While most families travel to a destination and stick to tourist activities, there’s a way of travel that is so much more rewarding; journeys that encourage creativity, reflection, and intercultural learning. It’s not boring – in fact, it’s the opposite – a true, joyful way to expand your family’s worldview and have fun. It’s a form of slow travel, where you get off the beaten path and explore the local culture. Whether you are in a destination for a weekend, or several months, there are many things you can do to dig deeply into the culture – and live like a local.
How to Immerse Yourself in Local Culture
Do your research
Before you go, read up about the history, language, culture, and customs of a place. Read about what school children do there, and how they play, learn, and live. Read books about the destination, as well as by authors from there. This is especially important with children’s books, as even the art can be different than what you’re used to – and provide a glimpse into the colors, thoughts, and words of a culture. Watch movies from the destination, listen to internet radio from there, and cook some of the cuisine (there are a plethora of international recipe websites you can discover online). Talk about the destination and culture at the dinner table, in the car, at bedtime – infuse your lives with these joyful experiences, tastes, sounds, and visions.
Learn the Language
Nothing can gain you entrée into another culture as much as learning the local language – or at least making the attempt. Make it a family game, before you go – put post-it notes on everything in your house, written with the names in the destination language. Not only will you gain vocabulary, but you’ll be slowly gaining language mastery. When you’re there, be respectful and try to speak the language as much as possible. People will be extra-friendly, for your attempts.
Rent a home or apartment
You’ll be living like locals, and probably have cultural informants in your neighbors and homeowners. Ask them for their favorite places to eat, shop, and play. You will get When we were staying on Loch Ness, the homeowner not only told us where to pick the best wild blackberries and rhubarb (thus ensuring we had fresh fruit desserts the whole time we were there), but also the hidden treasures of the area, including a little known waterfall, best grocery, family-friendly pub, and where to see cavorting dolphins at dusk. You might also have a yard to play in, a beach to explore, and local cafes and playgrounds. Take advantage of living like a local to explore the local culture, from the inside.
Visit the local markets and grocery stores, and learn what locals eat. Cook it at home, utilizing fresh, local ingredients. Ask everyone you buy from what their favorite recipes are, and what they do with the ingredients. I asked the fishmonger at the Kenmare, Ireland market his favorite thing to do with fresh fish. We’re still making my adaptation of his recipe! Discover new flavors and ingredients – be brave! You might discover that you just LOVE spicy dried squid, or crazy-colored candy, or a unique beverage. If you can visit food or street festivals, even better –eat your way through Central America!
Visit the local library
Ascertain the schedule for children’s activities, and then go to them. You’ll all learn what it’s like for kids to read and play – and possibly make new friends. Story hours, art activities, reading clubs, teen poetry slams – all of these happen regularly at local libraries. Before you go, ask if you can donate new books from your home country. It’s worth space in the luggage to donate some of your favorite books to libraries, especially if they have ESL programs.
Make new friends
Set this up beforehand, with a social hospitality network like tripping.com or Couchsurfing, or with interest-based groups (homeschooling, sports, etc.). Arrange for a playdate at a local park, or to meet each other for shared meals. You might visit their house and enjoy a local meal, and then later, open your home to them and share the cuisine from where you’re from. This is a great possibility in Central America since people are so friendly. When we were in Ireland, we met fellow homeschoolers and did just that. Not only did we learn how Irish families lived (and played with their pets and brushed their horses), ate dinner together, and learned a new card game, but the next week, we hosted them and shared one of our favorite meals from home, and our favorite card game. Kids love to play – make sure to schedule playtime with new friends.
This could be cooking, salsa dancing, how to wash elephants in Laos, surfing, diving, or Mayan rituals. Explore what the destination is famous for, and then learn all about it. You’ll gain a new appreciation for an aspect of the local culture that most travelers don’t experience. And, lifelong skills that the whole family can enjoy.
Whether at an animal shelter or at a library, digging a village well, or reading to elders, volunteering is a great way to learn the local culture and help locals, in the process. Organizations like the Muskoka Foundation match up your special skills with needs from where you’re going. If you can spend a day or two helping others, you’ll gain so much more than you give – everyone benefits, and you can make a difference in the local culture.
Listen to the music
Visit a pub, marimba concert, café, church, or festival. Extra points if you’re visiting a place while a music festival is going on –spend your time listening and learning what is popular there. Buy cds from local musicians to support their work, and bring the sounds of the culture home with you. One of my most cherished souvenirs from Scotland is a cd from a family we spent the afternoon with, in Glen Affric. They have a sound studio, host musicians from all over the world, and sing themselves.
Get off the beaten path
Whether it is visiting very small, local museums, finding out the locals’ only places to hang out, or participating in local customs and sports, getting off the beaten path (thanks to suggestions from your new friends) has never been easier. You might take a boat ride with a local fisherman and see an incredible sunrise, or visit a lab of a local scientist and learn all about his work. You might rent a sailboat (with a friendly crew) for several days, visit the islands of the Caribbean, learn to scuba dive and fishing, and enjoy the different perspectives on life in each of the Central American countries. Whatever you do, ask the locals for the best things to eat, see, read, listen to, and experience – you’ll truly encounter local culture this way. And, your vacation won’t be just a vacation anymore – it will be a window to another world.