Out for a walk beside the Ottawa River in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada!
Where are Kevin and Ruth now? Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Where are Kevin and Ruth going next? Heading to Nova Scotia around August 1st.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Cultural Travel

A couple of weeks ago, I had written that we enjoy getting to know the people who live in other countries. We've found that it's the best way to understand different cultures, and to realize that the way we do things as a society here in Canada or the Unites States isn't the only way, or necessarily the best way.

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?


  1. What about the old folk you meat couch surfing ha ha

  2. I agree, even though we are not couch surfers (hubby is a hotel guy) I am now trying to book in non-tourist areas so we have to take local transportation, and eat where the locals do. In some big cities like Madrid that is harder to do, but in Malaga we were only a 10 minute bus ride away from the main attractions yet only the hotel desk spoke English. We had to fake our way through ordering breakfast right after we landed when we ended up in a traditional Spanish coffee shop with no menus. We ended up with fabulous ham and cheese sandwitches and cafe con leche. I only book tours when they go somewhere I couldn't get to using local transport. I really don't enjoy renting cars outside the USA and Canada so we mostly take trains and buses.

    1. That is definitely the way to do it. I am sure there are still some cheaper hotels in the bigger cities but you probably have to go enough further from the city center and at that point you also need to know what areas are good areas and what ones are maybe not so good.

      We have never had a problem renting a car in a different country but normally we are like you and take the local bus or train to each destination. However in some countries like Namibia it just isn't so easy or convenient to do that and towns are so far apart. On our trip to Romania we will be taking the bus most of the time but in the Transylvania area we will rent a car because there is lots to see there and sometimes you can't get to some of the places (hiking) by public transportation. Also there will be times where we will want to stop and see some of the views which you just can't do on a local bus.

    2. I've followed your blog for some time, finally am writing. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Romania for two and a half years and of course we could never drive. In the small towns where there is no public transport, especially in Transylvania, there are spots where people needing a ride can wait, and drivers will stop to pick them up. Riders can share the cost of gas, and it works very well. I even got dropped off by a thru-bus one time when the driver has to turn around and go back for some reason, and we were seemingly on the middle of nowhere, but quickly a car stopped to pick up those of us who needed to continue our trip. Unsettling at first but very handy since many people there don't own a car. It's not hard either to negotiate a price for a taxi driver for the day who speaks English.

    3. Thanks for that info on waiting for a ride in the small towns. Sounds like something that we would do. However, I do think that while we are in the Transylvanian area we will rent a car so that we can do things there on our own time and at our own pace. If we find that this method that you speak of works for us then perhaps we may rethink our decision on renting. I hope that you enjoyed your time in Romania!

  3. I think you really have to have a special type of demeanor and personality to do all the traveling you two have done. You both are very confident, and I think that makes your adventures so successful.

    1. I am of the same opinion. It takes a special type to be able to connect with the locals and interact with them. What Shelagh and I have learned is that the simplest places to eat at yield the most rewarding experiences. Like the difference between a five star and a three star hotel. Trust me, you'll have a much better time at the three star place... We have not done ny couch surfing... yet.

    2. Yes, we do tend to agree with you both on this but both Kevin and I weren't quite so adventurous in the beginning of our travels together. We used to do the all inclusive resorts and paid to do tours but eventually we took baby steps and worked our way up to where we are now. I think others can do it too, just not all at once, you need to work up your confidence on step at a time.

      Peter, I agree with you 3 star hotels are way more fun and relaxed than a 5 star!

  4. Did that today. Here in Zacatecas we walked just a few blocks from the center of town and we found a great breakfast with locals for 35 pesos at the local market. Coffee included.

  5. While we were in Chile (on our own) a couple of years ago, we didn't have we the phone translator app, which we truly needed as neither of us speaks Spanish worth a flip. The little Eng/Span dictionary was marginal at best. Now we both have the phones and the app, so we're ready to go! We stayed at AirBnB's and ate locally, and we loved the entire experience save for not being able to communicate well. Gestures work, tho! I think fear holds many people back (fear of the unknown, etc), but in the two wks we were in Chile, everyone we met was kind. We walked everywhere without fear. You can read about it: http://intrepid-decrepit-travelers.blogspot.com/search/label/Chile

    1. We have always used a dictionary when we travel but in Korea, it wasn't really easy because they use characters rather than letters but somehow we managed to muddle our way through things. Now that we have an smart phone it should be a little easier but we find then that you don't make such a concerted effort to learn the language because the app almost makes things too easy.

      AirBnB's are also another good way of being closer to the local population, the only issue we have with them is that we are finding that they are getting expensive for what you get. You really have to do your research to get one that is worth the price.

      Glad to see that you both have some of that adventurous spirit as well!

  6. Big thanks for the great tips. I have yet to try Couchsurfing, but will consider it more seriously now. Thank you again and keep up the great blogging.

    1. We love Couchsurfing and always try to find a suitable match before looking at other accommodation options. We find that Couchsurfing with a local is the best way to immerse yourself in their culture. Unfortunately at our age it is always easy to find a suitable match because it is mostly younger people on the Couchsurfing site and only have a very small place, we don't want to be camping out on the floor. We have however still gotten together and gone out to do day activites, such as hiking with them.


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