parka when it is cold. Once the temperature goes above freezing they come to school in cut-offs.”
Two years ago, while hiking around Moon Island in Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, we asked our guide if we could visit the one room schoolhouse off in the distance. The teacher was happy to oblige and chatted with us during recess as we sat down cross-legged in the schoolyard. We learned that in Bolivia, due to their steady year round climate, the school year has two separate one month breaks rather than a long summer vacation and we learned that, in Bolivia, English teachers are in great demand, but in short supply. On Moon Island the students are taught scholastic subjects in the morning and the afternoon is spent teaching life skills, such as farming and weaving. This method, rather than a full-time scholastic schedule, seemed to have greater support from the parents and thus insured 100% student attendance. Within minutes the students cast aside their shyness and began clustering around us and we were soon engulfed by engaging smiles and curious looks. Everyone was eager to pose for pictures including several formal poses of the class in front of the Moon Island schoolhouse, which I later sent to the school. Fortunately we had just enough pens, paper tablets, and bookmarkers in our backpacks to hand to the teacher so that each student would receive something. That day we all learned a little something about each other.
SUGGESTION #5 – CHECK OUT THE LOCAL SUPERMARKET AND PHARMACY
Whether vacationing in the U.S. or overseas, I always make it a point to stop at the local supermarket for picnic food, water and other daily essentials. It is a great way to save money, learn about the regional foods, and mingle with the locals.
Checking out can sometimes be an adventure. In some stores in Scandinavia, you are required to weigh, price, and tag your own produce on a pictorial scale. With some help from our fellow Norwegian shoppers, we soon became “pictorially” familiar with the nuances of the dozen local varieties of berries. (All of them looked light green to me!). My kids had a fun time with the scale and wound up buying every type berry in the store.
In Belize the local supermarkets carry packets of those wonderful Belizean spices, complete with recipes -a lightweight and very inexpensive gift for the folks back home. All throughout Central and parts of South America you can find small pharmacies with personalized service (now almost non-existent in the U.S.). Many pharmacists speak some English and will assist you in finding an over- the-counter local salve for those itchy mosquito bites acquired during your jungle hikes. These salves are made from the local herbs and have been used by the indigenous peoples for centuries. We found them to be cheaper and sometimes more effective than U.S. produced ointments. If nothing else, your sojourn to the supermarket will at least teach you how to say “Cheerios” or your favorite cereal brand in the local lingo!
SUGGESTION #6- DON YOUR SOCCER SHOES
Love to play sports? Enjoy going to sporting events? Soccer (or fútbol), as it is known throughout Latin America, is the number one sport worldwide. One of the best ways to immerse yourself in local culture is to get involved in sports. Soccer stadiums are found in every medium to small sized city in Central and South America. Attending a soccer match and rooting for the home team is a fun way to spend an afternoon while endearing yourself to the local denizens.
Soccer fields are ubiquitous in small towns and games often spring up spontaneously. Just hang loose on the sidelines, soccer shoes in hand, and look hopeful. I guarantee within 10 or 15 minutes someone will stroll over and ask “¿Quiere jugar?” (“Wanna play?”). Then you broaden your smile and answer “¡Sí!”
Several years ago, while vacationing in Tikal National Park, Guatemala, my two children, then 19 and 26 years old, were invited to participate in the local regional soccer tournament (hotel hospitality staff versus the park rangers). Our gracious Guatemalan hosts provided them with everything they needed to play – uniforms, shoes and socks – all of which fit, an amazing accomplishment, considering the people of Mayan descent are petite and my son is six feet tall with my daughter not far behind.
The game was played on a grassy clearing in the heart of the jungle. The surrounding trees were filled with screeching howler monkeys and on the ground a marimba band played, Miss Tikal waved, and spectators cheered. I elected to assume the role of water bearer and sports photographer. As the game began, my son and daughter, on opposite teams, and both used to an aggressive American style of play, immediately clashed with one another in an attempt to gain possession of the ball. I might add that in Guatemala, women do not play contact sports. My daughter was asked to play since she was a foreigner, and, as such, was treated like “one of the boys.” Nonetheless the Guatemalans were at first a bit startled to see a girl play so assertively. There were other differences in the style of play: the ball is much lighter than an American soccer ball and so there are many more head shots and, more importantly, once you are sent out to play you are expected to play for the entire period! After twenty minutes in the noontime jungle sun my kids began waving their arms frantically asking me “How do you say ‘Get me outta here!’ in Spanish?” As my son and daughter collapsed on the sidelines, they admitted they had great respect for the endurance of our Guatemalan hosts.
That night the spacious Tikal museum was converted into a dance hall for the monthly fiesta. The entire soccer team lined up to dance with my daughter while my son’s soccer teammates lined him up with all their single sisters. So when a local soccer player asks you “¿Quiere jugar? just remember to say “¡Sí!”
One reader had an excellent suggestion, which is the Thorn Tree section of www.LonelyPlanet.com. He suggested posting a message to the Thorn Tree before leaving for a trip, which will enable you to exchange information with people who have traveled there or perhaps even find a travel buddy or local new friend.
Please send in your personal suggestions for getting to know locals to email@example.com. We will be happy to publish your suggestions in a future newsletter or on the Web site.