Traveller's Guide to Meeting (and hanging) with the Locals
One of the very best things about traveling is coming home and
You never know who you may meet when traveling to lands far and dear.
telling of the
While the true flavor of a place can, and most certainly does, derive from it's arts, architecture and culinary delights, can you ever really say that you've been to a new destination if you haven't interacted with its people?
Not only does getting to know some of the locals give you a more true connection to the place you're visiting, it often provides for the very best of stories and memories. But how do you meet them without coming across as either some sort of deranged escaped mental patient, or someone looking to score some illicit action?
First off - learn the linguistic basics before you ever get on the plane - know how to say Hello, Please, Thank You , Good Bye. The words for beautiful, amazing and delicious are also extremely handy as well as a few numbers. And study the map while you're in flight so as not too look like such a tool with that ridiculous lost look on your face.
Study your guide books, if you must, at home, in flight or in your hotel room - but know they will rarely, if ever, be helpful when it comes to meeting people. If a guide book says a certain restaurant, for example, is awash in locals - you can be assured of finding mostly tourists hanging out, looking to capture the non-existent local vibe. To find real comradery, you'll need to look off the beaten path.
One of the very best places to meet locals are in central food markets, and the best one I've ever found for meeting locals is the famous La Boqueria in Barcelona, España. This covered market is in such a vibrant and stimulating location, that it absolutely teams with locals buying the freshest and usually most affordable produce. After photographing the vendors (who can be quite the characters!) and their goods, they will often invite you to sample, and strike up a conversation if they're not too busy. As you wonder through the market you'll see many little nooks and corners to take a seat, order a cup of café, and maybe tuck in with a Spanish tortilla or tarta. As soon as you pull up a chair, you'll be amazed who will saunter up next to you with the morning paper, or stop by to get some refueling after a late night in their pulsating techno clubs.
When in a vibrant city such a Shanghai or Sydney I personally love finding roof top bars and restaurants - the trendy kind, not the revolving floor variety. This appeals to both the traveller and photographer in me. I scout out the cool places with a view, then take advantage of the spot to get beautiful sunsets over the city and capture the very essence of the city at night. People will usually take notice of you, and when you're not shooting, it's quite easy to strike up a conversation with people admiring the view of their home town whilst enjoying the ambiance of the local scene and stealing glances at your LCD.
Speaking of bars, another must-know tip for traveling is the pronunciation of the local words for beer or wine. Not only will it come in handy as you settle in for a drink at that roof top bar or a quaint watering hole that you happen to stumble upon, but it is always a conversation starter, especially if you're willing to buy a round for the interesting folks sitting nearby. The same goes for coffee and deserts when at a sidewalk cafe.
Sometimes just having a camera and a tripod is enough to attract locals to begin a chat with you to see what you're shooting, or make camera small talk or to just shoot the breeze. If you're taking an active interest in their corner of the world, they will often take an interest in you. And nowhere is this more evident than if you attend a local sporting event. Unless the local team is losing horribly, the fans around you will be boisterous and open to sharing their love for team and city if you simply take an interest in the action. A few well placed "the Ref is marde!" or Go-Go Gryffindors!" and you'll be an honorary "Sea Dog" in no time, and be invited to all the after-game festivities.
However, sometimes you might just feel like you're getting a little too immersed in the local culture, because you can't always get away from them when you're in places like China or India. Not only do they have the world's largest populations, but they are also still very curious about foreigners visiting their country. While shooting the Forbidden City at Tiananmen Square, for example, I was inundated every few minutes by people wanting to pose with me or be in my pictures, wanting me to go eat some dumplings with them, asking for me to buy their "genuine" Rolexes, wanting to get involved in long conversations about America or Europe, reading to me from their "genuine" Mao book of poetry, asking if I know Brittney Spears or Michael Jackson, pardoning themselves to please allow them to practice their English, etc. etc...
Do you try to meet the denizens of your travel destinations - how do you go about it?
When we travel we always try to get away from the "tourist" areas and see what the place is really like, how the people live. One of the best ways to do this has been to work as volunteers; we have been in people's houses and worked alongside them. We eat meals together, hunt for construction materials and supplies in the local markets, and generally have a good time.
Whenever I meet someone, we tend to just have the "moment" - never seems to translate into keeping in touch. I usually just meet them in line waiting for tickets or to see some must see attraction. I'll try some of your approaches when I visit Spain this summer. Fun post - keep up the interesting articles!
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