And so reader Sara Horton had asked for an expansion of those thoughts. How exactly do we set ourselves up to have those cultural experiences while we travel?
Well, the number one thing has to be couchsurfing. But there are also a myriad of other things that we do that contribute to the cultural experience. We'll get to them further down, but first lets talk about couchsurfing.
Have a look at the couchsurfing website...
Essentially, you set up your profile, being as detailed as you can. Then, you use their search menu to find hosts in the country you are going to visit. You get to read other people's profiles so that you can choose someone you think might be suitable for your tastes.
Here is our basic profile (you do not need to be a member to view)...
We then make a concerted effort to find hosts that are local to the area. We try to choose hosts that have a private room available, and hosts that are similar in age to us. Sometimes, that's not possible and we end up having a great experience anyhow! Some of our best couchsurfing friendships have been made with people much younger than us!
Ruth having a drink with our couchsurfing friends Andrea, Monika, Martina, Jana and Lukáš at a pub in Oravský Podzámok, Žilina Region, Slovakia.
We have couchsurfed over 50 times now, so obviously we can't list off every experience. But we have never had a bad experience. And most of our experiences have been simply fantastic.
Staying with couchsurfers means that you eat the way they do, you often get to meet their family members, you can ask them questions about things that they do differently, how they feel about their economy, their politics, their perceptions of your home country whether they have visited it or not or anything else that you're curious about. And because they are locals, they know the best places to eat out!
And, we often treat them to a meal or Ruth cooks them a meal that we would typically have here. It's all about the cultural exchange.
We like the smaller towns and villages. Places that are off the beaten path where they don't see many tourists. Stop in at the local pub and have a drink. Don't let language be a barrier. With smart phone translator apps and pocket language dictionaries there is no need to worry about language. In fact, it makes it fun.
One of our best language experiences was in Slovakia when the host of the guest house we were staying at was trying to explain what the people do with the blueberries they were picking in the hills. She couldn't get her point across, and so she went and got the bottle! They make blueberry hooch!
Kevin trying a local homemade blueberry liqueur (čučoriedkovica) with so many blueberries in the bottom of the glass that he had to use a spoon to eat them. Given to us by the lady who owns the pension in Zuberec, Žilina Region, Slovakia.
Another time, we met a lady walking her dog. She started talking to us, and we couldn't understand a word she said. She kept going for about five minutes. I got out my phrase book and told her that we couldn't understand her language (I think it was in Czech Republic) but she kept going on anyhow. It was too funny.
But what we always do is to learn the basics of the language before we go. Please, thank you, hello, goodbye, wine, beer...you know, the important stuff you'll need to know!
Another thing we do is to stay away from tour groups and use local transportation when possible. We had done a couple of group tours while in Iceland and we quickly learned that's not our thing. We need to break away from the crowd and do something different. When we won the trip to Denmark in 1999, we were the only ones out of the group of 300 other winners who hopped on a ferry to Sweden just to go for lunch. You have to think outside the box a little bit for cultural travel. And that is what led us to Bulungula Lodge in South Africa.
Having a drink with the locals in Bulungula, South Africa.
Kevin, with some of the local kids. Check out the one with my sunglasses on!
The local mayor's wife, cleaning her floor with cow manure.
You have to out yourself in a situation where interaction with locals will happen. We wanted to see how the Himba people live, so we privately hired a local bilingual guide, and went off to visit a village. You can read about that here...
A Cultural Experience to Remember (one of our most read blog posts ever!)
Don't eat in tourist restaurants. That usually means don't eat where there are tourists! You'll pay too much money, and you definitely won't get a local experience. If you're in the downtown core, walk a few blocks away from the downtown core. Better prices, and usually better food! Don't forget your language dictionary! Menus away from the tourist areas aren't likely to have any English on them.
Ruth, trying to figure out what to order at a local Korean restaurant.
Essentially, you have to put yourself out there. Meeting new people in your own culture is not always easy, and meeting them in a different culture can be intimidating. But we've learned that the most rewarding experiences come from doing exactly that.
Yes, strange thing on Amazon. The only question that comes to mind is...but why?