The Savvy Globe Trotter, Tatyana Leonov, hangs out with Taiwanese locals.
The local experience – wherever you’re travelling – is often the best one. It’s the encounter you remember years down the track, and the story you find yourself telling over and over again to anyone who will listen.
Recently I travelled to Taiwan with a bunch of people. My friends weren’t locals and initially I was a little bit concerned that we would not get the chance to really immerse ourselves in the Taiwanese culture – six Aussies can be quite confronting – even at the best of times.
Hectic cities usually equal busy locals – and although this was the case in Taipei I was seriously impressed with how kind and accommodating everyone was. From the check-out chick who patiently counted the coins in my hand to make up the correct total for my ice cream, to the security guard who walked with me till he was confident that I knew where I was, each Taipei local ‘out impressed’ the next one.
There was even the morning I went for a run. I stopped at a tap, but knowing tap water is a no-go in Taiwan, asked a woman cycling past if the water was drinkable. She explained that the tap water was for washing your face, and then shared her water bottle with me. Maybe I looked completely exhausted and she thought I really needed water, but I think she just shared her bottle with me because she was kind.
I ran back to my hotel even more impressed with Taiwan, but also wanting to meet more locals. How often do we say, “I want to do what the locals do, eat where the locals eat, go out to the same bars,” when travelling? For me simply talking to a passer-by opens up that door, but there are many ways you can submerge yourself in local culture:
1) Look into community-based tours before you go – apart from often being cheaper they will offer you a completely different experience. Homestays not only offer you the chance to live with locals, but also the opportunity to live like them. While in Taiwan I visited a local family living in the mountains of the Alishan National Scenic Area. Although I did not have time to stay overnight in their gorgeous home (a homestay they designed and built themselves), just eating a meal with the family (that was prepared from ingredients they picked that morning) gave me a quick glimpse into a way of life I could not have seen any other way.
2) Have a friend whose work mate knows someone who dated a friend’s brother… and they live in the city you’re visiting? Say yes to other people’s connections, even if they sound a little far-fetched.
3) Chat to locals online before you go – and set up a meeting in a public place during the day if you’re meshing well. You might make a new friend and acquire a local travelling buddy/guide. At worst you would have wasted an hour or two.
4) Bars are full of people that are generally receptive to meeting others. Avoid ex-pat hangouts and visit nightspots that people from the surrounding area drink at.
5) Don’t be afraid to chat to strangers. Most people will have the time of day for you if you’re polite. The Taipei girl I met running that morning is a perfect example – and a highlight of my trip.
6) Hang out in public places – parks, plazas, markets – they all offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of others. And if you don’t join in, simply observing the way a city grooves can offer valuable insight.
7) Shop at a supermarket, get your hair cut at a local hairdresser, buy the paper at the corner shore. Just by doing the simple things that everyday people do you’ll be more likely to strike up a conversation with a resident.
8) Eat everything once. It may sound (and look) weird, but it will give you something to talk about – and maybe a laugh too. If you hate it at least you can say you tried it (and not eat the same thing the second time round).
9) If you’re staying in the one spot for a while consider renting an apartment instead of sleeping in a hotel. By creating your own nest and cooking your own meals you’ll feel like a local.
10) Smile and be open – even when doing something simple like paying a bill or buying something from the corner store. And don’t be afraid of asking questions.
About the Savvy Globe Trotter
Tatyana Leonov is a writer, editor, avid traveller and determined dreamer. She’s mastered (beginners’) yoga in Goa, partied with Russia’s elite in a Moscow club, sampled local delicacies all around the world (including a camel burger in Morocco and guinea pig in Peru), trekked to Nepal’s Annapurna Base Camp in Havaianas and had a short-lived career as a Bollywood star.