Five Tips For Traveling Like A Local

I’m feeling a little homesick for Bangalore these days (although I’ll wandering soon enough, I’ll be in London this summer and in Beijing from August-January!), so I thought I’d put together five lessons learned from my travel experiences from India that are essential for anyone who wants to try to experience life like a local.

1) Have breakfast with locals.

I never quite developed a taste for idli, but I ADORED this special aloo dosa they would only make on Fridays, fresh mango lassi, and of course, paneer paratha. The best part of breakfast though, is that in certain cultures, it’s the equivalent of chatting near the water cooler.

One of the best breakfasts I had was with two employees from Hyderabad (Andraha Pradesh, India) and one from Bialystok (Poland). The young Polish woman was flabbergasted that the Hyderabadi employees were vegetarian, “But…in Poland, we will eat meat even for breakfast!” This led to a dynamic debate about religion, its impact on eating habits, and choosing to follow or not follow family traditions set by parents…all this over breakfast!

2) Chat with a stranger on a train/bus.

I highly, highly recommend taking a local train or bus. Choosing to go on one of those giant tourist buses that only go to the Taj Mahal and telling people you “went to” India is like going on a cruise to Mexico and saying you “went to” Mexico. I took quite a few 14-hour sleeper buses (if you go in the summer, I recommend spending the extra $2 or so for AC…trust me on this!) and a few trains (above is a train from Delhi to Agra).

Not only will you save money, but you’ll also actually see the country – not just its tourist spots, but also how locals travel. I’ve met anyone from university students going back to their school for a graduation ceremony to little girls eager to practice their English with me.

really fresh seafood!

3) Spend a lazy weekend floating along and eating  an awesome meal.

My colleagues, all locals, told me a trip to India is incomplete without a trip to the state of Kerala. For the long weekend for India’s Independence Day, some friends and I took a bus to Cochin, then rented a houseboat for a day in Alleppey nearby. Often times the houseboat rental includes a homecooked meal, so you can buy fresh fish and seafood, they’ll cook it! Alleppey is famous for its seafood for a reason. When traveling, the best experiences aren’t counting the number of UNESCO sites you’ve covered in a day. Sometimes all you need is a great meal with friends.

4) Go along with a great story.

Wherever you travel, chances are, someone will try to talk you into buying something and they’ll sell you a story along with it. As long as you use common sense, go along with it, it’s actually pretty fun!

In Munnar, the owner of the hostel we were staying at showed me his guestbook with signatures from guests all over the world and claimed their favorite part of their stay was his infamous yoga lessons on the roof.

When we were in Agra, my friend and I met an rickshaw driver who said he could take us to night markets for textiles and silver and such. We ended up in a shop that sold carved white marble pieces with stone inlays. The shop owner introduced himself as Daniel because apparently his parents had lived in the UK, and informed us that all the workers in the shop were descendants of the original workers for the Taj Mahal. Riiiiiiight…we thought, as we nervously started inching out of the store. When we saw how much the pieces were and we realized there was no way we could afford anything, we told him we were just students. He still insisted on offering us chai, and while we felt it was rude to refuse, my friend and I whispered to each other, “oh my gosh I hope the chai isn’t poisoned now that he knows we won’t buy anything” (we eventually convinced him we were just broke college students and went back to the hostel).

5) Do something silly when trying to “abide with local customs”.

I was in Hampi exploring ancient ruins and we got to a temple, known as the “monkey temple” because many monkeys would scamper along next to us as we climbed the mountain. At the bottom of the mountain were a pile of shoes, so I took off my flip-flops since some temples request guests to remove their shoes. Five hundred some painful barefoot steps later, I was awestruck by two things. First, it was a beautiful view from the top and the colors of the saris people were wearing against the backdrop of the view made it even more beautiful. The second thing was that I noticed that again, I saw a pile of shoes right outside the temple. So we could have just taken them off then instead of walking 500+ steps barefoot. Oh well, makes for a fun story and a good lesson learned!

Of course there are other essential experience like getting caught in ridiculous rain in monsoon season (this happened to me twice, once while trying to find a handmade paper store in Mumbai and once while trying to find a local crafts fair in Bangalore), or visiting Cochin the weekend it had continuous blackouts and boat strikes, but unfortunately, those are hard to plan! Misfortune, as it seems, always makes for valuable travel lessons learned.

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