One of our favorite, most memorable travel experiences was a cultural safari trip we did in Africa. This trip was definitely not for everyone, and it even pushed our limits at times, but it was surely one of the most authentic looks we’ve ever had at different ways of living and cultural norms of a travel locale.
On that trip, we spent five days walking between local Tanzanian villages and staying with local families in their homes. We had a guide who spoke both Swahili and English to facilitate communication (without whom this trip certainly would not have been possible). We visited and stayed with a teacher, a farmer, a traditional tribesman’s family.
We were awakened by chickens in the next room one morning and slept in a non-ventilated mud-daub hut with a fire going all night the next. We tried traditional corn beer in a local bar (I don’t recommend the beer, but interacting with the locals was seriously fun, and they were pretty impressed with us), and ate crispy fried tilapia and passionfruit from the farm. Of course we ate ugali, too, lots of ugali (white corn grits – a staple food of the region).
Erin tried on a traditional goatskin costume, fully beaded, and we honed our stick fighting skills. We discussed education, farming, the cultural acceptability of spouse swapping, and cooking. We met people who were as curious about us and our different ways of living as we were curious about them. We followed giraffe tracks and watched the sun set in glorious colors. We floated in a dugout canoe next to wild hippos.
We walked fifty kilometers in five days with our backpacks and learned we could do it. (In the tribal village, a grandmother, in all seriousness, asked if we were carting all of our worldly possessions in those backpacks!) We attended a town meeting and an elementary school class where Erin made the class roar with laughter at her efforts in Swahili (translation: “I am America!”).
Walking between villages, sleeping in a smoky hut, and eating food passed to you with bare hands by someone you know did not wash after going to the bathroom is not for the faint of heart. But the experience of actually visiting the home of a family in a foreign culture doesn’t have to be as extreme as that, either.
Try couchsurfing.org, do a house exchange or airbnb rental that’s hosted by the homeowners, stay in a B&B and engage your hosts in a conversation about their family life and culture, look up that exchange student from your high school who lives in Germany and get together while you’re visiting Munich.
Generally, the average tourist venues – while well worth visiting – will not give you the true flavor of a culture, and it’s something definitely worth adding to a trip! While amazing and memorable, our best travel memories aren’t of seeing places like the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House. They’re of experiences like sitting in a sauna with distant relatives in Finland, playing an any-language-goes game of Scrabble in a Vancouver youth hostel, attending an Aussie rules football game with a high school buddy in Perth, and attending church with a former student in American Samoa.
Living like the locals enriches your travel experience and gets you closer to the reason you traveled there in the first place. It helps travelers understand that people around the world are essentially the same: despite differences in appearance, living conditions, language, and diet, most people work hard to keep a roof over their heads, their families safe and fed, and enjoy spending time with their friends & family. Learning that firsthand is definitely worth a bad beer or two.
Enjoy your week or your weekend!