How to not be a tourist
It’s like I have been a journalist all my life; listening, observing, absorbing…endlessly curious; I loving feeling the vibe, the energy and mood of a place. I am interested in the feeling of a place, what it is like behind the scenes, what everyday life is like for the locals.
I can’t stand being a tourist; it’s like a thick wall between you and the locals, a wall that prevent you from really getting to know the individuals behind the pokerfaces. When you are the tourist you are the customer, the client, you are a target that you don’t get personal with. Many take advantage of tourists, are out to trick you, to get as much money from you as possible.
When I travel I am not your normal tourist, but I am not your average local either…I am somewhere in between. I am an observer, sometimes a participator in everyday life, at times I am like a bridge and an ambassador; other times just a sponge with big ears and eyes.
It’s about breaking down barriers: Give something of yourself that others can relate to on their level. I am blond and green eyed, in the vast majority of the countries in the world it would be impossible to blend in physically. But there are other ways to blend and acclimatize:
Start to imitate postures, way of walking and hand gestures, check to see how the head moves while talking and follow the movements of the eyes. “When in Rome, do as the Romans” If the locals sit on the floor and eat with their hands…sit on the floor and eat with your hands. It might feel strange to you, but be strange instead of a stranger.
To really experience a place and its inhabitants, you need to move beyond your comfort zone and try new ways of being, thinking and doing. It’s very rewarding and often life changing.
“I think doctors should prescribe travel for narrow-mindedness, stupidity, racism, depression, low self-esteem, lack of creativity, burnout, superiority and inferiority complexes and apathy.”
Sometimes I have asked myself what the F#*!^ I am doing;
Like how I drank warm sour milk from the hands of a stranger and ate stale ghee (clarified butter) balls with holy ash and herbs during Cavadee (a religious Tamil festival, Tamil is a culture, language and religion found in southern India, Sri Lanka and Mauritius. Muruga, brother of Ganesh is their main God)…while I lived in Mauritius.
Probably the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted, but holy and important as it was for the locals, I didn’t want to offend them. Sometimes it’s hard to build bridges, but almost always it is worth it and you are grateful afterwards.
There are many ways to do it and here are some tips:
Internet is great; you can find friends (old or new ones) to visit, travel and stay with all over the world, sites for house swapping, language schools, universities, paid work and voluntary work, courses, expeditions, seminars, monasteries, temples and churches, organizations, spiritual communities, eco villages and cultural festivals and activities.
There are also expatriate communities in most parts of the world. Check out their official websites and see where they hang out. Most expatriates make way better guides than your travel books.
Check out these sites for inspiration:
www.couchsurfing.org (get to know locals and stay in their homes)
www.wooffa.com (willing workers on organic farms)
www.gvi.co.uk (volunteering around the world)
www.careersabroad.co.uk (job opportunities that makes a positive difference)
www.escapeartist.com (job listings around the globe)
www.ic.org (alternative communities, eco villages)
www.worldexpeditions.com (trekking, adventures, expeditions)