When I told people I was going to China for 2 months, their faces lit up as they gushed about all those places they had always dreamed about seeing: Beijing, The Great Wall, and Xian’s Army of Terracotta Warriors. So imagine the looks on their faces when I told them that my travels did not include stops at any of them! “Well what did you see?” they would ask. Quite a bit, though most stops on my itinerary were places that nobody in the west has heard of (at least outside the backpacking circuit). And that was totally by design.
It’s not that I don’t ever want to see any of those sites, but I know that someday I will get there so why spend time there now? Sounds crazy, right? You see, when I travel, I prefer to put a large emphasis on experiencing local culture, and sadly most tourist sites distinctly lack that. But it’s not just tourist sites that fall into this category…it’s cities and, for that reason, they are not usually the focus of my travels.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely adore big cities, especially as a place of residence, but let’s face it: big cities, while magnets for their own culture (especially of the artistic variety), are not terribly representative of local culture. For example, if you only visited New York, I would tell you that you hadn’t seen anything of what the United States is really like because life here is so incredibly different! Similarly, while I absolutely adore Bangkok with its uniquely Thai feel, it’s a world away from the rural parts of Thailand and that Isan native who chatted with me about Thailand’s current political crisis, seen by many as a clash between the Bangkok elite and the rural poor.
That’s not to say that cities don’t have their redeeming qualities. They are absolutely wonderful to transit through and spend a few days exploring. But even in those explorations, I aim to get off the “tourist trail” by wandering down any alley that looks interesting. This is where you find real, genuine life; down streets where few foreigners ever venture, making the locals all the more interested in showing you how they live!
So next time you take a trip, ask yourself this: Why are you going? Just to see the sites or to get to know the culture? All of the above is an acceptable answer. Just remember that you have to work a little harder to find that genuine look at local life!
When you travel, do you focus on cities? If so, do you feel that you get an insight into the local culture?