Luckily, there’s a surefire cure for any FOMO or ‘feeling foreign’ blues, and that’s talking to locals (and who could be more local than a tour guide?). From making sure you’re in the know about the best places to get sushi or showing you just how to break it down in Mykonos, or giving you a good idea of how much to tip in Montevideo, here are six reasons that make speaking with the locals a must-do.
Whether it’s partying in Soho in London or attending a barbecue in Vancouver, chatting with locals can be a great way to find out about (or get invited to) local festivals, parties and gigs. And when you’ve spent an epic night dancing under the fireworks together, it’s hard not to become friends with the group you’ve fallen in with. Particularly in party cities like Barcelona, there’s nothing like breaking it down with a local and being shown the best watering holes around town to make you remember a place fondly. Last night might be fuzzy but you can be damn sure it was amazing.
2. They’ll give you the low-down on where to shop, eat and drink – and how to act
Chatting to locals is a great way to ground yourself in an unfamiliar place, and a fantastic way to find the cheapest and best eats, supermarket or laundromat. If you’re staying in an area for more than a few days, invest in a chat with a knowing local to help point you to the best sushi, grocers, butchers, and more. Locals are also fantastic for giving you the low down on unfamiliar customs which can be incredibly useful when it comes to being culturally sensitive (you can also read up about what not to wear when it comes to local customs). For anyone from a non-tipping country, this can be a panic-inducing experience, but friendly locals will be able to tell you how do it without flinging your money on the ground and running away shrieking.
True story: while travelling to Pompeii by bus, I somehow missed the stop and continued merrily along my way for some 15 minutes before nervously consulting an elderly Italian man who (quite understandably) did not speak English. He looked confused, and then consulted with a young Italian man, with whom I also attempted a conversation. The young man haltingly told me I had indeed missed Pompeii and that I should follow him at the next stop.
Waved off cheerfully by the old man, I followed the youth with some trepidation, only to be led to a car containing his mother and sister, who asked whether I was ‘sola’ (alone) and, after a little conversation between us, advised they would drive me the several kilometres back to Pompeii, and introduce me to their father, who worked at the site.
The father greeted me with a smile and ushered me through the gates, and my trip to Italy was made. Already high on my list of places to go, the country is now a firm favourite because of a really lovely family taking pity on a moronic backpacker, facilitated by a stumbling conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed.
From the man in Verona who helpfully told me the restaurant I was after “used to be down there, but closed last month”, to the lady who organised a new campground for me at Mont St Michel when hers was full and I had no idea where else to go, locals can be life savers when you’re lost overseas (which can happen quite often in my case…)
Locals in Greece helped me several times, including in Livadia by organising a taxi to take me from my bus stop to the train station, which, in a spectacular fail of urban planning, is located several kilometres from the town centre, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
I’ve found locals are generally happy to help a lost and bewildered looking traveller, which can be very reassuring when you’re miles from home and your map looks like it’s written in ancient Greek – so don’t be afraid to start chatting.
When I was travelling in Belgium, I hired a bike and cycled around the Ypres Salient, an area known for its cemeteries and battle sites from World War One. When pausing in the summer heat to sit under a tree and sip some water, some locals cycled up and asked if they could join me (in their own country). We got to chatting, and it turned out they were touring the country and the sites. They asked if I was coming back for the Centenary, because they knew many Kiwis would be.
Later, after a visit to the Commonwealth Tyne Cot Cemetery, with its long rows of white headstones and the many unknown soldiers, I was wiping away a few tears and feeling thoroughly desolate when my Belgian friends cycled past, waving in the sunshine, and calling ‘Hello Alex!’
I immediately felt better, not the least because, although these soldiers died so far from home, we humans were still connecting so many years later, and they were lying in friendly ground.
6. You could gain some perspective
Speaking to locals can help you realise just how lucky you are to be able to travel around the world in the first place (and often multiple times for some). Having a chat with a local in Jakarta, Indonesia, helped me understand just how privileged I was. Pud, an old man with very few teeth who had offered to guide my friend and I around, asked us about our home country, an 11 hour flight from Indonesia. When we told him about it and invited him to come see for himself, he told us that even saving up his entire life, he would never be able to afford the flight, let alone a holiday; but that he would like to see it.
That’s a humbling experience for backpackers, and one that still makes me think about luck, economics, and equal opportunities. How’s that for a lasting travel experience?