One of the best ways to have a good experience when travelling is to learn how to understand and embrace the local culture. If you follow some of the tips below you will not only have a more fulfilling experience you will also get to know more about the locals and learn to appreciate and respect their culture.
Start learning before you leave home
Do some research and learn as much as you can about the place(s) you are going to visit before you set off. Learn about the food they eat, their local traditions and music, their culture and beliefs – an understanding of these will help you to embrace the local culture. Also check whether there are any taboos in the country you are going to visit to avoid making a faux pas.
Different cultures have various different “no-no’s.” For example, in many Buddhist cultures, it’s considered rude to touch a child on the head. A foreigner who just ruffles a kid’s head in a friendly manner is actually doing something extremely rude in their culture. In India you are expected to refuse the first offer of a drink from your host – you should wait until you are asked again. If you eat everything on your plate in China your host will be offended because they will think you didn’t get enough. On the other hand, in Kenya and Germany your host will be offended if you don’t finish everything on your plate because they will think you didn’t like the food. Taking the trouble to learn about any taboos before you land in a country shows respect and understanding.
Don’t expect people to speak English
A lot of English-speaking people go to a foreign country expecting everyone to speak English but this is often very misguided. Adopting a monolingual attitude will not only alienate you from the locals but you’ll also miss out on a lot. Just because someone doesn’t speak the same language as you doesn’t mean they can’t communicate with you. Even with language barriers, you can have some incredible experiences with the locals. However, to avoid completely distancing yourself, make an effort to learn some basic words before you set off.
There are really just a few words you need to know in any language to be able to get by. These words include: “Please,” “Thank You,” “Hello,” “Where is X,” “This one” and numbers. With just these few words, you’ll be able to make basic requests. You can point at objects and say “this one please.” You can ask for directions and so it will much easier getting around. You won’t be able to have real conversations with people, but with a basic vocabulary you’ll be able to show that you care enough at least to try.
Find out which things are unique to the culture
Try to learn about what’s unique to the culture before setting foot in the country. It’ll give you some common ground with the locals, as well as give you a few things to explore during your visit. This can include finding out about festivals and local events. These often celebrate local traditions and rituals, local history and significant historical events and the life and work of local communities.
Although it is not necessary to learn about the local culture when you travel, you will get so much more from your visit if you do and your experience will be so much more rewarding, worthwhile and memorable.
Embrace the local culture by living like the locals
Although you might be tempted to head for flashy hotels in the flashy end of town, finding more typical and traditional accommodation in areas inhabited by locals will give you a much better idea of what it is actually like to live like a local and experience their culture. This may simply mean renting an apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris and visiting cafes and shops where the locals hang out (check out airbnb). Or it may mean living in a yurt with a herder family in Mongolia, doing a house swap where you get to live right in the heart of the local culture or staying with a local family in whatever part of the world you choose to visit ( homestay.com connects guests to local hosts in over 150 countries).
Go to local food markets
Local food markets are usually busy, bustling places where you can catch a glimpse of what life is like for the local people. Wander around taking in all the sights, sounds and smells or find a quiet spot where you can just sit and watch everybody go about their daily business buying or selling the local produce. You can learn so much about the character and identity of a place and its people by visiting a local market and just mingling and smiling. If you have mastered some simple words like ‘hello’, try these out as well. You might be surprised by the positive and friendly responses you get.
Try out the local transport
To get a real flavour of local culture try using some of the unique methods of transport found around the world. For example, hop on a camel bus in Cuba (a combined truck and bus), clamber aboard a Barco de Totora (a reed boat) in Peru or a Sampan (a flat-bottomed Chinese wooden boat). Jump on a Tuk-Tuk in Thailand or a Matatu in Kenya or sail the Nile in a Felucca (the traditional sailing boats used on the Nile in Egypt). What better way to embrace the local culture.