Leave the backpackers behind and go hang out with the locals if you want to really get to grips with another culture.
Any Road Junky who doesn’t want to be a culture vulture needs to get out of their mindset and really get to grips with the culture they’re traveling in. So here are ten suggestions on how to transcend your native ignorance and really get to grips with the nuances of another culture.
1. Learn the language.
If you can’t communicate with the locals how are you ever going to find out who they are and what goes on in their lives? The only people you’ll have interaction with will be those who work in the tourist business and have learnt English. Hardly a representative sample. Learning the language is also a gesture, a step towards your hosts and they’ll often respond enthusiastically, impressed or even touched that you’ve made the effort.
2. Don’t hang out all the time with other foreigners.
There’s nothing like a crowd to inhibit original thinking. Spend your entire trip in hostels and tourist cafes and you’ll find yourself repeating the same tired platitudes in circulation on the backpacker trail. So get out a map and choose somewhere that isn’t even mentioned in the Lonely Planet.
3. Go drinking with the locals.
There’s no better way to find out what people are like than to see them drunk and making fools of themselves. Alcohol is democratic in that it reduces everyone’s intelligence and once you’ve thrown up in a foreign country, maybe even gotten into a fight, you’ll be well on your way to cultural immersion.
4. Get a job.
Having spent our entire adult lives avoiding employment, we never thought we’d say it but there are good things about getting a job abroad. You’ll be sweating it out side by side with the locals, taking shit from the bus and pilfering supplies or small change from the till. Imagine if you asked to help out waiting tables at a truck stop in India – you’d learn more about the country than from visiting 100 temples.
5. Go Hitchhiking.
There are few better ways to get to grips with the underbelly of a country than by hitchhiking around. You’ll meet a variety of people from all walks of life whom you may never have come across otherwise. It’s a roll of the dice who stops for you and in that small world of an automobile you’ll learn things that you’d never hear elsewhere.
6. Get a girlfriend/boyfriend
If you manage to make some romance abroad you’ll have a guide like none other to help you get to grips with where you are. They’ll help translate, find you work and you may even get to experience that ultimate test of cultural assimilation – dinner with your partner’s family.
7. Hang out at universities
When you find yourself with nothing to do but laze around in another country, look for other like-minded souls – they’re called students. Hang around at any university and you can usually find a few slackers to smoke a joint with or say, discuss Byron in the university cafe.
8. Use Couchsurfing.com
http://www.couchsurfing.com is one of the best ways to make contacts. The kind of people who join the site to offer hospitality or show you around tend to be people who like to network so they’ll be able to introduce you to everyone and everywhere. There’s a bright-eyed, almost utopian spirit to CouchSurfing and they even hold parties where anyone in the network can come. It’s free, too.
9. Get arrested
This being Road Junky we have to come up with something alternative for the bottom of the list. We’re much too big wimps to ever do it ourselves but we reckon that getting arrested for a minor crime and then thrown in jail for a few days has to be a cool cultural experience. Even just visiting jails to take food and books to foreign nationals can be an eye-opener.
10. Um, ok – Make Up a Survey
If you’re really bored and looking for something fun to do or just a novel way to go and hit on the hot locals, type up a list of questions about something cultural like dating or drinking habits, print out a bunch of them and then go and ask people in the street their opinions. People love talking about themselves and you can always make the last question on your list: have you ever gone out with someone who asked you to answer a survey?