4 Ways to Escape the Tourist Bubble

by Keith Savage · 18 comments

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The act of stepping through a gateway is generally unremarkable. You move from one room to another, from inside to outside or vice versa, from one humiliating security station to the next. Rarely does the thought that you’re crossing a threshold actually cross your mind. That metaphorically stepping over the line allows you to mentally shift your behaviors and attitudes.

Travel functions as a convenient method for this transformative experience. Compare your recent travels to your everyday life: did you feel like a different person on those trips? Were you doing different activities, eating different food, or being more outgoing? You might notice a discrepancy now that you didn’t observe then, one that seems integral to the act of traveling. Of course you’re going to be more active, more adventurous, more loquacious while you travel, right? That’s partly why we love to travel! To escape our often less active, less adventurous, and dour livelihoods.

Many treat travel as an escape from the “real world,” and the tourism industry helps us binge by serving up pre-set menus of country highlights. I’m not attacking the industry, just stating facts here. Even with a so-called “menu,” these travels are bursting with memorable and unique experiences. But it won’t be long before your eyes start roving elsewhere, and if you’re reading this you’re probably ready to try something different.

Over the last couple of months I’ve met loads of people looking for more from their travels than fancy hotels, tourist-bedecked beaches, and thronged monuments. While these are worthwhile pursuits in their own rights, the experience can be lackluster especially when you’re seeking something deeper or more challenging. Maybe it’s just sitting in a cottage reading a book as Scandinavian snow softly falls, or working rough rocks from untilled vineyards in Chile, or scrubbing mussels off a boat’s hull in Half Moon Bay.

Mundane? Unglamorous? Perhaps. Buoying? Meaningful? Absolutely.

The highlights are easy to find; experiencing how other cultures live, well, that can feel a bit like getting to Mount Doom. I’m talking about experiential travel, a term that implies an interest and engagement in the cultural milieu. It’s a delightfully loose definition by any standard, but one way to look at it is: “doing as the locals do.”A common epithet that’s much easier to parrot than to practice. Here are four ways to help you set the stage for experiential travels of your own, broaden your trip narrative, and put that parrot back in its cage.

Sleep with Neighbors

No, not actually; you should get your own place. Ideally, pick one that allows you to get to where you want to go without causing too much hassle. The key is to kick hotels, hostels, and sometimes B&Bs from your traveling diet. These are places tourists stay and they effectively create a bubble in which the native culture is scarce. Unless, that is, your goal is to hang out at the hotel – then by all means enjoy your all inclusive holidays. You’re far better off renting an apartment (for long stays) or couchsurfing or doing a home stay (for shorter stays). There are all kinds of interesting and telling daily routines you can pick up on in residential neighborhoods that can be totally absent in hotels, hostels, etc. These neighborhoods also very quickly fill you with the sense of living in the place because the pace of life has a tendency to remind you of your daily routines back home.

Eat Off the Street

You don’t eat at a restaurant every night when you’re not traveling do you? I just heard one of you say “I do…” but the fact is most people don’t. Eating out all of the time is a fantastic way to see a bunch of other tourists, especially if you’re booking out of guidebooks. The reality is that many upscale restaurants are more reflective of the chef’s creativity than of the local cuisine. Treat eating out as a special and rare occasion. Instead, dive into the local street food, markets, and grocers. Understanding a culture’s food goes a long way toward understanding the culture, and these venues act like veins to its heart. To get really hands-on, take a local cooking class and see how the availability of local ingredients has shaped the country’s national dishes.

Party with the People

What do Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Semana Santa in Sevilla, Hogmanay in Edinburgh, and Pukllay in the Andes all have in common? Hordes of locals enjoying the good life would be correct. Participating in cultural celebrations provides insights into the inner workings of the people – what makes them tick – and it’s also a hell of a good time. Celebrations reflect a culture’s origins and values, and they make chance encounters many times more common. Be sure to check out the celebrations that will be happening during your visit.

Mix Some Work With All That Play

An aspect of experiential travel that really interests me is the inclusion of work to complement all the toasting to the good life at night. Shearing sheep, manning a fishing boat, picking crops – many of these opportunities exist for the enterprising traveler willing to donate some elbow grease. There’s nothing like putting in a hard day’s work and relaxing in the evening to highlight the differences and similarities of your cultures.

Follow me as I look into each of these overarching ideas in more depth in future articles. They represent fundamental principles for my own future travels.

What do you do to better understand a culture?

Listening to: Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Drinking: Highland Park 12-Year Old Single Malt

TedNo Gravatar March 3, 2010 at 10:16 AM

I like the comment about party with the people. I noticed when I traveled to SE Asia that many travelers treated the locals like their personal waiters and never really tried to get to know the locals. Many do take the next step to getting off the beaten path and “live like the locals”, but then curiously make no attempt to get to actually know the locals. For me the most enriching part of travel is meeting people from different areas and getting to know them for a short time. It is interesting because after awhile you find that they are not much different from you. We are all human and have the same fears, wants, hopes and it is a comfort to find for some reason that people in Thailand or Cambodia although very different in some ways are the same.

KeithNo Gravatar March 3, 2010 at 4:39 PM

Thanks for stopping by, Ted. That’s a keen insight. Perhaps we travel as an attempt to dispel the feelings of fear and unknown that shroud distant places. Ultimately, we feel more connected to other cultures around the globe when we’ve had the opportunity to find our common ground.

martaNo Gravatar March 3, 2010 at 4:39 AM

i think working could definetly help you mixed with the locals except if you are doing so in a hostel where i guess a lot of foreign would work there, maybe better consider another place of work or volunteer

KeithNo Gravatar March 3, 2010 at 4:37 PM

Hey Marta – I’m considering working in some of the locally-common professions. It might be more of a job shadow in some places.

KeithNo Gravatar February 28, 2010 at 8:16 PM

Building on your work suggestion we have found here in Camnodia that the expat community is a great way to connect and get outside the tourist bubble. They take you to great local restaurants, inform you on local prices and have great insight on the culture. Cambodia is unique with it’s many NGOs and Private Sector businesses, but we plan on reaching out to other expat communities as we travel. As one last benefit they often have opportunities for you to volunteer your professional skills. Many need help with marketing or other professional skills. Sometimes it feels good to work your mind when trave traveling.

KeithNo Gravatar March 1, 2010 at 4:22 PM

Great point! Are you finding that expat communities also help you to understand the local culture? Do you feel expats contribute to “doing as the locals do” or insulate you from it?

GrayNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 6:54 PM

Well done, Keith. You offer some good ideas for getting beyond the usual tourist experience. The other plus of all of these is that you should save (and perhaps even earn!) some money by going this route.
.-= Gray´s last blog ..Snapshot of San Juan: Cat City =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 9:44 PM

Yep, that hasn’t escaped my attention 🙂

Catia | Vagabond RootsNo Gravatar February 26, 2010 at 12:09 PM

Couchsurfing really is a great way to get to know what local life is really like and to find the places that aren’t in the guide books but are (often) a better experience.

I’d also suggest learning a bit of the local language, it opens up a whole new world of experiences and makes your suggestions much easier and far more rewarding.
.-= Catia | Vagabond Roots´s last blog ..How to Stay Healthy While Travelling =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 7:41 AM

Hey Catia – I agree 100% that having some handle on the language is really important. Good suggestion!

ayngelinaNo Gravatar February 26, 2010 at 6:55 AM

I like the last suggestion about work. While I probably won’t need to work while away I plan to either work or volunteer to meet people and bring some sanity back into my life. I just need to brush up on my sheep shearing skills…
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..Saving for Long Term Travel =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 7:41 AM

Too few of us are proficient in sheep shearing 🙂 Meeting people is one of the main reasons why I’d sign on for some work. Working with others in a typical job is a bee line to getting to know how the people think, play, live.

Sofia - As We TravelNo Gravatar February 26, 2010 at 3:12 AM

Great post Keith!
I couldn’t help but giggle though when you said “Maybe it’s just sitting in a cottage reading a book as Scandinavian snow softly falls..”.

The snow falls all but softly at the moment in Scandinavia. They have had to evacuate and close down schools, swimming halls and other public buildings because the roofs are crashing down because of the snow..!
I just thought I would mention it as it’s pretty funny 🙂
.-= Sofia – As We Travel´s last blog ..NZ Road Trip – Day 7: Wellington – Kapiti Coast – Eltham: 320kms =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 7:38 AM

Ah, that’s funny in an ironic way. I feel a little sheepish but what can I say? I’ve always been prone to romantic imagery.

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar February 25, 2010 at 11:40 PM

Excellent tips. I plan to explore all of these in depth as well. Meanwhile, I’ll let you sweat brow over the fantastic writing and reach understanding through your upcoming articles.

The one I’m most fascinated with are the homestays or couchsurfing. I’ve yet to try it on a long term basis, but somehow intuit that it will be enriching in a different way than hostel hopping has in the past.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Wednesday – Passion Board =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 7:36 AM

Yes, I think being welcomed into someone’s house will put a different twist on your experience. Seems like a great way to make friends, too.

JoelNo Gravatar February 25, 2010 at 11:01 PM

Great stuff. Part of it is also in selecting the destination. I’m planning on visiting towns off the beaten path and learning about the culture without the sites you might read about. As much as I love all things Parisian, my favorite experiences have been in small towns along the bike routes I’ve taken on long distance tours.
.-= Joel´s last blog ..12 Things I’m Looking Forward to While Traveling RTW =-.

KeithNo Gravatar February 27, 2010 at 7:35 AM

Some of my favorite travel experiences have been in small towns throughout Scotland and Portugal. With all of the tourist trappings stripped away, it’s much easier to get a sense of what normalcy means there.

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