It’s the “holy grail” of long-term travel. There are travel empires built on the concept. But here’s the truth: You are never going to travel like a local, despite what Rick Steves says. And you know what, that’s OK!
To be clear, there is a big spectrum between all-inclusive 5-star resort travel (which is what most backpacker guides rail against) and moving to a remote village for 30 years to immerse yourself in a foreign culture. And of course, moving any distance away from that “5-star resort” end of the spectrum is going to give you a more genuine experience of the local culture. But what I take issue with is backpackers (like me!) thinking that if they simply forego Western luxuries or eat the local food they will magically understand what it’s like to live in another culture. (While I’m speaking, of course, mostly of non-European/North American, developing destinations, much of what I’ve written below applies to travel anywhere in the world.)
There is a lot of good intent packed into the sentiment of wanting to live and/or travel like a local. But there’s also a lot of self-deception, unrealistic goal-setting, and filtering for Instagram that happens when we strive to achieve it. I’m not suggesting, by any means, that I am immune to this notion; certainly when we set out a year ago, I hoped to travel in a way that brought me closer to the people and the culture that I was visiting, and the vocabulary that’s commonly used around that concept refers to “living like the locals.”
I realize now, though, that while you can travel in a way that’s sensitive to local culture, that doesn’t mean you are living “like a local,” and saying that you are perpetuates stereotypes, presents unnecessary risk, and cheapens complex, ancient cultures. Here are the 4 biggest reasons why I believe you can’t travel like a local — and what you should do instead.
You do have money
Often living like a local and budget travel are synonymous. We budget travelers pat ourselves on the back for foregoing air travel and roughing it on a long bus ride. We bunk up in guesthouses without A/C and applaud ourselves for having a genuine experience.
Here’s the thing: Whether you’re traveling on $100 per day or $10, if you are reading this blog, you will probably never quite understand what it is to live like the locals you’re visiting. You have a trillion advantages on your side from your citizenship to your education to your physical appearance to your language. Backpacker though you may be, you probably have someone back home who would pay for your flight back or wire you money for a meal in a real pinch (unlike the locals you meet). Even if you don’t, almost anywhere in the developing world, an educated, English-speaking foreigner has more earning potential than the average local.
And you know what, you can try to assuage your guilt over that by foregoing as many luxuries as you can possibly manage, or you can accept that you have been incredibly lucky, and choose to invest your money into local businesses that need it more than you do. Rather than seeing just how cheap you can get by, why not research ethical and sustainable tourism options? Volunteer abroad. Support local artisans.These experiences may cost more, but will also give back more to the local community than getting by on next to nothing and skipping all the local sights.
You will always be different
You can live in a foreign country for years, decades even, and you will never really be a local, so how can we kid ourselves that in a few days or weeks we’ve gotten a genuine understanding of what a place or people are like? The truth is you carry with you your own personal history, experiences, and expectations everywhere you go, and you’re probably going to be subconsciously comparing everything to how it is back home.
Not only that, but when visiting other countries, if you are noticeably “different” in any way (from your skin color to your accent when speaking the local language), you’re going to be treated differently — for better or worse. Yes, that may mean you’re taken advantage of at markets and in taxis, but it also means that the locals are going to be looking out for you. Even as a highly independent and very shy person, I’ve learned to live with this. In more communal cultures (which is most of the non-Western world), this caretaking comes from a place of love. Let yourself be fussed over, cared for, and protected. It’s a far more genuine experience than pushing and shoving your way through everything all on your own.
It might not be safe
Got your vaccines up-to-date? Got a plan in place for malaria prophylaxis? You’re already not traveling like a local.
Whether it’s walking home from work late at night in the dark, foregoing seatbelts, or not receiving basic medical care, many people in foreign countries take risks with their physical well-being that you absolutely should not. Just because the locals can’t or don’t take precautionary safety measures doesn’t mean you don’t need to. There’s a fine line to walk between assessing the real danger (and choosing to eat local street food anyway), and simply making rash decisions because other people are doing it. You have the education and money to protect yourself from illness, crime, and injury when abroad. To choose not to would be disrepectful to those who don’t.
You’re oversimplifying a rich, complex, multi-faceted culture for your own benefit
I’m just going to come out and say this: One of the hardest things for me about traveling to developing parts of the world is that I get all the benefit without any of the reality. I get to spend days and weeks without working, exploring incredible underwater ecosystems, climbing all over ancient temples, and gazing at some of the world’s greatest works of art and architecture. And all of that comes at relatively low cost to me.
As citizens of the world, I think it is our responsibility to see and experience as much as we possibly can. But to equate seeing or visiting another culture with truly understanding it is an enormous overstatement that risks oversimplifying rich history and ancient traditions. (Because, how much difference is there really between saying “Yeah, you need about 4 weeks to ‘do’ Thailand,” and “You can pretty much learn everything there is to know about a millennia-old culture with 3 spoken languages, and a dozen-odd ethnic groups in about 4 weeks.”)
Travel, I believe, should teach us just how much we don’t understand and perhaps give us the reality check we need to recognize that we are not any better, more important, or more right than any other person, country, or culture. We should be confronted each day with just how much we don’t know, not return home bragging about how much we do know.
For me, and for many others I think, we tell ourselves the “I’m traveling like a local” story so that we don’t have to confront our privilege and prejudices head on. While certainly, some good can and will come of travel no matter how it’s done, there’s so much more value — for us and for those we meet on the road — to be gleaned from scrapping the “like a local” myth. By all means, avoid the resorts and pre-packaged excursions, eat the local food, do a homestay. But understand that what you’re getting out of the experience is only a tiny taste of what it means to be a local.