There are moments when we just need to accept ourselves for who we are: out-of-place people fumbling in their wallets for unfamiliar coins. We’re tourists and we’re happy to be who we are because of where we are.
At least most of the time.
The more I travel, though, the more I discover that non-touristy activities allow me to soak in more of the culture. Just for a moment, I get to pretend I’m a local — with a small vocabulary and a weird accent — but let’s not get hung up on those details.
You don’t have to jump into a vat of grapes as Lucille Ball did in Italy, but I think every tourist should soak in more culture. I believe non-touristy activities are perfect for doing this. There are probably many more you can think of, but here are my five favorites.
You’re never going to get a better chance to practice a new language than at a hair salon. Trust me on this one. Even with two interpreters and Google translate, I struggled to communicate with the hairdresser in Greek. I was nervous. The hairdresser was nervous. But, somehow, it all turned out well in the end.
It may have been a tense experience, but I walked away thinking that every tourist should try this once. So, I recommend you do.
It’s easy for me to bring my hobby with me everywhere since it consists of small hooks and thread. If your hobby isn’t so easy to pack, you can always search for a local place that supplies what you need. At least that’s what I would do.
A few years ago, I found some awesome wool yarn in Iceland and turned it into a PNG bilum. Recently, I found a yarn shop in Athens that I want to live in. I can’t wait to see what I find on my next trip.
If you’re not in one place for very long, it isn’t worth buying groceries for cooking. But, if you are, you will learn a lot about local food and people at grocery stores and markets. Plus, you might find some local food specialties. Just don’t expect your favorite American staples to be on the shelves (sorry, mac and cheese lovers).
Here are some tips for the places where I’ve shopped:
Greece: it has fabulous and inexpensive produce at its street markets. Check with locals in your area to find out the day when the market comes to you. No matter where you shop, you will get to practice your Greek because fresh produce must be weighed and priced at the street markets and the grocery stores.
Montenegro: it has amazing seafood, cheese, and BBQ meats at its restaurants, so look for these at its markets and grocery stores. I was bummed that I never found fresh milk, but there is usually a good selection of yogurt and kefir at every store.
Albania: it may be the least expensive place where I have shopped for groceries. And yet, the shops have a lot to offer.
Ireland: it has a bit of everything you need. It takes a bit more out of your wallet, but that’s how it goes.
England: same as Ireland
Papua New Guinea: it is like going on a treasure hunt. There’s usually something good out there, you just have to search high and low for it. And if in doubt, always get a pineapple, always!
The Philippines: it is the land of mangoes and pandesal. My husband claims Filipino mangoes are the tastiest in the world, especially the ones from the island of Anda. Per his recommendation, make sure you stop by the local bakeries early to get the pandesal while it’s fresh and piping hot!
Iceland: it has the best yogurt ever. Don’t leave without eating a gallon of the local skyr.
I consider local celebrations a privilege to experience. I get the opportunity to hear of the histories and the highly regarded heroes. Sometimes, like in Peru, I get to be more than a mere spectator.
If you find yourself in a place with an upcoming holiday, get excited. Research the holiday. Ask questions from people you meet. Get to know why this day is so important. It is a great way to make a friend and discover that all people have something to celebrate.
Visiting a house of worship is a great way to experience the local culture. These places have both impacted the local history and have been impacted by it. You can learn a lot about people and places by discovering what and how they worship.
It’s easy for me to recommend this since I have grown up attending a church, but you may still be hesitant. I would like to reiterate that you don’t have to be religious to visit a house of worship, just curious. So, feed your curiosity.
We’re at the end now and I think this is plenty for anyone to chew on. I hope you consider trying one or two of these suggestions the next time you travel. Don’t worry if you can’t or don’t want to. I can agree that sometimes it’s more fun to stay in a tourist trap.