A few months ago, I wrote a post about what Star Trek has taught me about travel. It remains one of my favorite posts to date. I love the way the crew of the Enterprise sought to interact with the indigenous population (especially when they were either green or furry), without leaving a trace, taking away only a better understanding of a foreign culture. There’s something to be said about traveling like a local.
Something that I’ve tried and loved is renting an apartment instead of a hotel whenever I can. I adored the little apartment I had for a week in a working class Prague neighborhood. I ferreted out the nearest supermarket and not only did I save money by buying meals from the hot food counter or making meals myself, but there’s something to be said about wandering the aisles of a foreign supermarket to see how the locals eat. Best of all, the rental didn’t cost much more than a comparable hotel room would have and I was more aware of the local pace of life, not dictated by my hotel’s breakfast hours.
Some of my favorite travel / food moments have also come by eating with locals, whether it was a meal on a houseboat in Kampong Chhnang, Cambodia, all of us seated on the smooth wooden plank floor with the food spread out in the middle, or hanging out in the kitchen of a friend’s house, soaking in the jovial atmosphere as the womenfolk prepared a mountain of green papaya salad while having the funniest of banter.
I find Asian cultures in particular have retained a very hospitable attitude towards food. More than once, I’ve been wandering around back alleys and happened upon a family eating an early lunch (Asian homes very often leave their doors wide open). “Come, sit, join us,” they say by way of greeting a complete stranger.
One of my best travel moments came in the mid-90s, as I was traveling through Thailand for the first time on my way back from Vietnam. Two friends were supposed to have met me there, but on my first night, a phone call with something about a family emergency left me alone in a strange country. I remember the dread I felt, being on my own for the first time in a country where few spoke English. This was long before the days of the skytrain or metro, and getting from Sukhumvit to the city center involved traveling by khlong (canal) boats with multiple changes. (This was supposedly the fast way, only taking 1.5 hours instead of the 3 hours by bus. The skytrain now makes the trip about 20 minutes.)
Piers were marked in Thai only and I remember desperately trying to locate landmarks at every change like a twisted version of Hansel and Gretl so that I could find my way back. There was also the smelly black water and having to hold the tarpaulin up so that water wouldn’t splash onto my face as the noisy boat zipped past stilted tin houses and kids horrifyingly swimming in the garbage strewn water. After more than an hour in the heat, I was feeling pretty low. I asked three shy teens, two boys and a girl, dressed in crisp white school uniforms, how to get to the Emerald Pagoda. Initially met with panicked looks, a lot of Thai spoken amongst themselves, one of them finally said, “We go there. You come with us.” We spent the morning together, touring the huge complex, barely speaking because we had no real common language.
Afterwards, though, they took me for noodles, sweeter than any “savory” dish I had ever tasted. I watched in horror as they proceeded to spoon in even more sugar. When it came time to pay, they refused to take my money. “You are in our country. We pay. When we come to your country, you pay,” was the essence of what they told me, knowing full well that they’d most likely never set foot in my country. It was my first real taste of foreign hospitality and made me question whether I’d ever be that generous to non-English speaking tourists back home. It made me a believer in the Land of Smiles.
Getting a local perspective on things inevitably enhances the travel experience. I remember my friend Nima, who grew up in Thailand, saying, “It’s like seeing a movie you’ve already seen but now with locals and seeing where they laugh. I saw The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with Thais and they couldn’t understand why you would be a transvestite and not look better than that!” You can NOT get more local than that.
That said, unless you know people, it’s hard to find those authentic experiences. Hospitality exchange sites like couchsurfing.org often feature locals who are eager to show off their country to foreigners. There are nearly 3,000 hosts registered in Ho Chi Minh City, the vast majority of them local Vietnamese. While the premise implies simply somewhere to spend a few nights, hosts often spend time with surfers, showing them the sights or sharing a home-cooked meal.
But as many are saying, that wide-eyed, altruistic shine has grown dim in recent years. Here in Vietnam, where local youths have very few opportunities to practice authentic use of English, having access to a foreigner is a rare, cherished experience. I’m not really involved in the CS culture, but had to think about what My Pham, a CS Ambassador, told me. “Originally, CouchSurfing was about sharing travel experiences. It was a great way to practice English while learning about other cultures. But recently, that’s changed. Now, it’s almost like a dating site. Vietnamese girls are using it to find Western boyfriends. I know a few young Vietnamese who have quit school entirely, just to hang out with Westerners, both hosts and surfers, partying and drinking all day.”
The alternative is organized group tours. I have to admit that a small part of me dies every time I get on a tour bus, following a guide holding a flag like so many sheeple. Whenever I can, I engage local guides on a one-to-one basis. That was the case in Luxor, Egypt. For $30 for a half-day, I was able to secure a driver and guide. All day, we stayed an hour ahead of the huge bus groups, enjoying the sites in relative quiet. The tour went beyond history and delved into politics, religion and ambitions, giving me insight on what it was to be a modern-day Egyptian. I was able to move at my own pace, lingering in deserted corridors with ribbons of sunlight streaming on millennia-old friezes.
Another time, I found myself in the ancient city of Bhaktapur, armed with a Lonely Planet walking map. At the last minute, though, I agreed to a teenaged boy’s offer of walking me through the town. Best $4 I ever spent. My nose wasn’t buried in a book trying to stay on a specific route. Instead, we at times deviated from the path, checking out courtyard fountains and walking through a mom-and-pop paper making factory. Having a personal guide isn’t always feasible, though, so I’ll sometimes opt for group walking tours instead. Across Europe, free walking tours are common, with tips given at the end, shared between the local guide and the tour company.
Therein lies the crux of the matter. It’s rare that a local will simply take you under their wing. It did happen to me in the back alleys of a Cairo neighborhood when an old man spotted me checking my map. Despite his broken English and my non-existent Arabic, he offered to take me to the paper shop I was looking for which turned into a guided tour of the area, pointing out mosques and fez shops and slices of everyday life that I would’ve never seen on my own. We ended up at his tiny shack having very strong coffee. Sure, I wasn’t absolutely positive that I wouldn’t be the next victim of a serial killer (given that he had creepy passport photos of his guests up on one wall, prompting me to firmly plant one foot by the door, propping it open to passersby) but in the end, it was just a very nice man offering up fabled Middle Eastern hospitality.
Experiences like that are rare. More often than not, to get a local experience, you’ll have to go through a tour company which has sanitized the trip for foreigners, usually taking the lion’s share of the profit to boot. Which is why I was excited to stumble across a startup company called With Locals, recently. It’s so new, it hasn’t even started operating, but the premise is intriguing – providing a forum for locals / individuals to offer their own quirky tours and setting their own prices. In September, it’ll launch in Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, tantalizingly promising experiences like finding traditional Jewish food in Singapore (!) or having a Thai along for Songkran or plucking tea in the hills of Sri Lanka. The tagline is “We are heading to create 100,000 new restaurants”, ie. opening up local homes and kitchens directly to travelers.
It may not be as awesome as having a total stranger who you just met in the market invite you back for an impromptu meal, but it’s direct access that I think I’d be happy to pay for. No price points are available yet, so it’ll be interesting to see how much the experiences are costed at and whether they’ll be significantly cheaper than going through a traditional tour operator. But in theory, at least, having a forum where individuals can post their own tours sounds like a positive evolution in experiential DIY travel.