To be a great traveler, one must be a chameleon. A chameleon’s color changes not only to help camouflage the animal and in response to temperature changes, but it serves a greater purpose of social signaling and physiological condition.
When most of us travel, we want to taste the local dishes, listen to traditional music and check out the latest fashions being worn. Our senses are ignited simply by the exoticness that surrounds us. That’s what I like to call the “outer skin” of a traveler.
But few travelers really blend in like a chameleon…and I don’t mean like my buddy Nate! We’ve traveled from Asia to Europe together and wherever he goes, he tries to look like some version of the locals.
To really understand a place, one must understand how to interact with local people and respond to local situations and then adapt to these as if they were part of your own culture. How quickly can you do this? Just like most things, it takes practice but here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Learn a few local phrases
When you land in a new destination, there’s inevitably some anxiety about the unknown customs, culture and language. But you can ease yourself in by learning a few local phrases, particularly greetings that will help to break the ice. Locals will always appreciate this simple gesture, especially if it’s delivered with a smile. It may just be the start of your conversation but it will help to break down any barriers.
2. Ask for local recommendations and opinions
You can begin practicing your learnt local phrases the minute you set foot in the country by starting up conversations with visa officers, taxi drivers and people selling SIM cards. Get your first taste of the local culture by asking where they like to hang out or head to on their weekends. How is the country’s economy going and what insights can they give on the local politics? Maybe they can offer some suggestions on your pronunciation or how to negotiate the local customs.
Everyone likes to be asked their opinion and this is no different when traveling abroad. Showing that you are sensitive to their culture may surprise and even flatter them, particularly coming from USAmericans, as few would ever think to ask such questions. You might be amazed by what people will share if you try it!
3. Observe and Respond to local situations
Different countries tend to have different temperaments, with locals reacting in unique ways to social situations. It might be something as simple as calling a waiter over to the table or waiting in line for a taxi. They way you do it in one country is not always the way they do it overseas. In Japan, merely greeting a person correctly and showing respect is an important part of everyday interactions.
One of the easiest ways to learn how you should react in various situations is by observing the locals. Watch how they greet one another and be sensitive to any displays of respect. Most locals will understand if you accidentally put your foot in it, but they’ll also appreciate the efforts you make to understand their way of doing things. Most of all, be in the moment. If you are constantly looking around and drawn away by the senses, you may never observe what is happening in front of you.
4. Adapt to the local lifestyle
One of the easiest ways to understand the local customs and culture is by living like the locals. Take subways and buses around the city and eat at local places rather than sticking to tourist restaurants. Don’t be scared to chat with people in parks during the day or join local gatherings.
One of my favorite experiences of mingling with the locals was in Brazil where I stumbled upon a festival taking place in Porto Alegre. I immediately made friends and had a great night out while gaining an insight into the way Brazilians like to unwind.
5. Immerse yourself in the local media
Whether it’s listening to the radio or reading books by local authors, you can learn a lot about a destination through the arts and media. Both historical and fiction books will immerse you in the events that have shaped the country and the issues that affect people in day-to-day life.
The trick to being a great traveler is getting to a point where you feel just as comfortable in a few days as someone who has lived there for several months. It is like anything else, practice it, be in the moment, and watch how fast your skin can change colors.