When I travel, I like to see the top tourist sites, but only so I can relate to what others going to the same destination are seeing. What really intrigues me is getting below the surface to interact with the local people and learn about their unique problems and points of view. Few travelers do that and are really missing out, in my opinion.
That is why I frequently stay in a home of locals when I travel. Home stays aren’t the only way to learn the local culture. If you are willing to strike up a conversation with locals, you’ll learn a lot.
Still, speaking with a local can be hard, especially if you are dealing with a foreign language. The language difference creates a barrier, but not an insurmountable one. Willing participants manage to communicate with sign language.
With technology today, you can use a translator on a smartphone to help a conversation along. Of course, the problem is that smartphone translators usually only work in a Wi-Fi zone. And even in the U.S., in many places, it’s hard to get a connection.
I point to the Academy Award winning documentary film this year, “Period. End of Sentence,” as an illustration of the type of sub-surface cultural knowledge that you can get by pushing past the tourist monuments and in lieu thereof have a conversation with a local.
This movie focuses on the taboo of menstruation in India, an English-speaking country (language is not a barrier). In rural culture of India, men don’t know what menstruation is, and it is taboo for a woman to speak about it. Adolescent women must figure out how to deal with this natural phenomenon on their own, using rags, often dangerously unclean rags (as clean water isn’t normally available), and venturing out at night when no one is around to dispose of rags in an empty field as there also isn’t trash disposal.
For society, the problem is that when a woman starts to menstruate, she often leaves school, as the schools lack bathrooms or other facilities to accommodate periods. Instead of learning how to read and write, for a typical young woman, a period ends their sentence (the title of the movie), and they are forced into subservient lives of poverty.
Enter an enterprising Indian (Google Arunachalam Muruganantham) who developed a cheap way to manufacture feminine pads. Women learn how to manufacture and sell them, raising consciousness of the communities in business acumen as well as menstruation. Keeping women in school creates educated women able to raise their families out of poverty. Who said education and poverty aren’t correlated?
I’m not saying you have to be so active as to develop a solution to a societal problem like this, but you wouldn’t even know it existed if you simply looked at monuments. You need to get to know a local well enough to begin to discuss difficult subjects. Rarely does a tourist do that, leaving with an incorrect impression of life in the places they visit.
Another example of this occurred when I visited Puerto Rico. On the beach I saw a local man running. I stopped to ask an innocuous question and ended up speaking with him for an hour! Turns out he was educated as a lawyer but had started a marijuana business when Puerto Rico legalized it. I learned so much about Puerto Rico in that hour.
My suggestion: try to seek out opportunities to talk with a local. You can see them wherever you go. Insights you gain by doing this will change you forever.